When Studio Wildcard announced that ARK: Survival Evolved would be coming to mobile platforms earlier this year, the news stunned the video game industry. Considering the graphically-intensive open-world game takes full advantage of high-end PCs and modern consoles, how could it possibly run on significantly less powerful smartphones?
To turn this monumental task into a reality, the publisher enlisted the help of War Drum Studios, a seasoned developer who's worked on acclaimed mobile games that include Bully, Grand Theft Auto, and Auralux. The recent release of the mobile version of ARK: Survival Evolved sets a stunning example for how developers can port AAA console-quality titles to mobile devices.
The mobile version of the action-adventure survival game offers an equally thrilling experience as its PC and console counterparts. Available across iOS and Android, it features a massive island, over 80 dinosaurs, and the same crafting and building mechanics from the established game. While many mobile ports of AAA games offer watered-down mechanics, players of the mobile version of ARK: Survival Evolved largely get the same great experience. This certainly isn't a heavily trimmed-down version of the base game. To see how War Drum Studios accomplished this colossal task, we interviewed CEO Thomas Williamson and Community Manager Jordan Kleeman to learn how they were able to port such a gargantuan title to the smallest of platforms using Unreal Engine 4.
One of the main goals that War Drum Studios set out for itself was to faithfully recreate the desktop version for phones and to maintain its high-graphical pedigree in the process, but even they questioned whether they would have to make significant compromises. “Early on, we weren’t sure if we’d be able to support the aquatic and flying creatures,” they told us. Fortunately, they were able to engineer a solution.
While War Drum Studio did tweak some elements of the mobile version to run optimally on phones, they assert that the game is very similar to its desktop counterpart. The developer elaborated that the port was based on the PC's Early Access 2017 build, “We feature all 50 square kilometers of the island and its surrounding body of water with only a few caves omitted. We removed the boss fights due to size constraints, but we’ve got over 80 different creatures in addition to all of the engrams from the original PC release.”
Whether you've played the mobile version of ARK or have just seen snippets of its gameplay, you know that it looks visually amazing. It raises the bar for how good games on phones can look. Like the desktop version, it features vast draw distances, an immersive day-to-night cycle, and great water and fire effects. The development team is impressively squeezing every ounce of performance from mobile processors.
How did War Drum Studios get the mobile version looking so good? The developer credits UE4 for much of the help, “Unreal Engine 4 enthusiasts will be very happy to know that 95 percent of this happened just in the editor! This is not too hard if you are working with a complete game that already has an established look and feel, it’s just a lot of asset work.” To keep frame rates smooth, War Drum Studios employed a few intelligent performance-saving measures. “First we created about 20-30 simple materials that replicated the general look of each type of asset (dinosaur skin, beach sand, building materials). Then we re-parented all of the MICs in the game to these new materials and tweaked values,” they added, “New assets entirely consisted of some detailing textures we sampled on top of diffuse textures to get away with a lower texture resolution. That’s where most of our memory savings came from, along with determining which high-level features just wouldn’t fit in memory, such as the bosses.” The developer reiterated how integral UE4 was in the porting process and stated, “It would have taken twice as much time without the Unreal toolset.”
The mobile version is all the more impressive when you consider that it was predominately ported by just 13 people working on the title for a little over a year. “We handle everything in-house: from programming and art, to QA and community management. Studio Wildcard helped us build promotional content, plan the launch, and get our server infrastructure off the ground. By title, we have five programmers, three artists, three QA, and two community managers, but every single person here wears all the other hats in some regard. You have to have that in a small team.”
One benefit of such a scrappy studio using UE4 is that they can quickly iterate to push updates. “Due to our small team size, we’re quite agile and can implement changes rather quickly. For example, we can have a discussion with community members about a new feature on Wednesday, implement it on Thursday, QA it on Friday, and our players are downloading it in an update on their devices by Monday,” the developer exclaimed.
One of the reasons why the port was able to come together so quickly and efficiently was due to UE4's Blueprints system, which allows non-programmers to code in an easy-to-understand visual-scripting way. “There is no better interface to have between all of the team members. Programmers, artists, and our QA department were able to work with Blueprint graphs and fix bugs and work together,” the developer remarked, adding, “It’s a great common language because it’s so easy to pick up. Because everyone was able to work with Blueprints, user interfaces, gameplay features, and other new content came together very quickly.”
The seasoned developer had a lot of great things to say about UE4 as a mobile development platform, “Frankly, if you have a high-end game that you want to adapt to mobile, Unreal Engine 4 is far and away the best toolset. Things are simple to scale. Every aspect of the engine framework is tweakable. Integration of third party services, if it hasn’t been done already, is trivial.” The company expanded upon how working with UE4 serves as a beneficial long-term investment, “It’s a proven commodity. If you are an independent game developer breaking into the industry, consider this: if a big studio is looking to hire someone or a team for a project, which engine can you sell your experience on? With Unreal Engine 4, you get all the selling points. It’s known to scale well, is used by all the biggest names, and it gives you access to and experience with bleeding-edge technology.”
Even though they had a competent team and the tools to excel, the company still faced challenges along the way. At the onset, the developer questioned whether faithfully recreating the massive and graphically lush world of ARK: Survival Evolved on significantly less powerful mobile devices would be possible without major sacrifices. “Early on, [our build] only ran on the highest-end devices and took up much more memory than we had available,” the developer explained. An easy way out would have been to scrap a ton of features, which was a direction the team flirted with. “We almost didn’t include underwater exploration, but [publisher] Wildcard encouraged us by giving us a few extra months to work on the problem,” the developer stated. The studio was able to engineer a solution that changed how the mobile version streams in level content to solve this issue.
Optimizing controls from the PC version's keyboard-and-mouse setup so that gameplay would feel natural on a smartphone's touch screen was another obstacle for the studio. Luckily, the developer had an esteemed history of porting AAA console games over to mobile platforms and had the experience to tackle this issue. War Drum attributes iteration as the key to their success here, “Our design philosophy stems from one specific mantra: avoid making the player have to know where their thumbs are as much as possible. You end up wasting a lot of attention with a ton of virtual buttons that could be spent on the game experience otherwise,” they added, “You’ll notice this with ARK’s default control scheme. For 95 percent of your in-game actions, your thumb placement on the screen is unimportant to your next action.” The developer elegantly implemented many context-sensitive controls that are intuitive to a touch screen. For instance, while running, players will automatically jump over little hurdles in their way. They also added an undo button to help players finetune their builds. These quality-of-life tweaks make it feel like ARK was built from the ground up to be a mobile game.
Despite having a large phone-based audience, War Drum Studios found that many players loved having complete control and designed the user interface to suit their needs. “For almost everything we tried to automate, we’ve added the option of a dedicated button, including an on-screen hot bar.” But the mobile version of ARK: Survival Evolved isn't just for hardcore players. The development team made tweaks to make the game more accessible, too. “We added feedback, such as meters to let you know how much time is left when cooking items or taming creatures. Many of the game’s timers for things like breeding and imprinting creatures have been reduced,” they stated. They also added a casual mode that prevents players from losing all of their equipment and blueprints when they die. This makes the experience much less intimidating for newcomers. In addition, the studio created a Pursuit system, which acts as a tutorial to ease new players into the game and helps veterans adapt to the new mobile control scheme. The Pursuit system provides additional focus and guidance to players as they journey across the game’s island.
Players will also be able to explore ARK's vast world with numerous others online, as the mobile version supports crossplay between Android and iOS. The studio praised UE4 for being instrumental here, “Unreal Engine took us 95 percent of the way with compatibility between the platforms.” They added, “The engine design makes it very simple to integrate new systems such as metrics, ad services, and networking solutions with new modules. We’re very fortunate to have such a leg up with this project because of Unreal.”
The mobile version of ARK: Survival Evolved represents a landmark title that changes the landscape of what mobile games can be. It proves that a small, scrappy team can produce a AAA-quality experience in a relatively short amount of time. You can download ARK: Survival Evolved for free on iTunes and Google Play today.
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