As a program for still-in-development games, Steam's Early Access is by definition full of games that will change. Sometimes the games remain essentially the same but just receive additional content; other times the games change on a more fundamental level.
One such deeper change happened with Ark: Survival Evolved last November, when developer Studio Wildcard updated its dinosaur-laden persistent team survival game with "Cross Ark transfers," the ability to move between servers without losing progress. Larger tribes in the game always had an advantage because they could gather resources faster and have members online at all hours to help maintain and defend bases, but the addition of server transfers led to mega tribes that would travel between servers, decimating any tribes in their way and moving on to the next server. It also led to a number of negative Steam reviews from players with hundreds and sometimes thousands of hours logged in the game. It was a somewhat predictable outcome, but it raises questions about how developers manage (or don't) player behavior in their games.
With Ark: Survival Evolved scheduled to launch out of Early Access August 8, Studio Wildcard CEO and co-founder Doug Kennedy and community manager and technical liaison Cedric Burkes spoke with GamesIndustry.biz at E3 last month to discuss their philosophy on shaping player behavior, or letting player behavior shape their game.
"Our overall feeling is that you enable the players to play the game the way they want to," Burkes said. "And that does come with some consequences, where you might have massive tribes migrating from server to server and decimating everybody on their server. That's one of the things we talked about heavily when we did Cross Ark transfers. We had the fear that a lot of the players would have that feeling that mega-tribes would do that, and in some ways we did see that.
"But I also saw a shift in the PvP dynamic. You now have smaller tribes on the same server banding together to take out larger tribes. It basically brought up an interesting game dynamic. Where you used to have all these tribes fighting against each other on a server, now they're banding together to make sure these big tribes don't come to their server and tear everything down."
"You build the game and let the community figure out how to play."
Burkes said a key driver in allowing the server transfers was to let players team up with their friends without having to start fresh on a new server, and the Cross Ark transfers were a risky compromise that allowed that to happen. For his part, Kennedy chalked up much of the backlash the change received to sour grapes.
"Anytime you have a competitive game mode in any type of game, there's going to be a winner and a loser," Kennedy said. "And I'm not saying it's right or wrong that larger tribes should attack and rape and pillage the village, but there are losers in that. And people will complain about it, and loudly. You build the game and let the community figure out how to play."
That's been evident right from the beginning in Ark, Kennedy said. The player base essentially policed itself for bad behavior from the first month of the game, when people setup makeshift jails to hold players who "were performing badly."
"If we have a group of people that's large enough performing badly, maybe there needs to be another, larger group that confronts them on that," Kennedy said. "That's human nature as you start to grow, whether it's two cavemen battling each other with sticks and rocks or massive countries that have nuclear weapons. As things grow and advance, there are battles and confrontations."
He added, "If the problem grows to be big enough, if society as a whole starts to act in such a nefarious manner, there needs to be an overall addressing of how do people treat people overall? You're going to have good people and bad people, but if overall you have a ruthless country trying to take over the world, the rest of the world will get together to step up and say, 'Hey we need to put a stop to this.'"
The developers have seen exactly that happening, according to Burkes.
"On our Survive the Ark website, you have players saying, 'Let's band together to take out this massive tribe,'" Burkes said. "And honestly, I wouldn't want to miss out on that game mechanic. That's a great game mechanic, and it can create a lot of experiences a player can take with them. I've read so many stories online about these experiences people have taking out the larger tribes that came in, and had you not had something like Cross Ark transfer, you wouldn't have those experiences. We didn't want to limit anybody's experiences or the way they play the game."
"[Players] might react in Steam reviews, Steam forums, on Survive the Ark, or they might react by not buying the game. It may see a dip in sales. But what I see is it always ticks back up."
Success breeds competition, and Kennedy has seen new entrants into the survival genre talk about these sort of large-scale player dynamics as "pain points" they hope to fix in their own projects. However, he's not certain that approach will serve his new competitors well.
"It's a cautionary tale for other studios who say 'We're going to come in and fix this,'" Kennedy said. "Well what is it you're going to fix? It's a game, OK? It's a game where you have interactions with people. Are you going to fix the interactions so it's a utopia? What's the next game going to be called, 'Utopia' instead of 'Ark'? And everything's just happy and everybody just flows freely? No, there's going to be people who come in and they battle. And that's why this is a video game, not real life."
Studio Wildcard has had a number of flare-ups within the community. Beyond the Cross Ark transfers, the introduction of its Scorched Earth DLC upset a portion of the audience who didn't believe paid add-ons should be released for Early Access games, and the studio has also seen pushback that should be common to the developers of any online game, such as an update that nerfed flying dinosaurs. Burkes said you can tie that pushback to sales patterns in the short-term, but they haven't seemed to impact the game's long-term growth trend.
"I find a lot of our players are reactionary," Burkes said. "You put out a patch, they react. They might react in Steam reviews, Steam forums, on Survive the Ark, or they might react by not buying the game. It may see a dip in sales. But what I see is it always ticks back up."
"We saw that with Scorched Earth," Kennedy added. "You had that immediate, knee-jerk reaction about 'How dare they?' But in the end, once they got into it and saw what we were offering them, I think the realization was 'Maybe I overreacted a little bit.' Every decision that's made by the studio and the development team is made in the best interests of the consumer. It's not made because we're trying to line our pockets or do something nefarious; it's made with the notion of, 'How do we offer the best value to the consumer and the people playing the game?' You can't be the servant to all, but we can listen to large swaths of people in the industry and who are playing the game and try to provide for all of them to make this a great experience."
His experience with Ark has left Burkes with some advice he'd pass on to other developers hoping to replicate the game's success.
"We never react on the first day because you have to let people get that out of their system, just let them get their feelings out and let them vent, because that's that they really want to do a lot of times."
"Listen to your community," Burkes said. "But I would also say know when not to listen. It goes back to being reactionary. If we reacted on everything the community had a dispute about, it would really change the game drastically and take it off the vision we're going on. So definitely listen to your community and take that feedback, but you have to take the good with the bad and realize when your consumers are just reacting to something like the flyer nerf, which was like a week of bad pub and then it's right back up. I would really caution people against listening to everything the community says and doing everything the community wants because not only do you start to go off the path of what you originally wanted to do, but sometimes it's not the right path to go on."
So how does one determine when to listen and when not to listen? Burkes had one rule of thumb.
"Never react on the first day," he said. "When you release a patch, you're going to see a lot of feedback. We never react on the first day because you have to let people get that out of their system, just let them get their feelings out and let them vent, because that's what they really want to do a lot of times. They want to vent and disagree. Then you take in feedback over the next couple days. Wait it out a little bit. Let people sweat it out a little bit and then see in three or four days if it's still an issue. And a lot of times, I'm going to say more often than not, it's not an issue in four days. People will have moved on to the next thing, they're looking forward to the next patch, looking forward to the next dinos. They just needed to get it out of their system."
If nothing else, that blowback from fans at least speaks to their engagement with the game, Burkes said. It's a clear sign that they care very much about the game, and are clearly passionate about what happens with it. Although sometimes, they may be a bit too passionate. Kennedy said from time to time, he gets them calling him at his house.
"If you're going to use these vehicles to go reach people and build a brand and get out to the customer, they're going to turn around and use those as a means to give you feedback on what you're doing."
"I take the phone calls," Kennedy said. "If they're a customer that feels that devastated by the fact that something's going on in the game that they have to call the guy at the top of the company to get an answer, I want to fix it for them. I feel for them; I don't want to hang up on them and go, 'Don't call my house!' I try to give them a hand and help them out."
While few would consider calling the home phone of the CEO a proper avenue for feedback, players today have no shortage of options on that front. Whether it be through the game's official website, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Steam forums, or even simply not buying the game, players have more ways to send developers a message (literally or figuratively) than ever before. But is there a point where that becomes a bad thing, where it's impossible to get coherent feedback or pull sound advice from the noise?
"I don't think you can ever have too many ways for players to give you feedback on a game," Burkes said. "That's why you're there. That's why you're making the game. Does it become hard to manage? Sure, but we'll find a way to do it."
Kennedy added, "It's a push and pull. If you're going to use these vehicles to go reach people and build a brand and get out to the customer, they're going to turn around and use those as a means to give you feedback on what you're doing. And I think we have to be open to that. But no, I don't call people at home and ask them to go download the latest build we've updated."