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Evolve: Turtle Rock refines the Left 4 Dead co-op formula

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.


VG247: I'm keen on the links between Left 4 Dead and Evolve but I know a lot of sites have focused on your time at Valve and the company's culture lately so I'm keen to avoid repeating that here. What I'd really like to know is how the IP came about in those early days. Was it always 4 vs 1 from the start?

Ashton: I don't know if we were locked on the 4 vs 1 when we originally started. Evolve started before Left 4 Dead did as far as the idea, but obviously having made Left 4 Dead when we came back to this idea, we brought all of those learnings with us. We always knew it was going to be a team of hunters versus a monster, and we always knew the monster was going to 'stage-up' over time, and we always planned on three stages where the monster would be able to choose between abilities at different stages. The core of that stuff was always there.

Along the way a lot of stuff has changed, a lot of the non-core elements changed. Originally we had four characters so it was a lot more like Left 4 Dead where you had Zoey, Louis, Bill and Francis. Originally they had a huge amount of gear and you could pick any of the gear. The idea was, let the player decide what their role is. If I take gear that has a sniper rifle then maybe that's the role I'm going to play. If I take the Medgun then obviously I want to try and heal and be the medic.

”When we were with THQ at the time we didn’t even know when the next-gen systems were coming, so when we started development the idea was to go to current-gen, but as soon as those doors opened it was going to be a really brutal challenge to maintain the type of game we wanted to make. There were a lot of concerns [on last gen].”

That sounds great on paper but when you start to do it, that gets kind of confusing. Everybody's picking gear and if you know about our characters now they need to have four things that they can do. So you've got three teammates and they've each got four pieces of gear, and in order to figure out what I'm going to take I need to know what four pieces of gear my teammates are going to take and figure out what that combination of gear means. It wound up being very confusing and it goes back to that thing I was talking about in the beginning where you have to make it easy for people to play as a team.

The gameplay itself is more complex in Evolve. It's not just going from point A to B and C. There's a lot more in motion so we have a responsibility to make other elements of the game as easy as possible. Breaking it into classes was one of the big, big changes in game design where we said, 'Okay, let's take all the medic stuff and put it in a medic category, so you have to have a medic, but then you can choose from all this gear. It still wasn't enough because there's so much gear that those combinations were still hard to figure out and communicate to teammates what your intent was.

Then we broke it into characters and that just instantly said, 'now you know all the things that Val can do,' and in your mind all you'd see is Val but everybody could see that, so it's very clear and easy now. Another one would be the monster's point of view. It was always going to be a first-person game, so for maybe two years the monster was in first-person view, so with Goliath you would have seen his claws on the screen instead of a gun.

The big problems with that were, to not make that feel like you were a man in a monster suit [laughs], and you're fighting against four hunters, so they're always trying to surround you so there's a lot to keep track of in your visual space. They do things like shoot a harpoon gun in your back. If you're in first-person you're completely blind to your back, and a text message would pop up on your screen that said, 'you have been harpooned!' and it was up to players to turn around, find where that harpoon cable was and break it.


VG247: That actually does seem like the text prompts with arrows that come up in Left 4 Dead. They can be confusing in the heat of a big battle.

Ashton: Yeah, and we did some tests and the way we work at the studio is, everybody's trying to make the game better and people are very assertive. It was one of our animators and engineers went ahead and did a test where they put the monster into third-person and invested a little time in the camera to do the test. We started playing around with that and almost immediately a lot of those problems went away because it just feels very 'monstery' and he can see when he gets harpooned in the back with a cable.

But as a studio we've never made a third-person game, so it was one of those things where we had to sit down and weigh how much does this get us, what's the cost going to be, and how hard is it going to be to fully polish this and make it a really good experience? It was a big risk but at the end of the day it was very worth it and it solved a lot of our problems.

VG247: It looks brilliant too, and I really want to distance this conversation away from potential resolution-gate nonsense, but I do have to ask - was Evolve always pitched as a next-gen project at the time or did you start making it with PS3 and Xbox 360 in mind?

Ashton: When we were with THQ at the time we didn't even know when the next-gen systems were coming, so when we started development the idea was to go to current-gen, but as soon as those doors opened it was going to be a really brutal challenge to maintain the type of game we wanted to make. There were a lot of concerns [on last gen]: could we have enough foliage for the monster to hide in? Could we simulate enough wildlife for the monster to eat? All kinds of simulation tests like how many cycles it was going to take, and how many wildlife we could support.

We were having to put low caps on that sort of stuff. It was really hurting the game and I'm not talking about visuals, these are things that are core to Evolve, and so fortunately the next-gen systems came out, 2K adopted the title and we all took a look together at both options. The right decision was to go exclusive to next-gen to make sure that the vision for the game could actually be executed on.

VG247: That makes sense as you're having to render all that foliage and other stuff, seeing as it's technically a stealth game for the alien at the start. Sticking with tech for a moment, do you have a contingency in place for mid-round disconnects? What happens if someone bails?

Ashton: It's still a little bit early. We're still working that stuff out, but right now for sure AI will take over, and then depending on how you match-made into the game or what kind of mode it is, we'll be able to match other people back into your game. In some modes you'll have control of that. If you're playing friends-only then obviously it's up to you to invite someone else, so we're investigating a lot of options.

Having the AI be able to take over offers us some flexibility. If you're playing against a monster player, suppose his internet connection goes down or he yanks the cable out of the wall or something, we want to give him the opportunity to get his machine back online and get back into the game. So the AI will continue to play and do the best it can in your stead, and we want to hold that slot for a certain amount of time for that guy to come back.


VG247: Online-only is interesting right now as we've recently seen Titanfall launch with a narrative weaved into its competitive play. What was your approach to telling the narrative of Evolve's world and its characters through online play?

Ashton: We've got a couple of different ways to play the game with more or less narrative woven into it. What we've shown people so far was 'let's just play rounds on this one map,' but at the end of the day there's a reason why you're there and an objective the monster's trying to destroy. The characters will banter about that objective while they're in the world, so you'll learn some fiction through them, and that's very much the way our Left 4 Dead story was told. You get to hear them talk about the world while they're in it.

That stuff's there to tell it through the characters, and there's some little-longer experiences that we haven't really talked much about yet, where we have the opportunity to do a little bit more. Hopefully we'll be able to dive in soon, but at a minimum no matter what more - if you're just playing a skirmish or Hunt all day on different maps - you're going to still learn about the characters, the setting, why you're there, why the monsters are trying to destroy objectives. That sort of thing.

VG247: We see debates all the time about whether or not people do play offline shooter campaigns or do they just skip straight to multiplayer, and should offline components exist in these games at all. What's your take on that?

Ashton: For us there's so many different characters, monsters and strategies that one thing we wanted to do was to make sure that - say you unlock a new character - maybe you're totally fine and confident and you're going to just jump into multiplayer and try them for the first time, but suppose you want to learn about them and practice a little bit before you dive into the online space. That's one thing where an offline or single-player component becomes important to us.

I do the same thing personally with stuff. StarCraft is a good example where I'm going to play skirmishes against the AI so I can figure the tech trees out, learn some basic strategies and do that stuff before I go online. Maybe that's just me, I don't know if a lot of people do that or not, but it seems like a process that makes sense so we're catering to that.


VG247: We've also heard that at one point Turtle Rock considered free-to-play for Evolve, but ultimately it's a boxed and digital product now. What was the decision behind ditching that?

Ashton: So, there's a little kind of story behind that. That was when Jason Rubin went to THQ to try and save the company before they went under, and his point wasn't like, 'let's make this game free-to-play.' His point was more - and I think it was smart, because this was when everybody was talking about F2P - 'we need to cover our bases and make sure that if the market in two years has all gone free and the next-gen systems have gone crazy with F2P, that we're not stuck as a boxed product, that we can make that transition.'

”We want to make sure that we really deliver, so everybody’s under a lot of pressure but I think being nervous is a good thing.”

For us it was more about having a plan where we could go retail or free-to-play if we needed to. Fortunately for us the game is very... we do a lot of procedural work like we did in Left 4 Dead, so that when you play the hospital campaign multiple times that the zombies will spawn in different places, and the Boomers will show up in different places. We did a lot more in Evolve with some other modes that I can't elaborate on, but we broke the game down into more modular components so we could use more procedural elements and create new experiences for players all the time.

Again, that goes back to the learnings from Left 4 Dead, where we want to make sure the second time you were playing you had a different experience as much as possible. We were successful in Left 4 Dead but we're really setting up Evolve to do a lot more than that. So the game is very modular because of those procedural elements and being able to mix and match them in different configurations, and we had all this gear we were putting into these characters so [ditching the F2P option] wasn't a redesign as a game.

It was more like we put this pitch together that said, 'here's how we would reconfigure all these pieces in the game to work as free-to-play.' We didn't really have to change anything because the game would work, and that wasn't even by design, it was just the end-result of going really big on replayability and procedural elements in the game. It just happened to work very well - we think - in a free environment as well.

VG247: Evolve is a new IP, but Left 4 Dead linage aside, convincing consumers to invest in unique franchises can still prove difficult. What's your approach on the game's standing as a noew property?

Ashton: I guess for us we've already been taken back a little bit by the overwhelming positive response. I think people are responding to the game better than we could have hoped for, and 2K's done a great job. It's very open-minded of them to say, 'hey you know what? We're going to announce this game then invite press to come play it,' instead of doing the traditional stuff. I think that was so bold and it paid off really well.

If anything right now, the team is nervous because everybody's so excited about it that we don't want to disappoint anyone. We want to make sure that we really deliver, so everybody's under a lot of pressure but I think being nervous is a good thing. It's going to force us to push as hard as possible to ensure that any concerns people have, we try to address through any means possible. Really, I think the pressure will make the game better, but right now we're just doing out best.

We're just blown away by the positive reactions from people.

Evolve is coming to PC, PS4 and Xbox One in Q3, 2014.

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