ARK: Survival Evolved is currently running a mod creation contest on PC that ends in just a few weeks with a $63,000 prize pool. An impressive looking map modded by the one-man mod team of Ben Burkart called “The Center” was showcased by Studio Wildcard late last week, and I was able to catch up with the professional level designer to ask him about his experience with ARK and the modding tools for the open-world dinosaur survival game.
The Center is a custom map available on Steam and built entirely by hand using the ARK: Survival Evolved dev toolkit along with Unreal Engine 4. This allowed Burkart to create a stunning map whose visuals are dominated by an island floating in the air in the center surrounded by waterfalls. That’s not the extent of the impressive visuals and layout of the map, however.
One section of the custom ARK map features twin active volcano with lava flowing while another stars a snowy mountain. There is, of course, a number of forests, swamps, rocky formations, and more.
An extensive cave system is also being worked on as part of a future update, although you can already see the beginnings of the work in the breathtaking fly-through video shared last week. The goal is to have a Journey to the Center of the Earth-style experience with an all-new ecosystem to discover deep underground.
“Basically a cave so large that you must travel quite some distance to get to it but once you do there will literally be an entire eco-system living under the ground with giant lakes massive ceilings with clouds and even a glowing sun that lights the area similar to the Journey to the Center of the Earth has. This giant cave will also have multiple caves all around that lead into it.”
The ocean surrounding the map is another area Burkart is working on and he is taking inspiration from Guild Wars 2 with plans for “massive underwater worlds that have tons of areas and underwater caverns to explore!”
Work done by other ARK: Survival Evolved modders also serves as a lesson learned for the developer. One that has helped give him “a strong belief that Quality is almost always more important than Quantity when it comes to Level Design.”
Burkart (aka evilmrfrank) is a professional level designer who first picked up modding in 2001 with Unreal Tournament. He continued making maps for Unreal Tournament 2003, 2004, X-COM: Enforcer, and other games using the Unreal Engine until he got his first job in the industry in 2007 at Gearbox Software. He’s since worked on games such as Dungeon Defender, continued to make his own mods, and won a modding contest for Chivalry.
He declined a contract job and took on Studio Wildcard’s modding challenge for ARK: Survival Evolved almost immediately after it went live on January 15, and he has poured hundreds of hours into it since then. He worked 10 to 14 hours a day seven days a week for the first couple of weeks and has only cut down his workload by one day since then.
“Instead of doing the wise thing and getting another job I risked everything and decided to take 2-3 months off work to take a chance to make something awesome for the game!” Burkart explained.
The designer’s main goal for The Center, aside from creating an extreme and visually stunning map, was to create something has “literally hundreds of options for cool places to build bases. Not only areas that were of strategic value but places where people would love to just sit and check out the view. Another thing I really wanted to give that I think the original map missed out on some was the sense of wonder. I wanted people to have a reason to explore the entire map, I didn’t want any area to look like other areas and to achieve this I knew I needed to do the entire map by hand, even if it took a considerable amount of work and time to do so.”
The Center currently sits at about 75 percent complete, and Burkart hopes to have it near final in time for the modding submission deadline of March 15. He does plan to continue to support The Center after the contest ends.
“The nice thing about the way the level is setup is most new dino/creature additions made to the game just automatically adds them into this level as I am mostly using the same spawn setup. If Studio Wildcard adds any additional features or even biomes I plan to continue updating this map for quite some time to keep it up to date with the latest and greatest!”
The only limitations with the ARK: Survival Evolved modding tools encountered by Burkart thus far has been time. Making the entire map by hand is time-consuming.
“Since I’m the only person working on the map it has been very difficult at times to get the massive environment not only created but optimized and working properly across the board. It wasn’t that anything was cut but more that the only way I am able to finish the level is that I had to lower the overall quality,” he said when asked about anything that has been cut from The Center.
Burkart says being able to work on the ARK map with Unreal Engine 4 is a “HUGE plus!” He’s run into difficulties with a few in-game systems “such as the lighting system, but other than that it just seems to be straight up Unreal Engine 4 which is amazing to use!”
He’d still like to see tweaks to the tools to make setting up a custom lighting system easier along with more options on where players can build.
“It seems good for something to use in [Unreal Studio] where all the quarks and everything are known to everyone, but having it out to the community with no documentation has been a bit rough,” Burkart explained. “Also it would be nice to have a little more control over where players can and can’t build in maps. There were several locations in the map where I’d love for players to be able to build bases but having a roof over it seems to stop me from getting more creative in this regard!”
[Image via evilmrfrank YouTube channel]