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Friday, December 12, 2014

Evolve: Preview

LAST GENERATION, TURTLE ROCK TURNED MULTIPLAYER CO OP ON ITS HEAD WITH A GAME CALLED LEFT 4 DEAD THAT INTRODUCED AN IDEA NEW TO GAMING: THE AI DIRECTOR. IT WAS LIKE PLAYING AGAINST ANOTHER PERSON   A KILLER THAT SHARED A MIMETIC LINK WITH YOUR ENEMIES AND SENT THEM TO TRACK YOU DOWN. FOR THE GUYS AT TURTLE ROCK THAT WASN'T ENOUGH. THEY WANTED TO PLAY AS THE MONSTER, SO THEY CREATED EVOLVE…
Counter-Strike, Half-Life 2, Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2. That’s an impressive portfolio, one that oozes quality and innovation. That’s an overused word in this industry it’s easy to slap ‘innovation’ on any product and roll with it but each of Turtle Rock’s previous games has done something new, something special. Counter-Strike defined the PC FPS and continued to thrive for well over a decade, Half-Life 2 set a benchmark for how developers should marry mechanics and narrative, and Left 4 Dead… well, Left 4 Dead proved what you could achieve with four-player co-op in this day in age.

Turtle Rock could have rested on its laurels, cashed in with Left 4 Dead 3 reinventing nothing but its own ideas. That would have been easy, and obvious. Instead, the studio moved out from under Valve’s creative custody and set foot into the wilderness, and this absurd idea of a 4v1 multiplayer only action game was snapped up by THQ (who acquired the rights to Evolve in May 2011).


It was a gamble this kind of game wasn't popular, and triple-A publishers are famously conservative when it comes to untrialled, untested ideas. But the canny developers at Turtle Rock argued that this concept they had in mind would effectively make a game out of ‘the Tank vs. the survivors in Left 4 Dead’ and, suddenly, everyone was convinced.

A few months later, THQ collapsed. A feeding frenzy in December 2012 resulted in 2K Games picking up the IP for $10.8 million The game was formally announced in February 2014 having been in development for three years by this point and seemed to spark a flurry of announcements from other developers who outlined similar mechanics in their own games: suddenly, 4v1 wasn’t just Evolve’s domain it was everyone’s.

“When we came up with this idea, the idea of asymmetric multiplayer, we just thought ‘What is it we’d like to play?’ and ‘Why is nobody making it yet ?’,” reveals Turtle Rock’s creative director and co-founder, Phil Robb. “Who knows why other studios are doing it now, it might be serendipity or something, but it’s hard to say. For us, it has nothing to do with the new hardware we just saw it as a natural progression from what we were doing with Left 4 Dead but with wanting to bring in that element of competitiveness that our last games didn't have.” Robb pauses for a second, as if to contemplate his answer, before continuing. “You’re probably after some big philosophical answer as to why we're doing 4v1, but, y'know, really, it's as simple as that. We just wanted to play it!”

The trouble with working to a philosophy that boils down to ‘Make the games you want to play’ is that the games you want to play might not have been made before. There are very few points of reference for asymmetrical multiplayer games it’s a new genre, experimenting with new mechanics, relying on players to know exactly what they’re doing in order to make the player/game relationship an enjoyable and fair one. So how do you go about balancing a new game like that and making sure it’ll be a fair experience for everyone on release?

“For us, it’s rigorous playtesting and then looking at telemetry numbers: that’s really all we can do,” explains Robb. “We playtest every night in the studio and do everything we can to get the game into the hands of the public. That gives us the best information we have our own internal playtests which we can gather our own specific information from, and then when it’s out in the wild we can get different kinds of player data. We look at those impressions and look at our numbers.”
WITH EVOLVE, WE GOT IT FUNCTIONAL IN ABOUT FOUR MONTHS, AND WE’VE BEEN PLAYING IT PRETTY MUCH EVERY NIGHT SINCE
Turtle Rock and publisher 2K Games have been taking an early build of the game to various industry shows and inviting people into their respective offices to get an early look at the game the purpose of doing so goes further than just whetting the public appetite for the team’s newest blockbuster: it also allows Turtle Rock to monitor how other people play.A team of developers hitting the death match every night is going to look wildly different to your average gamer and their buddies going toe-to-toe, and Turtle Rock requires a diverse slate of opinion and data to accurately balance and fine tune its product.

“A real popular [bit of feedback we had from the Big Alpha] is ‘Lazarus is over-powered!’ we get that a lot on our forums,” reveals Robb. “We think ‘Okay, that’s perfectly fine, let’s dig into that a bit’. But then we realise he’s fine our telemetry states that he’s not imparting any numerical advantages over any of the other medics you can choose (well, at least not in the way people are playing him right now). That’s how we do things, we get the game up and running as quickly as possible with Evolve, we got it functional in about four months, and we’ve been playing it pretty much every night since.”

ALPHA AND OMEGA
Evolve’s ‘Big Alpha’ wasn't the resounding success the developer and its fanbase wanted it to be…
in fact it was plagued with errors. Undermined by the PlayStation 4’s 2.0 update, and hounded with a slew of server errors, the Alpha did teach Turtle Rock a few things the studio was better learning now than on launch day…
“What we wanted to get from the alpha was to stress-test our servers,” explains Robb. “We wanted to start matchmaking and we found that hey, hang on, our matchmaking is broken, it isn’t working the way we intended it to. You’d get higher levelled players matched with people at level one and level two and they could just go and orchestrate this ‘stage one wipe’, as they were calling it.
Then the whole thing with the [PS4 2.0 issue] was a shame, too. But I’d rather all that happen in the alpha these are huge learning curves for us, and we encountered problems here I’d  hate to have encountered on Day One. We’re looking at all the data we can get from the alpha and taking action where we can.”


The balancing results in a game that we hope will come to define the asymmetric multiplayer experience. It takes a lot of craft to get there the four classes in Evolve aren’t just random choices, balancing each of their respective strengths and weaknesses has been a huge part of the development process, bearing in mind there’s only one enemy for the players to work against, including three variations on each of the main classes must have been a challenging goal…

“So we got four classes Assault, Trapper, Medic and Support,” Robb explains. “The Assault guys are there to do damage they’re the most simple: all you’ve got to do is get in and kick ass.” So far, so simple but then every FPS game needs the damage dealing core the soldier that can inflict the most damage per-second without pause Hyde, for example, is equipped with a flame-thrower, whilst Markov wields an assault rifle. Both have the ability to defend their allies with a personal shield, too.

“The Medic is another straightforward class, though our Medics are probably a bit more complex than Medics in traditional games,” Rob continues, “they’re there to keep everyone in the fight, but they can also buff.” The different Medic characters also have wildly differential abilities, depending on who you choose: Lazarus, for example, revives downed allies, whereas Val operates more like Team Fortress’ Medic.

“The Trappers are there to find the Monster, and then once they find it are equipped with tools that can inhibit it in some way,” Robb explains. “Griffin and Maggie both have harpoons, so Griffin is more hands-on and skill-based, whereas Maggie has to anticipate the Monster but doesn’t have to aim.” It all comes down to personal play-style and preference: if you prefer to be uber-precise and like your twitch-based gaming (so, if you playa lot of Call Of Duty, for example) you’ll be confident with Griffin if you’re happier to drawaggro and play the longer game, Maggie’s more your style.

“Then there’s Support,” Robb concludes, “Support is the glue that holds the Hunters together, they’re there to complement the team, helping the team mates do their jobs better.” Think ‘engineers’ from typical class-based games.

 Throughout our conversation with Robb, we noticed how he kept peppering his responses to our questions with little anecdotes from the game mentioning how, one time, he was drawing aggro from the monster as an Assault so the Trapper could set up this complex tactic, or how this other time he and his team were blindsided by a Kraken that swooped down and routed them. “Studios that don’t play their own games are at a huge disadvantage,” opines Robb. “Numbers and telemetry alone are not enough, you need to play your game to try and figure out that elusive quality that you just can't gather through the math. The numbers can all add up, but if the game’s not fun then what’s the point?”
THE WAY THE GAME’S STRUCTURED MEANS YOU CAN END UP WITH THESE CRAZY HAIL MARY PASSES IN THE FINAL SECONDS
That quality is incredibly hard to define after all, the concept of ‘fun’ in a videogame varies fundamentally from person to person but for many gamers, Left 4 Dead managed to hit on that delicate middle-point between emergent storytelling and completely random action, mostly thanks to the AI Director engine. One of our favourite moments from that game was when we found ourselves re-united with our colleagues in a quiet zone, our leader lecturing us about the importance of sticking together as we reloaded, healed and prepped. His pep talk was just about to come to an end. 
“Remember, we all need to stay close and” He was cut off as a Smoker’s tongue wrenched him through a window.“We didn't consciously set out to create those emergent moments in Left 4 Dead,” Robb explains in response to our story, “but Evolve certainly has that same power to let crazy, amazing things happen. I’ve seen the game played for over three years, and even now we’ll get people [in the office to playtest] and we’ll all be like ‘These guys are so bad, they’re gonna die!’ But then they turn it around, and sneak out a win, and we can’t plan that!”

It’s a type of gameplay that we adore, because it requires no script, no planning, no real commitment to any sort of narrative beat. In a game like Evolve where story and world building really are secondary to gameplay, these almost random moments give the player something more to invest in it gives them their own story to tell, their own anecdote to relate back to friends or co-workers in the light of day.

“Those water-cooler moments just sort of happen in Evolve. It’s natural to the game. That kind of ebb and flow nature to the battle means you can't have a guaranteed steamroll win or lose just because you're doing well to begin with doesn't mean you’ll keep that for the whole game. The way the game’s structured means you can end up with these crazy Hail Mary passes in the final seconds of a round where we're all shouting at the screen like ‘Holy Shit!  I can’t believe they’ve done that!’”

CLASH OF THE TITANS
One of the core tenets of Evolve’s design relies on players adapting their techniques; depending on which Monster they come up against. At the time of writing, only two have been formally announced the Goliath and the Kraken with a third confi rmed playable at launch (we’re hoping for some kind of arachnid…) With that in mind, we asked Robb how he saw players reacting to the Kraken a  er adapted to defending themselves from a Goliath onslaught… “It was interesting to see the Hunter teams try and use the same tactics to take out the Kraken, a  er they spent so long fi ghting the Goliath. We were testing our progression system during the Alpha, so people got to see a lot more of the Goliath to begin with before they’d encounter Kraken players. As people are wont to do, the second they get something new thrown at them and they get their butts kicked they scream ‘Overpowered!’ but one of the things that hints at Evolve’s longevity is that you’re going to be faced with new things, and you might get your butt kicked, but you have to adapt to the challenge at hand. The fun of the game lies in fi guring out that puzzle.”

Creating those emergent experiences is important, vital, in a triple-A game that doesn't feature much in the way of a traditional videogame narrative, but if we’re going to believe in a world like this, it has to tell its story somehow. Like the Left 4 Dead games that came before it, Evolve’s world and characters impart all the narrative content relevant to the game cutscenes, ‘story missions’ and exposition dumps are anathema here.

“For Turtle Rock, we look at the industry and see a lot of developers that can make great narrative games,” explains Robb, “but our thing is multiplayer, our thing is giving people new experiences. Turtle Rock games are more gameplay driven than anything else… y’know, it’s funny: I’ve heard people give games pitches where all they’ll talk about is the story, right? All I think then is that you could easily take this and then make a movie, or write a book. What I want to know is how it plays, what you’re doing with gameplay. For us, the story is the wrapper that makes the gameplay make sense.”

Robb continues, citing the lessons learned throughout the studio’s tenure on Left 4 Dead as the motivating force behind dropping the forced narrative element altogether (something we believe would benefit a lot of studios crowbarring haggard stories into their action games right now). “The way we did it in Left 4 Dead was we made the characters talk and we’ve done that a lot more in Evolve.

During lulls in the action or during sequences in the drop ship, they’ll just talk. They’ll talk about things that are happening in the world, or they’ll talk about each other what we’re doing is giving you snippets of story that you can put together like puzzle pieces. We don’t hold your hand in a linear fashion we’re not trying to lead you down a story book road. Other games do that really well, but that isn't for us. As you play, if you’re paying attention, you’ll pick up little things and can put it together. A lot of people get into a game and they don't give a shit about story they just want to load up, get in, fight monsters and go crazy but for the people who are interested, they can listen, and pick out what they want.”

Turtle Rock is all about offering new experiences in gameplay, but it seems the studio is also offering that mentality to the more traditional side of things, too: in an industry where the majority of games want to ram their stories down your throat with vapid characters and unskippable cutscenes ( Assassin’s Creed, Sunset overdrive and even multiplayer stablemate Destiny), Evolve understands its target audience they want to shoot, to play, to win.

“There have been a lot of games that have come out that are multiplayer lead that have peacocked around and boasted ‘Hey, we've got this new innovative way of telling stories’. We’re…we’re more honest than that, we want to set the expectations right away we’re not selling you a novel, we're not selling you a movie, we're selling you an experience.”

Throughout our time with Robb, we noticed he kept saying that reiterating that Evolve was an experience. Looking back to Left 4 Dead, it’s easy to see why this is the language Robb fixates on there was nothing really like Left 4 Dead at the time of launch, and there’s nothing really like Evolve knocking around right now. His game will be an experience that much we’re sure of we just hope it paves the way for an arrangement of other studios taking this brave new genre in other directions once they realise it’s a viable area of the gaming market.

“When one studio does something, and it gains traction, it shows everyone else that that’s doable I think it’s really cool,” concludes Robb. “It’s always great to have something new in gaming because things tend to get kinda stagnant. We set out to do 4-on-1 because, if nothing else, we just wanted to do something new.”

HUNTERS

ASSAULT
PARNELL
With his trusty rocket launcher, Parnell is probably the most explosive of the Assault characters. While Markov and Hyde are all about getting up close and dealing masses of damage, Parnell can play at a little more distance and draw the monster out.

MEDIC
CAIRA
Probably the most offensively designed of all the Medics, Caira is a grenade master. Her dual-mode launcher can fire healing grenades with a wide splash impact radius or napalm to really mess the monster up. Perfect for players who want to get into the fight.

TRAPPER
ABE
More of a distance player, Abe is perfect for strategists and with this Stasis Grenade a far more effective tool for containing the monster when he's used correctly. He's not great on offense, but with a strong attacking team he’s the perfect complement.

SUPPORT
CABOT
As with the other Support characters Cabot is here to bolster the abilities of those already in the team. In his case it's in tracking the monster with a radioactive dust cloud that makes your prey visible at all times. Of course you actually have to find the thing first.

MONSTER

GOLIATH
For the solo player who likes to smash heads together, the Goliath is the Jason Bourne of the monster world, dealing hand-to-hand death to hunters who get in its way. While lower evolutions may struggle to survive, the fully evolved beast is a terror few can stand against.

KRAKEN
The Kraken is for the confident lone wolf who’s happy to toy with the hunters. The ability to fly and fire projectiles means you can work from a distance, sniping and running away to cause confusion. But get caught and you may not last long.

BIG ALPHA STATS
MONSTER WINS:  574,079
HUNTERS WINS:  753,414
ROUNDS PLAYED: 1,327,493

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