Interview: Jesse Rapczak Uses Ark: Survival Evolved to Bring Dinosaurs Into eSports

Ark: Survival Evolved co-creator Jesse Rapczak discusses what it takes to turn a survival game into an eSport, the game's future (including VR), and the upcoming Survival of the Fittest: The Last Stand tournament in our exclusive interview.


Is it possible for a survival game, that takes hundreds of hours to play, to make it as an eSport? Shacknews speaks to Jesse Rapczak co-founder of Studio Wildcard and co-creator of the game Ark: Survival Evolved to answer this question. He has worked for Sony, SOE, and Microsoft HoloLens, and now working to pioneer a new field of eSports by combining the dinosaur themed survival game with competitive action. We find out what's in store for players from both the main and competitive modes, what new features are in store (including VR), and how players should prepare for acid rain along with a dinosaur lovefest. 

The Survival of the Fittest: Last Stand will be the grand finale of Ark's competitive multiplayer tournaments. Featuring support for 230 simultaneous players, and $60,000 in prizes, surviving can really pay off. It's open entry, and anyone who wins the official scheduled tournaments will qualify for The Last Stand. 

Tell us about what Ark: Survival Evolved is all about?

Ark has been out for almost four months on Early Access - and it's a survival game with dinosaurs. That's our big take on the genre. We've also put a lot of RPG elements into Ark, along with a lot of gameplay mechanics around teams, which we call Tribes. We've done a lot to create a world that they player can hang out in.

But one thing we've always wanted to do with that world is make a competitive mode out of it. So, a few months ago, we released a mod called Survival of the Fittest as part of our partnership with Epic Games. It became our battle arena mode, but we wanted to retain all the important elements from the main game. So, you still need to tame dinosaurs, level up your character, collect items, position your tribe and take advantage of the random events that happen. We wanted to keep the eSports competitive mode true to the core gameplay mechanics of Ark.

That's what we've been working on in addition to the main game, and the two go hand-in-hand with each other. We're having a big new tournament - our third in a series - called The Last Stand. It's our biggest player count ever, with 230 players, mixing up streamers in an open entry tournament over the next several weeks. So, we're really excited about that. We're also adding new bosses to the game, and moving the mode forward.

How do you turn an open world survival game into an eSport?

We've taken the Ark mechanics and tweaked them. The leveling up, taming, and survival aspects are accelerated, but they're also driven along by catalysts we call Evolution Events. These events accelerate some of the progression by having you survive against unknown events. One example is the Carnivore Drop, where a bunch of high level dinosaurs suddenly drop all over the map. Then there are heat waves and cold fronts, where if you haven't built any armor or shelter, you could be in really big trouble.

These random map events are a big part of the competitive mode. They test how well you've leveled up your character and advanced your tribe. You're going to have to work together to overcome these events. There aren't necessarily strict rules like with other eSports. Ark is more of a sandbox game that banks on your survival skills and how good you are at preparing. It also tests to see how good your tribe is at coming together and anticipating what might happen in the match. Those are the things that will help you win out in Survival of the Fittest.

There's no guaranteed strategy that will help you win in Survival of the Fittest. Each game is almost like a new experience.

How long is an average match?

This is something that's configurable. For us, we've done it in as shot as 30-45 minutes. Other times, we've gone 4 to 5 hours. We like to keep our official tournaments on the longer side. At least 2-4 hours, which gives the teams time to go through all the different Evolution Events and makes for a more exciting climax at the end.

That being said, we want players to play their own way. So, when you host a Survival of the Fittest server, you can tweak all the knobs however you like and run the competition with different settings. You can limit items or certain types of events.

How big an average multiplayer map?

The map is a full island that stretches kilometers in each direction. All contestants start in the middle, which is probably the closest thing you'll see to The Hunger Games online [laughs]. Everyone starts in the middle with an item cache. You can either try to get some of those items, or run away from the center of the map to hide in the woods, tame some dinosaurs, and advance your agenda.

As the match goes on, the force field that surrounds the island starts to close in until it gets back to the start area. This forces the players into a climactic end game. We've some interesting and fun strategies from players who take advantage of the force field closing. Some try to lead other players or dinosaurs out to it. The game's AI reacts to the force field closing too, which I think is another aspect that sets Survival of the Fittest apart. The primary game mode is in there along with the players.

You've got dinosaurs doing their own thing, along with dinosaurs that can be ridden. Again, it's about reinforcing all the stuff that happens in Ark, and the competitive mode is a compressed version of the game. 

Can an Evolution Event be so catastrophic that it kills all the players?

We've never had that happen, because the events aren't that catastrophic. The events are meant to be challenging, but nothing is instant death. It's more to see how the players react to it. Some events, like Carnivore Drop, tends to take out a lot of players. But we're talking about ten or so people in a match with 230 players, so those events help move the game along. We don't want a bunch of people just sitting around, waiting for conflict or for the force field to shrink.

Tell us about the new boss creatures.

We introduced the Dragon in our last tournament, and that has been fun. It's a great way to break up the match and give some players the upper-hand, even if you're falling behind. You can quest for the Dragon and gain a lot of advantages.

Ark has three bosses: The Dragon, the Spider (Brood Mother), and the Ape. We included them as an extra X-Factor. First we have environmental events, and then we have super-bosses for some players to tame.

The Dragon flies around, breathes fire to weaken enemies, then attacks them. The spider hatches little minions, and can immobilize players and dinosaurs with web attacks while the spiderlings swarm you. Then we have a giant gorilla boss, who can intimidate dinosaurs with his chest pound, charge attack, and pick up boulders from the environment and throw them - crushing players and structures.

Are these bosses game ending? Do you essentially win if you tame one?

No, not at all. In fact, you can only use them for a short amount of time. Plus, you don't know where everyone is hiding on the huge map. You might gain the advantage with the Dragon and take out a few players, but there's no guaranteed win.

Tell us about the new Evolution Events.

In Ark, we have mate boosting. Every creature has a gender, and male and females can mate with each other to boost each others' stats. I Love You, You Love Me doubles that boost. Wild dinosaurs will have their stats boosted too, so players will have to be aware of them.

Food is used for taming dinosaurs, and Food of the Gods is much more effective at it. You'll be able to get higher level creatures a little more easily than you could outside of that event.

Hail to the King is super fun. One way to get someone out of a structure is to have a hole blown in the wall. We have explosive items in the game, but they're hard to get. If one player got one, they'd have a serious advantage. So, with this tournament, we wanted to give all players can try out a high level explosive item. It's kind of like getting the rocket launcher in Halo multiplayer. We wanted to give a little homage to classic FPS games, so here's an explosive, now go blow something up! This will make the tournament a little different from previous ones, especially with the larger Tribe size. Players who are used to explosives being part of the end game might have some fireworks in store.

Acid Rain is brutal. Usually, players welcome rain, but we wanted to flip that on its head. If you're caught without a shelter, the rain will reduce your armor. Players may suddenly build up structures or run into a cave to get out of this event, but you can really be put at a disadvantage if you're in the middle of a battle.

Can you collect the Acid Rain to use against enemies?

That's a really cool idea. Well, you can't do that yet, but we have canteens in the game, and poison grenades. We don't have mechanics for storing elements for later, but having some sort of long term advantage from an event is definitely on our radar. Those are the kinds of things that we like to get player feedback on in Early Access. We'll hear a lot of cool ideas like that, and that's where a lot of these events come from. Suggestions from the community, play testing, and seeing what kind of balancing needs to be done.

What tips do you have for new competitive players?

I would say that it really pays to know how the game plays. In past tournaments, it was really interesting for the dev team to see new players compete. We had some players who put hundreds of hours into the main mode, but had never played multiplayer, and some of them ended up winning. It's important to know everything about Ark's main game, because it's all applicable to the competitive mode.

If you play the game solo, or on a PVE or PVP server, you'll be learning all the skills you need to know to survive in Survival of the Fittest. The main difference is that you may need to change some of your strategies, like when you want to level up, build structures, or start taming certain dinosaurs.

The second thing I'd say is to really value making Tribes, splitting up tasks, and covering the gamut of the progression system with your Tribe mates. That's a big part of Survival of the Fittest, because all it takes to win is to have one Tribe mate to be the last one standing. So figuring out a role, whether it be crafting or taming dinosaurs, and specializing in an area alongside your team can gain advantages. Unlike a game like Counter-strike, where teams practice strategies for attacking a map, Ark challenges players to prepare for all these random and inevitable things that will happen. Having different skill sets is really the key to winning Survival of the Fittest.

What other plans do you have for multiplayer tournaments?

This is the last tournament that we're sponsoring on our own with prizes. The reason is because we're turning this into a more concerted effort. It started life as a mod, but we're going to be staffing up a separate team to work on Survival of the Fittest as a separate executable. We'll be adding a lot more elaborate features like leaderboards and a more intricate observer mode so that we can really cater to the people watching and playing eSports.

This entry into eSports isn't just going to be a side note for Ark. We're putting resources and a team behind it to make it a fun, new, and exciting type of eSport. We really think Ark could be the game to forge the genre of survival game eSport.

What would you say to fans who might think that multiplayer will take priority over campaign mode?

The main way we address that is that we're staffing up an entirely separate team to focus on multiplayer. I think that's a testament to us recognizing from our fans that they don't want us to sacrifice anything we planned to do. We don't either. We want all the aspect of the two modes being tied closely together to stay true. The two teams working on main game and competitive mode will be sharing a lot of the same code and assets, but they'll definitely have two main focuses.

I think it'll make the main game much better, because the team working on Survival of the Fittest has been the same team working on the main game. Now they have a chance to get back to our original plan, which is to come out of Early Access and release the game next summer with all of our end game content and expansions. The new team that we're staffing will be handling the competitive mode all by themselves.

Are there any plans for cross-platform gameplay between PC and consoles?

We're looking at that a little bit on the Xbox and Windows side, but we're not sure how that will show up in the competitive mode. It probably won't happen for the competitive mode because the platforms are so different, so we'll probably keep separate servers. But there are a lot of interesting things we can do for cross-play between Windows 10 and Xbox One in the primary mode. We don't know how that will show up yet, but we're starting the Xbox One preview this winter. Our primary goal with the preview is to see how the console counterpart is shaping up and how much cross-play we might want to do.

We're going to start with the base PC game on Xbox One, and get feedback from the players. It will shape the console experience, and the PlayStation 4 version will benefit from the preview. Then we'll determine, as we roll into next summer, what the initial game modes will be for consoles so we can ship the best console version of Ark. It's always been our goal, since day one, to ship a great survival dinosaur game for consoles. That's our plans after Survival of the Fittest.

Does Ark's multiplayer have VR headset support?

It does. We've had Oculus support from very early launch of Ark. We're working closely with Oculus and other VR partners to make sure Ark VR is a great experience. Our VR support is still in its early stages, but feedback from players who like what they're seeing. Things like separating the head movement from the body movement direction. Our long-term goal for VR mode is to make sure the UI and everything about the game works very well, because there's nothing quite like seeing a dinosaur and riding on the back of one. The sense of perspective is great, and the game looks great in VR. You should see a really polished VR game when we launch sometime next summer.

Would VR give players an advantage in multiplayer?

I don't think it gives much of an advantage right now, and I don't think it would give an advantage in general. It depends on how players like to play, but there's no inherent advantage to using VR, except that you can turn your view more easily without having attached to your weapon direction. There might be some advantages, but they would be evened out by disadvantages. So, it's really a matter of player preference. But it's something we'll keep an eye on as we continue to develop this mode.

Any thoughts on supporting HoloLens?

[Laughs] There hasn't been much formal discussion, but having worked on HoloLens for so long, I have quite a few thoughts on things we should do. Since we're a small team, a lot of it will depend on customer base, how many of our players can take advantage of something like that, and when the product releases. But there are a lot of things we'd like to do to merge the dinosaur world of Ark with the real one.

Everything I learned on HoloLens hardware has given me some love for that technology. I'm really excited for it, but it's up to Microsoft for when it will become available to consumers, not just enterprise.

Do you have any final thoughts to share about Ark and The Last Stand?

I encourage people to join in on the tournament. It's open entry for the next four weeks. The winners of our official qualifying rounds will advance to the final tournament. This is the biggest one ever, and I think it's going to be a good blend between Streamers and their teams, and the champions from the community. It should be a good time for everybody.

Also, look for our new biomes, which will be dropping in the coming weeks. Snow biomes and swamp biomes won't be in this version of Survival of the Fittest, but it's something to look forward to in the future. It's a good reason to keep an eye on the main game and see how it's advancing.

For more information about the Survival of the Fittest: Last Stand tournament and a schedule of events, check out the official announcement

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