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27 July 2015

ARK: Survival Evolved and the evolution of survival games

The survival game has climbed out of the primordial soup and after some tough times skittering around between rock pools the population has exploded.

By Phil Hartup

Standing on a beach on one of ARK: Survival Evolved’s official servers, outside my modest but growing wooden shack, flanked by a pair of giant tame tortoises named Bowser and Shelly, it occurred to me that this might be what evolution looks like. Not the giant tortoise things as whatever they used to be has evolved into a terrapin and terrapins are not nearly as good – rather this was evolution of a game genre. The survival game has climbed out of the primordial soup and after some tough times skittering around between rock pools the population has exploded. Amid this population explosion sits ARK: Survival Evolved, a survival game set on a dinosaur infested island and the current leader of the survival game pack.

I remember those simpler days of 2013, before the great survival game deluge. I remember thinking that survival games were a rare and fascinating thing, not so much a genre in their own right, but a recurring set of game elements and themes that cropped up in a diverse array of titles and stayed largely under the radar. I remember thinking to myself, “I wish there were more survival games.”

Well, now there are more survival games, so very, very many more survival games. But the journey of the survival genre has not been a comfortable one. The fittest have survived and passed on their ideas to newer specimens, the weak, the weird, the non-functioning, these have fallen by the wayside.

In the survival game genre such casualties are commonplace, which is understandable given the somewhat slapdash approach common to games in this genre. One of the biggest problems with the survival genre is quality control, specifically the lack of it. Survival games are notoriously buggy and unfinished yet this is accepted as a trait of the genre. After all these years Day Z still remains on Early Access, as does Rust which appeared in late 2013. Some games, such as The Stomping Land, have simply died out in production. That this is a genre that has grown huge on PC in the last two years yet none of its leading titles has actually been finished tells us much about the experimental nature of it all.

The problem with a genre full of unfinished games is that a game can be released on Early Access, become hugely popular but ultimately be played out with its audience long before it is feature complete. This is a strange way to go about making games: essentially selling the idea of what a game could be. This feels in some ways akin to the way that MMORPG games operate, launching in a barebones state and expanding with new features and content after release. The differences are that an MMORPG would still be expected to be complete to at least a basic level on launch and also few of these survival games have a means to generate revenue to fund extended development beyond their initial sales.

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However, this fast and loose approach that is so common in the genre has paid dividends in some ways. For example the games are becoming creatively much more diverse in order to try to find their own niches in the market. A genre that at first seemed doomed to being a shambling horde of mediocre multiplayer zombie games has expanded in all sorts of directions. Games such as The Long Dark and The Forest have eschewed multiplayer in order to pursue more solitary experiences with an emphasis on atmosphere. Subnautica and Stranded Deep meanwhile moved their focus from dry land to the sea.

Then of course, there is ARK: Survival Evolved. ARK is a game that exhibits much of what has made the survival genre very popular, while mitigating many of its worst excesses.

The first and most striking thing about ARK: Survival Evolved is the sense of spectacle that it creates with its visuals. By aiming to create not only a large open world, but also to populate it with such huge creatures the developers have shown immense ambition. One thing we can say, looking back on games like Skyrim, Shadow of the Colossus and the God of War series is that giant creatures are really hard to integrate into a game world unless you script them heavily. By having dinosaurs just ambling about ARK is trying something that very few developers have ever attempted. It doesn’t take long playing ARK to see why this is. As good as the game can look in some circumstances at times it can look akin to an old stop motion monster movie. This doesn’t hurt the game too badly though it does undermine the immersion.

The setting and the visuals are not the only elements where we can see how ARK has advanced over its forebears, its mechanics are a significant step up on most similar games too. The game has a fleshed out crafting system and its survival systems are quite advanced too, with characters requiring not just food and water but also shelter from the elements to survive. ARK also sports a levelling system which serves to ease players into the games different elements gradually but which can be speeded up for experienced players who don’t want to hang around.

One of the most significant features of ARK: Survival Evolved is the creature taming. You can tame dinosaurs, even flying or swimming ones, and eventually ride them around. This is such a spectacularly good idea that I’m surprised that even games that don’t usually feature dinosaurs haven’t included it on general principle. Everything from FIFA to Gone Home could benefit from dinosaur riding. The taming mechanics in ARK are a little weird though, you stun the animal and then nurse it back to health and it becomes your friend. The latter half of that seems fair enough, but the creature forgetting that it was you who beat it senseless in the first place seems a bit strange. As with the levelling system this process feel needlessly time consuming but like the levelling system it can be speeded up.

Something that ARK also gets right is its multiplayer. The game has clearly defined player versus player (PvP) and player versus environment (PvE) servers, which means that if you want to compete with other players you can, but if you just want to live relatively peacefully in an online version of the town of Bedrock you can do that too. The online element of survival games has always been tricky because this is a genre that lends itself both to kindness and cruelty in its players. Day Z would not have been such an interesting game without its human interactions, but those same interactions are what kept a lot of players away. By offering two different types of server ARK effectively caters to everybody, albeit perhaps in a slightly watered down way.

The survival game genre has come a long way in the last two years and even if has been a little rough and ready in how it has done so it is hard to argue with results. Sure plenty of gamers have had their fingers burned down the line, either by games that turned out to be complete rubbish or that died out unexpectedly amid their development, but that goes with the territory when you spend money on unfinished games. Of course it could be good to see a survival game actually reach completion, even maybe see one released as a full and finished game in the first place. But what matters is that if you like survival games then the chances are you’ll be able to find one to suit you.

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