For Turtle Rock studios, Evolve isn’t just a game, it’s a mantra

Turtle Rock Phil Robb Chris Ashton Evolve

They picked the one that was the weirdest.

It was 2010. Turtle Rock Studios was wrapping up work on downloadable content for co-op zombie game Left 4 Dead 2. The developer had been operating independently, again, for close to two years, and in that time it had worked on what it had always worked on: Valve games. Counter-Strike, Counter-Strike: Condition Zero, Half-Life 2, Left 4 Dead, Left 4 Dead 2. The company had been working in the shadow of Valve for almost a decade, and now it was time to think about making its own mark.

There were prototypes. Since re-forming, the Turtle Rock developers had been busy noodling on games they wanted to work on next. They were all over the map, these prototypes. This team, formed by long-time industry veterans that had literally re-invented the zombie game with Left 4 Dead, was ready to try new things, new games. New game types.

The ideas were outrageous and unexpected.

The ideas were outrageous and unexpected. And they would not share most of them with me because they might some day share them with you. The one they did share is the one you already know about. The one that took almost five years, barely survived the collapse of publisher THQ, and has been the talk of every convention it has been shown at. And it happened to be the weirdest prototype of the bunch.

“It was a very different idea, which we were kind of worried about,” says Turtle Rock’s design director Chris Ashton. “You always hear the horror stories of everybody saying publishers don’t want to do anything new. … Yeah, it’s risky. But any time somebody said, ‘Would 4v1 work, how do you know that would work?’ We said, ‘Well, the Tank versus the survivors.’

” [Fighting the Tank zombie] lasted 60 seconds in Left 4 Dead, but it was a crazy 60 seconds. It was super exciting. And at that point in time, it’s one guy playing a Tank and four people playing survivors. Both teams are trying to eliminate each other. That proves that 60 seconds works. We can make that the whole game.”

Five years and two publishers later, that game is Evolve, the world’s first 4v1 co-op monster hunter shooter. And this is the story of how Turtle Rock made it.

Deer Hunter

“What if the deer could fight back?”

The answer: Evolve.

It’s deeper than that, of course. And it’s a story that begins almost a decade ago, when deer hunting games were popping up all over, taking the video game industry by surprise.

Turtle Rock Studios was originally founded in 2002 by EA Westwood veterans Mike Booth, Phil Robb, and Ashton. The three had separated after leaving EA, but eventually migrated back together at Valve. Ashton was working with Valve as an employee, Robb as a freelancer, and Booth as a contractor working on the Counter-Strike bot project, which eventually became CS: Condition Zero.

Turtle Rock Studios Chris Ashton Phil Robb

“In order to do Condition Zero and finish that up, [Booth] needed an actual team,” says Ashton. “Couldn’t do that alone. And so that’s when he pulled Phil and Matt Campbell and myself. We started pulling people that we knew onto that one. And then that was kind of Turtle Rock 1.0, the genesis.”

The studio named itself after the neighborhood in Orange County where Booth lived. The team set up in his garage. Just six people in a “spartan” space in an upscale California neighborhood. And even after the team outgrew the garage, rented an office space, and started working on its own games full time, Turtle Rock retained that garage mentality. Today the company is dozens of people working out of a custom-designed office space, but there are no managers and little in the way of team leads. Turtle Rock employs a strict meritocracy, where every team member is free to contribute to any thing. Including game design and concepts.

Throughout development, everyone plays the games. Some playtests are scheduled, others happen organically. But everyone plays. Everyone comments. Everyone provides feedback. And unlike in a traditional development structure, everything is open to criticism and change. It’s the Turtle Rock way.

Even after the team outgrew the garage, rented an office space, and started working on its own games full time, Turtle Rock retained that garage mentality.

“We let people play our game, right?” says creative director Phil Robb. “As soon as we feel good about it, we put people that aren’t us in front of the game and let them play it … As soon as we were able to take it to conferences and stuff like that, it’s like, no, we’re not just going to show you a f–king video and tell you how great the game is. We’re going to put it in front of you and let you play it. … Seeing people walk away with a smile on their face. Seeing people happy and yelling and screaming and talking about the game post-match. You can’t fake that s–t. I suppose you could try, but people would know. So when we take it to PAX and take it to E3 and see six-hour-long lines to play, see guys with the wristbands all the way up their arm because they played the game 20 times, that’s it, I think. That’s where the confidence comes from.”

Which brings us back to Evolve. Well before Turtle Rock’s founding, Ashton, Booth, and Robb were talking about their idea for a better Deer Hunter. The hunting games of the late nineties were basic affairs, involving a first-person point of view and a simple tracking and shooting mechanic. Some would say it was a boring approach to game design, but slowly and inexorably these hunting games took over a space few game designers even knew existed. By the turn-of-the-century, games like Deer Hunter and Cabela’s Big Game Hunter were a breakout business.

“They were making a ton of money,” says Ashton. “Everybody else in the whole industry was shaking their heads and trying to figure out what just happened. I think that it was sort of … the Bejeweled or whatnot of its time, where it was hitting this market that wasn’t gamers. It was people who liked to hunt, who don’t play games normally but they can’t hunt right now so they want to simulate it. They got a computer at home now.”

“It was still entertainment, right?” says Robb. “There was still some bit of tracking, following footprints and trying to hunt down the elusive deer and stuff. There were still elements there that people were attaching to and enjoying.”

The three Turtle Rockers compared notes with other designers, talked about ideas and eventually, slowly, hit on an idea of their own: The deer should fight back.

“That’d be cool,” says Ashton. ” [Or], what if I was hunting an alien monster instead of a deer? That’s a very small leap.”

“As soon as you give the thing the ability to fight back,” says Robb, “it becomes a lot more interesting.”

Years later, as Turtle Rock was wrapping up work on the Left 4 Dead DLC for Valve, Ashton and Robb started thinking again about Deer Hunter, about the idea of deer fighting back and how that might work applying lessons learned from making co-op Left 4 Dead.

Throughout development, everyone plays the games.

Listening to them explain it now, the idea sounds pre-ordained. And when you see it in action, or play it, you can’t help but feel it will be the next, big thing. And like many next, big things, it seems so simple that you wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself.

But you didn’t think of it. Or, if you did, you didn’t build it. Or, if you did, you didn’t build it in quite the same way as Turtle Rock. And that’s what makes all the difference.

“For us it’s just like, why do we want to do something that somebody has already done?” says Robb. “Nine times out of ten, if they’ve already done it, they’re already working on the sequel, and whatever they come out with next is probably going to be prettier. They’ve already got a head start on you. So if you just follow other developers all the time and try to do what they’re doing, I don’t see how you ever really catch up at that point.”

The break up

It’s hard to believe it now, but Left 4 Dead was a big risk for Turtle Rock, and Valve. Zombie games were dead or dying. Everyone Turtle Rock talked to about doing a first-person zombie game warned them away from the genre, because zombie games were “terrible.”

“‘There had never been a good first-person shooter zombie game,'” Ashton recalls being told. “‘All of them were really cheesy arcade machines and stuff like that … That’s a risk, and [you] shouldn’t consider doing it.’

” [Then] I remember us talking internally and saying, ‘Well, maybe there just hasn’t been a good one yet.'”


And that led Turtle Rock to Left 4 Dead. Left 4 Dead broke the mold. It became, not only a hit zombie game, but the hit zombie game. The zombie game that other zombie games aspired to. And it inspired a new wave of zombie games just like it. The game was so successful it cemented the studio’s partnership with publisher Valve, and Turtle Rock immediately began work on a Left 4 Dead follow-up and DLCs. Eventually Valve decided it wanted to absorb the small, Southern California studio.

In 2008, Turtle Rock was purchased by Valve and renamed “Valve South.” The studio would continue work on Left 4 Dead titles, but now under direct management by Valve in Seattle. The result, says the Turtle Rock founders, was a terrible mess.

” [A]s much as our methodologies and philosophies meshed with Valve, we came from EA, right? Those are kind of polar opposites,” says Robb.

EA’s culture is built on a more traditional corporate hierarchy and management tiers. Whereas at Valve, there are few leaders, very little structure and projects that spin on more or less endlessly for no other reason than that people want to work on them, whether for not they ever see light of day (ahem, Half-Life 3).

“There were things that we liked, that we brought with us from EA, that we kept because it worked,” says Robb. “In the end some of those things clashed. … Our cultures were different enough that it just — It wasn’t the slam dunk that I think people thought it would be.”

In addition to the culture clash, the studio found itself being managed by its new owners from across a nearly 1,000-mile divide. Simple conversations required planning and coordination. After almost six years of working successfully with Valve as a contractor, in less then one year as an internal studio the relationship turned toxic. Although Left 4 Dead 2 successfully shipped, no one was happy — not even Valve.

A meeting was called. Valve’s Gabe Newell came to Turtle Rock, along with other Valve higher-ups (they do have them). After a brief conversation about what had gone wrong and why, Newell suggested Valve simply let Turtle Rock go.

“Valve’s very data-driven, kind of methodical, logical, ” says Ashton. “They said, ‘Well, you know, what used to work was when Turtle Rock was Turtle Rock and Valve was Valve and Turtle Rock did work with Valve. So Turtle Rock being its own entity and its own independent studio and contracting with Valve worked really well. So maybe we should just go back to that?'”

And so that’s what happened. Booth remained at Valve. He was tired of running a company. So was Ashton, but after some soul-searching he realized he had the opportunity to rebuild the best studio he had ever worked for.

“We had the best of both worlds,” says Robb. “We had the work ethic that EA drills into you, with the creative, ‘I don’t know what you call it,’ that Valve brings to the table. The mix of those two I think created something that we felt was very unique and comfortable and — For grizzled old vets that had been run through the wringer quite a few times previously, this was like, ‘We can’t let this thing die. That would just be awful.'”

Robb and Ashton scraped together their savings and formed a new corporation with the old Turtle Rock name and logo. They invested their personal money into new office space and furniture, painted the place themselves, repaired the plumbing themselves and then immediately got back to work on Left 4 Dead DLC. Valve let them keep their computers, because shipping them to Seattle would cost more than replacing them, but kept the Left 4 Dead IP. “Valve South” employees were given the choice of relocating to Seattle to remain with Valve, like Booth, or else go with the new Turtle Rock. All but a handful chose Turtle Rock.

“Hats off to the guys — I mean, most of the Left 4 Dead team stayed with us,” says Robb. “I don’t know exactly what the percentage was, but I think we lost three guys.”

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