Starving while naked on an island where dinosaurs roam free does not sound like a great time, and yet it’s the premise of one of the most popular games of the last year.

Ark: Survival Evolved is one of the stand-out releases in the “unfinished survival-simulator genre” that is now a well-established and popular niche on the Steam game-distribution channel. Twelve months ago, Studio Wildcard debuted Ark, and now the company is ready to share its philosophy and what it has learned from this new style of building games alongside an audience that can’t stop playing it.

To get to that philosophy, GamesBeat interviewed Studio Wildcard cofounder and co-creative director Jesse Rapczak, who explained what it’s like to have a top-selling game that has generated more than $150 million in revenues without ever reaching its official version 1.0 release.

GamesBeat: What does it mean to have a game like Ark that is in Early Access and yet is consistently a top-10 best-seller on Steam?

Jesse Rapczak: It’s interesting, because for us it means our users are constantly playing the game. There are always new players coming in. More than anything, it means that we should be listening to them.

We have a player base that’s not shrinking. It’s growing in almost every way. The challenge is, hey, this is a live game. From the beginning we knew that the community would be a big part of the game’s development. That’s why we went Early Access. Eventually it would be a big part of whether the game would be successful or not. In the first year that’s happened even more than we ever anticipated. We’ve been seeing the game change a lot based on the player base that plays the game. Day in day out, week after week, they bring friends to the game, they explore things we do. Mods, new features we add, new content we add. It keeps the pressure on us as a team, knowing that many people are playing the game every day that come into Ark.

They don’t see it as an Early Access game, even though it’s still in development. We can’t treat it like a lot of early access games do. We treat it like a game in live release. For us, early access means—it’s not finished yet. We still have a lot of polish to do. But with the amount of people playing the game every day and are continually invested, it’s live as far as we’re concerned. We’re just trying to get the last content in and the last polish on it so we can consider it done. At some future date.

GamesBeat: So you have a game-as-a-service now — and being successful enables that?

Jesse Rapczak: Exactly.

GamesBeat: You spent $2 million developing Ark before hitting Early Access. What was that process like?

Jesse Rapczak: The team’s comprised of a lot of people who have worked together for a long time. My cofounders and I go way back. The people who work here, we’ve all worked together at other companies off and on over a decade or more. When the idea started to do this, it was more an alignment of timing and priorities. We were all doing our own separate things, but it felt like time to hit this opportunity to create a dinosaur survival game, really. It was looming in front of us.

We knew we wanted to do something. We’d been talking about it for a while. When this idea came up, it was like, yes, we have to go now and decide to do this. We’ll figure it out along the way, how to do it. Or the opportunity is going to pass us by. That’s how it started.

Initially it was just three of us. A few months later it expanded into about 15 people. Before we knew it we were above 30, and then launching the game with about 40 people working on it nine months later. I’d say it grew organically.

It’s not like we set out at the beginning to spend $2 million on this game. It was just, as we developed it, we kept realizing we needed to either add people to the project, or add backend technology. The budget got a bit higher than we initially anticipated. But as the game was growing and we saw the potential of what it could be after early access, we expanded our internal budget a bit, put in more of our personal money and savings, and it paid off when it launched. It pretty much paid for its development within the first day. That was a big relief for us. And then it was like, wow, where do we go from here?

That’s when we started thinking about the next year, year and a half of development. And here we are a year later, thinking about finally shipping the game, getting all the stuff into it that we want to and more, because now it’s grown so much from what we initially planned to do with that first budget projection. It’s been an organic process, I’d say.

GamesBeat: How do you balance the strong leadership from the team against the leadership from the community?

Jesse Rapczak: Balance is the right word. It’s a constant balancing act.

If you look at the original pitch deck we put together for Ark back in the day, it reads very much like the game is today, except that we’ve added a lot of tweaks to how it works and plays. We’ve gotten a bit more outside our original gameplay scope of a dinosaur survival game and gone a bit over the top in a lot of things. The different abilities of dinosaurs are crazy. At some point I think we jumped the shark on believable physics.

As people started the game like role-players, people running their own servers, very early on we realized we couldn’t please everyone. We gave the server away for free. That allowed a lot of customization. We’ve made a lot of UI configuration available for people to tweak to their heart’s content. We have this balance where we’re making the game we want to make with input from the community that we host on our official servers, but we also have tens of thousands of unofficial servers out there, mods, people playing the game their own way. Whether it’s as simple as accelerating timings for everything, or totally rearranging the types of items available. We allow people to do that so they can shape the game the way they want, and still we have our overriding course-corrected vision of what the game is on the official servers.

Ark isn't afraid to throw some seriously scary dinosaurs at players.

Above: Ark isn’t afraid to throw some seriously scary dinosaurs at players.

Image Credit: Studio Wildcard

GamesBeat: Have mods had a positive influence on your sales and engagement?

Jesse Rapczak: Tremendously. Especially when we get behind something. We’re about to release Primitive Plus, an official mod on Xbox. We released The Center as an official mod on Xbox a few months ago. The great thing about that is, it brings a lot more players back into the game who maybe have been playing other games for a while.

When we take something like a whole new map, like The Center was, and put it out for free, everybody floods in — especially when it comes to console gamers, because they have never experienced a lot of that, they can’t install mods by default.  New servers, new people buying into the game, because now there’s a fresh world to explore. We definitely see a lot of uptake in users behind that stuff.

And then we also run mod contests. We’ve run several of them. That’s where The Center and Primitive Plus came from. We see a lot of uptake and user engagement and stuff around those. A lot of content creators will do role-playing with different mods, or do spotlights on mods. Now we have maybe thousands of mods. The game is living and evolving, if you will, through these mods. It’s only getting more intense now that we’re putting out the ability for people to mod Survival of the Fittest. That’s a moddable competitive mode now. We expect to run another mod contest around that and get a bunch more creativity going around competitive ways to play ARK. So to answer the question, the community is really excited about mods. They get invested in running them on their own servers with their friends in their own games.

GamesBeat: Does that help enable you to keep your team size down? Or are there other reasons the team can remain around 50 people?

Jesse Rapczak: These days we have more than that. We’re up to about 60 people working on the game now, between customer support and — as the game’s grown we’ve had to expand the team outside normal development stuff.

We have dedicated customer support people. We’ve expanded our community team significantly. It used to be just one guy. Now we have about six community people helping out with our forums. They also help us with testing and QA. The thing that’s been great about the game’s growth–when we have new community features, spotlights every week where we talk to the community and answer their questions, put out new secrets about the game, do mod spotlights and contests, we’ve been running video contests lately for people to produce awesome videos—it’s not just the development team that’s engaging with the community. It’s also our community team, out there helping us highlight things that are awesome in the community. Getting people excited about certain things happening in the game universe.

Those people are just as important to development. When we first shipped the game, we didn’t have this over a dozen, 15 strong community support team. Now we do. It’s a significant part of the team now in terms of ratio.

GamesBeat: You’ve updated the game nearly 250 times, and you just keep adding more dinosaurs. What’s the final number of dinos you’re planning to add?

Jesse Rapczak: We haven’t been talking specific numbers lately, because it just keeps going up. We’ll keep adding dinosaurs if there’s a need for them, if people want stuff, especially to fill gameplay gaps that may have shown up over development because balancing has changed. We’re up to about 100 planned dinosaurs for the base island, and all the mods can make use of them as well. We’ll continue to push out that content even after the game releases. Just because the game goes 1.0 and ships doesn’t mean we’re going to stop developing it.

It’s still, as you said earlier — we see it as a games-as-service. A lot of people think we give away too much for the price. $30 on Steam, $35 on console right now for early access. People are playing the game for thousands of hours. But I think we’ve found a lot of value in it. There’s not a lot of games like this. Maybe Minecraft and some others, where you can spend such a small amount and play the game in so many ways for so many different types of players and communities of players, for so many hours.

GamesBeat: To me, what you describe sounds like a combination of triple-A game design and free-to-play game design, where you’re constantly releasing new stuff to keep players engaged, but you’re also selling this $30 product that people can play without having to keep spending. Do you think we’ll see many other developers and publishers adopting this method?

Jesse Rapczak: I think so. Maybe due in no small part to what we’ve seen happening. I’m shocked — when we first launched the game, no way would we have projected numbers like what we have today. But I think what we’ve seen is, the value perception of ARK as a game is very high. There are so many people who think, hey, it’s on sale, it’s 15 or 20 bucks, why would you not buy it? I feel like everyone who has heard of ARK or has friends playing ARK might consider buying it, if for no other reason than the value proposition.

Very few games cost as little as ARK and provide that return of fun and entertainment for such a long period of time. Since the game is still being developed, there’s this ongoing, hey, it’s one way now, but in a couple of months, based on their track record, it’ll be different. By now we’ve proven that we’ll still be developing the game. It’s not going anywhere. When we first launched early access, a lot of people were like, who are these guys? They’re out of nowhere. What will they do with your money? But the bigger the game gets, the more we want to work on it. That’s what it comes down to.

GamesBeat: As you keep players engaged over time, as an outsider looking in—if a big publisher was responsible for this game, they’d say, okay, when do we start bringing in microtransactions? Selling items or doing a Valve model where you let the community sell items to one another while you guys take a cut. Is that in the works?

Jesse Rapczak: We’ll probably never do anything like microtransactions. We’re not very good at stuff like that, the free-to-play mentality. We’re good at bringing value to the game. We’re not good at micromanaging that value, trying to nickel and dime people. To us it’s too much of a distraction from developing a fun game. We just want people to always have all of that content. That said, we are thinking about, in the next few months, as the game approaches launch—we want to give people bigger experiences, not just content updates. We’ve talked about expansion packs we want to do.

For us an expansion pack is a huge thing. It’s not like, hey, here’s a couple more dinos. An expansion pack for us would be probably close to the order of magnitude of what the base game is, in a lot of ways. So we’re thinking about that. But again, when we do something like that, there will be a lot of value in that, just like there is in the base game. We’re not trying to do what some big publishers do, which is a unique position we’re in.

We’re in a game with a triple-A player base, but we’re a small team. We’re mostly about supporting those players, giving them new experiences, and bringing new ideas and new gameplay to the game, beyond what we’ve already said we’re going to ship. And so those are the things we’re thinking about for future monetization. Not changing the way the game is monetized. Just expanding with additional content and features down the road.

It's the one species of wild game that Donald Trump's sons haven't killed yet.

Above: It’s the one species of wild game that Donald Trump’s sons haven’t killed yet.

Image Credit: Studio Wildcard

GamesBeat: Can you tell me about the partnership with Epic and Unreal? What has that meant for the game, being in their service?

Jesse Rapczak: It started because of mods. Ark was the first moddable [Unreal Engine 4] game that wasn’t an Epic game. The partnership’s been great for us because it’s helped get the awareness of the mod program to the community and the players. It’s also helped us have a more technical side of our community. All of the people doing mods, working on mods, there’s that bridge between being a pro game developer and being an indie or mod developer that goes through the same set of tools.

Having a mod kit for the editor we use to build Ark — Epic is really excited about that and so are we. We’ve hired people from the mod community that’s worked on our game, and so has Epic. A lot of their pedigree, a lot of people who’ve been there a long time, came up through the mod community as well. It was very important to them and to us for the longevity of the title to support mods. The partnership’s been great. We’re able to start early with them and shape how some of the modding might work. They’re able to deliver the content of the editor for us through their launcher, which was awesome. It prevented us from having a convoluted install process between Steam tools and Epic’s own github and stuff like that. It streamlines the user experience for modding. It brought more awareness to the game itself, elevating it alongside the other Unreal engine titles that are available. If people have the launcher, they’re probably interested in developing games.

They’re probably looking at playing those games as well, Epic’s games. When they get into the launcher and see ARK, it brings a bit more legitimacy to — oh, wow, there are other games here, not just Unreal games, that are open through the Unreal editor. All the skills around the Unreal engine aren’t just applicable to Epic’s games. Here are other games like ARK that use Unreal. I’ve learned all this stuff. I can apply it here and make it cool. It’s a platform for the creators. That partnership for us has been as good as it can be. The engine and the tools are the best out there right now. That’s why we chose them for Ark. We couldn’t be happier with the support they’ve given our mod community through the tools and the community team over there.

GamesBeat: You guys got out early on Xbox One with the game preview. I’m always surprised when I play – I guess I shouldn’t be – by how popular it is. There are tons of people playing all the time. What has that experience been like for you?

Jesse Rapczak: Xbox Game Preview was extremely exciting for us. It wasn’t a program that existed until we had just launched ARK. They announced a few games coming to Xbox Game Preview, but immediately they came and talked to us. We had already submitted for all console platforms and PC, way back when we started working on the game in December 2014. They knew about the game. When we launched on PC and they saw the success, they had just decided they were going to do game previews on Xbox. So they asked us if we wanted to come over to Xbox early. We were just like, yes, please, let’s get there as soon as possible.

We felt like there wasn’t a game like ARK on consoles. I still think there’s not. That’s probably why you see so many people playing. We’ve been amazed. If you look at the number of reviews for ARK on Xbox, it’s like 85,000 people who’ve reviewed the game, and it’s four and a half stars. If Xbox Game Preview games showed up in the list of released games, we’d be ahead of almost everything. It’s something you don’t know about unless you look closer at the numbers, but we’re shocked and super satisfied that console gamers are reacting so well to the game.

We’re excited to get it on all console platforms. I know our PS4 fans are eager to get their hands on the game. We’re excited to get it to them as well. You have games like No Man’s Sky coming out, we’re all really excited to play that. Big games from indie studios now are really interesting to us, because that’s where we come from. As the console platform mature, you have to see more stuff happening like it is with Xbox Game Preview. If ARK wasn’t allowed to be on Xbox right now — think about it. It’s a void. So many people play the game. What else would they be playing?

GamesBeat: It almost feels like it would be unfair if those gamers didn’t have access to Ark.

Jesse Rapczak: Yeah. If you think about it, that’s so many people playing Ark, and if they didn’t — yes, the game’s not finished, and it doesn’t look as good as PC right now. It’s harder to develop for the consoles. There’s more things you have to go through, going through cert and submitting things. It’s a lot more challenging. But people see past that, I think. Microsoft made the right move by starting the game preview program.

You see them doing stuff like that with their hardware now, trying to retain backwards compatibility, and now the Xbox One S. Xbox One games playing on what’s essentially two different pieces of hardware. I think it’s a maturation of the console platform. It’ll be interesting to see where that goes over the next year or two on both sides of the fence. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo too, we’re really excited about the future of indie development on all the platforms. What we’ve seen happen with Xbox, we’re hoping and anticipating we can do the same thing on the other platforms. Bringing it closer to PC development for teams like ours who don’t have 30 people focused on marketing and release strategies and how to populate the store pages and do all that stuff. Console, up until now, has been biased toward larger teams and studios.

People like us, we just don’t have that many people. We’re focused on development. Anything the platform providers can do to make our lives easier, make it easier to get our games to the players, means those players get the game rather than needing a PC to play what is otherwise a very good game.

GamesBeat: It feels like Ark has made this concept unavoidable. It’s something that Nintendo and Sony will have to figure out. Do you think so?

Jesse Rapczak: Yeah. Sony has their own way of handling things. It’s not better or worse. They’re just doing what they think is right for their players. We get that.

We’re trying to work with Sony and whoever else to get the game out to as many people as possible, as soon as possible. But if you watch our Twitter feeds and everything, we could be talking about something totally unrelated to any particular platform, and we still get inundated with “when’s it coming to PS4?” I don’t know, guys. Hands are tied right now. Anyway, we try not to get too tied up with that stuff. We’re actively working on the game on all platforms, whether or not it’s released on all platforms at the moment.

If you survive long enough, you can learn to dominate nature.

Above: If you survive long enough, you can learn to dominate nature.

Image Credit: Studio Wildcard

GamesBeat: But you understand where Sony is coming from?

Jesse Rapczak: As far as they’re concerned — I think they see the industry trends. They’re just trying to figure out a strategy around stuff. It’s not like they don’t want us to release on PS4. It’s just that for us, we don’t feel the game is finished yet. We don’t want to put the game out there without there being support from whoever the platform is, acknowledging that fact. The game is still early access. It’s not done yet. That’s our big thing. We don’t want players to think this game is done and it’s not going to change. That’s the only thing holding us back from anything.

There are some things related to that we’re working on. It’s not really a blocker. We’re working on things in the background. It just feels like, when you’re a fan, and a game isn’t on your platform, time slows down. It’s the only thing you want to play. You’re waiting for that game to come out and it feels like forever. But it doesn’t mean we’re not working on it. It doesn’t mean we’re not trying to bring it as soon as possible, even earlier than possible if we can, but we just don’t have anything to talk about at the moment specifically on bringing it to other platforms than Xbox and PC at the moment.

GamesBeat: Finally, can you tell me what was the motivation about bringing the Survival of the Fittest mode back into the game?

Jesse Rapczak: Originally we thought we might be able to have a kind of alternative revenue model for the game, kind of make it a more free-to-play, competitive game that was monetized that way. But we realized that it was taking too much of our brainpower to figure out how to do that. As I mentioned earlier, we’re not really a free-to-play. Figuring out how to make that game financially successful on its own was just too stressful for us.

We thought it would be better to bring that back in as part of Survival Evolved as a free game mode, part of the game itself. That way we could merge the development kits. Otherwise, if we put out the Survival of the Fittest development kit for free, which is what we do with our dev kits so people can work on it, it would be easy for people to just make a Survival of the Fittest clone that runs ARK in a free version of Survival of the Fittest. It just didn’t make sense. We said, let’s make these the same product, merge the dev kits, let people do what they want with the competitive mode. We’ll continue to develop that as needed so we can create extra value for the ARK universe.

We’ll go the competitive route and run tournaments from time to time, encourage the development of that mode, but we’re really excited to open up our next mod contest specifically for the Survival of the Fittest dev kit so we can get all these passionate people who have ideas for how the competitive game should be played, things that are missing from Survival of the Fittest, they’ll be empowered to create a version of the game that’s what they want, in the same way a lot of people have already done for the base game. Who knows? Maybe, as a result for one of those, we find a game mode that improves on Survival of the Fittest and we make that an official mod and bring it in. Those are the types of things we’re looking at. We’ve had such success with that in the base game that we want to try to replicate that with Survival of the Fittest as well.