Cretaceous creativity: Designing dinos for Ark: Survival Evolved

How Studio Wildcard developed a dense and diverse ecosystem on a small budget, and how they split the difference between scientific accuracy and Hollywood blockbuster-style action and excitement.

Ark: Survival Evolved’s explosive launch onto Steam Early Access has highlighted both the popular success of crafting-oriented survival simulators and the basic idea behind 1995’s Jurassic Park: Dinosaurs are really, really cool. Ark’s mishmash of Jurassic, Cretaceous, and modern-day creatures has thousands of players mobbing developer Studio Wildcard's servers. But as the game’s Creative Director Jesse Rapczak says, “That's very good problem to have."

Rapczak, a former Microsoft Hololens technical art director with prior experience at Sony and other game developers, set out to make Ark: Survival Evolved late last year. Early on, he and his team at Wildcard Studio knew that walking with dinosaurs would be a central design pillar. The reason? There just weren’t enough dinosaur games out there. That, and the Ark team wanted to see if they could ride their favorite dinosaurs into battle. 

Rapczak and his team quickly began iterating on what was fun about bringing dinosaurs into an open-world survival environment, testing and iterating on different speeds, mounting systems, and ways to organize the dinosaurs in a design-friendly fashion. They worked to get all of their favorite dinosaurs into the game, regardless of whether they would have met each other in real life. (Paleontologists, please spare us your nitpicks.)

As he explains, “We just really went through the full list of our favorite dinos that we wanted to put in the game. You've got the flyers, the small fast ones, the big behemoths like Brachiosaurus... We tweaked those archetypes to make sure that we had a core mechanic we could design our game around.”

Once they’d had their dinosaurs (and other creatures) organized, the Ark team began figuring out how to design environments that would be fun to explore for both large behemoths and tiny humans. They knew early on that flat plains wouldn’t be interesting enough from a design perspective, and they soon discovered that procedurally generated environments out of Unreal 4 didn’t work too well either.

“We thought we could use the worldmachine tool to generate a landscape and bring it back into the editor and populate it with assets and we'd be good to go,” Rapczak explains, “and that assumption turned out to be very wrong. We had a good looking landscape, it was realistic, it had erosion, and all sort of cool maps baked into it. But we realized we would not have very fun gameplay.”

If they’d stuck to that plan, Rapczak’s team would have missed out on two opportunities -- the ability to iterate on open world spaces and figure out how they can link together, and using linked spaces to create a variety of biomes populated with different groups of dinosaurs. This created different experiences based on location. Larger, open spaces like the beach allow for Brachiosaurus to eat leaves from the trees, but could also put them in contact with predators looking for fish. The jungle spaces allow those same predators to hunt the player. Moving up to the mountains, they could create spaces for smaller land creatures or flying dinosaurs. 

The key to making this design work over iteration was rejecting the notion of any sense of realistic space. Jungles needed paths carved out, mountains needed to be close together. An emphasis on bespoke handmade environments over procedurally generated ones was what proved to be a better fit for bringing dinosaurs to life.

To make dinosaurs work in these open-world environments with very limited development resources, Rapczak’s team split the dinosaurs into the aforementioned archetypes, then introduced ecosystem patterns that the server could calculate depending on a dinosaur's current relation to the player. In solo mode, the dinosaurs’ AI calculates different variables to adjust creature behavior. It could pit creatures against each other or have them in sync with each other, asking if they’re hungry, hunting, or moving as a pack in response to attack. The goal is to drive these behaviors against each other so that in heavily populated dinosaur areas, they will collide with predators, prey, or humans (who may act as both). The dinosaurs may run, fight, or just stand there passively depending on what the server has calculated.

Once players tame dinosaurs, the role of AI recedes. As partner creatures, they’re given personality commands to give the player light agency over whether they’ll behave aggressively, be neutral until attacked, or purely passive until the player gives the order. Players need to maintain and care for them as they prepare to mount up and take full control of the mighty beasts.

There’s one exception to that rule of course. Dinosaurs, like any creature, still need to defecate, and Rapczak chuckles as he explains that the server still quietly calculates when this action will take place. “If you go into battle and are doing something, you're likely to get in a tough position where your dinosaur has to poop and you're getting attacked. That, and flying dinosaurs running out of stamina while in the air, are the only two things it’ll take control away from you for.”

Worth noting: Ark: Survival Evolved is very heavy server-side on those calculations. Rapczak’s voice deepns and almost turns into a growl when he talks about how how secure the server needs to be in order for Ark to succeed. To ensure that creature behavior is regulated by the design levers his team came up with, the player’s client only gives data to the server to determine if attacks hit or miss.

Making Ark’s Dinosaurs, Rapczak says, was not necessarily about accurate scientific simulation. It was mostly about making creatures who would perform like players expected them to. That means roaring Tyrannosauri, hulking Megalodons, and sweeping Brachiosauruses behave more like they might in Jurassic Park then as described in a National Geographic article. The behaviors may need to be taken with a gain of salt.

Rapczak also admits that devs skirted the controversial (but scientifically defended) question of freathers of dinos. It’s a huge question that dogs every major piece of dinosaur-related media these days. Studio Wildcard decided to stick feathers on some varietys of Therosaur, but let them slide on other species. Ark: Survival Evolved certainly has the rest of the early access period to make a final decision on how it’ll approach feathers.

It’s possibly a design decision that players themselves might resolve with mod tools -- something Rapczak intends to have in the game once it launches to 1.0. It will give players creating their own servers the ability to tweak everything from dinosaur settings to the presence of futuristic guns and certain tech on the island. Who knows? Maybe two types of servers will form once these tools are in the wild -- some that portraying dinosaurs as ferocious cinematic monsters, and others tweaked and tested against existing evidence to get as close to our scientific understanding of real dinosaurs as possible. 

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