The Monster-Hunting Game ‘Evolve’ Came Out of Nowhere to Win E3
Have you ever imagined what it would be like to fulfill a dream you’ve had for 10 years, only to see that dream exceed your wildest expectations? That’s what Chris Ashton, cofounder of Turtle Rock Studios and design director for Evolve, a monster-hunting multi-player game.
Ashton and others from the Evolve team previously developed
Left 4 Dead, a 4-player zombie survival co-op game that became a hit back in 2008. But even before Left 4 Dead hit the scene, Ashton and his friends had a dream idea for a game they hadn’t yet realized.
“If you’ve ever played any games at all, you’ve probably played a game where there was a boss monster at the end and you fought it,” Ashton said. “What we wanted to do with Evolve was we wanted to fight that boss monster with our buddies, and then we figured out one of our buddies could even be the boss monster.”
In Evolve, four players play as hunters with complimentary abilities — a medic, a heavy assault soldier and so on — while one plays as the monster. There are three monsters in the game with different abilities, but regardless of the type, the monster must forage in the wild and avoid the hunters while he or she eats the local wildlife to become stronger and evolve. Once the monster has evolved, the player controlling it has extremely powerful abilities that can take out the hunters, turning the tables.
The concept was heavily inspired by the 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger monster flick Predator, with serious, foreboding monster fights but room for humor and cheesy lines from the player characters hunting the monster.
The Search for a Publisher
Evolve was an unconventional idea in an industry populated with by-the-numbers military shooters. Its basic concepts have been attempted in some independent games and mods like The Hidden for Half-Life 2, but it’s a big gamble for a triple-A release. As such, Turtle Rock encountered some struggles finding a publisher willing to take the risk.
“We can tell people ‘Predator,'” Ashton said. “But a lot of publishers were like, ‘I don’t know… how many players? Only five? How’s that going to work? I don’t think is a good idea.'”
To make matters more difficult, Turtle Rock had operated entirely inside PC gaming giant Valve Software for eight years, which helped get Left 4 Dead out the door. The team simply didn’t know how to find or build a relationship with a publisher because they had never done it before.
“Fortunately, we managed to meet some people who were open to some new ideas,” Ashton added. Those people were the then troubled, now defunct publisher THQ. “Maybe because they were starting to struggle and they were looking for something to pull them out of that hole they were in.”
THQ signed on to publish Evolve, but it went under before the game could be released, and its intellectual properties were put up for auction, putting Ashton and his colleagues in the hunt for a publisher once again. 2K emerged as the most promising relationship.
“For some reason, we really gelled with 2K. They got what we were trying to do. If you look at their portfolio, they do interesting games that nobody else does. XCOM was a risk,” he said.
Ashton said that the relationship with 2K was so successful, Turtle Rock never missed a beat despite THQ’s demise. “We had to get to know each other, but the game didn’t change at all. It kept going.”
The hit of the show
The game debuted at the PAX East gaming conference in April, and Ashton was surprised not only at how much players enjoyed playing as the monster or the hunters, but also how much fun they had watching others play. “We didn’t realize how much fun the game was to watch until we went to PAX,” he said. “People were cheering and shouting and it was huge crowds. We bottled up the whole side of PAX. I think we were caught a little bit off guard.”
The success has continued to the game’s second major showing at E3 here in Los Angeles. Evolve is one of the biggest draws of the show. People are lined up around the booth to play, and announcers commentate the games live for large crowds of onlookers. 2K had turn away NBA players at the event because there was too much demand from press to play the game on the limited seats that were available. On top of that, the game has won numerous “Best of E3 2014” awards from the gaming press.
Before my interview, I played as the monster (called “the Kraken”) and had a blast. The tension was real in the early game when I wasn’t at full strength, but by about 10 minutes in, I’d become a powerful beast capable of standing up to the hunters who had been doggedly pursuing me. I wiped them out ruthlessly at the end and received a high five of congratulations from one of the very players I’d slain. The asymmetry of the matches makes even the competition feel like collaboration, in a way. It was one of the most entertaining games I played at the show this year.
As for Ashton, he looked to me like a guy whose dream was coming true before my eyes.
“To come here to E3, and that wall is filling up with rewards and people are playing the game and are excited — to think of where we were then, and to get to here, all the things we had to overcome, is really amazing.”
You’ll be able to give this guy’s dream game a spin yourself when it’s released on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PCs on Oct. 21. If you want to preorder, you’ll get a fourth monster to play as for free after the game launches.
“As a player, that’s the coolest pre-order I’ve ever heard of,” Ashton said. “And that had nothing to do with us. 2K was like, ‘Hey, we want to give away a monster,’ and I was like, ‘That’s incredible!'”