On Monday July 17th, we received an email about Ark: Survival Evolved, offering an interview with its developer Studio Wildcard to discuss a major change. Wildcard would today announce, we were told, that all official game servers would be wiped at launch, despite previously pledging that this would never happen.
However, after agreeing to the interview, and speaking with lead designer Jeremy Stieglitz, we received the news that the decision has been reversed, and that the wipe would no longer occur. It’s an unusual, unexpected backtrack — and not a move that I’m sure makes a lot of sense, particularly in light of what was said in our interview.
First, the background. In a statement dated June 24 2016, Stieglitz told Ark‘s community that Wildcard “will **not** be wiping the Official Servers on ARK’s release […] We will keep existing active Official Servers as they are post-ship.” That was the final word on the matter, said Stieglitz: “We take the time players put into the game seriously, and we want to reward them for that. The reward is having a *permanent* impact on your ARK, simple as that.
As such, it was a little surprising to receive that email from Ark‘s PR team on Monday proclaiming Wildcard was about to wipe the official servers. Last year’s decision had been reversed, we were told, and all servers were to be wiped on or around August 7th, the day before Ark: Survival Evolved leaves early access and officially releases on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
Speaking yesterday, when this was still going to happen, Steiglitz told me: “We had hoped to make it all the way through Early Access into retail launch with the servers intact; that was our initial plan, we communicated our intent to do that […] but it just isn’t viable at this point for multiple reasons.” There then followed a lengthy conversation around the necessity for the wipe.
Then a new statement was released to the press this morning, saying: “Earlier today [we] made a decision to wipe the PvP servers in order to clean up the “duped” items which have been infesting ARK’s servers as of late. However, after further conferring with the various designers and community managers at Wildcard, and reviewing more pro-and-con debates among ARK players, and talking to the press more in detail about it, we’ve decided to stick to the original plan and NOT wipe: to reiterate, there will be NO mass server wipe for ARK.”
It’s a completely unexpected reversal, and not one that’s easy to understand. Given how polarising the subject of server wiping is within the Ark community, this latest turn of events is likely to be just as decried as it is met with relief. To server-wipe or not to server-wipe has long been a contentious issue in Ark, with vocal proponents on both sides — and both have valid points.
On the one hand, Ark doesn’t especially feel like an early access game, and hasn’t for some time. It’s been fully playable and enjoyable (some minor and some not so minor bugs aside) pretty much since its early access debut — so much so that it’s already managed to amass nine million players on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4, without even reaching Version 1. With so many of those players in it for the long haul (somewhat unavoidably, given how much of the game is a time sink) it’s not surprising that some are vehemently opposed to the idea of a server wipe if it means all their hard work will vanish at the flick of a switch.
Then there’s the other side of the argument, most frequently raised by the hardcore PvP players. Concerns on this side can mostly be summed up in a single word: duping. In Ark terms, duping refers to the process of using exploits to duplicate dinosaurs and key items, thus giving teams on competitive player-versus-player servers a distinct advantage against their opponents.
Duping is about as against Ark‘s rules as you can get, given that it generally involves crashing a server with DDoS attack in order to initiate an automatic rollback, then retrieving items and dinosaur from a stored ‘safe place’. Despite being a supposedly bannable offence though, dozens of forum threads on duping regularly emerge, with many players dissatisfied by Wildcard’s response to the problem. Most troubling for competitive players is the fact that duping seems to have escalated in recent weeks.
As Stieglitz explained yesterday, the teams’ work on Ark‘s single-player mode and the final push toward retail release has been “taking our attention away maybe a little bit from the day to day multiplayer game over the past couple of weeks.” That understandable distraction has lead to a resurgence in duping exploits and, Stieglitz admits, “the problem is we’ve let it go on for so long […] there’s too many legacy copycat items in the system at this point to have a definitive point where it’s like ‘OK, the problem started here — so anything prior to this is legit, anything after this is not legit’. So a rollback, therefore, is not really viable.”
Stieglitz was clear about how damaging duping is to Ark as a competitive experience. “The game is very, very negatively affected in PvP right now,” he says, explaining that many of the game’s current duping issues come from the fact that the team is not an experienced MMO developer. “We didn’t really view Ark as an MMO as much as it ultimately became. So as far as the PvP game goes I think — anybody’s who’s maybe seriously competitive would hopefully understand that you can’t have that kind of serious competition with what has gone on with Ark over the past several months.”
Ultimately, Stieglitz says, the absolute priority must be to have “a solid competitive foundation upon which to encourage fair play.”
As such, when we spoke yesterday, both Stieglitz and the rest of the team were absolutely adamant that a full wipe was the absolute best approach for the future health of Ark: “The network guys over here love the idea of a wipe, because they’re like ‘Oh, we can clean up so many mistakes we made with the network infrastructure, we can put in more protection!'” The ultimate plan pre-launch, Stieglitz explained, was to “move the servers behind anti-DDOS infrastructure, so that the servers cannot be DDOSed anymore, and that requires basically relocating all of the machines.”
“We needed some time to see how these things were done and work out the right technical solutions,” said Stieglitz, “and we think we’ve kind of future-proofed it as well, through various backup systems to ensure that even if something like this [duping] was to happen again, we can more effectively roll back if necessary and deal with it on a large scale.”
However, when pressed, Stieglitz also admitted that a wipe wasn’t technically necessary in order to implement Wildcard’s new security measures, and that data migration would do the trick equally well. And judging by today’s official statement on the wipe-reversal-reversal, it sounds like data migration is now the preferred approach.
Instead of a wipe, Wildcard will now introduce new servers to the game on August 7th. Alongside the current cluster of soon-to-be “legacy” servers, there will be a new PvP Server cluster network, for those that would like to start from scratch. It sounds like both sets of servers will benefit from Wildcard’s new security measures, however: “At [retail release] we’ll be rolling out the new server code and infrastructure necessary to prevent these hacking issues from ever occurring again.”
Essentially, Wildcard is now, with its latest reversal, offering a choice where there was no choice before: if you no longer wish to play on servers where duped items may have given certain tribes an advantage in the past, you now have the option to start afresh on a completely new server. For those that wish to retain their progress, however, the legacy servers will remain active. Those that choose to stay on a legacy server shouldn’t have to worry about new duping instances in the future, but should be aware that balance on these servers may, basically, be screwed.
On the surface, that sounds like a sensible and fair compromise. Whichever side of the wiping argument you stand on, you now have a choice. There are, however, a number of issues that Stieglitz raised in our pro-wipe discussion that perhaps offer greater cause for concern for players, whatever they choose to do in the future.
For starters, Stieglitz repeatedly claimed that Wildcard had neither the money nor the capacity to deploy both legacy and new servers. “We make a decent amount of money from Ark, I’ll admit, but even we don’t make enough money to host all the thousands of servers we have across the different platforms and host new servers for new players if we were to leave the dupe servers up […] honestly, we’ve spent over a hundred thousand… hundreds and thousands of dollars per month on servers so it wouldn’t really be financially practical to host even at Ark’s level, both sets of servers.”
It’s unclear what has changed since yesterday to make coexisting new and legacy servers possible. It will certainly be interesting to see what, if any, compromises have to be made in order to maintain both beyond the game’s retail launch.
Perhaps a bigger, more imminent concern for existing players is Wildcard’s stated plans to use the next three weeks to experiment with more “dramatic” balance and mechanical changes. As Stieglitz explained yesterday, the studio’s intention up until this morning was to create a snapshot of Ark‘s public servers that players could download pre-wipe and use on their own private servers or in single-player games. It seemed like an eminently sensible compromise for those that didn’t want to see their Ark-life’s work vanish in a puff of smoke.
Crucially for Wildcard though, it would have effectively offered a period of “non-permanence” between now and launch, which the studio planned to use “to do more dramatic things that are risky, that are probably going to break some stuff, without us worrying ‘Man, if we break this today, then everybody’s game is all messed up permanently because the servers are permanent.'”
One such feature that Stieglitz touted was the long-teased Boss Wars. Here, bosses periodically appear at fixed times, but in random locations, on each map. “It will say like ‘At 12 o’clock on Saturday, the Dragon will appear here,'” explained Stieglitz, “and if you defeat the boss, you get the ability to summon that boss for a limited period of time to your team.”
The feature is intended to create conflict points “where people will hopefully be drawn together to try and contest the summon or the tame of that boss.” It’s designed to act as an equaliser between alpha tribes and smaller tribes, “Having a boss on top of your Alpha status is already trivial at that point. But if you’re not an Alpha, and you can manage to get one of these summons, it can be a game-changer.” As Stieglitz admits, “it’s an experiment, like honestly it may blow up in our faces and be completely un-fun, but the beauty of it is it’s not permanent.”
Here’s the problem: if official server snapshots are now off the table, this imminent experimental period may ultimately prove devastating for those hoping to retain their current progress, and end up being the far more undesirable option compared to the originally touted save-and-wipe.
About the kindest thing I can say at this point, is that the situation is a mess. To outside observers, this three-time flip-flop merely gives the impression that Wildcard has no overall vision for its game, and reaffirms the community’s commonly-expressed sentiment that the studio is far too prone to making rash decisions without thinking things through.
Of course, consequence-free experimentation is part and parcel of early access and Stieglitz is right to point out that “our player base knows that we just basically treated it like a big Petri dish right from the outset.” That’s both fair and laudable in the midst of early access development, but it’s harder to justify indecision and uncertainty three weeks before launch, when all it will likely do is leave Ark‘s player base doubtful and confused about the future.
“After further conferring with the various designers and community managers at Wildcard, and reviewing more pro-and-con debates among ARK players, and talking to the press more in detail about it, we’ve decided to stick to the original plan and NOT wipe,” says today’s official statement. Which is fine. I just can’t help but feel that, when you’re responsible for nine million players, with hundreds of millions of hours of playtime between them, it might be better to be absolutely sure of your intentions before divulging them to the press and reversing them immediately after.
Wildcard should be applauded for attempting to find a solution to the divisive, and difficult, issue of server wipes — and ultimately arriving at something that, while it may not be perfect, does go some way toward appeasing both sides of the debate. Given the pragmatic pro-wipe rationale that Stieglitz shared with us only yesterday, however, and the concerns our discussion raised, you have to wonder if trying to keep everyone happy is the right thing to do. I’m not completely convinced that Wildcard’s latest flip-flop, in the long-term, will be the right decision after all.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour with a U from the British isles.