Early Access has long been a subject of controversy, but all the while, darlings have arisen that justify its existence. ARK: Survival Evolved was absolutely one of those, a success story that even lead to a headlining jump onto Xbox One’s Preview Program. Until now. In one fell swoop, Studio Wildcard has turned that good will on its head, selling its first expansion pack before they’ve even finished the main game. With nearly 12,000 reviews in the last month pushing its overall rating from “positive” to “mixed,” and firmly into the negative since the announcement, the big question is, what were they thinking?
The news about Scorched Earth, the $19.99 expansion pack coming to ARK: Survival Evolved first came out in the beginning of the month. My gut reaction was to write about it then but other projects prevented that particular column. Since then, I have hoped against hope Studio Wildcard would reverse course. I really liked ARK. Until now, I was hoping to buy it once the performance issues had been addressed. More than two weeks later, there is no sign of Studio Wildcard changing its mind. Worse, the press has stopped writing about it. This is a big deal and we should not let it go.
Since some fans (and Wildcard itself) refuse to see why this bad action sets an even worse precedent, let’s break it down:
ARK Isn’t Finished!
It should go without saying, but a game being sold as In Development has no business receiving a paid expansion. ARK’s previous DLC’s, The Center and Primitive+, both got a pass because they were free, and one was even made by fans. How do you release an “expansion pack” before you even have a final product to sell? ARK needs a ton of improvement before it’s ready for primetime. Instead, valuable resources that could have been used fixing the thing players have already paid for went into creating something else for players to pay for. Selling Scorched Earth as a “completely finished” expansion doesn’t help.
That’s Not What Gamers Paid For
When a game is sold on Early Access, you’re buying into its future. You get access to the game early, your voice gets heard, and the studio can earn sales before they have a game that’s actually ready to sell. Everybody wins. Wildcard breached that system by creating a whole additional product that you also have to buy full of features first-time buyers won’t have. Early Access may not be crowdfunding, but it’s certainly not far off. ARK, for example, promises we will “take it all the way together!” through our contributions, and similar lines are on nearly every Early Access page. Gamers are right to expect that their money will go to support the the game they just supported, not something else for an additional 60% buy in.
What Exactly Is the Motivation?
Their vague statements about integrating future expansions aren’t cutting it. How? What does that even mean, aside from “dynamically transferring data?” And if their goal is to release future expansions, that’s something they can figure out with what they’ve already been paid. Their motivation should be to finish the game. These Scorched Earth features should have been included in Survival Evolved or held until after launch. Instead they seem content to milk early access for all its worth.
To be crystal clear, the minute they decided to release a paid expansion and go toe to toe with other released games is exactly the minute they admitted they consider their product launched. You cannot release an expansion to a game that is not launched. Studio Wildcard is using Early Access to avoid criticism while they develop, using their massive popularity as a cushion to avoid actually launching. Simply put, they don’t need to. But in the world of gaming, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. No launch, no expansions.
It Justifies Feature Creep
This line from the Eurogamer article stood out to me:
[O]ur intent is ever-forward progress towards a retail release that will be far more ambitious in scope and features than our original vision when we launched ARK into Steam Early Access in June 2015
ARK has had a run of impressive patches since it released. The game continues to grow and expand at a breakneck pace: new modes, console versions, in-game mechanics, DLC, and now a full expansion pack. But, if Wildcard couldn’t afford to develop this game, they should have scaled back to develop the game they could, not locked content behind a $20 paywall. There’s a reason most game updates come after launch: teams plan for what they can do, then work on the rest after the base game is finished. Here, we have a dinosaur Star Citizen going back to the well for a second drink.
The Precedent is Bad
ARK is a massive game. It is consistently in the upper echelon’s of Steam’s most played lists and makes headlines on a regular basis. Wildcard is poised to set a precedent that it is okay to push customers to pay twice for a “full experience” while still in Early Access. That it’s acceptable for studios to divert their attention and bleed into dreams over realities.
This isn’t something to let slide.
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