I was first exposed to large-scale gaming back in 2006 when a friend of mine introduced me to Runescape, or what would now be referred to as Old School Runescape. To provide a definition, the game was large-scale in terms of the amount of choice given to the player and the depth to the game’s mechanics, which are still being pushed (or exploited) to further limits by players to this day, 14 years later. One look at the game’s graphics will tell you all you need to know about how unlikely a fact that is. It was a great experience, playing that game, and I still use it as a reference for different principles or topics to this day. And by this day, I mean ‘this day’. Today.
Ark: Survival Evolved is, as many MMO’s would like to describe themselves, a grand open world video game that boasts rewarding grinds and high skill-ceiling gameplay with a variety of different maps, bosses, and unlocks to keep players enthralled with the experience for years upon years of dedicated gameplay. To keep things simple, I’ll say that its a good game. Running much to the counter of the game I last talked about, Among Us, it actually succeeds very well despite all of the things it fails to do correctly.
Ark has stuck itself in the unenviable position of being a game that advertises itself well, has horrible first impressions, has horrible second impressions, and then slowly patters itself out into the players view as what is probably a pretty good game. Every player starts out at level one and, upon dropping into their map of choice, is greeted with a world of poor hitboxes, aggressive dinosaurs that murder you without you having half a chance at defending yourself, and a crafting table that locks 99% of it’s content off until said player has leveled his or her character to a reasonable degree.
For first time players, this isn’t really a fun time. And to make that unfun time a tad worse, those same players are met with the constant reminder that they are playing a game with horrible graphical rendering, official servers that like to lag out every few minutes (or moments), resulting in the players (and AI) halting their actions for a number of seconds, and a small and dedicated player base that is so far and away more talented than them that the thought of trying out any PVP is pretty much a deathwish (did I mention most servers have world-wide PVP enabled)?
It can be really disappointing for anyone who saw trailers of the game and thought they’d go tame some dino’s while Crossbowing some poor fool from two hundred yards away to be confronted with the sudden realization that what they are getting themselves into is, indeed, a video game. A video game that other people are much better at in the very first place.
Because I realize I’m droning on without making a point here I’ll cut to the chase with this one
This experience new players are having, and will continue to have, isn’t a symptom of a game that doesn’t prepare it’s players correctly. It isn’t a symptom of players not being good enough to play such a niche kind of game. It isn’t even a symptom of the game being poorly programmed or designed, even though it’s no secret that the game does share it’s own flaws.
The problem with the modern video game player booting up Ark for the first time is that the average player is used to being sold something that looks like what is advertised as apposed to something that plays as advertised.
Take the yearly released FIFA as an example. The game comes out around every October and promises new and improved gameplay each and every time. That might seem like a debatable idea if you look at just two years side by side, but not if you look at a whole decade of games released one after another. Even with improvements in the average player’s available technology, even with more money to be spent (EA’s made 1.5 Billion dollars this year so far, by the way), FIFA just can’t promise to be a better game than it was the year prior. It can’t even promise to be that much different. This fact is made evident by the way EA themselves have chosen to advertise the game. Each year, adverts come out showing very generic snippets of the game for a few seconds and then quickly resort to showing off live action footage of professional footballers holding PlayStation controllers and smiling.
It isn’t a stretch to say that EA could sell you a $60 FIFA 2020 where Kylian Mbappé presses the circle button once and then smiles at you before the credits screen rolls around. That’s all they’ve advertised, so why not? Of course the reason they don’t is because they can reprint the same game over and over again while milking literal billions out of the credit cards of parents and man-children around the world. I digress, the point remains that EA isn’t even trying to pretend like their game has evolved in some great way, because while they might have been true over the course of 2000 to 2010, it became much less obvious between 2010 to 2020. And even THAT is a generous summary when considering the fact that players are paying for the incremental changes between those decades, not the full changes we see when looking at FIFA 2010 in comparison to FIFA 2020. And advertising the same game you sold just one year ago as ‘an incredible upgrade’ loses steam after the twentieth time anyway. So instead, EA just relies on star power and the fact that ‘everyone else is’ to get their playerbase to payout each year. I wouldn’t be surprised if they lowered the price to free within the next ten years just to get more kids into the Ultimate team habit, but that’s a topic for a different day.
The point here is that EA proves that developers, talented as they may be, are beholden to the profits they’re expected to make. And if more profits can be made by getting the playerbase accustomed to the most minuet of changes as a genuine reason to pony up another 60, EA will adhere to that equation. And FIFA’s player base proves that players don’t want something that requires digging to get into or understand. The game they are getting in 2021 will be the same game they got in 2020, and that will be good enough for them, because even if they complain about it or grovel and moan they will be buying the same exact game from the same exact company in 2022.
And this brings me back to the first game I mentioned in this article. Not Ark, but Runescape. The game two brothers developed from the ground up in 1997 that has stood the test of time and retained it’s player base while giving full control (in OSRS’s case) to updates and changes the game has right to the players themselves. Go look google ‘OSRS graphics’ and tell me if you think Jagex can rely on looking ‘new’ to sell their game. There’s no way in hell, the game is just so gross looking (Don’t get me wrong, I love it, but I realize I’m biased).
Players who buy into yearly releases couldn’t care any less if the game they were getting was ground-breaking, or good, or new, or even decent. They just want it to look like it is. They want it to look like what they were being sold. A game like OSRS cannot hope to rely on such an attribute. OSRS is a game with years upon years of content, and how do you make that look like something? By default, that feature takes years upon years for a player to see in it’s entirety. And the same can be said for Ark.
A new player will see the poor rendering, the questionable AI, feel a lack of control (because they simply have no control over the game), and then get smacked by an experienced player and write Ark off as a game that promises a lot and delivers on very little while not realizing that they have given the game a pass simply because it didn’t immediately look like game with a steep learning curve and years of gameplay, it only played like it.
Video games, these days, are usually structures of fantasy. They are sold with the promise of innovation, fun gameplay, incredible writing, acting, a clean design and top-notch production, and often deliver poorly on one or two of those attributes, if any at all. Players might not like that, but they certainly aren’t voting with their money like it matters to them very much.
Ark is sobering in that it doesn’t hide anything from you. Right from the get go you can see its flaws, but to juxtapose this is the fun and rewarding gameplay that’s buried beneath months of practice and research. It’s not a game that lies to you, but it is a game that rewards you. And let’s be clear, I’m not saying a good game needs to be a time sink, far from it (go play The Last of Us if you haven’t already). But a game like Ark, where rough graphics and sloppy AI run wild, is all one needs to find where the heart of true game development is at. The community is small, but tightly knit. The gameplay is obviously flawed, yet highly refined on a macro scale. And the journey is long, but incredibly rewarding. Also, it’s a one time purchase of 50 bucks right now to play it forever. No micro-transactions required, no “Ark 2: Survival Doubly Evolved” to buy next year, what a novel concept.