Studio Wildcard’s Jesse Rapczak talks about the present and future of the survival title.
Studio Wildcard’s ARK: Survival Evolved began its life quite earnestly, entering into a crowded market of online survival sandbox titles. However, it managed to make its mark with good looking visuals, a unique world full of interesting things to do and despite many of the issues that often pervade Early Access titles, the development team was on point when it came to updates. Lots of new features have also been added since the game’s Early Access release and it’s worth noting ARK: Survival Evolved will be out on PS4, Xbox One and PC in full retail form next summer.
What does the dev team have planned in the meantime? GamingBolt spoke to co-founder and co-creative director at Studio Wildcard Jesse Rapczak about the same, including his thoughts on upcoming technologies like virtual reality.
"I would say that our exploration is more inspired by the Legend of Zelda and games like that, where you have an actual mapped out over world with places that have names that feel like real locations. There are hidden places like caves and things to find underwater, so there is a lot to do in Ark in regards to that."
Leonid Melikhov: What would you like to say about Ark in the first place?
Jesse Rapczak: Well…the main thing about Ark is that it is a dinosaur survival game on the surface, but that’s just the surface. Survival in Ark is a key element in gameplay that’s kind of there throughout the entire game. It’s also more importantly an adventure game that you play with your friends, multiplayer and there is a lot to be had with the discovery of the island’s secrets and what’s going on with the game.
We’ve got a pretty nice back-story that can be discovered and the players are in there choosing at their own pace how they tackle that, in which way, how quickly and with what methods. The dinosaurs in the game are kind of the big draw and we’re really inspired by Pokémon on that aspect of like taming dinosaurs, taking advantage of their unique abilities to help you play the game. I would say that our exploration is more inspired by the Legend of Zelda and games like that, where you have an actual mapped out over world with places that have names that feel like real locations. There are hidden places like caves and things to find underwater, so there is a lot to do in Ark in regards to that.
The response to the game so far has been really great, it’s been better than we’ve ever could of hoped for and we’re excited to reiterate with the community of players on the game. We get feedback regularly everyday, we’re releasing patches sometimes multiple times a day, but for sure we have a big content patch every week. We collaborate directly with streamers, players and everybody else who’s engaging with us on the forums and it’s been a really great experience so far.
Leonid Melikhov: When did you guys decide in development to do VR? What’s the behind story on that? And why did you decide to use Unreal Engine 4 as opposed to something else?
Jesse Rapczak: So for us VR has been important since the beginning and the reason is that dinosaurs are so amazing and it’s almost like an easy decision of the mindset “Let’s do VR, because everybody loves dinosaurs and not many people get to see them close-up and that’s got to be something we put in our game”.
So, as soon as possible we had Oculus Rift support and it’s currently in our Early Access Steam build. If you have Oculus, you can take a look at the game. You need a pretty beefy machine/PC, 970s for mid-spec and Oculus; you definitely need that to do VR. With the new HTC Vive stuff and all that, Microsoft Windows 10 making a big push for a unified approach to VR and HoloLens, I think it’s going to become a little easier for us with this head-start to make a good VR integration for Ark.
We’ve actually started with Unreal 3, but we quickly realized that the engine wasn’t up-to par with what we wanted to do. We were initially a little concerned that Unreal 4 hadn’t been shipped on any titles yet and it looked like we would be one of the first titles to ship on Unreal 4, but we’ve decided it would be best to be on a modern engine, we’re all seasoned Unreal developers.
Picking Unreal 4 was a natural decision for us because of the native code support and the speed and the optimization of the game engine. We’ve been really enjoying having source-code access, not just to Unreal but the things we also integrate from third-parties. When we have source-code for everything we’re really able to do amazing things with the rending and the processing.
Leonid Melikhov: How do your team copes with adding new features on weekly basis and not afraid of having something to be broken again in the code or bugs? How do you guys go about that? Also, what does your team consist of and how many people are there on the team?
Jesse Rapczak: As to where people come from, all over is the answer. Our Lead Level Designer just got done working on a bunch of Borderlands stuff, our Lead Environment Artist just finished up Loadout which is a really unique game in terms of art-style and he really has impacted our art-style a lot. The teams that you can see when the game starts, we’re collaborating with some other teams that work on the game like Instinct. Working with Instinct goes way back in my early career, they’re really great developers. Our dinosaur design stuff has been done by Virtual Basement, Ashton did the original Primal Carnage, and so they’re really good about dinosaur designs and things of that nature. The group that we have working on the game is about 40 people strong across all of the different teams and everybody is really good at what they do.
"The people who have 600 series or 500 series or AMD cards that are running at 12-15 FPS – those are the people that we want to help most right now. We’ll get there. After this passive optimization in the next couple of weeks, we’ll start working on our higher end features as well and you’ll start to see some really beautiful stuff running at higher FPS."
To answer your question about adding features simultaneously with fixing bugs, we just have a lot of people, we’re not like a small indie team that you might see in some of the Early Access titles. The people that are fixing bugs and really trying to tackle that stuff are not the same people who are going through and adding more content to the game or checking bugs and content. We’ve got pretty good programmers, designers, artists, tech artists, producers and everybody is very careful.
One of our biggest goals is we don’t want to break the game so we really try to not to do things like character wipes and we’re going to add new content to the game. The community has been really good at helping us find those and point them out and we try to fix them really quick. We would never put out a patch and then wait like another week on a bad bug before we fix it. For us the answer is just rapid response, when we hear about issues from the community and when we see those things ourselves we fix it as soon as we can.
Leonid Melikhov: What do you guys think of the response when you guys first showed off the game back in May?
Jesse Rapczak: Man, well…it was overwhelming. It was more than we expected. We know people love dinosaurs and we knew from the beginning that this was a game concept that was really going to resonate with people. It was insane. We have over 700,000 units sold and you can’t say that’s hype because only 1/6 of those were sold in the first few days. Since then it’s just been people playing the game, seeing their friends playing the game, seeing streams all over twitch and it’s just been constant #1 seller on Steam. Despite the summer sale we still have been at the top and we hit 80,000 something concurrent players.
You’ll have some naysayers that are like “oh, this game was all hype and the trailers are not like the game” but it doesn’t pan out actually, people are buying and loving the game. Yes our trailer was shot on really high-end graphics card and that’s what you need if you want the graphics too look like that, but we hope optimization to bring that fidelity of graphics to the mid-range cards.
Leonid Melikhov: Optimization…I think when I personally played it is the biggest issue. I heard people ran on Titan and had problems and back-and-forth.
Jesse Rapczak: Well we’re kind of in a weird situation right now. Most of our optimization has been for the lower end card. So when we put out an optimization patch you’ll see huge frame rate bump for low-end and mid-range cards, but the upper end cards won’t see much of an improvement a lot of times. The reason is because we’re not actually optimizing those features yet. We feel like somebody with a Titan-X or a 980 or even 970 who’s running at 30 FPS is good enough considering the game’s development. The people who have 600 series or 500 series or AMD cards that are running at 12-15 FPS – those are the people that we want to help most right now. We’ll get there. After this passive optimization in the next couple of weeks, we’ll start working on our higher end features as well and you’ll start to see some really beautiful stuff running at higher FPS
"One thing that I will say that is very interesting is that our game’s CPU is limited on rendering right now. A lot of people know that the Xbox has a stronger CPU than the PS4. That’s not too say that it runs better on the Xbox or PlayStation, but the PlayStation having a little bit more powerful GPU is a little offset by the fact that our game requires a lot of CPU to run well."
Leonid Melikhov: I know there are a ton of things that you guys are adding to Ark over the next year and obviously we can’t talk about all of them cause that would take an entire day so I am going to ask you: what feature are you personally looking for the most that you cannot wait for players to see?
Jesse Rapczak: My favorite thing that’s coming is our boss battles. They’re not just battles; they give you a lot of insight into the back-story of the game. As you get into that end-game and you’ve kind of pieced together your explorer notes which I am also excited for. By piecing together the back-story through the explorer notes and then getting too a boss battle and having those story threads connect and click in your mind about what’s really going on is kind of what I am really excited about.
I am excited to get those in the next 6 months because once we get those then it’s going to be pretty clear that the game has a deliberate story-arc and that there is more to come from Ark and it’s not just this one island and it’s not just this one game player in it. There are going to be expansions and more stuff down the road for Ark story wise.
Leonid Melikhov: For the Xbox One and PS4 are you going for 1080p/60 fps? Which platform is it easier to develop on?
Jesse Rapczak: 1080p/60 fps is always the dream goal. For us it’s going to be a balance of graphics fidelity vs. frame-rate. I will say that Ark is not Call of Duty, it’s not a game that requires 60 fps to be amazing and competitive, and it’s not that type of shooter. As a studio we would probably prioritize graphical fidelity over 60 FPS target frame-rate. We’ll see as we get into next year and what’s going to be more valuable in terms of the end goal.
Both platforms are relatively easy to develop for to be honest. The PS3 and Xbox 360 days…Xbox 360 was the clear winner there because of the tools and the architecture. PS3 was so different, required a lot of specialized expertise to create good content and good optimization for. But now the tools are really good, the platforms are really honestly very similar and some things that the Xbox is better the PlayStation is stronger in other areas.
One thing that I will say that is very interesting is that our game’s CPU is limited on rendering right now. A lot of people know that the Xbox has a stronger CPU than the PS4. That’s not too say that it runs better on the Xbox or PlayStation, but the PlayStation having a little bit more powerful GPU is a little offset by the fact that our game requires a lot of CPU to run well. It’s kind of a little bit of a balance between the two right now for different reasons.
Leonid Melikhov: Release date?
Jesse Rapczak: Next June.
"There is always this debate on consoles: do you give the players the option? If players want to play 60 FPS but turn off some of the graphics, would we put a switch in there where it can run at 60 FPS but it’s going to slightly different graphics and that typically doesn’t fly on consoles."
Leonid Melikhov: Are you guys supporting Vive? Didn’t mention that, what’s going on?
Jesse Rapczak: We do plan too, yeah. The thing about the Vive is that it’s a little scarce. It’s relatively new and Valve has to give dev kits out to developers. The faster we get a Vive dev-kit the faster we’ll have support. We do really want to have Vive integration for Ark.
Leonid Melikhov: The game will be playable on Steam Box?
Jesse Rapczak: It will be actually because of Linux support and we plan to shoot Linux out along with Mac OS at the end of this month. At the end of this month in Early Access you can buy it on PC, Mac or Linux.
Leonid Melikhov: Oculus and Vive will be easier to get running at a good resolution and good frame rate since they’re on PC. But you don’t want to play a VR game at 10 FPS and this is not an Indie game. This is running on a high-tech Unreal Engine 4 so there is a lot of things to render and on top of that you’re putting it on a console that has limited hardware and you are putting VR pressure, so how will this go?
Jesse Rapczak: Having played the game in VR and non-VR. You’d almost think of it like split-screen mode. When a game has to implement split-screen multiplayer, you’re basically rendering everything twice and so you have to turn off some features and scale-back the graphics a little bit and I think that’s acceptable in VR because everything is so life-like and real already that all those effects that we turn on to make the game look great, you almost don’t need as many of them in VR because everything has so much depth.
You’re there, you’re moving around and there is a lot of extra feedback and everything. Thinking of it like implementing split-screen multiplayer or something like that – I think you’ll see a downgrade a little bit in graphics for using VR, but it won’t be totally different. It will be something that’s acceptable and that works for the VR support. That might be true as well on PC as well in order to hit that 60 FPS because 60 FPS is really important for VR and in order to make that trade-off on platform like the console to hit 60 FPS, you’d definitely have to scale things back like view distances and some of the post-processing effects and things like that.
Leonid Melikhov: You’re telling me you want to hit 60 FPS on VR, but you’re okay with 30 FPS on regular game on the console, is this how I understood it?
Jesse Rapczak: We would be yes, because in VR that difference is made up for in the fact that you’re in VR and you have that extra feedback and depth. But what you’re paying for that is you’re turning off some rendering features and stuff that you have in a single screen. There is always this debate on consoles: do you give the players the option? If players want to play 60 FPS but turn off some of the graphics, would we put a switch in there where it can run at 60 FPS but it’s going to slightly different graphics and that typically doesn’t fly on consoles. A lot of players are playing Ark right now on very low settings that don’t look very good. So they can have like 60+ fps because that’s more important to them.
"A lot of people out there are passionate about the game as we are. We’ve got fans that have started wikis, fans that have started their own websites and all of these people are really making an impact on our development."
Leonid Melikhov: I can’t do that. I like my 60 FPS and I like my glorious glorified visuals.
Jesse Rapczak: You need both [laughs].
Leonid Melikhov: How are you guys handling mounted combat? What if someone’s flying in the air, can you kill people while they’re on pterodactyls, can you shoot someone down with a gun and fall down?
Jesse Rapczak: Mounted combat…we’re still iterating on it on what we’re going to do. For sure, on larger dinosaurs we’re going to support seat locations. Maybe on a Brontosaurus 6 people can ride on them and still be able to use their weapons and stuff like that. Supporting weapons for the driver, we’re not sure about that yet. That might be something we put out and see if people like it or not. We’re definitely going to support seats for different people to ride, especially underwater it’s really useful too, like on the Megaladon to have seats where people could sit to get down to the bottom of the ocean and do some stuff and then get back up.
Leonid Melikhov: Is there anything you’d like to tell the fans about Ark?
Jesse Rapczak: As always, thanks to the fans for iterating with us and giving us feedback and you know helping us find bugs and being really passionate about the game. A lot of people out there are passionate about the game as we are. We’ve got fans that have started wikis, fans that have started their own websites and all of these people are really making an impact on our development. We’re really happy we’re doing Early Access and we look forward to more going through the next few months.