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Less than six months after rolling it out as a standalone free-to-play game on Steam, Studio Wildcard has returned Ark: Survival of the Fittest whence it came: a playable game mode inside Wildcard's (not at all free-to-play) Early Access survival game Ark: Survival Evolved.
The developer's reasons for retracting SotF back into Ark proper are worth reading, because they highlight the real costs that come with operating a free game (that, admittedly, was pushed as an eSport replete with leagues and cash prizes.)
While Wildcard says it mainly pulled back the F2P game because it wanted to release a SotF development kit for modders this week without having to worry about them modding things from the (currently $30) original game into the F2P SotF, it also outlines how unexpectedly tricky it found the business of operating a F2P game to be.
"When a game like SotF is made free to play, there are still expenses - this can range from development work, server costs, running of tournaments, prizes and of course the opportunity cost. To ensure that SotF would remain a success and a sound choice, Wildcard would have had to put a lot of resources and time into learning how to become a ‘free to play’ developer," reads an update from Wildcard on the SotF Steam page. "We don’t know much about monetization, and quite frankly we aren’t interested in hiring an economics team to take over that process, it is much more in our and your best interest for Wildcard to solely focus on the development of a game. We just aren’t cut out for free to play mechanics."
So, going forward, curious types will have to purchase a copy of Ark to play the Survival of the Fittest game mode. However, everyone who "bought" a copy of SotF while it was a standalone F2P game will still be able to play it, and Wildcard will maintain it as a separate application that can be launched through Steam.
Wildcard isn't the first dev to try this, of course -- earlier this year Daybreak spun off the multiplayer battle mode of its zombie survival game H1Z1 into a separate game with its own separate dev team. That experiment seems to have worked out a bit better, as both games (now rebranded H1Z1: Just Survive and H1Z1: King of the Hill, respectively) are still being sold on Steam's Early Access service.