Earlier this month, Studio Wildcard hiked the price of its dinosaur survival hit Ark to £49.99 on Steam. It's fair to say the move ruffled a few feathers.
Why did Studio Wildcard double the price of the game? Ark will soon leave Early Access and launch proper both on Steam and in bricks and mortar shops. The developer said it was forced into a price hike by retailers who insisted the game cost the same in those shops as it does online. Those shops aren't going to stock your game if it costs half the price on Steam.
Some were unconvinced by that argument. One person, a particularly high-profile developer, was left fuming. Dean Hall, creator of the wildly successful DayZ mod for ArmA and its standalone iteration, the latter of which, by the way, is still in Early Access on Steam, had things to say about Ark and Studio Wildcard on Twitter.
Just so we're clear on my opinion: the price increase for Ark is ****ing OUTRAGEOUS.— Dean Hall (@rocket2guns) July 6, 2017
This was an accusation I put to Jeremy Stieglitz, Ark lead designer, lead programmer, development director and co-founder of Studio Wildcard in a recent interview. It's fair to say he didn't have much time for Hall's tweets.
"That's a little rich coming from Dean Hall, a person who didn't finish his own game," Stieglitz retorted.
"When he finishes a game, I will look forward to playing it."
This mild developer tit-for-tat clouds the serious issue raised by Ark's price hike. Isn't this all about money, at the end of the day? Isn't Dean Hall actually onto something?
"I will say this actually has nothing to do with money at all," Stieglitz replied.
"It has to do with one thing, and one thing only: seeing your game in a jewel case on store shelves. That's very important to us. We really really at the outset wanted to have this be a retail launch, have this game reach retail consumers. Not everybody downloads digital titles.
"Unfortunately, the way the industry works is if you want to put a game on store shelves, you have to hook up with distributors and retailers. And the retailers will not have anything to do with you if they think their price points are going to be undermined by the digital version."
The retail launch is as much about expanding the Ark audience as it is anything else, Stieglitz insisted.
"I don't mean that from a money standpoint. We don't make that much money on every retail version that's sold. We make more on digital versions. It's more about seeing more players in the game, new players and players who would otherwise be unaware of it. And, frankly, to hold that game in your hand and say, this physical game. We made it!"
Stieglitz said Studio Wildcard's plan from the very beginning was for Ark to be a $60 game. It's just taken a while to get there. This leads us neatly onto Dean Hall's second point - that Ark in its current state does not justify the full-price tag.
Ark: The game is nowhere near ready for that kind of price. It's greed - pure and simple. It represents a huge disconnect with the community— Dean Hall (@rocket2guns) July 6, 2017
"That's very subjective," Stieglitz replied when I put this to him.
"You have to look at where the game was at $30 at launch, and where it is now. When it came out at $30, it had about a third of the content it does now and really wasn't ready for release. Now, someone can always say the game is not ready for release. Look, there's a statement about art - and I don't want to imply this game will be that - but great art is never finished, it's only abandoned - that's not my quote, that's quoting somebody far smarter than me.
"My point is, we're doing what we set out to do. We had a feature roadmap, and we essentially have reached the completion point for those features. It's not the end of the game's development. We want to go beyond that roadmap, do more, add more, explore more possibilities for how to be in a survival game like Ark mechanically and content wise. That includes more core features that will be added to the base game post-launch.
"But, our roadmap, feature for feature, you look down the list, we knocked them all off. And we're happy with the outcome there."
Ark has, since its barnstorming release in June 2015, suffered from bugs and server issues. It's a running issue with the game, so much so that Ark has a reputation for being a little bit broken.
Again, Stieglitz has an answer.
"The single-player game is where we've put a lot of our focus in the last several weeks - to wrap that up," he said.
"We've literally gone through every single bug as far as I know, and the QA team has been pumping the community for single-player issues. Is it bug free? Probably not. I don't know that most large games, especially sandbox games are. But what's going to be on disc is going to be really solid.
"The multiplayer game, the live game, that only exists online and that will be continually updated, every day from now to launch and beyond. That game isn't bug free, but there will be less bugs at launch and less bugs every day afterwards. We hope by 8th August to have any serious issues with the online game dealt with. The biggest being the duping issue."
That duping issue Stieglitz references has to do with a pretty serious problem that has made 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.
Studio Wildcard's solution is to offer PvP fans brand new servers that force players to create new characters. These new servers will supposedly be more resistant to the sorts of issues that have plagued Ark - and by forcing players to create new characters, the balance is reset.
It's clear Studio Wildcard has worked to justify Ark's full price-tag, but it remains to be seen whether gamers will be convinced. As you'd expect, the price hike has done little to improve Ark's Steam user rating (which remains "mixed"). And the community is still debating the rights and wrongs of Studio Wildcard's decision not to force a PvP server wipe.
What can't be denied, however, is Ark's enduring popularity. It's holding steady as one of the top 10 played games on Steam, with, at the time of this article's publication, just shy of 32,000 people online. Stieglitz told me he hopes for Ark to stay in Steam's top 10 long-term, but admitted getting back into the top four would probably be beyond the game.
"Ark's not a competitive game and over a multi-year lifespan I don't think most non-competitive games really have those kind of legs," he said.
"The top three or four games on Steam are typically, over the long-term, competitive titles. Though Ark has a competitive aspect to it, it's not esports, like a Counter-Strike, Dota or Player Unknown's Battlegrounds."
Stieglitz's plan, then is to flesh out Ark's design and mechanics. This, he hopes, will keep players coming back for years to come.
"To do that requires continually expanding not so much content - though content's important, new Arks and such to explore - but the definition of what surviving an Ark is about," he said.
"Depth of gameplay is important - not just breadth. We've got good depth, but I think we could have more. There are areas post-launch even I want to drill down into from a design standpoint and try and flesh out a little bit more.
"Making the game run better and fixing bugs are an obvious answer, but that's kind of a, yes, and... to be blunt, people will eventually tire of it. In order to keep things interesting, you have to give it more depth. That requires drilling down into some of the core systems and fleshing them out."