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.'”

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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.

Turning the tables

One concept that divided Turtle Rock playtesters was the way monsters in the game can “evolve” by accumulating experience and developing additional powers mid-match. Through three stages of evolution, monsters go from being weaklings fleeing from the hunters, to evenly matched with them, to vastly overpowering them. But hunters never get to change.

“The biggest internal controversy was that the hunters didn’t level up and power up alongside [the monster],” explains Ashton. “But it’s one of those things where, that’s what makes that advantage for the hunters when the monster is stage one. That puts him at a disadvantage. That’s kind of the whole unique catch of the game, that the monster is [evolving].”

The inspiration for this “tables have turned” style of play actually came from Counter-Strike. “In Counter-Strike, when you’re a terrorist and you go to plant the bomb, you’re offense. You’re moving and pushing into areas and trying to get to that bomb site. Once you get to that bomb site, though, and plant the bomb, you totally switch 180 and now you’re playing defense. You hide behind crates and pick a good hiding spot and wait.

“That change — I’m on offense, now I’m on defense — is very dynamic. That happens very often in a round of Counter-Strike … [In Evolve,] the monster doesn’t always get to stage three. But when he does, now he turns the tables and he’s the one chasing the hunters.”

” [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.”

The death of THQ

Some months after re-forming the company, Turtle Rock was at a crossroads. Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 had been huge successes, but the developer had spent most of a decade working on one franchise, with a partner. Now it was time to do something different. So they looked over their prototypes, picked the weirdest one, a “4v1” co-op monster game, and started shopping it around.

“I remember pitching our game, ” says Ashton. “We felt like this was a crazy idea, right? … But we made a pitch document and a presentation and a teaser trailer and we went and we pitched to everybody. We went on tour for like two weeks and pitched to all the publishers we could think of.”

“They couldn’t stump us. We had our shit together.”

Turtle Rock eventually pitched LA-based THQ. The publisher was having financial trouble at the time, but Turtle Rock believed they were on the verge of turning it around. The publisher had Volition and its popular Saints Row  franchise. It had Relic and Company of Heroes. It had Homefront, Metro: Last Light , South Park: The Stick of Truth , and more. Things had been sour for a while, sure, but the leadership, everyone believed, was making the right calls. Naughty Dog’s Jason Rubin had recently been hired to act as president, and was bringing a creator’s eye to the development of new and existing franchises.

Turtle Rock likes a comeback story, and it had a good vibe from THQ’s brass. So Turtle Rock went to THQ to pitch what would become Evolve, and somehow managed to forget to bring a power cable for their laptop and the laptop’s battery was dead. They had THQ’s attention, but no demo to show.

“We ended up giving our presentation on my iPad with everyone standing around me looking at this little screen,” says Robb. “And they still signed it.”

THQ loved the idea of Evolve. It was different, and THQ believed Turtle Rock had the experience to pull it off.

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“They tried real hard to stump us in the pitch,” says Robb. “They couldn’t stump us. We had our shit together. At the end of the day, that kind of enthusiasm, coupled with the fact that we’re kind of suckers for underdogs, I think that led us to — ‘Hey, maybe these guys help us out, they sign our product, they’re super excited about it, you can’t not like that. Maybe at the same time we’ll help THQ get back on its feet.'”

In spite of the enthusiasm all around, Turtle Rock knew THQ had a “specter” looming over them. It knew from the beginning there was a chance it could all fall apart.

Early in the relationship, THQ’s Danny Bilson and Rubin pulled Ashton and Robb aside and told them THQ had its hands full juggling the finances and that Turtle Rock might be on its own for a while. Turtle Rock took it in stride and looked at the bright side:

The best and worst ability ever

Turtle Rock’s extensive play testing process often exposes seemingly minor game mechanics that can have a huge impact on how much fun players are having. But in order to determine what the feedback from players actually means, they sometimes have to do detective work.

Like the confusing case of Hank’s shield projector, which burns through a player’s ammo in order to make a teammate temporarily invulnerable. “The feedback we were getting from the high-level players was that it was overpowered. The feedback from everybody [else] who was playtesting was that it was totally worthless,” Ashton recalls. “Both those things can’t be right.”

As it turns out, it depended entirely on how players were using it. “What the high-level guys would do is see a rock coming toward you and turn it on for that fraction of a second and block the rock. Then they’d let go and it would recharge. They would throttle it the whole time and shield everybody. They could do that indefinitely because they’re on the trigger for a split second. New playtesters … They turn it on you, and it runs out, and then you get hit by a rock.”

The team ended up changing the feature to make it more useful for newer players, but also still possible for veterans to wield more skillfully. Now, it only burns ammo when a teammate takes damage, but ammo only regenerates when the shield is turned off entirely.

“ [As a] new player, I can hold it on you all day long and there’s no drawback to that. As soon as you get hit by a rock it consumes some of my ammo, and if the monster keeps pummeling on you eventually that’s going to run out and have to recharge,” Ashton explains. “But a high-level player is going to do a similar gameplay, where it’s like, I’m gonna turn it on, you get hit by a rock, and then I turn it off immediately to get it to recharge sooner so I have more ammo for the next bit of damage. There’s still a real high ceiling, but the floor for entry is much more accessible.”

“It certainly helped the game in a lot of ways,” says Robb. “Essentially, they left us alone for a year. We just sort of had a lot more freedom than maybe we would have in a different situation.”

Still, there was concern. Turtle Rock employees were reading the news. THQ’s stock was crashing, projects were getting canceled and people were getting laid off. For the newly independent team at Turtle Rock, the Fall and Winter of 2012 was a dark and scary time. And then, in December of that year, it was over. THQ, with barely any warning, filed for bankruptcy. The following year its various properties, including Turtle Rock’s Evolve, would go up for auction.

Facing the prospect of having its game acquired by a publisher not of its own choosing, Turtle Rock went back on the road, pitching to the publishers it wanted to encourage to bid for the game. It had just two weeks before the auction began.

“It’s one of those things where, we didn’t have any control over who would bid the most, but we were certainly interested in everybody because if we were going to end up with Ubisoft or with EA or Activision or whoever, we wanted to get a read for them, ” says Ashton. “What is it gonna be like? We had spent like eight years with Valve – eight, nine, ten by the time DLC was done, like a decade. That’s not like a publisher. We were really scared, just because we didn’t have any experience. You hear a lot of horror stories.”

Robb and THQ’s Rubin talked about the auction on the phone and Rubin suggested, “Well, what’s to stop you guys from bidding?” Worst case scenario, nobody bids on Evolve and the rights go to Turtle Rock. Which would be better than the alternative: Dissolution of the project entirely.

So, once again, Robb and Ashton pulled together their savings, and placed a modest bid on the auction for their own game. The bid not only provided a safety net, but gave them a seat at the table for the auction itself. Robb and Ashton sent their lawyer.

“Chris and I were getting blow by blow text messages on everything that was happening,” Robb says. “Man, that was a f–king education. Just the way that whole scene went down and the … jockeying for position between lawyers and businessmen. I was like, ‘I’m glad I’m not there.'”

Part of the reason the auction was stressful was simply the speed of it. Turtle Rock’s initial deal to sign with THQ for Evolve, took six months, and that was considered fast by game industry standards. From the time THQ’s properties were declared up for auction to the time they were officially sold to bidders was just two weeks.

Aside from the speed, the politics of the ordeal astounded the Turtle Rock developers. They had not previously been exposed to the deep financial machinations of the video game business world, and it’s possible that no one had on such a scale. The game industry’s power players gathered for the auction, and in groups, or “lots” THQ’s vast catalogue of IPs was slowly sold out to the rest of the industry.

The politics of the ordeal astounded the Turtle Rock developers.

“THQ … were like a cornered animal,” says Robb. “They were fighting for survival. Up until the end they were just scratching and clawing their way, trying to come out of this intact. And so watching the bidding process going back and forth and some of the — I don’t even know if we’re allowed to talk about this stuff in too much detail. But some of the things that were being bid on and then were taken out because, ‘Well, okay, we’ll just bid on this stuff.’ Just the back and forth and the strategy behind that … They took that out because this publisher wanted that, and they think that if this publisher gets what they wanted, they’ll leave and leave the other publishers hanging out to dry. Basically it was like all the publishers bidding against THQ. Just seeing that sort of strategy happening there … That’s a side of the industry that we never had seen. I don’t think we really wanted to see it. But it turned out well for us.”

In the end, Turtle Rock was outbid by publisher 2K, and Ashton and Robb were relieved. If they’d won the auction, they’d have gotten their game back, but would still have to sell it to someone else. At least with 2K, it had a home with a major publisher, and one that happened to believe in them.

“It’s one of those things where it goes both ways,” Ashton says. “Because we were getting a good vibe from them, they were getting a good vibe from us, and that probably helped motivate them to want to get the game more.”

Even more heartening for the new business owners, the team stayed together. They would get the chance to finish Evolve, publish it with 2K and get to the finish line with the team they had started with.

“Obviously that was a scary time for the whole studio, if you worked here,” Ashton says. “Our publisher, who ultimately pays your paycheck, is filing for bankruptcy, and we don’t have a solution yet. We have to wait and see how the bidding goes. We didn’t lose a single person. That’s prime time for sending out resumes and people jumping ship, but we didn’t lose a single person.”

The marketing monster

The 2K partnership brought a newfound sense security to the Evolve team. After years of wondering what would happen with THQ and weeks of fearing the worst for the fate of Evolve, Turtle Rock now had a partner with deep pockets to help bring the game to release. And not just any partner. For the publisher of games like BioShock , Borderlands  and XCOM , risk-taking with big rewards seems to come naturally.

2K approached publishing and marketing Evolve like it would any of its other games, but the visual and competitive nature of Evolve added a twist. Even in the early stages of development, people would stop and watch other people play for hours. It was just as much fun to observe as to play. 2K would capitalize on this at game industry events leading up to launch, building giant booths with massive TV screens, so that passersby could watch Evolve matches in progress. The result would stop traffic at conventions around the world, literally clogging the aisles around 2K’s booths.

“A lot of our wildlife has face tentacles.”

Behind the scenes, 2K’s influence was felt most strongly on the art team, who felt that, after years of concept work, they were finally zeroing in on a direction.

“Over time, the number of things that have been agreed on by everyone have honed into one direction,” says concept artist Stephen Oakley. “2K definitely helped put a nail in it. This is definitely the direction that we had to go in. Phil’s always been gently herding us to make sure that we’re all staying in the same realm. It’s just been cool to have that much time to be like, this is Evolve.”

Turtle Rock believes in prototyping gameplay early and then iterating on everything else, including the art and design. Ashton recalls designing what would become the “Dead Air” mission in Left 4 Dead, with placeholder art and gray boxes standing in for walls and objects.

“[B]ut you could tell that it was a terminal and you could tell there were security gates and stuff like that, but it was all gray,” he says. “No textures and no detail in anything. But when you played it, your mind —”

“Filled in the blanks,” adds Robb.

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Aston: “Everybody came through there after the first playtest going, ‘Oh my God, it was so much fun to play in an airport.’ And it looked like crap. But everybody fills in the blanks. … You can come up with core fun gameplay and it can look like anything. It could be Pong. It’s black and white.”

For Evolve this prototyping approach meant locking down the 4v1 gameplay in the very early stages and then letting the art teams slowly, over the course of years, find what would become the “Evolve style.” By the time of the THQ auction, Turtle Rock’s concept designers had put hundreds of hours into designing characters, monsters and other visual elements, but still hadn’t yet settled on anything final.

Shortly after 2K came on board, that changed, and a definitive art style for Evolve was decided. The art team calls it “Cthulhu-inspired.”

“A lot of our wildlife has face tentacles,” says concept artist Scott Flanders.

He’s one of the few male members of the Evolve team not wearing a long, Duck Dynasty beard. Most of the team has signed a “no shave ’til ship” pledge (many female team members have also signed a similar pledge and plan to donate their hair, after Evolve ships, to the Locks of Love charity). Flanders, however, is getting married soon, so he felt compelled to shave. He was granted a dispensation.

Talk of the tentacle-faced wildlife in Evolve highlights a major part of what makes Turtle Rock unique. At many game studios the concept artists simply draw what they’re told, or else add minor touches in the concept phase, which are then either implemented or not by the artists. At Turtle Rock, the concept artists are helping design the game. Robb gave them very broad stroke direction on what he wanted for background wildlife, and the artists filled in the blanks, in some cases adding significant features to what would become the final game design.

“We had the core game concept, says Robb. “We knew we wanted wildlife. But we didn’t have any idea of, what does the wildlife do? We knew we wanted the wildlife to play a role in what happens in a given match, but we had tons … of [other] things that we had to think about. We were just like, ‘Guys… think of special things that this wildlife can do.’ These guys got to have a unique experience in games, where not only were they concepting something, visually concepting, but they were gameplay concepting as well. We got a lot of great stuff out of that.”

The concept artists looked for parallels in real life, different ecological niches filled by wildlife in the real world: What purpose they served in the food chain and how they defended themselves against predators. Then they day-dreamed.

“Great things tend to come from people who are passionate about their work.”

One result: A giant toad that would swallow players whole.

“Someone called him Battletoad,” says Flanders.

Meanwhile, monster design continued, and the team was building on lessons it had learned relatively early, while still working with THQ. The marketing team at THQ had been bothering Robb about game posters. Turtle Rock had been creating outlandish, esoteric monster designs based on whatever the artists wanted to see in a monster, and in many cases these ended up being freakish and odd. THQ was concerned that the odd designs, while visually interesting wouldn’t “sell” the game. THQ wanted a monster that would get players excited about playing. They wanted, as Turtle Rock started cynically referring to it, “the marketing monster.”

“Initially we applied certain rules to the characters,” says Robb. “We want these archetypes. We want them to be familiar archetypes, archetypes that people are comfortable with, that are somewhat recognizable. But we weren’t applying that to the monsters. It was hurting the — It made you feel detached from them. You didn’t care if they died. There was no empathy there.”

Turtle Rock very quickly realized its best shot at a marketing monster was one of its favorites, Goliath. But it wasn’t called Goliath at the time, and it looked nothing like the Godzilla-meets-Alien monster that’s currently in the game.

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“The original design for Goliath, when he was called ‘Scorpid,’ was a really cool-looking work of art, but as a game asset he was a mess,” says Robb.

The Scorpid design was, in Oakley’s words, “a lobster sort of thing,” with huge, claw-like hands. Turtle Rock decided to make him more lizard-like, giving him aspects of human anatomy, gestures and facial expressions. The final design, according to Robb, is “60 to 70-percent human.” His human features allowing players controlling him to feel a connection to him, and root for him.

“You want to be Master Chief,” says Flanders. “You put yourself inside him while you’re playing. They’re your own eyes. When you’re playing Goliath — I noticed that when we had our other monsters back in the day, when we finally got to Goliath, it felt the most like being a big tough dude. I felt the most connected I ever had.”

The Turtle Rock Way

At the end of a two-hour interview with Turtle Rock co-founders Robb and Ashton, I ask them what, if Evolve turns out to be a smashing success, they’d attribute it to. What follows is a conversation that so precisely encapsulated how Turtle Rock works and why it managed to harness so much creative energy, so consistently, that I have presented it here only lightly edited.

A last-minute change of perspective

At first, players experienced Evolve’s monsters from a first-person view, just like the hunters. Then, halfway through development, someone had an idea that sparked the most daring change to the game in its entire development: Make it third-person.

“We made that decision relatively late in the game,” Ashton recalls. “It was a bit risky.” The studio had never done any third-person titles, which require an entirely different system of aiming, camerawork and motion.

“From a gameplay standpoint, there were a lot of good practical reasons why going third-person with the monster was a good idea.” Robb explains. “Being in first-person, [the] monster felt sluggish. You didn’t feel like you had much control.” Making the view third-person made it easier to see, for instance, that you had been harpooned in the back by a trapper. So Turtle Rock tried the same view with the hunters – and hated it.

“It was pretty clear that was going backwards for the hunters,” says Ashton. “In a first-person shooter, the star of the show a lot of times is all the gear, all the weapons and stuff like that. Now we had all these cool things, like this harpoon gun and a laser cutter and a shield projector, all these cool pieces of gear that now you really couldn’t see.”

Its limitations play into the game, too. “There’s a slight sense of claustrophobia, right?” Robb says. “A sense of vulnerability that we want the humans to have. If you want to encourage the team to work together, you make sure that when they’re by themselves, they feel a little scared and vulnerable. First person, I think, plays into that a bit, on a psychological level. You don’t know what’s behind you all the time. You don’t have very good peripheral vision, so it adds to that tension, which is something that I think we wanted from the very beginning.”

“I think it comes down to the team,” Ashton says. And Robb agrees. “For me it’s that same thing that I said whenever we pitched. What’s to stop [someone else] from building this game? Well, they don’t have the team. I really think — Phil’s part of the team and I’m part of the team and 2K’s part of the team. Everybody else here. I don’t think there’s any single decision that gets made in a vacuum. All those people who playtest, the reason we want to playtest is because we want to know what they think. I don’t trust myself to — This game costs a ton of money. I’m not gonna make a decision by myself —”

“And that’s maybe a $5 million decision,” Robb interjects.

Ashton: “And I just believe that I’m right. There’s no way I’m going to do that. What I want to do, I want everybody here to tell me that they agree — that yeah, that’s the right decision.”

Robb: “Or that they don’t agree.”

Ashton: “And then, is there something better? A lot of times they help come up with a better solution. For me, the game wouldn’t be the way that it is without the team … so many things came from the team. The third-person monster [point of view] was some of the guys in the studio. It wasn’t me, wasn’t Phil, wasn’t the publisher. That was some other people, a programmer and an artist inside of the studio who wanted to try it and make that happen.”

Robb: “They just did it on their own time.”

Ashton: “A lot of that stuff, a lot of what makes Evolve great, is just people being gamers and having the same mindset as Phil and I as far as, I want it to work this way because I think it would be fun. And us creating an environment where that can happen, where people can do stuff like that. You just get a lot — If you’re open to that creativity and everyone’s working together toward the same goal, like everybody knows what the end goal is — Everybody knew it was supposed to be 4v1, it’s you and this boss monster and that sort of thing. As long as it kept moving toward that goal, there’s way better ideas that come up from the team.”

“You get people’s passion by doing that,” Robb says, and as he says it you can tell he doesn’t think operating any other way is even a possibility, much less worth considering. “Great things tend to come from people who are passionate about their work. If you just tell people what to do and they’re just robotically doing it, you’re not going to get great results. You’re going to get adequate results, if you’re lucky.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the Turtle Rock way.

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