ARK: Survival Evolved nearly didn’t make it to PS4 in 2016. Read the story of how Abstraction Games just hit the deadline, against all odds.
Sitting on some extremely positive Steam reviews since its initial release on PC in the summer of 2015, ARK: Survival Evolved has since gone from strength to strength with a stream of updates and even a full expansion pack. It’s gathered an active and outspoken fan base – so strong, in fact, that fans were up in arms earlier this year with the release of the game’s first paid expansion pack, Scorched Earth. Many believed that focus ought to be placed instead on the base game – itself still in Early Access – and getting it ready for a full release rather than expanding on something that was still essentially unfinished.
The Early Access state of the game, however, has also been a hurdle for the studio in trying to bring the game to PlayStation 4. Where Xbox One received the game in the tail-end of 2015, it’s taken a further 12 months to finally appear on PlayStation 4 – something which perhaps comes as a surprise for a game that has been steadily building a strong reputation among its fervent followers.
To help bring the game to Sony’s platform, and to allow Studio Wildcard to keep its focus on finishing the Xbox One and Steam versions of the game, the developer hired the capable hands of Dutch-based studio Abstraction Games to deal with the PS4 port. Having previously worked on versions of indie favourites Toki Tori 2+, Don’t Starve, Broforce, and Awesomenauts Assemble, among others, over nine years the studio has gathered a reputation for the smooth transition of games from one platform to another. But while the studio has steadily been moving to bigger titles each year, ARK is perhaps the biggest leap yet for the studio.
“You can get away with a lot of stuff on the Xbox that we couldn’t get away with on PlayStation”
“The problems for ARK and bigger games are mostly due to multiplayer and basically the whole scope of the game. It’s harder to cover all the bases,” we’re told by Wilco Schroo, Lead Programmer on the PS4 version of ARK. “In a way, though, ARK is more straightforward because it runs on Unreal Engine 4,” adds Ralph Egas, CEO and co-founder of Abstraction Games. “But the bigger problems definitely come with the multiplayer thing, the scope, the volume of work is a lot bigger and there’s a lot more testing going on.”
Given the size of developer Studio Wildcard, Abstraction Games also found itself in the unique position of dealing with what is essentially an indie developer but one who is working on a AAA-sized project. Egas tells us: “They are an indie studio, right, so they are relatively small which means it’s between both worlds of being a professional company and yet, at the same time, they’re doing things like Early Access.” ARK is still essentially an indie game, but the scope of the project means that expectations are as high as anything published by a big studio.
This perhaps brings some added pressure, but Abstraction Games is nothing if not flexible, and faced with complex factors – of which were often completely out of its control – it managed to pull through. While Valve and Microsoft offer platforms for games in their early state on both PC and Xbox One respectively, Sony has no such platform for their console. As such, the game needed to be brought up to a much higher standard before it could be released on PS4. What might pass on Microsoft’s Xbox Preview Program, Abstraction simply couldn’t get away with on PlayStation: “it had to all be done properly in order for them to approve it,” we’re told by Erik Bastianen, CTO and co-founder of Abstraction Games.
“Due to Murphy’s law, usually things go wrong if you don’t cover yourself because they can go wrong and they will”
For a title to release on the PS4, it must go through Sony’s FQA and abide by a technical requirements checklist. “You cannot have a situation where it’s not playable; you can’t have crashes or deadlocks, or anything that might confuse the user, and the performance needs to be on par with the Xbox One version,” says Egas. “But, you know, Sony has stricter requirements, in that sense, so that was close to a nightmare in the end. But we sign up for this kind of stuff, and we’re super flexible – we just adapt.”
But it nearly didn’t work out for its launch on 6th December. Just 24-hours before the submission deadline, the team still had 14 must-fixes to comply by Sony’s technical checklist – all of which should have been possible in the timeframe. However, an error on the part of an engineer from its Internet provider meant that the studio lost all access to the Internet on what was, what Egas tell us, “the most important day ever”.
So the team packed their things and moved over to Egas’s home and set up mission control there. “We set up my computer and got it whitelisted with Sony. It took until 8pm the day before submission until we had full access to all the services with Sony, but the team instantly started working on the essential issues that should have already been fixed had it not been for the loss of Internet. Some of us, including Wilco, stayed behind all night until 8am the next morning to fix the remaining issues, and we just about got it done in time. It could have easily gone horribly wrong.”
In addition to just hitting the deadline, in the last few hours, they were told about some exclusive DLC that was supposed to be part of the PS4 version of the game. Egas tells us: “We weren’t aware of this content until the last day; they were just like, ‘Oh, by the way, we agreed with Sony to throw in this DLC, as well.’ And we’re thinking, ‘Okay. We’re already done, but okay, let’s insert this as well.’ But this is what happens; this is the games industry. And due to Murphy’s law, usually things go wrong if you don’t cover yourself because they can go wrong and they will.”
The game successfully launched on PS4 last week, but it had seemed for a moment like it wasn’t going to happen. Egas tell us it was sheer persistence that made it happen and a lot of experience. “We’ve been doing this for nine years with many partners, and, at some point, I guess you’ve seen it all – or 99 per cent. The other one per cent you just deal with. But the Internet connection going down the day before submission is something I’ve never seen before.”
That the game successfully hit the deadline is a testament to the hard work of Abstraction Games. Equally, in allowing another studio to step in, it has allowed developer Studio Wildcard to maintain its focus on the Xbox One and Steam versions of the game. Fans might have been worried about the amount of work going into the base game when the first DLC launched, but with Abstraction Games in the fold, there are plenty of hands on deck.
With the game due to be released as a full title in the Spring of 2017, Abstraction Games will be continuing work on the PS4 version to make sure it’s in the best state for players moving forward. But 2017 also brings new ideas for the studio who hope to start working on their own IP. “We have several concepts, and there are several business models tied to those individually, so we have to figure out what’s going to be our first focus. But that’s a significant step for us; we’re aggressively hiring people because the demand is so huge. And also because we want to grow to about 65 people, which I think should be the limit.”
On the porting side of things, Abstraction also has plenty of irons in the fire, with an increasing volume of work to do with Japanese firms. Egas is clearly happy to be working with such partners, saying “it’s very unique to work with Japanese developers because they usually don’t work with non-Japanese companies at all. We seem to have managed to get a foot in the door”. Whatever comes next for Abstraction Games, it’s clear it will have its work cut out; but it’s also clear that its experience on ARK will serve to prepare them for whatever lies ahead.