Chances are you’ve heard of Ark: Survival Evolved, even if you’ve never played it. The one with the dinosaurs? There you go. A breakout early access hit in 2015 the game has persisted, improved and is now Xbox One X Enhanced. I spoke to lead designer and programmer, and Co-Creative Director of developer Studio Wildcard, Jeremy Stieglitz about making the game, the Xbox One X and the future.
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Leon: Ark launched in 2015, it’s continually updated and is now Xbox One X Enhanced. How far do plan ahead in terms of “this is how long we think people are going to play?”
Jeremy: We did not really anticipate how players would play Ark when we began its development, in the sense of treating it like a persistent online game and playing it like it was a service-orientated game. It’s been a learning curve for us in that respect. When we began Ark’s development, we were like “hey, let’s make a fun game with dinosaurs and survival.” We thought it would be more of an end-to-end experience; you wake up on this island, you’ll figure out how to escape and that’ll be the game, however long that takes you. And we have that in there – you can play it and you can get a little ending and feel like “Alright, I escaped and I feel complete.” But most people play the game who are crazy about it and they play it endlessly beyond that point and just continue to raise more dinos and battle over territory and servers and that’s an ongoing process for them.
Leon: The big Xbox One X focus has been 4K, but you need a huge screen to really appreciate it. It's not the be all and end all of what’s possible, is it? For me, things like HDR really make the difference.
Jeremy: Hopefully, Microsoft (and Sony as well) don’t necessarily lean too hard on the 4K. The overall message hopefully should be not just the 4K, but HDR and just the increased power of the graphics processor generally. I think you’re going to see games, Ark is one of them, even on the Xbox One X not running 4K. It’s 1440p because we decided we would rather have higher end graphics than higher resolution. I think, over the next year, you’ll see a lot of games deciding “You know what? 4K isn’t as important as getting more visuals on screen,” and that’s the trade off they’ll decide to make, and I think that’s a worthy trade off. I’d rather have a game which is more visually immersive, running at something like 1440p, than a game which is throwing a few extra pixels in there but has to simplify the graphics as a result.
Leon: What can you do with the extra power that isn’t just 4K? Especially as you have to make sure everything runs on every console?
Jeremy: I think an under-sung aspect of the Xbox One X that I don’t think [is] necessarily talked about is actually how much more RAM it has, its store of dynamic memory. The Xbox One essentially has about 5GB of game-usable memory. Whereas the Xbox One X has 9GB of developer-usable memory. That’s a crazy large jump, and some of that of course can be used for higher-res textures and 4K but not all of it!
What’s really interesting about the Xbox One X is you have access to more RAM than you have on any standard PC. Sure, gamers have PCs that have 16GB of RAM if not more, but you can’t design your game for that. If you design your game to use 16GB or even 9GB of RAM on PC, you’re screwed because most PC gamers only have 8GB of RAM on their PC and 2 of those GB at least are used up for the operating system.
So what’s interesting about the Xbox One X is, right now, it has the most guaranteed memory of any platform out there. 9GB that the developer has guaranteed access to, and that’s crazy. Because what you can do with that is have such a larger world and memory, way more entities stored in memory and just probably tons of more things happening in the background that are stored and persistent and I don’t think any game has fully taken advantage of that yet. You can increase the textures and increase the resolution and still not get anywhere near the 4GB of additional usable memory you have on that console. I look forward to games making use of that.
Now, granted, I don’t think Microsoft will allow games to be developed purely for the Xbox One X, nor should they in my opinion. But I do think developers can probably design a game that really makes full use of that if they’re building their game around the fact they could have access to this additional 4GB of memory, then they can probably do some really interesting stuff.
Leon: The whole point of consoles in the past was that it was a locked system. You bought a box and it did what it did. Now you have incremental upgrades and graphic settings options. Do you think we’ll end up with PC like variation creeping in?
Jeremy: I think the lack of a 'one-size-fits-all' is better. Some people have $500+ to blow on a new console and other people just want a $200 version of the same console that will let them play the game, but not necessarily with the highest end graphics. I think recognising not everybody has access to the same resources, and also is looking for the exact same experiences, is very reasonable on console developers, publishers and the platforms. So I hope that trend doesn’t stop, actually.
Leon: Do you think we’ll see an Xbox One X-2? And is the idea of a base and an enhanced unit the new standard moving forward?
Jeremy: I think we’re not going to see another mid-cycle upgrade for this generation of consoles. I think what the Xbox One X and the PS4 Pro really are about is the advent of 4K and HDR. When the first generation consoles were made, they probably had no idea that resolutions would go up that high. Or that HDR would be a thing in terms of displays, so they couldn’t predict that.
And it just takes more memory, it takes more processing power. I don’t think they felt the consoles as they were previously configured would really be up for that without making serious visual sacrifices. So I think that it was more about future proofing and less a matter of the desire to do this multiple times.