By Marshall Lemon
What do you think of when you picture eSports? MOBA leagues? First-person shooter tournaments? Studio Wildcard has a completely different image in mind - that of vulnerable humans fleeing velociraptors or a giant T-Rex.
After the huge early access success of its dinosaur-based Ark: Survival Evolved, Studio Wildcard is taking its survival gameplay to eSports arenas with Ark: Survival of the Fittest. First launched as a total conversion mod, the gameplay style has proven so successful it’s been re-released as a standalone early access game with PC and console versions expected to be running this year. And with multiple tournaments already under its belt, Survival of the Fittest is already shaping up to be a welcome title for eSports fans.
While at PAX East, I met with Studio Wildcard co-founder and Ark creative director Jesse Rapczak to see what made each game tick. What he shared was that each Ark game uses the same mechanics and gameplay, with tweaks to fit specific play and spectator styles.
“I like Ark [Survival Evolved] because it’s a game I can play with my wife and my family, and there’s so many different ways to play it,” Rapczak explained. “But I’m more of an action, drop-in style gamer myself. So that’s why I really like Survival of the Fittest - for the PVP competitive nature.”
The first Ark game is an action-adventure multiplayer RPG, set on an island filled with dinosaurs and other amazing creatures. You play as a newly arrived human forced to survive by gathering and crafting nearby materials. Anyone logged into a server can construct a personal base, build weapons and items, forage for food, and eventually tame the wild animals they encounter.
Ark: Survival of the Fittest takes the formula and gameplay, but condenses the experience into hour-long matches. Up to 72 players are dropped on the island with nothing but flimsy underwear, and must quickly level their stats, build weapons, and fight to survive. Eventually, the shimmering force field on the map’s edges becomes a “ring of death” that closes around the island, forcing players together for final confrontations. But unlike other eSports on the market, AI dinosaurs continue to roam the map, often surprising any careless players.
“We felt we had to embrace the random nature of the survival aspect,” Rapczak said. “So we kept in all of the AI. We even added in random events that can occur during the gameplay … you’re just as likely to die from not managing survival traits, and the AI on the island, and the random weather events, as you are from other players.
“I think that’s what kind of makes it an Ark game. Because it’s not throwing all that stuff out … it’s playing a new type of game mode in the Ark environment.”
In a sense, the entire experience feels deeply reminiscent of stories like The Hunger Games. When players first land on the map, a valuable supply cache sits in the middle of the island, daring you to rush in and fight for useful items. Alternatively, you could hide in the nearby forests, crafting necessary supplies and picking off anyone who ventures into your territory alone. There’s even a giant screen in the sky which displays the faces of fallen player characters.
“Ark Survival Evolved is more of a adventure, multiplayer RPG,” Rapczak noted. “Survival of the Fittest, on the other hand, is always going to be really focused on the competitive nature of one, two, four, or six-man tribes … trying to survive and using whatever means they can to come out on top. You’ll probably start to see that … even more as we add other types of game modes, tournament ladders, [and] more eSports type features to Survival of the Fittest.”
Rapczak hopes Survival of the Fittest will gain even more appeal as a spectator sport. Audience viewership is already a huge aspect of popular eSports, and those might suddenly running for their life from some reptilian behemoth. “Even if you don’t know what’s going on, you’re going to understand people getting mauled by velociraptors or narrowly escaping … a T-Rex,” Rapczak said. “And so we really want to also focus on that entertainment value for the viewers as well.” In that spirit, there’s even some talk of including audience participation options, giving viewers a chance to influence events on the island for other players.
In the meantime, Wildcard is already seeing players of Survival Evolved trying out its eSports sibling. Part of this is clever marketing on Wildcard’s part, such as offering cosmetic items in SotF which can be transferred to the alternate game. But having similar mechanics makes it a lot easier for players to give the new format a try. “People who have played Ark have been able to come in and win Survival of the Fittest matches just because it’s a lot of the same mechanics,” Rapczak explained. “They understand how things work … So we’re also trying to encourage the other direction for players to play both games and kind of benefit from both.”
Ark: Survival of the Fittest is currently in Steam Early Access. It will also launch for PlayStation 4 this June 19, with an Xbox One version following on an undisclosed date.