Interview with Turtle Rock’s Phil Robb on ‘Evolve’
Even though it isn’t being released until 10 February next year, one of the highlights of this year’s Gamescom was a first person shooter that billed itself as being an evolution of the cooperative and competitive multi-player experience, in which a team of four hunters went up against a lone (player controlled) monster. Jettisoning conventional first person shooter tropes, Evolve has already garnered considerable praise for not being a traditional shooter gallery, where the Left 4 Dead developer emphasizes the use of patience and stealth. And to speak a little bit more about this, Phil Robb (Co-Founder of Turtle Rock Studios and Creative Director on Evolve) was on hand to answer my questions about his studio’s next game, and also explain as to why the developer isn’t concerned about leaving the Left 4 Dead zombie shooter formula behind.
You released Left 4 Dead via Valve and Steam. What made you decide to partner up with 2K for Evolve?
It wasn’t really a decision, to be frank. I mean, we initially signed with THQ and, of course they went bankrupt, so we went through the whole bankruptcy proceedings, and our title was auctioned off. We talked to and met with a lot of publishers during that time and we sort of came out of that whole process. We were like “okay we’ve got two best case scenarios here. Either we win our IP back in the auction or 2K wins”, because out of all of the guys that we met, we felt like they got it. We had the best rapport with them so, you know, I think obviously they felt the same because they put in the winning bid for Evolve in the bankruptcy proceedings. So we were happy. I can’t say it was a conscious decision. It was sort of just the way things happened and we were lucky that they happened that way.
Left 4 Dead and Evolve both happen to be co-op multiplayer games. Whereas in Left 4 Dead you had more of an undead zombie focus, in Evolve you’re essentially dealing with… is it one alien or (multiple) aliens?
It’s one growing alien monster. So he starts out big (but small). And then as he goes through the environment eating the wildlife he gets bigger. In the beginning of the match, the monster tends to have just a slight numbers disadvantage in terms of; if a monster meets up a hunter team at stage one, and insists on fighting, it’s going to be really hard for him to win at that point. Early on in the game the monster is trying to avoid the hunters. Go out into the forest to eat, and gain strength. The hunters want to find him as soon as possible because the sooner they find him, the easier he is to defeat. So if the monster manages to stay alive and grow to become a stage 3 monster, at that point he’s huge, he’s like 25-feet tall. Then the tables kind of turn and suddenly the hunters have a bit of a numbers disadvantage. Then you could say that the hunters have become the hunted, and then it’s a harder fight for them.
Do you not think that emphasizing just the one enemy maybe brings up certain design weaknesses, because one of the key successes of Call of Duty, which is ultimately a different type of game (even though it happens to have its roots in the first person shooter genre), is that it’s a shooting gallery. One of the things that people liked about Left 4 Dead is that even though you can control one of a class of four special zombies, you’ve still got to shoot up a whole bunch of other things. Why did you decide to move away from shooting many enemies, to just trying to shoot one? Because some would argue that in itself can be quite an isolating and boring experience…
The thing to keep in mind is you’re not just shooting, right? I mean, the different classes in Evolve have different jobs for bringing down the monster. The Assault guy, that’s their job. Their job is to do the most damage, and if that’s the kind of character and experience you like, then you’re going to love the Assault guy. Assault guys are my favorite, they’re very straight forward – just get in there, and kick ass. The Trapper, for example, his main job is not to do damage to the monster. His main job is to track down the monster and trap the monster, and keep him there so that the assault guy can do all the damage. All of them can do damage to the monster, but the different classes have different primary focuses. The Medic for example, [their] job is to keep the players up in the fight, keep their health topped off, make sure that they don’t go down. But they can also do some damage to the monster. If the Medics all have sniper rifles, and when they shoot the monster they create weak spots that the rest of the team can shoot to do extra damage. Then the Support guys being the glue of the team… their abilities vary. Sometimes they help the team defensively, and sometimes they help the team offensively. So there are a lot of different roles, and if the entire hunter team decides “hey, let’s all just shoot”, you’re going to lose, and the monster’s going to win.
The other thing is the experience of hunting and tracking down this giant alien monster. It’s pretty compelling, right? In terms of inspiration we looked at movies like ‘Predator’ and Peter Jackson’s ‘King Kong’. That whole scene when King Kong breaks in to the village on Skull Island, and he breaks through the giant doors and they’ve got all the traps setup waiting for him and it’s this big thing. That was a super-epic, amazing moment. So we tried to capture that sense of, you know, just capture that feeling of danger and fighting this gigantic thing and overcoming.
But that’s the difference between a film and game essentially. The problem is that with a film, ultimately a lot of the narrative unfolds right in front of you. Whereas with a game, obviously with something like Evolve, you’re creating your own narrative. In Left 4 Dead, you had the AI Director, and you’d have moments of quiet but then you’d have a whole horde of zombies rushing you. But in between those manic bouts you still had things to shoot. Even though I don’t generally play first person shooters that much, the fact of the matter is… how are you going to be able to ensure that this game appeals to a large enough audience, whose primary concern is to just go around shooting things?
Well, I mean if you just want to go around shooting stuff, this is a different kind of game than that.
Do you think that’s a weakness?
No, no I think it’s a different experience. When we come up with a game idea, generally it’s like “hey, I really wanna have this experience”, right? With Left 4 Dead it was like “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun if we (us) could play together and shoot hordes of zombies?”, and that’s as simple as that game idea was… that was our pitch. With Evolve, it’s kind of a similar situation. No one has ever given me that experience of hunting down Moby Dick, and taking him down. So this is a new experience. There are a lot of games out there already that are doing that, and that’s cool. I like those kind of games too. But what we’re offering is kind of new and unique, and hopefully a fresh experience for gamers.
Do you control the Left 4 Dead IP?
Given that you aren’t in control of the Left 4 Dead IP, is that a formula or concept that you’d like to revisit in the future?
No, we love Left 4 Dead. I still power it up and play it every once in a while because, you know, it was a great fun game, but we want to do new things. Left 4 Dead was a great game, and it was really popular and people really loved it. There was of course a lot of lessons that we were able to learn from that and move forward, and bring forward into our new games, but ultimately we’re forward looking. We want to try to give people something new that they’ve never experienced before.
How do you feel about other multiplayer zombie games such as Dying Light and Dead Island coming into the fray?
Zombie games are cool. Those are very different games than what we were making, but I can’t complain. I didn’t play a lot of them. The one zombie game that I think, post Left 4 Dead, that really nailed it was Undead Labs’ State of Decay. I love that game – that game gave me that sort of zombie apocalypse fantasy fulfillment that I was looking for. I think those guys probably did the coolest and best zombie game of all the other ones. I mean, some of them look better and stuff like that, but just in terms of pure experience, that was the game that I liked the best.
Evolve is a multiplayer game, and that’s obviously something that ensures that people don’t feel as isolated, as opposed to a game that has a single player focus. But a game that does have a single players focus is Alien: Isolation. That game’s being shown and premiered around the same time as Evolve, so therefore one would argue that in a roundabout way both games are competing against each other – even though they’re different types of games in a lot of ways. But with the central enemy being a lone enemy, and obviously you’re able to take care of AI problems (in Evolve) by the simple fact that a player is controlling the monster. Do you ever feel that you’re going up against Alien: Isolation? And if so, how do you think you’re going to be able to combat or counter the Sega threat?
Yeah, I don’t really feel like we’re in competition with them. From what I know, they’ve got their very unique experience, they’re sort of providing that tense and suspenseful kind of thing and that’s pretty awesome. I want to play that game. No one on the team has ever really looked at that (Alien: Isolation) as competition. I mean, yeah there is sort of a single enemy, and that’s cool, but the easy answer is no. We don’t really feel like it’s a competition and we wish them the best.