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Conan Exiles’ creative director explains how it’s different from Ark

Funcom’s Joel Bylos says it takes the sandbox survival genre in new directions

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Conan Exiles, the latest title from Funcom, has been lodged at the top of Steam’s best-sellers list since its release on May 8. But comparisons to another wildly popular product, Ark: Survival Evolved, have dogged the sandbox survival game since its release on Steam Early Access in early 2017. Many of the earliest reviews there, for instance, note the similarity and recent Reddit threads mention it as well.

The situation brings to mind the controversial decision by Epic Games to create Fortnite’s Battle Royale game mode late last year. At the time, Epic said it said was directly inspired by the success of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. Since that time, it’s gone on to become a pop culture phenomenon in its own right.

I recently spoke with Funcom’s creative director Joel Bylos about the comparison. Is Conan Exiles copying the mechanics of Ark: Survival Evolved? No more than your average massively multiplayer online game is copying World of Warcraft, he said.

Bylos explained that it was the emergence of Ark and games like it that helped to shift the market in a way that would ultimately inspire Funcom to change direction, saving the company from going out of business. The developer made a name for itself as a developer of MMOs, but over the years the tide has turned against the genre. Funcom has changed, too.

“In 2012 when we launched an MMO called The Secret World,” Bylos said, “we predicted the game would sell a million copies. We’d invested a lot of money into it. We only sold 200,000 copies. So we went from a company of 650 people to a company of about 100 people, at the time. Huge changes.

“Then we made a Lego-branded MMO [called Lego Minifigures Online] which we were assured would do very well because Lego is the biggest children’s toy in the world, et cetera. That also tanked, so we were on the edge of bankruptcy.”

Around that same time period, Ark burst onto the scene. The product of an intense development process by a small team of 40 developers, it blends open-world exploration with crafting and highly social gameplay. It’s one of the most commercially successful titles to exit early access as a full retail product. At the time another promising young title, the original H1Z1, was also playing with the same sort of multiplayer and base-building mechanics.

“We were talking about this emerging genre and talking about our skill-set as developers making massively multi-player games,” Bylos said. “We saw Ark and H1Z1 as this evolution of that, with more focus on player freedom and more sandbox elements. So we said, ‘Why don’t we do this?’”

But aside from the early-game resource gathering and the multiplayer sandbox elements, Bylos said that Ark and Exiles are two very different games.

“We took a lot of inspiration from Ark,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that. I won’t pretend otherwise. But I think, visually, like there’s a top layer to this and then there’s a deeper layer.”

Bylos admits that players start more or less the same — naked and afraid — in both games. Yes, players have to scavenge resources and build gear and housing. Yes, as players level up they add to their tech tree, expanding the kinds of materials, tools and structures they can craft. But in addition to the Conan IP, Bylos said, Exiles has two things that Ark doesn’t.

First, Exiles features human NPCs.

“I really wish we hadn’t done this,” Bylos said. “That triples the development time spent on [making] NPCs because our NPCs need to behave relatively intelligently. They all need to fight in different ways.”

Like Ark, Exiles features plenty of exotic animals. But players will encounter multiple native human settlements scattered throughout the game world. Each group has its own customs and gods, its own way of building out communities and its own way of doing battle. That meant a lot more work for the team at Funcom, but ultimately a very different kind of gameplay experience.

Exiles has a huge difference in world-building around these cultures of NPCs,” he said. “We looked at Ark. We were playing it. We had a period of time where a lot of people were playing it and we were looking at it and saying, ‘Okay, these are the basic building blocks of how survival should work.’ Then they went in this direction where it’s all about taming animals, taming dinosaurs. They have their whole core game loop built around that, whereas with our core game loop, we wanted to go in a different direction. Ours is about exploration. Building, yes. Defending against sieges from these NPC armies.”

Exiles is more than just surviving and exploring, Bylos said. There’s also a secret storyline buried inside it. It’s possible to play Exiles as a true narrative experience — one with a beginning, a middle and an end. That secret storyline is hinted at early on when players first create their avatars. Each one is shown wearing a bracelet, everyone except Conan, who frees player characters in the opening cinematic. Early on, a series of in-game tips explain that removing an avatar’s bracelet will kill them, but the game’s menu system nevertheless has an option to do so.

“That bracelet is part of a hidden storyline, which you can play through to ‘finish’ the game,” Bylos said, using air quotes. “I put that in there because there’s a lot of games that I play and they’re open ended and that’s fine. But, I really feel like I could put 200 hours into a game, but if it just had some way where I could tick the box and say, ‘Okay, I’ve finished that game!’ I’d be able to walk away from it and I would feel more happy, instead of less happy and less satisfied.”

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