Ark Survival Evolved — Maybe Deserving of Extinction?

Ark Survival Evolved is a game by Studio Wildcard

Ark Survival Evolved is a game that prides itself on a challenging survival experience based around taming your surroundings. On this front, Ark succeeds in its general goal but with many shortcomings that hold the game back.

Ark is a survival game that takes place on several different maps, whether it be The Island which has a large variety of biomes and hidden regions throughout its large map, the Center which focuses much more on tropical marine biomes, or many other different and large maps. All of these maps are filled with many different species of dinosaur UI, most of which can be tamed and be used to interact with the map in ways that are sometimes unique to that dinosaur. The game also, while having single player and coop options available, mainly advertises its large multiplayer pvp server which can host, usually, a maximum of 90 players. In its intended setting, being in a pvp server online, you must gather the materials you need to survive, the materials you need to progress, all the while avoiding both player and dinosaur predators. There is also a leveling system, xp is gained based off of things you achieve in the environment such as harvesting resources, killing dinosaurs, taming dinosaurs, etc., which allows you to upgrade certain attributes about your character such as, hp, movement speed, weight capacity, melee damage, etc., by a certain percentage as you level up.

In game photo of Ark

Ark relies on the popular survival game loop; go out into the world, avoid dangers, find resources you need to survive and progress in the game, go back to base and make new stuff and upgradables, repeat. This gameplay loop can be quite entertaining, but for Art’s sake I feel it has enough variety in its map and resources in order to make exploring and acquiring interesting however its fatal flaw is that it takes so ridiculously long on normal settings. This is to the point that in order to make a standard 4x4 wooden house, which is rather small, would take you about 3 hours on standard settings. In normal settings this is tedious, but can be adjusted with a custom lobby to be less so. However on normal pvp servers, the most popular mode, you not only have to engage in the tedium, but you also risk losing everything due to no fault of your own. The game continues in this mode when you log off, so players will be able to demolish all your work without you being able to defend yourself and you will restart from square 1 in terms of items. Even if you are there to defend your base, if anybody who has played the game longer than you has is attacking you, you might as well be offline because they are strictly better than you are and their chance of failure is infinitesimal.

Players will sometimes raid your Wooden House with a max level god dragon as pictured above, you will stand no chance.

Ark has problems lying elsewhere however, many glaring problems. First off the, all the maps are horrendous to look at. The sun reflecting off the water on most maps basically causes your eyes to bleed. The sun reflecting off the water on these maps is so unbearably bright, this cannot be fixed in the settings I tried. The game is poorly optimized to the point where on the bigger servers the game will abruptly freeze at the worst times, it is not due to my computer being weak. The user interface is ugly and poorly organized, the lack of optimization makes navigating feel laggy as well due to the amount of time it takes to switch between UI. The gameplay loop is repetitive and inferior to other games which do better, namely Rust. This is due to the fact that Rust is much more friendly towards character that have less loot, since in Rust a person with high level gear is still a person and dies when they get shot in the face unlike Ark in which they are unkillable gods. Lastly the predatory dinosaur AI feels very unfair to low gear players as well. I love having a hostile game world that is punishing and difficult, but the AI lacks anything fair in normal settings. The predatory dinosaurs will overlook easier prey, more efficient prey, and focus you. You are enemy number 1 to every carnivore in this game regardless of what situation the dinosaurs are in. It offers very little choice for the player, you can’t even sneak past them as they have a set aggro radius and due to the fact that they make you a priority you can’t try to put yourselves in situations where they would choose other prey instead of you, or defend yourselves by diving into a triceratops pack, since they will always attack you. That lack of decision available on the players end feels very frustrating, especially when they are penalized usually by death and therefore the loss of everything in their inventory.

A Trex has decided to rush out the woods randomly to attack insignificant prey, due to poor sound design you were unable to hear this giant monster come up to you until it was too late. You will soon die a terrible death from this Trex and lose everything you have worked so hard for.

Some of these problems can be circumvented through the use of either custom single player or coop lobbies. I would highly recommend giving your player characters more stats per level, so you can make the random predator targeting you for no reason much less bothersome since they now pose much less of a threat to you. Also increase the gathering multiplier so you get materials much quicker, this eliminates much of the necessary tedium when it comes to gathering stuff you need to make stuff. Lastly, download and play on the Valguero map, this is the only map in the game that doesn’t blind you. In fact the map design feels very organic and is unapologetically gorgeous. In these settings I feel you are able to play the game in its most enjoyable state. You don’t have to worry about all of the unfair problems the game previously presented to you. You don’t have to worry about random dinosaurs ruining your life since you can’t beat them to a pulp now. You don’t have to worry about losing interest gathering stuff now since it’s so easy. You also don’t have to worry about other people ruining your life, unless you’re playing with the wrong friends.

A beautiful look at the Valguero map

Sure surviving is still the point of the game, but instead the game becomes more focused on creating goals for yourself. You start thinking about, ‘I wonder what is over here on the map?’. ‘What type of cool environment or dinosaurs could be over here?’. ‘Oh the view here is nice. Maybe I should set up a summer home here.’ It becomes much more about immersing yourself in the atmosphere, you start to feel like a pioneer trying to make their home in this untamed landscape.

A player trying to tame a Valguero specific dinosaur

Your choices become much more focused around trying to divert your time and decide what you need. What is the most efficient way to get there and gather it? How can I make this easier for myself? Where can I find this new resource that I need? THis is due to it taking much less time for you to actually gather a ton of the stuff you need, you just need to figure out how you’re going to transport it back and where it is on the landscape. This makes the game feel much more exciting in terms of adventure, because your looking forward to seeing the dynamic landscape and exploring it for this thing you need rather than dreading the future of you slaving away for 4 hours hitting a pickaxe against a rock.

Another beautiful look at the Valguero map

In summary, Ark is a game with massive flaws, but if you force it to be it can be a game that is thoroughly enjoyable under the right settings.

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A collection of game reviews and reflections on design challenges from the students of IMM 270–02: Game Studies and Design, part of the Interactive Multimedia program at The College of New Jersey (Fall 2020 semester)

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Matthew Stokes

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