Monday, February 17, 2014
Having created Left 4 Dead with Valve's guiding hand, Turtle Rock is striking out with 2K Games on Evolve, a 4v1 competitive/co-op multiplayer shooter that pits four distinctive hunters against a fearsome and ferocious monster.
Wearing its Left 4 Dead DNA on its sleeve, Evolve effectively puts you in the Tank role as the monster, hunting the hunters, hurling rocks and leaping about like King Kong as the Goliath. He's just the first in what Turtle Rock promises will be a menagerie of beasts, in a game that could potentially redefine the multiplayer shooter. Find out more in our first look hands-on preview.
Fresh from a few hours of playing Evolve at a reveal event in London, we caught up with 2K Games' Executive Producer on the project, Denby Grace. Find out how Evolve's 4v1 gameplay originated, what other monsters might be in store, and how an apparently simple game concept can play host to a whole range of gameplay possibilities.
How did Evolve's asymmetrical multiplayer concept come about?
There's a couple of little stories, and different guys say different things, but one of them is that really really long ago, before the [Turtle Rock] team was even working on Counter-Strike, they used to play Cabela's Big Game Hunter. Chris (Ashton, co-founder) says he was bored of shooting deers that did nothing when you shot them. They were just grazing on the grass, and it was really uninspiring. He thought, wouldn't it be cool to hunt this actual difficult thing to hunt? That would be cool!
Imagine having to track this thing down and that was part of the game, actually tracking it; and then catching it as well is pretty hardcore. That was one story that Chris told me over beers once, and it really came back up after Left 4 Dead when the guys were playing the Tank battles in the game, with that co-operative play against a much bigger and stronger opponent, which became prevalent. That's where the guys just kind of clicked and thought “this is actually really good fun.” And playing against a human opponent as well, is even more fun.
It's one of those things that I think they missed, and the reason why they ended up doing Left 4 Dead was they got sick of getting super-agitated with each other, like when you play Counter-Strike. After a long session on Counter-Strike, sometimes you'll just be like, “I don't want to talk to you,” and that's why they went more towards something co-operative. But then the team felt they missed some of that adversarial stuff, so they got the teamplay in and the high-five moments, but lacked the sense of working together to beat someone. That's where they brought some of that stuff back, and so Evolve certainly has that in spades.
When you win as a team, it's a glorious moment and you can imagine that the team who beat you are pretty happy with their achievement, pulling it out of the bag. But at the same time on the flip-side, when you play as the monster, it's like yeah, there's four of you: come on. Seriously! (Laughs).
When Evolve was first announced, the image that was conjured for me was the movie Predator. We've seen the first monster, the Goliath, who's a King Kong-like beast; will we see a methodical Predator-esque creature who stalks from the trees?
There are some very different monsters, and while I can't talk specifics, I can allude to certain stuff. So Goliath is a very physical monster, and the first monster you'll play in the game when it comes out. It's a very deliberate decision on our part that he's very immediate and easy to pick up and play. It's incredibly easy to understand what he might do; he's very physicality-based, when he evolves he grows from about 10 foot tall to about 30 foot, and he's very very strong and can absorb a lot of damage. He can pick up and throw rocks, he can breathe fire and so on, but the other monsters are wildly different. You'll have to employ wildly different strategies to win as that monster, and how they move around the map, their abilities; it's all different.
What you've learned previously while playing as Goliath more than likely just does not apply in any way, and the same is true when it comes to the strategies you adopt to try and beat him or her, shall we say. Specifically, Predator is a big influence for the guys, and Aliens too. It's that sort of intimate sense of “what the fuck is out there?” That's actually one of the scariest parts and with some of our games you will know what you're going to find, like here with Goliath, you can see him right in front of you. Some of our stuff is set up in such a way that you won't know what monster has been selected and he doesn't see what you've selected, so that first encounter becomes a really key thing. Your team will be like “right, what are we hunting for?” We don't know what tracks we're looking for, we don't know what 'tells' in the world we're looking for, because the way in which this guy moves around the map is vastly different. All of a sudden you'll start to see certain things thinking that's leading you to the monster, and you might be completely wrong. Then it can be a case of “aaargh! Run away, run away!”
That's really a key part of the game, and you have that less with what you've been playing, because we've been telling you what you're playing against and it's on one map. When you start adding in all of the multiples we've got planned, you might get to know each map, but you won't initially know what you're playing against and it gets really intriguing. So yes, the monsters do vary really really wildly.
If you're planning to have all sorts of variables including different monsters and variations on each class, has that proved to be a difficult balancing act to handle during development?
Yes, but the team's mantra is get it into the game quick, then just iterate, iterate, iterate. We'll be initially playing as an untextured monster, no art or detail or anything like that; maybe it'll even use Goliath's model but with a whole host of different abilities. Its speed around the map might be totally different, but we can test very quickly how that would feel. And then on the side, the art team are working on a bunch of concepts of how this thing might look. So we get things in quickly and then we test, and then we playtest. As Phil (Robb, Turtle Rock co-founder) said, we playtest every day, and in it's in every single person's job description at the studio that this is part of your job: at this time of night, 7-9pm you play the game. Every single playtest we record telemetry data, which goes up to their server and they can literally log in and view stats for everything.
If the game ends in five minutes, that means someone's getting their ass kicked. If that's through skill, then great. If it's through mismatched rankings or bad balancing, then that's bad. Conversely if the game's going on for 30 minutes, chances are players are probably getting bored, so over the course of time we know when the games being played are good, so we want to make more of that. 12-20 minutes seems to be the sweet spot, first encounter with the monster around 3 and 5 minutes, and you've probably hunted long enough at that point. Evolving is also a place where the monster has to stop and take 20 seconds or so to actually evolve, so that's an opportunity for the hunters to catch up and get on top of the monster.
Then there's a completely different way you could play as the monster; you could just stalk straight from the start and go hide in the woods. We played the game this morning during our setup and our monster player left tracks as he walked to the edge of the cliff, entered stalk mode where you leave no footprints, make no sound and startle no flocks of birds, then just hid in a bush right where the hunters drop into the map. He sat there while the hunters ran off searching for tracks and went off the precipice to lower levels, then pounced out of the bush and started tearing the stragglers apart sending them straight to the dropship. That meant we were already down from the very start and we just knew it was going to be a bad game. He completely duped us! Stalking and taking the quiet approach changes the game completely, so all of a sudden your team of hunters might stop jetpacking to avoid making noise and turn off their flashlights. Then the only sound you might hear is the monster sniffing for your scent.
In matches like these it's a good idea to go and seek out roaming wildlife that has an 'animal sense' buff when you kill it, revealing a silhouette of the monster within a 50 metre radius. Or you could shoot the monster with a tranquilliser dart to highlight it for 25 seconds, so there's a huge number of different strategies you can adopt, even with just that one monster. Balancing is a challenge, but we just play it a lot and refine a lot.
Is solo play something that's available in Evolve, or is it purely an online multiplayer experience?
It's not online only multiplayer. You can play any combination of five players, so you can play on your own and AI fills in the spots. There are a lot of other modes, a lot of other experiences for the game around the core experience, 4v1, man vs beast. We're not really going into details of those today but time will reveal the bigger wrapper. But yeah, you can play in any combination of two of your buddies and the AI will fill in the rest. Ultimately the game is online so you can turn it off but if your game is online, people can join in, people can matchmake it. But if you don't want to do that you can turn it all off.
Similar to Left 4 Dead then?
Absolutely, yeah, that's the way to think about it.
In terms of map design, how challenging is it to make sure the maps are interesting and navigable for both the monster and the hunters at the same time?
Much like any of the abilities we get something up very quick, very dirty, grey box, very standard and then we play test it a shitload before the artists even go near it. What the artists are doing is, each environment set has its own wildlife and fauna and their attacks and how they interact with the humans. How they interact with the monster is all kind of worked on because we know it's gonna look like the forest, it's what you're seeing today. But the actual map itself, design-wise, it stays grey box for a long time. And then until we've play-tested it a lot, and even after that once we've started dressing it, as we're getting more and more data we find pitch points that aren't working, exploits where we've specifically designed spaces where the monster can go through when he's stage one but at stage three he's too big to fit through. So as a hunter you know that and you're like, “I'm gonna go through this again because I know he can't come through.” But saying that, he can just leap right over to either side so there is some specific design stuff that we're constantly iterating and constantly gathering data. Between 2K and Turtle Rock we must play in the region of 200 games a week. And that's only gonna go up as we move toward the finish line and we start bringing more people onto the project. Our QAs come into the project big time. Unfortunately we're not connected here, otherwise we'd be collecting your data. We love watching you play; it's one of the things that as a team, we really embrace seeing anyone playing the game and everyone plays it in their own unique way, so it's something that we embrace rather than fight. We're very, very against the principles of, people have to play it the way we've designed it. Gameplay is key and everyone can be an important source of data that we can analyse and iterate on.
How crazy do you think you could go with Evolve's formula? Could you end up with a monster that has a limited flight mobility or something else unexpected?
Maybe. I think the key is just playing it and seeing what works. Goliath's had about twenty different abilities at one time, but by the end of stage three you'd picked four out of eight so you'd really personalised the thing. But then we just kept going, “well that kind of makes the combination that you're choosing more complex, but doesn't necessarily make it better.” Where does the strategy with Goliath really come from? Goliath as he's evolving, he's getting bigger but he's getting slower, he's getting stronger but again, he's getting slower; so how do you want to play? Earlier on if you want to be aggressive you probably want to take the rock and the fire, but it's gonna really hinder your ability to put distance between you and the hunters. We play-tested like twenty different abilities and at different times we have the ability to loadout different loadouts mid-game but it doesn't bring much to the table, so we erred on the side of, “let's have a bit of a narrow experience but a much more refined experience.” So a much more balanced experience.
A lot of the time, we've made those sort of decisions. The hunter characters have three unique items; they have one class ability like Markov's personal shield. All of the Assault characters have the personal shield, that's just the class ability, but each item is unique. At one time you could choose any weapon from the Assault and you could apply it that character but then we were like, “yeah but if we keep Markov with always having that we can really characterise him.” I think Griffin's the best example of that. The Trapper who's this big moustache guy with a hat and he carries a giant harpoon gun; it's part of the DNA of who he is. Now if you wanna play with a different item, a different weapon then you choose a different character. We want people to attach to monsters and characters that suit their gameplay but also ones they love because of who the characters are. Over the course of the development we've been back and forth on many many different things but this is where we're at and what we think works best.
Thematically, are Evolve's different maps a big shift from the Forest Ruin one you're showing today?
Yeah it's set across the entire planet. Planet Shear is an Earth-like planet but it's alien. It's like a frontier sort of sci-fi; these guys who've gone out to the edge of the galaxy, they're known as planet tamers, they're a bit rough and ready. Their equipment is sent to allow them to deal with the wildlife you see in the world. So, if you harpoon a sloth, he stays pretty much harpooned. He's not breaking it like the monster is. You can use your tools pretty well. Like, an Orbital Barrage on a tyrant, he's in that pool he's gonna take it and he's gonna die pretty quickly. But when the hunters get there they quickly realise that there's actually this monster, this alien monster that's also an alien to that planet and he's harvesting everything including yourself. We've been playing games for a long time, so you can imagine the other environments that we're going to see. The cool thing about working with CryEngine is we can do some pretty elaborate things and some pretty dense forestry and jungle stuff which is great, and I think the other environments are equally impressive.
Is Evolve tied together by a loose narrative at all?
That is the loose narrative. There is narrative going in and out and there is some other narrative stuff that we're not really talking about right now but again, it really is of secondary importance to us on the project. Gameplay is king for us. There is a wrapper. Going in you saw our great cut-scenes at the start of the game (Evolve's cut-scenes are currently crude pencil sketches). They're not finished. We are gonna have that loose sort of set up, but we don't want games going to 30 minutes. One of the things we put in during the last six months was the send conditions for maps. We have an interesting way of dealing with some of the issues we saw where we were seeing games where people would go and they'd fight, and they'd get into a situation where one side would think all is lost, and they don't want to engage at that point, so they'd go and hide in the woods.
One of the things we did is put in the buffs, so you have an opportunity to go and power yourself up. Also the monster armour came in, so as the monster if you lose that armour and start losing health, you can run away and feed to get your armour back. Those two things went in so that players felt that they could come back and recover. Some buffs are like health regen or double damage, so you have a way of dealing with that, but then we still found that some people are just dicks and they just didn't want to engage. It's like Command & Conquer when you just take one unit to the edge of the world. What we were really keen to do was to not have an arbitrary time on the entire round, but we have a timer that spawns if people aren't engaging. The assumption is – and it's a good assumption - if you're fighting, you're having fun, once you engage again, we turn the timer off. We turn the timer off and if the game's going to end in a draw, you'll want to get the team together and make sure that doesn't happen. We give you the length of time it takes for the dropship to come down, plus twenty seconds or something like that. It is fair game for the hunters to say they're waiting for the dropship, because their bodies are going to come back. Once the monster's at stage three, he has an objective map specifically, and different maps have different ways of ending and different objectives. On this map (Forest Ruin), he can crush the generator and feed on the scientists, ultimately creating an end point arena. That space is one of the best arena spaces for a battle, with good high points for the hunters.
If you break the maps apart, there are like 5-7 actual combat arena spaces connected together on a very rudimentary level, so that forces that end engagement. It gets urgent for the monster and he has to kill all the hunters immediately, or the hunters need to take the monster down before he destroys the generator or wipes out the team. The monster gets perma-death and has only a limited way to regenerate health. That's something that's changed over time. At one time you could feed on the hunters, but instead we thought it'd be cool if the hunters deal permanent damage to the health, so then the monster's actually managing his armour. When the armour gets down to zero, the monster's looking to run, and as a hunter you know that, so you're maybe saving Griffin's mobile arena for that point. Tranquilise him, bring the arena down, harpoon him and start inflicting real damage. There's a lot of nuance to the strategy and a lot of people play in different ways.
What's your personal favourite strategy to play then?
I play Medic, I don't like playing the monster. I just like playing as part of the team, I personally play as Val the Medic. She has three items and weapons that you play with a lot; she has a tranq gun, an anti-material rifle and a healing ray. Basically I find at different stages of the game you really using the different things and that's what I like. The other ones, you're doing the same thing a lot whereas, for me, she's got a good balance of stuff that you're doing when you're hunting, engaging in initial battle, and then when you're getting fucked over. The role changes. Now, I'm still at the same range doing the same things, but I'm having to switch between these things so that's why I like her. Then obviously being the guy who's healing - I used to play a lot of Team Fortress - I played a Medic in that. That's my immediate attraction. I'm starting to get better as the Support but at the same time I'm still pretty rubbish. The guys I play with they just shout at you if you're rubbish.
So you're always drawn to that Medic role?
Yeah, it's mainly because I've spent a lot of time as a Medic so I'm actually quite good, whereas I'm a mediocre Support guy and if I'm doing that then the AP I'm working with is just yelling at me. “We're gonna lose because of you!”
Evolve is out in autumn 2014 for PS4 and Xbox One.
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