Until PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds came around, Studio Wildcard's dino survival game, Ark: Survival Evolved, was one of the hottest titles on Steam's Early Access, building up a community of players for over two years and then finally exiting the service for a full release just this past August. All along, the Seattle-based developer had the delicate task of managing players' expectations while keenly listening to their feedback. Perhaps one of the harder aspects for the studio came when it had to inform players that Ark's price was about to double from $30 to $60 to ensure parity with retail.
Jesse Rapczak, Co-Founder and Co-Creative Director at Studio Wildcard tells me, however, that retail wasn't something his studio had planned on at all originally. After all, why bother with the retail scene when you can sell to so many players digitally, and at higher margins?
"Because of the success of the game digitally, there was a lot of excitement from publishers and distributors about Ark, coming to us and saying, 'Hey, why isn't this game in 120 regions around the world on disc copies?' For us, we didn't really have the expertise to go do a retail release so we had to find a partner to be a distributor, since we're self-published, but we really did find a great partner in Solutions2Go," he explains.
"I think, going into it, we felt it wasn't worth it because it would be a big risk. But, in a way, the game being so successful digitally made retail almost less scary to us"
"But the retail release all around the world has gone way better than we expected. We did not, I think, anticipate in the first month that we would be selling so many copies considering that the game had already sold almost 10 million copies digitally... I think we did something like 500,000 units in the first month or something. We also just recently launched in Japan and that went way better than expected. It was the number two game in Japan behind Mario. And it was the number one PlayStation 4 game in Japan."
The official tally for Ark's sales, digital and retail, now stands at 12 million. Beyond the unit sales boost, going to retail also enabled his team to put together a special collector's edition with extra bonuses that make sense for a physical release.
"It was exciting for us to be able to do things like the Collector's Edition which we're now making available for PC players to buy without the game in it so that they can get that cool dossier book and stuff like that," Rapczak continues. "It also I think extended Ark to new customers, people who aren't buying online. Ark is rated Teen, which is great because that means parents or grandparents at Target, Best Buy, or whatever, can see the game on the shelf, see that it has dinosaurs in it, and they'll buy it for their teenage kid or grandkid. There's a lot of that stuff that's not accessible with online sales and I think that's probably one of the reasons with the preorders and the retail stuff that we did see so many new customers coming into the game."
As an independent developer with a successful digital title on his hands, Rapczak admits that he was skeptical of retail initially.
"It's weird. I feel different about it now. I think, going into it, we felt it wasn't worth it because it would be a big risk," he says. "But, in a way, the game being so successful digitally made retail almost less scary to us because we felt like, if that many people are buying it digitally, surely the market hasn't gone full-on digital yet, so there must be some appeal to the game at retail that is out there. So, for us, it was like, yeah, we have to do retail because so many people are excited about the game. Distributors who still do retail primarily are excited about the game even though it's already sold so many copies.
"I think in our future projects... we'll still look at retail again. Maybe not right away. We'll probably launch digitally first. But if the product's successful I think it does make sense to take it to stores and take it to the places where people can get a disc as long as the consoles have discs in them so that they can swap and trade and do all that stuff that gamers like to do."
On the retail pricing front, and how that impacted digital buyers, Rapczak is quick to point out that his team did try to communicate with enough advance warning that a price hike was coming, and Ark saw its deepest discount just in advance of the full PC launch. The subsequent increase had nothing to do with greed though, Rapczak stresses.
"It's tough because we actually, as a company, make more money selling it at that lower digital price because there's not all of the cost of goods and all of the shipping costs and taxes and retailer fees," he comments. "So when people look at the increased price, they might be tempted to think, 'Oh, these guys are just trying to get extra money or whatever.' But, actually, the opposite is true. More people buy the game when it's lower priced. At retail, of course, we're taking home what might be less than that lower price on digital normally. But, the flip side is, retailers won't put it out there if it's that cheap... because it wouldn't even be worth it to them.
"I think it's great for the industry... It's been a while since we had a console that when it launched was very powerful compared to a lot of gaming PCs"
"And games have been $60 for a really long time. It sounds like a lot, but as the economy has changed and gotten stronger, we're still paying $60 for games, and it's been that way for a while. I think that the PC Steam market of discount, discount, discount is kind of the area where you see a downward trend in gaming prices and we totally exploited that for Early Access [but] we always had a mind to go higher when we released. It's just that maybe we didn't communicate what that meant and also since retail came along later, we didn't really realize how high we would have to go in order to make retail even possible. A lot of that stuff happens late in development. It's not something we could pre-plan, because we didn't even know we were doing retail when we started this thing."
With holiday sales and new performance and visual upgrades to take advantage of Xbox One X, Rapczak fully expects to see some influx of players to Ark over the next few months. Upgrading the title for the Xbox One X was a relatively painless process, he says, and it could make the game far more attractive for new Ark console players.
"For us to get it running on Xbox One X was very fast. It probably took us two days," he notes. "The bigger challenge was making sure that the live game would support that new [Xbox] development kit and it would work across all the consoles. So that was an overall Xbox thing and that probably took us about two to three weeks of developer time really focusing on that. Then I would say we spent another week or two tweaking the enhanced features.
"We kind of already had a lot of them because of our PC release, the high quality settings and things that were already on PC. So we brought a lot of those settings and just enabled them on the Xbox build and made sure all of the media was there that was required for them. So that was, all in all, probably about 6 weeks of work, but I think that it really was important for us to do. If you look at our comparisons, side by side with Xbox which also basically looks the same on PS4 as well, the Xbox One X version is just clearly higher quality settings and a much better visual result."
Rapczak also is generally a fan of these newer mid-cycle upgrades to the console world. For developers who are used to making games for a variety of PC specs with varying GPUs, it just feels natural.
"I think it's great for the industry to have those options especially for players," he says. "It's been a while since we had a console that when it launched was very powerful compared to a lot of gaming PCs... With the sort of choice consumers now have to choose a higher powered device, that maybe gives them the things they want like higher resolution and frame rates and stuff like that, but it's still below the price point of a very expensive high-end PC. It's exciting for us as developers because it means we have more potential customers, and the customers that we do have might move up to the new console, enable our games to be seen and played in a better way."
Rapczak applauds both Microsoft and Sony for maintaining some sense of parity for developers, too: "I think they're doing the right thing... Even though it's a mid-cycle upgrade, neither one of them allow the game to be only on one of the newer consoles, because that would fracture the user base and also, for developers, it makes sense anyway. You won't want to go to a smaller user base of only, you know, a million people that have a newer console and try to sell your game there. So it gives us, I think, the best of both worlds."
Studio Wildcard also remains interested in the Nintendo Switch. Considering Nintendo's incredible sales and the fact that it's attracted more of a core following than the Wii, it's easy to ask: Is Ark ultimately coming to Nintendo's hybrid console?
"I will say, for sure, we're not ignoring the Switch. I think it's definitely proven to be a platform that is a little bit better this time around for third-party developers"
"Switch is a little challenging because it is a totally different platform, so we're throwing some ideas around, just seeing if it makes sense right now," Rapczak responds. "We don't have any concrete plans yet, but we're very close to Nintendo up here in Seattle and we all love the Switch for portability gaming and stuff like that. Ark is one of those games where if you want to do everything you can in the game, it's hard to pull away from it to go do real life. So I think Switch is a great platform for a game like Ark, because if the game is designed right, you can kind of pull out and do some stuff. It's kind of like some players play it almost like you might play a mobile game - you know, you might want to go do something in the game for a few minutes, like tend to your dinos or your crops or something if you play Ark that way. The mobility of the Switch platform might be appealing to those players, because they can just kinda carry it with them.
"So we do have a lot of hurdles there, especially with memory. But I will say, for sure, we're not ignoring the Switch. I think it's definitely proven to be a platform that is a little bit better this time around for third-party developers. People are buying it. People are loving the games. I think it's just something that now is on our radar [so] let's take a look at it and let's see what we can do there."
Gaming, as with any technology industry, is all about the "next hot thing." PUBG is clearly in the spotlight now, but that doesn't mean people have abandoned Ark. The key to retention, Rapczak says, is just to ensure a steady flow of new content. That's easier said than done, of course, but Studio Wildcard continually reinvests in Ark.
"Visibility of new content is really the big driver. And that's how Ark was so popular for so long, even more than we ever anticipated. Ark was at the top of the Steam charts because we were always releasing content," he stresses. "There was always something new in the game. Now that the game's released, our new content really comes in the form of our expansion packs. When we launched initially, we got up at the top of the Steam charts again. The season pass was up there as well. When Aberration releases in a few weeks, we expect that that will be a big boon to increased visibility, because more players will come back. We'll have higher player counts again. And we'll see all of that happening, like we did around launch, again, for Ark briefly. Ark still, it's on the Steam charts if you go down a few pages. People are still buying it every day. Sales are generally [good]."
He adds, "Aberration has game changing features of climbing and zip lines and gliding and a whole new body of new resources that's nowhere else in Ark. It'd almost be like, for another game, making a sequel because it changes so much. That's one of our strategies for Ark, to always give your players new stuff that changes the game significantly so that those players aren't just coming back in for, like, another dinosaur or a couple new items or something. They're coming back in for a whole new experience. I think that's one of the reasons Scorched Earth was so successful... We've got another expansion planned for next year as well and new stuff coming out of other avenues of Ark's IP. Now that the game's launched, we can do more with the IP outside of just the game itself and we're thinking of things around that as well."
One of those things to leverage the IP is a VR title being developed by Snail Games, called Ark Park, which should release before the end of the year. The exploration game is a bit like Jurassic Park in VR, and it's something of a test bed for the IP in virtual reality.
"The launching of Ark Park, will give us a little more insight personally onto how the IP might translate to VR and that'll help us make some decisions in the future on how much we would want to focus on VR as a platform," Rapczak says.
Rapczak, who used to work on Microsoft's HoloLens before co-founding Studio Wildcard in 2014, is excited about the future of the VR/AR medium, but he is exercising caution for his own studio. Making money while developing games is hard enough without the challenge that the low installed base of VR presents. Studio Wildcard is definitely looking to maintain its mid-size status.
"I would say our internal head count of employees is about 40," Rapczak says. "We've got maybe another 25 individual contractors around the world. So, I would say we're probably looking to add about only a dozen or so more employee positions. That seems pretty optimal to us. Anything beyond that, we would do some partnership outsourcing to fill in the gaps.
"Games itself is a risky business," he adds. "We just had a bunch of studio closures this past week in Seattle with Perfect World shutting down Runic and Motiga... You talk to a lot of studios these days that do get shut down, and you think, they have so many people, and it must have been so heart wrenching to have to shut down the studio. But if a game releases, even a big name studio, if the game doesn't do well enough to support the staff, I mean, a lot of times there's no choice, especially having to make investors happy, or if a large company like EA or Ubisoft has multiple studios and one game is just not generating revenue. Fortunately, they have the ability to relocate people inside of their company, maybe [have them] work on other projects and stuff like that, but that's not always the case.
"I think for Studio Wildcard the amount of revenue our game makes definitely covers our staffing plans for the foreseeable future and I think we're going to keep reinvesting that revenue back into the content and making the game better. I think we're in a good spot."