Jurassic Lark - Inside the secret war that’s been dominating Ark: Survival Evolved for over two years

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In November of 2015, an Ark: Survival Evolved player by the name of Braum stole a pair of fertiliser bags from a tribe he didn’t belong to. It was just two sacks of nitrogenated excrement but, unbeknownst to him, this simple act of treachery would be the beginnings of a war that would ravage across Ark’s multiplayer servers for years, affecting thousands of players and changing the very fabric of the game in the process. 

But first, some context. After spending several years in Early Access, Ark: Survival Evolved released in 2017 for PC, PS4, and Xbox One. It’s a multiplayer survival game in the vein of similarly Darwinian titles like Rust and DayZ, where encounters with other human players can be just as dangerous as those with the game’s extensive bestiary of dinosaurs that roam across the open world maps of each server. 

By that time, of course, the PC version of the game had long been an unwilling host to The Great War, an ongoing conflict between multiple factions in Ark, where deeply rooted tribal politics and entrenched turf wars have fuelled deeds of betrayal, exploitation, and outright desolation. Despite its magnitude and ferocity, Ark’s Great War has never made headlines in the same way as Eve Online’s massive player-led battles or No Man’s Sky’s sci-fi politicking, and so few beyond its in-game battlegrounds are even aware of its existence. 

Huursa, as his in-game character goes by, is known as the Ark Historian among the community, being one of the only players actually attempting to record, chronicle, and explain the war as it continues to wax and wane with every passing week. Speaking to him, alongside several other Great War leaders, I’ve tried to make sense of what is a surprisingly complex and multi-faceted conflict, and to understand why it is that so many players are getting wrapped up in its web of fatalistic violence and tenuous diplomacy.

According to Huursa, it wasn’t until the release of Ark’s Scorched Earth DLC in September 2016 - and crucially its added ability to transfer assets between servers - when The Great War really began in earnest, though certain tribes had certainly been hostile to one another in the prelude to that watershed moment. “The DLC actually made the war possible”, he explains. “You cannot invade an enemy server without the ability to transfer your assets to that server. There were people who did invade servers before the DLC, but it was impractical and done just to mess with the enemy rather than destroy their structures.”

Scorched Earth enabled players to finally do more than just enter an enemy server, but to bring their weapons, dinosaurs, and resources with them, launching full scale invasions against entire tribes and their respective bases, and that’s exactly what started happening across several parts of Ark: Survival Evolved. As Huursa puts it, “All Hell broke loose.”

Survival devolved

With the war firmly escalating from cold to hot upon Scorched Earth’s release, the pace of the conflict accelerated rapidly in Ark. Great powers fell, coalitions formed, and even civil wars broke out amongst some of the larger tribes, on a scale and magnitude so large that it would take up too many words just to try and explain the details of who fought who in full here (Huursa has written a comprehensive overview and timeline if you want to get into the nitty gritty of it all). Tribes would invade other tribes if they even had the barest of associations to one of their enemies, while others used the war as an opportunity to grief those who didn’t want anything to do with it in the first place. 

One player, Frost, describes how he got unwillingly caught up in the Great War after tragedy struck his peaceful tribe of nautical hunter-gatherers. “We lived on boats, and this was during the era when you could build decently large boats in Ark. Around this time, the server was invaded by a tribe called Goonswarm, and there was an all out war, which we got caught up in. I still remember to this day how it felt. I woke up and my phone's notifications were going off like a firecracker. I got on my computer, turned on Ark, and found that our boats were under attack by a rocket turret on top of a Quetzal [A giant pterodactyl-like creature].” 

"I still remember to this day how it felt. I woke up and my phone's notifications were going off like a firecracker."

“I started panicking, jumping in the water and slowly making my way over to my personal boat. Luckily, I had a friend to help me out. I started navigating my boat quickly away, constantly looking back for any rockets to dodge, and for a good minute or two there were none. Suddenly I hear a boom. I turn around and a portion of the back part of my boat is blown, and my friend is hurt. I quickly told him to get a grapple and take any ranged weapon he could find in my boat to distract them. He quickly jumped off the boat and went in the water while I was dodging rockets, grappling the back side of the Quetzal and making his way up there. From what I heard, he nearly killed the guy in the rocket turret, but the person commanding the quetzal got off and killed him. This bought a good minute for me, and I made my escape.”

Frost says he met up with his surviving tribe members in a hidden shack nearby, but after the trauma of losing everything, many decided to move server or quit Ark for good. Conversely, Frost has been engaging in Great War fights ever since, ranging from small scale skirmishes to mega battles between hundreds of players, and hasn’t looked back. It’s the kind of trial by fire story that you’d expect to see in a movie, but these anecdotes are all too common from Ark’s warring community of players. 

If Ark’s Great War is known for one thing above all else, it’s the Siege of Ragnarok 25. A bitter and bloody struggle between the Spartans/Legacy and RAMBO/BLDX alliances, Huursa suggests that the standoff was quite possibly the longest real-time, player battle to ever take place in a video game, lasting 45 days between the months of July and August 2017. Watching videos of it in action, the Siege of Ragnarok looks as chaotic and unintelligible as it sounds but, with the way things are going in Ark, it’s more than possible that longer, bigger battles could take place in the game’s future. 

“I personally do not want it to come to an end.” says one anonymous player upon being asked about the possibility of a peaceful denouement to the war. “If I wanted to be peaceful with everyone, I would have chosen PvE-Servers over PvP. But regardless of that, the war will never come to an end. In a scenario where one side absorbs the other, it would naturally occur that people from that monopoly will split from it to have competition again. ARK tends to have 2x Main Alliances. Each alliance is made up of tribes, that came together to either fight mutual enemies, or because of hatred against other tribes.”

It's a classic example of Bipolarity, a pattern in international relations where two competing great powers share the monopoly of influence in a region. Real world examples include America and the Soviet Union during The Cold War or France and Britain in the first half of the 18th century. In Ark: Survival Evolved, meanwhile, bipolarity is secured between whichever two of the largest alliances are fighting each other at the time, while the smaller tribes and invested parties will orient themselves around that dynamic. 

Wild, wild west

Meanwhile, one can only imagine how Studio Wildcard, who didn’t reply to my request for comment on this story, has internally reacted to The Great War’s unprecedented evolution from a series of isolated skirmishes to an all-encompassing epiphenomenon. The developer has been happy to swing the banhammer in efforts to crack down on cheating between competing sides, but Ark veteran Frank the Tank believes that it’s more interested in supporting the unofficial server scene, which is a perennial source of income for the studio and one of the few places free from the Great War’s official server-based PvP. 

“The unofficial servers will stay healthy and populated because of casual/new players and the ability to add mods like in Minecraft. The official servers will eventually go extinct at some point because they don’t add up value for Wildcard in the long run. If you observe Wildcard’s strategy a bit closer, you will notice that the game was always drifting away from old school Ark towards the unofficial way of playing Ark.”

Despite its narrow accessibility and harsh nature, Ark’s Great War is still a fascinating subject from an outsider’s perspective. It’s unclear whether we’ll soon be hearing mainstream headlines of “one million dollars worth of dinos lost in latest Ark battle” like we do with Eve Online, but as another case study for the extremities of human behaviour in a world with very few rules, Survival Evolved’s continuing conflict is a tale of jurassic proportions that only a video game could ever reach. 

Find out whether Ark: Survival Evolved appears on our list of the best survival games that you can play right now.