Studio Wildcard, the developer behind Ark: Survival Evolved, has just announced its fourth and fifth expansion packs -- two more than it ever intended to do.
Yet the third pack, last year's Extinction, did "far better than we were expecting" and the availability of a season pass brought in a lot of new users who suddenly had the entire Ark experience. Wildcard was even surprised by the expansion's sell-through to the established userbase.
"We never imagined it would be in this state, which is why we're doing more expansion packs, because it's clear the audience is still loving the game, is still playing it and is hungry from more content," co-founder Jesse Rapczak tells GamesIndustry.biz.
He continues: "[Extinction] really made us think, 'Hmm, maybe we should give players more,' because there's more story to tell. We left a cliffhanger at the end. We didn't know what we would do with it, we thought maybe there would be a sequel or some kind of spin-off later, but we had an opening to do more story. There was also more gameplay stuff we wanted to do."
So earlier this year, the team knuckled down on Genesis, a brand new expansion with two parts releasing this coming December and winter 2020. The pair continue a pattern Wildcard has established over the years, where Ark receives one or two big, free updates and a premium expansion to drive sales around the holidays.
It's a cadence that has worked well so far. Ark has sold 16 million copies across PC and console, with ten million installs on mobile, and it's often one of the most played titles on Xbox Game Pass. Rapczak attributes this to the steady release of expansions, saying Ark has "fallen into a sustainable revenue model."
"We don't sell skins, we don't sell upgrade packs," he says. "But Ark is an online game with official servers and a lot of costs to keep the game running. It's important to us to always be bringing in new players, and part of that is creating new content for the existing ones so they bring in their friends... Doing one big premium update every year so far has provided the game with the yearly revenue model that it needs to continue development.
"If we stopped making premium expansions, we wouldn't really have any sustainable revenue. If we ever do... I'm not saying we're going to, but if we did, we'd probably have to think about a new revenue model.
"We're already past what we thought the life of the game would be, and we're evaluating things as we go to see what the future might be like. Part of it will be dependent on the next year or two as this rolls out, how players react to that content, and we'll make some decisions based on that."
Given the ongoing scrutiny into how the industry monetises, Rapczak feels proud and even "a little bit justified" that Ark remains free of skins or other microtransactions. The success of the expansions has certainly validated Wildcard's decision.
"Whenever we do announce new premium content, it's really nice that people get excited for it," he says. "It feels good when people want to pay for what you're creating, rather than them feeling like they're getting nickeled, dimed and swindled a little, which is I think what happens when you have loot boxes and tack on those mechanics to something they've already paid for."
He adds: "We've never been a team that gets excited about doing the stuff that's required for that revenue model to work -- things like daily quests, bringing players back every day, trying to plan out [events]. It's just a lot of economics and it's very... you really have to be dedicated to it in order for a game just to succeed on that revenue model.
"That's okay for a game that's entirely free, but if players have already paid for the game and you're adding on these sorts of free-to-play mechanics, it's kind of annoying. And you're also doubling your work, because you have to make sure the base game is great enough that people want to spend money on it, and then you also have to figure out how to entice them to spend further money on the game.
"We're already past what we thought the life of the game would be, and we're evaluating things as we go... Part of it will be dependent on the next year or two as Genesis out"
"I guess that's why the big companies like EA, Ubisoft and whoever are willing to tackle that, but there's been a lot of issues with that. For indies and medium-sized companies, it's not the thing to try and pursue."
Releasing too many expansions can make a game appear somewhat impenetrable to new players -- it's a criticism Paradox regularly faces, and it may be part of the motivation behind Blizzard dialling everything back for WoW Classic. While Rapczak acknowledges this is a risk, it's one he believes Ark is largely immune to.
"A lot of expansions and story stuff can ironically be fatiguing if it's linear and you feel like you're out of the loop of what's going on, but with Ark we've tried to make our story and our lore an optional thing," he explains. "You don't have to pay super close attention to it if you don't want to.
"You don't really have to invest too much in why this stuff is here or what did you do in the last expansion -- you can still just hop in with your friends and play at any point in Ark's timeline. I think that helps with the fatigue of too much content, where you feel like you have to go through all of it in order to catch up."
He's also confident that Ark's track record of popular expansions justifies the release of a second season pass, one that's specifically for Genesis. Wildcard always made it clear that the first pass would cover three expansions, and with two more on the way, the studio needs the revenue to help support their development. Rapczak also argues a new season pass "gives a roadmap" for what players can expect in the next few years.
"People know that if they buy the season pass or the Ark experience at all at this point, they're not getting a game that's end of life," he says. "It's got at least another two-year roadmap in it with fresh new content coming."
Details on Genesis' content are light, but the teaser shows new biomes and new creatures to face, including some that morph from adorable to downright ferocious. It appears to contrast to the original 'dinosaurs and guns' vibe Wildcard pushed during Early Access, but Rapczak points out the fiction of Ark enables them to take the player anywhere.
Case in point, the first expansion, Scorched Earth, emphasised fantastical creatures such as dragons, while Aberration and Extinction took the series in a more sci-fi direction, with robots and even Pacific Rim-style titans.
"It feels good when people want to pay for what you're creating, rather than them feeling like they're getting nickeled, dimed and swindled a little"
"We've gradually been adding more and more interesting creatures as we've run out of interesting dinosaurs," says Rapczak. "There are still a lot more interesting dinosaurs out there, but it starts to get diminishing returns when you add a third type of Velociraptor or something.
"We kinda felt like we've almost done everything you can imagine creature-wise, so what are we going to do different in Genesis? One thing that we really want to make sure is true when we make an expansion pack is we want to give them something that they're not going to find in a mod, because we do have an extensive modding community. We wanted to add a bunch of new gameplay mechanics, like this AI companion robot that goes around with you, and we've created this open-world mission system, which is not something Ark has had really before."
The AI bot is available now to those who purchase the season pass, and its function is two-fold. For players it serves as a new pet, but for Wildcard it's a way of foreshadowing Genesis -- not only by introducing new lore and story elements, but also a new structure for guiding players through the game.
"Ark has been an open-ended survival sandbox experience," says Rapczak. "We still want to maintain that but we want to layer on top this sort of more directed experience, because we feel like that might be more the direction we want to go in future if we do Ark 2."
Wildcard had originally expected to be working on Ark 2 by now, but the success of Extinction and the previous expansions changed its priorities. Since a full sequel would take years to develop, the studio has been "restructuring our plans and teams" in a way that ensures there is still plenty of fresh content for those millions of Ark players while Ark 2 takes shape.
"For Ark 2, we need to give players something new that they're not getting from Ark," Rapczak concludes. "We're not quite sure what that is yet, we're not ready to talk about it, but we want to be unshackled from what Ark: Survival Evolved is and not have to worry about ruining players' long history of dinosaurs and bases they've had for four years by making changes. That's just a lot of baggage when you're going to go make a sequel, and it also frees us up to do new things with the IP, go in different directions like you can see with Genesis.
"We'll come to a cool idea for us about what the next step beyond Ark: Survival Evolved is, or what's next for the survival genre. We don't want to put Ark 2 out there until we can answer those questions and people can see a clear difference between Ark and Ark 2. Maybe a couple of years down the road. We'll see."