A couple of days ago, technical experts confirmed that the Xbox One version of Ark: Survival Evolved runs like arse. The report came from Eurogamer's Digital Foundry columnists, who recorded a video of the early access (AKA unfinished) survival game and found the Xbox One version desperately wanting. You can watch that video here, but I'll summarise.
Resolution: sub-720p. (!!)
Frame-rate: Frequently dropping below 20fps.
As valuable as Digital Foundry can be in explicating the small but fascinating differences between, say, the PC and PS4 versions of a given big-budget game, few people really needed them to apply their high-tech magnifying glasses to this particular one. The shittiness of Ark's current Xbox One version is immediately apparent to the naked eye.
Ark is an open-ended survival game in which you explore a wild habitat filled with mysterious flora and fauna (by which I mean dinosaurs!). You hunt beasts; craft tools and buildings; seek out food and shelter; and eventually tame deadly creatures, ride them and keep them as pets. It's basically Minecraft + Rust + Pokémon + Jurassic Park, if that kinda thing sounds like it might float your boat.
My colleague Mike Fahey already did some playing on Xbox One a little while back, but I've been playing on PC, where it has plenty of technical issues even on my beefier rig. When I fired up the Xbox One version for the first time, I recoiled. Is that… is this really what this version looks like? Did I just see screen-tearing in the intro splash screens? Did the game just momentarily freeze? Are the textures loading in, or is this just… it? I laughed.
Then I played a little more. Gotta really see how it works, after all. I should probably see if I can craft a better fort, and gather some more fibre and berries. Hmm, I should probably go explore that jungle over there. I should probably clear out those trees, then hunt down some more food, then probably just keep playing for another hour or two. See if I can't level up. Whoa, check out that dinosaur! Maybe I can kill it. Say, I should craft some more stuff. See what's over there, or over there.
Which gets at the interesting thing about Ark: In its current unfinished, early access state, the game is an unoptimised mess. But it's a very fun, engrossing unoptimised mess. It's the kind of unoptimised mess that has a whole ton of people — more than 1 million downloads on Xbox One in less than a week — willing to overlook its flaws. The game's servers are usually packed.
It's easy to see why: This is a Minecraft-like crafting/survival game with seamless multiplayer, a sprawling map and dinosaurs that you can tame and ride. The promo art for this game is the most bodacious thing I've ever seen:
Do you want to play that game? Hell yeah you do.
In their analysis video and accompanying write-up, the fellows at Digital Foundry repeatedly stress that Ark is still very fun and popular despite its current terrible lack of polish. There as well as on various subsequent blog and forum posts slagging the Xbox One version, the game's supporters are sure to remind everyone that Ark is still in early access, which it is.
Will Ark developer Studio Wildcard actually hit their planned June 2016 release date and put out a polished, finished product? Or will this game be yet another early access fad, destined to languish unfinished and eventually be replaced by another survival game that also won't ever get a proper release? If history is any guide, the latter is probably more likely than the former. I'm hoping it will make it, though.
I'm hoping that for the same reason that I and so many other people are playing Ark in the first place. As I found when I got sucked in by the Xbox One version, it turns out I'm more than down to play a game with laughably shitty optimisation, sub-Xbox 360 resolution, near-empty textures and gameplay-derailing freezing and lag. I'm down for all that, because even at its jankiest, Ark is already fun; it's already addictive and sprawling and weird and funny, and I'm already having a great time with it. It can only get better from here, and if "better" never quite means "as polished as a AAA game released by a major studio", well, I'll probably be OK with that.
Is the Xbox One version of Ark inferior to the PC version? Absolutely. Is the PC version still kind of messed up? Yep. Does the poor performance make the the game harder to play and enjoy? Yes. Are a whole ton of people playing the game on Xbox One and having fun anyway? They sure are.
I've written before about some of the ways that technical things like resolution and frame-rate matter. And while those things are indeed important, they aren't always the most important. As if to demonstrate that, here comes Ark, wandering into the building with its hilariously low resolution and rampant screen-tearing, stumbling along as its frame-rate plunges toward the single digits. "Who wants to party?" it asks, punching an Ankylosaurus in the face.