Evolve could take co-op gameplay to the next level this year. Turtle Rock Studios founder and design director Chris Ashton tells Dave Cook how the studio’s dissatisfaction in Left 4 Dead fuelled its biggest project to date.
”As far as co-op goes it’s just two things: make sure that your teammates are vital, and make sure it’s easy for your teammates to do what they need to do in order to be successful.”
Take-Two purchased Evolve for $10.8 million during THQ’s closing IP auction. That’s hardly a small figure, but now that Turtle Rock Studios’ shooter is out in the wild, it’s not hard to see why the publisher took a punt on the project. Coming from the same team that conceptualised and developed Left 4 Dead at Valve, the game certainly has a reputable pedigree, but it’s not just running on the fumes of past glories. It has a simple killer hook that brings innovation to the fore, and a technically proficient team to back it up.
Evolve is an IP wrapped around the concept of four human hunters tracking and pacifying rampaging alien beasts across a variety of hostile, largely untamed planets. That four-on-one scenario presents a seismic, archetypal shift in how we perceive co-op, and it threatens to inject new innovation into the shooter arena. It’s no secret that solely co-op experiences are dwindling in the face of competitive PvP experiences, but if anyone can bring that notion back with a vengeance, it’s Turtle Rock.
I recently spoke with studio founder and design director Chris Ashton over the phone to better understand where Evolve has come from, and what the team hopes to achieve once the game launches in Q3 this year. We’ve already written at length about how Evolve feels to play and about its various gameplay mechanics, so I was keen to avoid retreading old ground. I wanted to go back to before the Valve days to find out how the project started and how Left 4 Dead’s success impacted its final design.
Ashton himself has an impressive body of work behind him. While working as a texture artist at Presto Studios he became a part of the same mod team that created Counter-Strike, and from there worked as an environment artist at Westwood Studios on Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2. His first involvement with Valve saw him working as level designer on the original Counter-Strike, before working on Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines then coming full circle to work on Left 4 Dead at Valve.
As you can imagine, he’s full of insight into game development. Here’s how our conversation went down:
VG247: What do you feel are the key hallmarks of any good co-op experience?
Chris Ashton: I think maybe one of the biggest things – for us at least – has been that you can’t succeed without your teammates, and that was something very explicit in Left 4 Dead, that we didn’t have deep character roles, but we just did it by the numbers, right? If you get split off from your team and you get pounced by a Hunter or something then you were completely helpless to save yourself, and required a teammate’s help. So as a minimum we’ve found that if you can’t go it alone, if you can’t survive alone or you can’t win the game by yourself ‘going Rambo,’ then that’s going to force some co-op to happen.
Now, there’s forcing that to happen, then you have to support it, and that’s where all the hard work comes in where we’ve got to make it easy to play as a team. If it’s hard to play as a team then it’s just going to be a terrible experience for everybody playing the game, and they’re not going to enjoy it. So it started with Left 4 Dead, and there’s a lot of things we can point at that now seem kind of normal, but back in the day it took us a long time to get to.
That was things like the outlines when your teammates go behind walls so you can see them when they get pounced by a Hunter, and outlining the Hunter in red so you can see. Before, your teammate would get pounced but the Hunter would still not be outlined, and so you didn’t understand what was going on with your teammate. Outlining him in red made everybody understand what was going on so they could react accordingly.
As far as co-op goes it’s just two things: make sure that your teammates are vital, and make sure it’s easy for your teammates to do what they need to do in order to be successful.
VG247: From what I understand, your team didn’t feel as happy with the original Left 4 Dead as perhaps you might have been, in terms of what you wanted to achieve. What did you feel it was lacking, and how have you built on that in Evolve?
Ashton: You can only tackle so much every time that you make a game, especially if you’re trying to do new things. So there were a bunch of things, when we came out of Left 4 Dead at the end of the day we weren’t happy with, that we wanted to make sure we really addressed from the get-go with Evolve. [In Left 4 Dead] it certainly didn’t make a difference what character I chose, and it really didn’t make a difference – to a large degree – what gear I chose, whether I chose a shotgun or a rifle.
It might make a little bit of difference as far as the things that I try to shoot at, or what I’m good at doing, but what we found was at the end of the round, we get done or maybe we die, then we start again… what can I do differently this time? How can I change up the strategies this time? In Left 4 Dead you were sort-of limited with the options that you have to really change up the game.
With Evolve for example, with all the different hunter characters you can be a medic, but it’s not just about one medic, Val’s not the only medic in the game. There are more medics and they all play different ways, so maybe you’re not successful this time, but try a different medic next time. Same thing with the monsters and with the elite wildlife, you can go different strategies there, you can eat the elite Armadon [which gives the alien a temporary armour buff] and get that early on in the game so you won’t take as much damage.
Really you have way, way more options so that every time you try the game you get something else to try. Maybe this didn’t work so good so maybe try that. There’s always a lot of things to explore in Evolve.