One of the biggest next-generation video games in development is Evolve, a cooperative first-person shooter coming this fall from publisher 2K Games and Left 4 Dead developer Turtle Rock Studios.
The game is a multiplayer-only title where four human hunters search across large 3D landscape for a big monster. It’s like a boss fight in a sci-fi game, only one where the boss, or the monster, is controlled by another human player. I’ve previewed the game, and it takes a lot of skill on both sides. It’s nerve-racking for everyone as each side has its advantages. The human players can track and trap the monster, but the big brute can hide in the alien jungle and toss the humans around like rag dolls.
Evolve had a tough development history as Turtle Rock Studios was making the game for the now defunct publisher THQ. After that company went under, Take-Two Interactive acquired the rights to Evolve for $10.8 million. 2K Games, a publishing label of Take-Two Interactive Software, is releasing the game this fall.
We caught up recently with Phil Robb, the co-founder of Turtle Rock Studios, at a press event. Evolve will launch on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and the Windows PC.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation. And here’s our full preview of the game.
GamesBeat: How long have you been working on this so far? It seems like you’ve been preparing it for a long time.
Phil Robb: About three years. Three years of not being able to talk about what you’re working on, it drives you a little crazy. [Laughs]
GamesBeat: Was Evolve always developed with next-gen hardware in mind?
Robb: No, not initially. We were looking at doing it on current hardware. This was before the next-gen stuff was even announced.
GamesBeat: So more with high-end PCs in mind.
Robb: Yeah. But once they announced the new stuff and we saw what it was capable of, we said, “OK, the new consoles are going to be able to do much better at what we want.”
GamesBeat: It’s very multiplayer-focused. Is there any single-player content at all?
Robb: We have aspects of the game that are specifically going to give people who don’t necessarily want to go online a good experience. It’s somewhere between a tutorial and a campaign. You can go in and meet the hunters and it runs you through a light narrative.
The other thing we have is very similar to Left 4 Dead, where you can set up the game with any configuration of A.I. and human players you want. If you don’t want to go online and play competitively, but you and three friends want to play against the A.I., you can do that. Or say you just unlocked a new monster and you want to try it out before you take it online. You can play that against four A.I. hunters, or any sort of combination in between.
GamesBeat: It’s almost like Left 4 Dead with one big boss to fight against instead of a bunch of zombies. Did you get this idea when you were working on that project?
Robb: Certainly there’s Left 4 Dead DNA in here, yeah. The original idea actually predates Left 4 Dead, though. It predates Turtle Rock entirely. This is something that Chris, my partner, and myself and a few guys have been talking about for a long time. We just never had the hardware to be able to realize the vision.
GamesBeat: What part of it takes all that hardware power?
Robb: In order for the monster to be able to do its thing, it needs to be able to hide. We wanted to have these lush alien environments, full of foliage and stuff like that. Right there, you’ve got a lot of — it’s just pushing a lot of polygons and a lot of objects around. On top of that, besides the monster and the four players, you have a lot of A.I. happening around all the wildlife. That’s expensive as well. In general, it looks like it looks. [Laughs]
We worked on this a long time. It’s one of those things where — once we got it working on the previous generation of hardware, we said, “Well, this looks OK, but it’s going to present itself much better on the next generation.”
GamesBeat: It seems like you can only make a boss so smart. The A.I. is always going to be not quite as good as a human being.
Robb: Fair enough, for sure. We’re certainly doing our best. We felt like we did a pretty good job on Left 4 Dead. We’re trying to push it with this one, to make sure that if you want that experience, it’ll be just as gratifying.
Let’s be honest. This is a multiplayer game. Multiplayer is in its genes. Any multiplayer game is always going to be best when it’s played the way it was envisioned. But we certainly understand that not everyone has that comfort level going online into that competitive environment. We want to make sure that the people with those kinds of tastes who buy the game get their money’s worth.
GamesBeat: The asymmetric quality of it is interesting, too. You expect things to usually be balanced for an even number of players these days.
Robb: Exactly. That’s one of the new things we wanted to try. We’d never seen it done on this level, or done as well as we’re pulling off. That’s what gives it a unique flavor.
GamesBeat: You get a lot of variety with all these things, like weapons and types of monsters.
Robb: Yeah, for sure. We have a lot of environments. We have a lot of different hunters. Like I said in the presentation, each hunter is very distinct. You got to play the monster, but when you go back, you’ll get to play the hunters.
GamesBeat: The medic was pretty annoying for me there. I was trying to kill the medic the whole time.
Robb: For sure. That’s a completely valid strategy. A lot of people use that. It’s particularly valid because she’s really good at keeping people up. The other thing is that she’s very visible. You can see that green beam – oh, there she is! That’s a valid approach.
But a lot of the time it’s going to depend on who’s playing. There are some really good Griffin players out there that are excellent with the harpoon gun. They can get irritating. A lot of people will go after him first because he limits your movement. Once you take care of that, you’re free to move and go after whoever you feel like is the next biggest threat.
We didn’t ever want this to be formulaic – like, “The way to win is to kill the medic first, always.” We want all the players to have to look at the battlefield and see what’s going on. “That guy’s doing really well, I’m going after him.” It’s not always the same.
GamesBeat: The monster in this level couldn’t really kill with one swipe. Is that always the case, that the monster has to get a few shots in?
Robb: When you get to stage three, you’re able to do a lot more damage. But ultimately, just for balance purposes, it wouldn’t be much fun for the hunters if they got one-shotted all the time. If you can get a critical hit, it can take them down a lot. A lot of the time, what monster players do is they focus on one guy and get him down. Once you’ve got a guy down, it’s like in Left 4 Dead. If one of the survivors goes down, the chances of getting to the end get much lower. The team is a balanced chair. Knock one of the legs out, and it starts to go over.
GamesBeat: Do you have to make the environments large enough so the monster has a chance to hide? I have to imagine that’s a balance because it’s not too fun if the monster can always escape.
Robb: That’s the thing. We’ve played it enough that we’ve come to a nice area. Right now, most of the maps are about half a kilometer. The monster needs to be able to get away, but you never want a situation where he can hide indefinitely. That’s just annoying. That’s why the hunters have — you’ll see this when you get out and play. They all – particularly Griffin, the trapper – have ways to find the monster.
I don’t know if we still allow the monster to see his own tracks, but he’s leaving tracks wherever he goes. They’re always on your tail.
GamesBeat: They found me sooner than I thought they would, yeah. Even when I was sneaking away, they got to me pretty quickly.
Robb: Sneaking is one of those interesting things. If you’re doing it, you want to make sure that you’re hiding and you’re in some bushes. A lot of people use the sneak to misdirect, but a lot of guys use it to stalk as well. I’ll run and run and run, then stop and leap off, so that my tracks stop. Then I’ll sneak up to a bush next to where my tracks stop and they’ll be like, “What?” Then I can get them.
GamesBeat: At Turtle Rock, did you have much disruption as a result of changing publishers recently?
Robb: For Chris and I, that was a stressful time for us. We didn’t get to stay on point as much as we’d like to. But as far as the team itself, we had a plan. They knew what they had to do and just kept going, while Chris and I were paying attention to what was happening on that front. We don’t want the team to be preoccupied with that kind of thing.
GamesBeat: How big is the team nowadays?
Robb: About 75 people. Certainly a lot bigger than we used to be. On the original Left 4 Dead, we were never bigger than 12.
GamesBeat: The sense I often get is that you need something close to 200 if you want to do one of these giant single-player/multiplayer games.
Robb: Our thing is, we want to stay as small as possible because the smaller you are, the more nimble you are. Our philosophy is, we do what works. If at some point we get into a situation where we need that many people, we’ll figure out how to make that work. But we like this smaller vibe. Everyone in the studio knows each other. You don’t get that feeling of, “Who is that guy? I have no idea.”
GamesBeat: Was the new console technology easier to develop for because it’s all x86 now? Did you meet a lower learning curve for these systems?
Robb: The new consoles are pretty seamless, just in terms of going from a PC version to the Xbox or PS4. The console makers have wised up a bit. Don’t make it a pain in the butt to develop for your console. Otherwise nobody’s going to do it. That hasn’t been much of a problem. You’ll always have to tweak some little things, but that wasn’t the biggest hurdle, certainly.
Artwork is always the biggest challenge. We’ve got our guys in-house that do a lot of the key stuff, and we outsource as well to people who help us out with assets. Where we don’t have the capacity, we find it.
GamesBeat: It might have helped that you weren’t making a launch title, too. There’s a little more stress involved there.
Robb: Yeah, I think so. It would have been cool, but at the same time, the installed base isn’t there yet. Being part of the next group of games after launch is probably better because people will have had more time to figure out the nuances in each console. We’ll release it when we’re going to release it.
GamesBeat: Left 4 Dead had little bosses, but you never got to this stage where you had gigantic enemies.
Robb: Yeah. The tank was the big one. The tank was kind of cool, because after that went in, later on when we were working on this, we were able to look back on that and say, “That was cool. That was super exciting.” In a way it plays like a bit of a proof of concept. The tank battles were intense and scary. So what if we could take that and draw it out a bit?
Sometimes we compare this to a fighting game, in a way. There’s that back and forth of moves, looking for weaknesses. That same thing happens a lot in Evolve.