It's not often a developer changes its mind about a decision that would have had a seismic impact on its game just a day after announcing it to press, but that's exactly what the people behind dinosaur survival hit Ark have done.
Studio Wildcard has made a last-minute decision not to trigger a server wipe the day before the game leaves Steam Early Access and launches proper in August.
The dramatic decision comes a day after the co-founder of the studio did a round of embargoed interviews with press announcing - and defending - the planned server wipe.
It's common for video game developers and publishers to conduct interviews with press on new game features or announcements under embargo - even a day before the embargo is set to lift. Studio Wildcard had planned for the embargo on the server wipe to lift at 2pm UK time today, 19th July. Clearly, last night was a soul-searching one for the studio, and PR representatives sent a note this morning to journalists alerting them to the change of heart and an updated, 4pm UK time embargo.
As of yesterday evening, though, the plan was still to trigger the server wipe the day before Ark launches at retail on 8th August. In an interview with Eurogamer conducted at 4.30pm yesterday, Jeremy Stieglitz, Ark lead designer, lead programmer, development director and co-founder of Studio Wildcard said he had no choice but to trigger a server wipe of the game's player versus player servers, and in the process force players to create brand new characters on those servers, because the PvP portion of the game had become a broken mess.
The decision was motivated by a damaging item duplication problem that, Stieglitz said, had rendered Ark's PvP servers "untenable".
Ark players have for some time now been able to bring down its PvP servers at key moments when the server saves data, thus allowing data to exist in two places at once: on the game's cloud system and locally on the server itself. If players time it right, they can cause the data to exist in both of these spots, essentially duplicating items. It's easy to see the impact this item dupe problem has had on balance in a PvP environment.
That's not all. Ark players are also exploiting bugs in the game's code to cause PvP servers to crash, and have spammed servers with so many packets that they run out of memory and crash. There's also the ongoing problem of traditional DDoS attacks, which make Ark's servers inaccessible.
Players are using these techniques to gain an advantage in the game. For example, if a tribe feels they are in danger of being taken out, they might DDoS the server and prevent anybody from playing for a while.
"From a PvP standpoint, the data that exists is essentially bad at this point, because it's been so corrupted by the duping and it's not been dealt with for a little while," Stieglitz said.
"We feel if we're going to have a competitive environment that is fair to old players and new players, we can't have that kind of legacy craziness in there. Also we would never be able to balance the game. When someone has an infinite number of C4 or an infinite number of level 400 T-Rex, it just throws off any attempt we might make to create a long-term balance ramp."
Stieglitz told Eurogamer Studio Wildcard didn't have a detailed enough backup system to trigger a rollback to a time when Ark's PvP servers were working as intended, so had no choice but to plan an all-encompassing server wipe and a move players over to a new, more advanced infrastructure.
"We don't have a definitive point in time where we can say, this data is clean, this data is un-cheated, this data is valid, but everything after that point is not," he said.
"Essentially, we need to have a fair starting point for PvP where these issues didn't occur and will not occur going forward, and if issues like them were to occur - new issues we haven't predicted - we have a method of dealing with them.
"We've learned how to deal with this stuff, but also how to protect our servers better fundamentally so things like this have a much lower probability of even being able to happen."
Stieglitz admitted the server wipe would be "painful", but stressed its necessity.
"We think, as we leave Early Access, it's the only way to ensure the game has a fairly balanced and stable competitive environment going forward," he said.
"We just don't have the scale of resources to host all the legacy PvP servers and all new servers at the exact same time. So we had to decide on one of those two things. Given the state of what's happened to PvP, the solution from our standpoint is to make it fair, make it fresh going forward, so we can see the game as it was meant to be played."
Well, it seems Studio Wildcard has found a way to host the legacy PvP servers and new servers at the same time, because in an updated note to press delivered less than 24 hours after our interview, Stieglitz announced updated plans for the PvP portion of the game that involve doing exactly that.
Here is Stieglitz's official statement for the press:
Greetings Ark community and press!
Earlier today we at Wildcard had made a decision to wipe the PvP servers in order to clean up the "duped" items which have been infesting Ark's servers as of late. However, after further conferring with the various designers and community managers at Wildcard, and reviewing more pro-and-con debates among Ark players, and talking to the press more in detail about it, we've decided to stick to the original plan and NOT wipe: to reiterate, there will be NO mass server wipe for Ark.
Instead, we'll be launching an ADDITIONAL new PvP Server cluster network at Ark's retail release on 8th August, while the legacy Early Access server cluster will stay online and intact. At that time we'll be rolling out the new server code and infrastructure necessary to prevent these hacking issues from ever occurring again. We are sorry for the abrupt turn-around on this decision and any confusion that it may have caused, and we're looking forward to a fun Ark launch with everyone in the weeks ahead!
Ark lead designer, lead programmer, development director, co-founder Studio Wildcard
In his statement, Stieglitz mentioned the change of heart was prompted by a combination of discussions with the development team, the Ark community and the process of defending the decision to press.
In our interview, I asked Stieglitz how he thought the Ark community would react to the news. His answer suggested he anticipated a backlash.
"Some people are for a wipe and they see the long-term outlook of how this will create a more solid PvP environment, especially with the technical issues that have occurred more recently," he said.
"Other people are probably going to be peeved and feel like we've let them down. Honestly, we're sad about it too. Over a multi-year development, we just can't see all the unpredictable events. We fell short. But we're only human. We're not perfect at predicting what the future holds for us. I anticipate plenty of players will feel like they're let down. All we can do is continue to develop the best game for them going forward. Perhaps we were overconfident."
The upshot of all this is Ark players will not be forced to create new PvP characters and play on new servers, but those who do fancy a fresh start on servers that are - theoretically at least - better placed to offer a balanced, fair and crash-free experience, have that option.
The best of both worlds, perhaps?