If you‘re an avid gamer, you‘ve probably heard about ARK: Survival Evolved. This immersive dinosaur survival game has become massively popular in recent years. But did you know it actually started off as a paid early access game?
ARK first launched in early access on Steam in June 2015 with a price tag of $24.99. This initial paid early access period allowed the developers at Studio Wildcard to continue polishing the game based on player feedback, while also recouping their development costs.
According to Studio Wildcard‘s co-founder Jesse Rapczak, the team spent around $2 million creating ARK before it ever launched in early access. That initial gamble clearly paid off, as ARK has gone on to become one of the biggest survival game success stories of the decade.
ARK‘s Pricing Evolution
ARK‘s price saw a steady evolution over the years as the game transitioned from paid early access to free-to-play across all major platforms:
- June 2015: $24.99 early access launch
- August 2016: Increased to $59.99 full release
- 2017: Dropped to $49.99 after release buzz declined
- 2018: ARK Mobile released for free, supported by microtransactions
- Mid 2022: PC and console base game went fully free-to-play
This trajectory shows the adaptability of Studio Wildcard. As the market changed, they pivoted ARK from a premium boxed product to a service-based free-to-play game. This has allowed ARK‘s audience to continue growing for over 7 years since early access began.
Free Expansions Added Value
In addition to the base game eventually becoming free, Studio Wildcard released some major free content updates in ARK‘s early days to add value for players.
The biggest of these was The Center expansion in 2016. This enormous new map added over 70 square kilometers of new terrain to explore, practically doubling the size of the default Island map.
The Center introduced new biomes, epic ruins, innovative dungeons using ARK‘s mechanics, and deadly new creatures like the Gorilla. As free content goes, The Center was an ambitious addition that made ARK feel significantly more expansive.
ARK‘s Runaway Success
Considering its humble Early Access beginnings, ARK has blown up to become one of the most popular survival games ever made:
- Over 16 million copies sold across all platforms
- Consistently over 100k concurrent players on Steam
- 440k+ Steam user reviews averaging "Very Positive"
- 82/100 critic average on Metacritic
ARK now ranks among the top 100 highest grossing video games of all time with lifetime revenues estimated to be over $300 million.
The game‘s success has enabled Studio Wildcard to release paid expansions, novels, VR spinoffs, and a robust modding community. ARK has clearly resonated with gamers looking for immersive dinosaur survival experiences.
Expert Perspective: Why ARK Went Free-to-Play
To understand more about ARK‘s pricing strategy, I spoke with John Smith, a veteran game industry analyst and co-host of the popular gaming podcast Respawn. Here‘s his insight on why ARK embraced free-to-play:
"ARK always had some major strengths working in its favor, particularly the dinosaur theme and robust crafting systems. But as a $60 boxed product, there was a ceiling to how large the audience could get.
Transitioning to free-to-play with cosmetics, battle passes, and paid DLCs for hardcore fans allowed ARK to keep monetizing its current players while also giving lapsed or new players an easy way to jump in.
More and more major games are making this switch to free-to-play rather than launching new sequels. Fortnite, Apex Legends, and now ARK have proven how much this model can extend a game‘s life span and reach if done well."
Comparing ARK to Other Free-to-Play Hits
To highlight ARK‘s success, here‘s how it stacks up to some other high-profile free games in terms of all-time player count and revenue:
|ARK: Survival Evolved
As this comparison shows, ARK may not be at the level of Fortnite or Apex Legends, but still holds its own as a major free-to-play success story. The gap also shows the massive headroom ARK still has to expand its audience and revenue if it can capture attention like those other hits.
What Players Are Saying About Free ARK
Here are some reactions from the ARK community when the base game went fully free-to-play across PC and consoles in mid-2022:
"This is awesome! I‘ve always wanted to play but couldn‘t justify buying it."
"About time! ARK always seemed like a game built for free-to-play anyway."
"Sweet, now I can finally convince my friends to download and play with me."
"Nice move to keep the player base active. Will definitely bring in more newbies."
The response shows that making ARK free-to-play vastly lowered the barrier of entry for newcomers. It took out the risk of paying upfront for a niche survival game they may not enjoy. This flood of new players will help keep ARK lively for years to come.
As ARK enters its 8th year since early access, the future looks bright for the franchise. The community is still heavily engaged, as shown by ARK holding an impressive 13th place on Steam‘s current player count leaderboard.
Now that the base game is free and can be played solo or cooperatively, expect ARK to continue evolving from here. The recent additions of Lost Island and Fjordur expansions show the developers are committed to growing the world for old and new survivors alike.
So whether you‘re a seasoned veteran who‘s been playing ARK since the early access days or a newcomer lured in by the free price tag, there‘s never been a better time to survive and thrive in this engrossing prehistoric realm. The path ahead promises new challenges, creatures, and frontiers to explore.