Publisher 2K Games recently announced that the free-to-play version of Evolve, as well as the dedicated servers supporting its ranked modes and leaderboards, will shut down this September, just under two years after developer Turtle Rock Studios stopped working on the game. On the heels of the announcement, Evolve writer and designer Matt Colville took to Reddit to explain why he believes Evolve struggled to get off the ground, and why it declined so rapidly after release.
"We believed we were making an alien world you were going to explore, and we intended to make it awesome," Colville said. "That was the team we had. That team could have made a co-op game where four players explore a savage alien world and I think it would have gone down as one of the great games of the decade. But there was no way to get that game greenlit. No one would pay us to make that game."
In order to bring Evolve to a publisher, Turtle Rock needed a unique hook to lead with, so they hedged their bets on 4v1 multiplayer, which Colville says they "100% believed in." However, while the prototype builds of what would become Evolve's killer app performed well internally, even early on members of the team thought it was unstable.
"A friend of mine said very early, and I think he was right, 'The reason it works is because we're all role-playing playing Evolve,'" Colville said. "When someone on the team finally got tired of this and started playing to win, it all sort of fell apart and never really recovered."
Evolve's 4v1 mode was next to impossible to balance, Colville says, because its heroes and monsters function so differently. They operate on totally different systems, so "a lot of the stuff we wanted to do had to be super watered down." Virtually every character "broke all the rules," so no matter what cool idea they wanted to implement, "there was always some hero or monster ability that borked your stuff."
"So, we never really solved 4v1," Colville said. "It caused more problems than we ever imagined, and we didn't really have a team to make a competitive shooter. We had a team to build a world."
It didn't help that Evolve, a game "that only really works if you're playing with your friends," was $60 when it launched. "Getting your friends to spend a total of $240 on a game is a hard fucking sell," Colville said, adding that both Turtle Rock and then-backer THQ considered making Evolve free-to-play from the beginning. "Give the game away. Charge people for cosmetic stuff, but make the game free. Maximize your user base," he said. "We knew this, and THQ knew it. Alas, THQ went tits up."
The nail in the coffin was how limited Turtle Rock's options were following its release. According to Colville, the team was only able to update Evolve once every three months. The reasons for this are unclear, but given Colville's wording, it sounds like one of the project's backers wouldn't allow (or perhaps fund) rapid updates. Regardless of what led to it, this shoestring schedule severely bottlenecked the changes and fixes Turtle Rock wanted to make, and indeed were ready to make, leaving the game to die on the vine.
"I sincerely believe there was nothing wrong with Evolve at launch we couldn't fix if we could update the game live," Colville said. "We had a great launch, tons of people bought the game, tons of people were playing it. They'd discover exploits and… we couldn't do anything about it. As news of these exploits propagated, the user base evaporated. We had local fixes, often in 24 hours… couldn't deploy them ... It cost too much so folks who liked it couldn't get their friends to buy it, and we couldn't update the game to make the people playing it happy."
Colville goes on to criticize the reporting and discussions of Evolve's pre-order bonuses and additional content, saying it "didn't really have anything to do with Evolve," but was instead targeted at pre-order bonuses and DLC in general, and that Evolve was just an unlucky "punching bag." As you may recall, Evolve released at a time when pre-order bonuses were treated with the heightened suspicion and disdain which loot boxes are treated with today. It also released carrying a confusing mess of pre-order bonuses and special editions, with an entire monster locked behind pre-orders, so it was the subject of many debates—including one of our own.
"Dangling a full playable monster as a pre-order incentive seems cynical at a time when most blockbuster video games barely work at launch," our own Shaun Prescott said at the time. Playing devil's advocate for the sake of the debate column, Tyler pointed out that its community wouldn't become too heavily fragmented since, at the very least, all of Evolve's maps would be free. In the end, Shaun wore him down, and Tyler conceded that players "shouldn’t be pressured into throwing money at something before it’s released just to get DLC they can’t possibly know yet if they want." (“This is why we don’t try to do debate columns anymore,” says Tyler today.)
We'll never know how big a role Evolve's DLC and pre-order practices played in its decline, but one thing's for sure: it's a shame it fell off the way it did. As Evan said in his review, Evolve had "elegant, simple-but-deep mechanics", and the competitive depth to go far. But as Colville explained, its balance issues, muzzled updates, and pricing hurdles held it back.