Short answer: rideable dinosaurs.
Long answer: when ARK: Survival Evolved launched as a Steam Early Access title on 2 June 2015, it did so with no publisher backing to help the unknown Studio Wildcard publicise their game. Four months later, still operating independently, it's the fifth most played game on Steam, attracting higher daily player counts than GTA V and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Prehistoric mounts, as alluring as they are, will only get you so far up that ladder - so I sat down with studio co-founder Jesse Rapczak to discuss the other factors behind ARK's meteoric rise to prominence.
Want to customise your dino survival experience? Check out our best ARK mods.
"To get the game off the ground," Rapczak tells me, "it was pretty much self-funded. Private loans, stuff like that." That's a huge risk for any game developer, but in ARK's case it was a risk moderated by a significant amount of triple-A game development expertise gathered at Studio Wildcard's Seattle headquarters. Rapczak himself is a veteran of Microsoft Game Studios, where he worked on the augmented reality Hololens project, and Sony Online Entertainment.
Working with him are veterans of the Uncharted and Primal Carnage games, across four studios worldwide: Instinct Games, based in Egypt and tasked primarily with engineering work, Efecto Studios in Colombia working on art assets, technical art and level design, Virtual Basement owned by Primal Carnage's Ashton Anderson, producing the dino models, and Studio Wildcard itself.
"We’re very fortunate because of the amount of expertise that our team had to get a playable version of the game out," says Rapczak. "It didn’t cost us too much to get to a release, relative to big budget titles."
"Since then we’ve had to expand and spend more resources, but it’s all good because we have revenue coming in." A lot of revenue. Rapczak estimates that the seven months of development prior to ARK launching in June cost $1.5 million - by contrast, it generated $10 million in its first week of release as an Early Access title. Four months down the line, that revenue stream has "allowed us to expand in the way we want and stop bootstrapping, and for lack of a better term, working out of our basements." Ashton Anderson's Virtual Basement proving the exception to the rule.
Compelled to pump the brakes on ARK's incredible success story, I ask Rapczak what his game did differently in the current landscape of ubiquitous Early Access survival games to attract such an audience. Partly, he responds, ARK proves an antidote to the "game design fatigue" currently looming over the industry by giving the player a plethora of play styles and a sense of agency over the game world. "We just keep adding in new types of gameplay elements that some players really like to grab onto."
"We’ve always said, it’s kind of like an environment where players can come in and not just play the game but also live it. All these things have contributed to its stickiness and its success. And also, just letting people play the game the way they want. Hosting their own servers, giving them all sorts of mod support early on."
ARK is currently the only UnrealEngine title with official mod support except Epic's own IPs, and that unique positioning has attracted many semi-pro and professional developers to the game's modding scene. The results vary hugely in theme and scale - baby dinosaurs, an advanced roofing system, and enormous new maps to explore and cultivate - but the level of quality seldom dips below the hugely accomplished.
With the game still in Early Access phase and several user-created mods having been adopted officially into the base game, the line between development and modding is a blurry one, I suggest to Rapczak. "Yeah, sometimes it feels that way... we had a modder that created angled roofs. We never added angled roofs to the game because we thought it’d be a lot of work and we weren’t sure how much people would use them. But someone went ahead and added them as a mod, and we’re like, ‘Hey, that actually works pretty well! Let’s get that working in the game.’"
Beyond simply an opportunity to make the game better, ARK is also becoming a portfolio platform for budding devs. UnrealEngine's widespread use across the industry and limited modding opportunities means Studio Wildcard's game is a particularly attractive proposition for aspiring game makers. "[They're] using ARK as a platform to test their gameplay ideas, throw some art in, to be experienced by this vast community of players that we have. That’s why I think we’re seeing such high quality stuff come through."
It's a very different style of game development than that adopted by ultra-conservative triple-A studios funded by major publishers, and as Rapczak explains, is demands a different studio philosophy too. Hierarchy is relatively flat, individuals are left to concentrate on their particular areas of expertise, and player feedback is taken very seriously. In short, Studio Wildcard and its subsidiaries have "one goal," albeit a goal that involves considerable plate-spinning: "integrating our community feedback, integrating our gameplay designs and moving through Early Access very quickly, without ignoring our customer base and all the things you see people misstepping in Early Access."
"The only way we can really do that is with our team, and the way we have everything distributed across all of our disciplines." Colombia worries about its share of the plate-spinning, Egypt performs its own balancing act, and the remarkably swift development pace that has thus far characterised ARK continues.