Ark's controversial price hike highlights the trouble with pricing Early Access games

"Shh. Their vision is based on price movement..."

Game pricing is a thorny question that we’ve taken a crack at before, but this week we’re dealing with two considerably thornier questions: how much should an Early Access game cost, and should that cost increase when it officially launches?

Last week, Ark: Survival Evolved developer Studio Wildcard announced that its dinosaur survival game was getting a price increase on Steam from $30 to $60 (or £23 to £50) “to ensure retail parity” (match the price of the console versions) ahead of the game’s August launch. Many are less than pleased with the price hike. 

Some Ark fans suggest that, given ongoing bugs and server issues, the game isn’t worth $60. Some who’ve held off on purchasing the game are unwilling to pay double the Early Access price. DayZ creator and Ark fan Dean Hall called the increase “greed—pure and simple” in a series of scathing tweets, and a troubling sign that Wildcard is disconnected from its community in a follow-up interview.  

There’s a lot to unpack here, so we reached out to several prominent Early Access developers to hear their take on how Early Access games should be priced. 

The four Ark Steam reviews rated "most helpful" by users over the past 30 days. Steam reviews are currently "Mixed."

What price is right?

Many Early Access games see a small price increase when they officially launch. Red Hook Studios’ Darkest Dungeon, for example, was bumped from $20 to $25 upon exiting Early Access. So it’s no surprise that Tyler Sigman, co-founder and design director at Red Hook, supports the general idea. 

"Your feelings don’t matter. Suck it up. What matters is how the market feels."

—Hugh Jeremy, Unknown Worlds

“A price increase coming out of Early Access makes a lot of sense to me,” Sigman said via email. “As far as I’m concerned, as the developer you want to reward early adopters the best that you can. After all, early adopters who took an early risk got a discount and were able to take part in influencing the game. That’s real value for people to buy into Early Access.”

In this sense, a launch price increase serves as an incentive to buy early, and a reward for those who do. You could also argue it acts as a testament to a game’s completion, a concrete way for developers to tell would-be buyers that they’ve fixed all the problems from Early Access and the game is now worth more. 

Prison Architect

Mark Morris, managing director at Introversion Software, which released Prison Architect via Early Access, offered another perspective. “I think that when you first price a game, even in Early Access, you anchor it to a particular price point,” Morris said via email. “Significant increases are always going to be perceived as a problem … if I’m being honest, I think that a doubling of the price is a pretty bitter pill to swallow—I’m not sure it’s something I would be comfortable doing!” 

So, why did Ark cause such a stink? The first factor is the amount of its price increase. Darkest Dungeon raised its price by $5 upon exiting Early Access. Kerbal Space Program went up $10. Invisible, Inc. went up $4. Viscera Cleanup Detail went up $3. Ark has jumped a full $30. That’s a huge difference, enough that it can seem like Ark isn’t just rewarding early adopters, but severely punishing people who, for one reason or another, chose to wait to buy an unfinished game. 

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Another factor is timing. Ark will remain in Early Access for several more weeks, so it’s strange for Wildcard to raise the price now. It’s also telling given the studio’s explanation.To ensure “retail parity,” Wildcard may have felt compelled to raise the price of Ark's PC version to avoid undercutting the $60 console versions.

There’s also visibility to consider. One Wildcard community manager said the studio has been planning the increase “for a while,” but many players obviously feel blindsided, which suggests a failure to communicate.

Ark’s Steam page only says “the game will be lower priced through Early Access, relative to its final full-version retail price.” Wildcard wasn’t clear about how much it was going to increase the price, and gave no specific forewarning in the weeks before the new price took effect.

Matching the market

Hugh Jeremy of Subnautica developer Unknown Worlds raises another point: games like Ark usually don’t cost $60. “Many great games on Steam are setting very low prices for huge amounts of fun,” he writes via email. “For example, PUBG at $30, Rocket League and Rust at $20. You might ‘feel like’ your game is worth $60. You might like throwing silly terms like [triple-A] around in reference to your work. Whatever, your feelings don’t matter. Suck it up. What matters is how the market feels.

“If you are at $60 delivering the same amount of fun as the next guy, who is at $20, you are going to get owned. People are going to feel like they put more value in than you gave them back. So be humble, read the market. At every stage of development, position your price both in proportion to the enjoyment your game creates, and with respect to the enjoyment provided by other games.” Sigman echoed Jeremy’s stance in a follow-up reply, adding that “$60 is a big ask unless you are [triple-A].” 

Ark is now tied for the most expensive game in Steam’s top 50 best-selling survival games, matched only by Dying Light: Enhanced Edition. Subnautica, by comparison, is $20. DayZ is $35. Rust, which is also still in Early Access, is $20. Ark is a clear outlier in the survival genre.

Ark also received a $20 DLC, the Scorched Earth expansion pack, while it was still in Early Access. That DLC is still $20, and as Dean Hall pointed out, proved highly divisive among the Ark community. It’s easy to imagine that this price hike was the final straw for players who opposed Scorched Earth. 

Unknown Worlds’ Charlie Cleveland points out that it’s Wildcard’s right to raise the price, and that it’s not too surprising given the studio’s “unorthodox” history of releasing additional content before finishing their base game. More than a sign of greed, he sees it as a function of the largely undefined standards of Early Access.

“The ‘rules’ are always changing, as Studio Wildcard is showing,” he said via email. “I think they’re smart for questioning the norm and trying something new, even if it looks a bit greedy from the outside. We will likely raise our price on release, but not this much.” 

Austin Wood
Staff writer, GamesRadar

Austin freelanced for PC Gamer, Eurogamer, IGN, Sports Illustrated, and more while finishing his journalism degree, and has been a full-time writer at PC Gamer's sister publication GamesRadar+ since 2019. They've yet to realize that his position as a staff writer is just a cover-up for his career-spanning Destiny column, and he's kept the ruse going with a focus on news, the occasional feature, and as much Genshin Impact as he can get away with.