Evolve or die: Turtle Rock’s bid to move out of Valve’s shadow

There’s a good chance that you’ve never heard of Turtle Rock Studios.

For a long time the Californian outfit has lived under the shadow of Half-Life creators Valve. It worked on the Counter Strike series before launching one of the biggest new IPs of recent times, Left 4 Dead.

Valve acquired the studio in 2008, but just a few years later allowed it to become independent again. And that’s why we find Turtle Rock boss Phil Robb in the UK. He’s here to prove that the firm does not need Valve, and is taking to the stage and sitting in makeshift cubicles to discuss his latest project, Evolve.

All of this is very new to me. I have been on some big games, but I’ve never been this into it before with all the hoopla,” Robb says.

For us this is a big deal, this is our proving ground. We are not just Valve’s bitch. I feel for the past 20 years we’ve been having to prove ourselves over and over. So here we are again, trying to prove ourselves.”

"For us, Evolve is a big deal. This game is
our proving ground. We are not just Valve’s bitch."

– Phil Robb, Turtle Rock

Evolve is a five person sci-fi multiplayer shooter for PS4, Xbox One and PC. Gamers pick from four different soldier classes, and the team must work together to take down a huge monster (controlled by the fifth player), which evolves and grows during the course of a match.

It’s a striking idea, but despite the developer’s Left 4 Dead heritage, the firm found it hard to convince publishers that it could build it.

Initially we pitched it to a lot of publishers, and there were people that questioned us,” tells Robb.

At the time we were ten guys, and they were not sure how we’d manage a triple-A project. We said that we’d need to grow and they’d respond: ‘We don’t think you can.’ All we could say was: ‘We’ll be happy to prove you wrong.’ It’s always nice to put someone’s shoe in their mouth.”

However, there was one publisher that did believe in Evolve, but there was just one problem, that company was fighting for its life.

We signed with THQ and we knew they were having some financial difficulties,” explains Robb. But the guys there were such advocates of Evolve, they were so excited about it, and they were willing to take risks. And for us, we have a tendency to root for the underdog.

Then when things started to fall apart for them, it was scary but we knew we had a good game. We play it every night and our guys scream and holler and hoot. So even if the worst happened, we believed we’d find someone else to pick it up.”

"When THQ collapsed, we bid for our own
product, which was all the money we could scrape up
and it would have been really f*****g tense if we had got it."

– Phil Robb, Turtle Rock

The collapse of THQ was nevertheless frightening. Turtle Rock was a studio striking out on its own with a new IP. And even if someone else recognised Evolve’s potential, the studio had little say on who that company was.

We worked with THQ for a while, and all that time we weren’t allowed to say anything about Evolve. It was a big secret. And then all of a sudden, THQ starts to crumble, the auction starts, and every publisher that wants to see it – and it was quite a few – gets to come and rummage through our underwear drawer,” recalls Robb.

It was uncomfortable. But, while they were evaluating us, we were evaluating them, too.”
Out of those that came, Robb says 2K was the one he had the best rapport with. But he wasn’t certain the publisher would bid. So Turtle Rock made an offer for Evolve itself.

We went into the auction with three best-case scenarios. One, was that THQ pulls its head out of the guillotine at the last minute and we’d keep going as normal. Two was 2K. Those guys just seemed so enthusiastic.

And three, as a fail safe we bid for our own product, which was all the money we could scrape up, and it would have been really fucking tense if we would have got it.”

The good news was that 2K won, bidding 6.6m to secure the IP.

Robb says: A lot of press were asking us: ‘Were you disappointed to be outbid on your own product?’ Expecting us to be unhappy. But fuck no. That was plan C. That was a case of: ‘if everything else goes wrong, at least we have our IP back’.

It’s been one terrifying little hurdle after the next. But we stay humble, do our work, and it always seems to work out for the best.”

"You can only pump out so many clones of the
same game before people get bored"

– Phil Robb, Turtle Rock

2014 appears to be the year for new sci-fi multiplayer shooters, whether that’s next month’s Titanfall or September’s Destiny. So Evolve certainly has competition.

I have had a chance to play the Titanfall beta, and it’s really cool and I hope they do well because they are like us by going with a multiplayer-focused thing,” says Robb.

But it’s still a very different experience. I haven’t played Destiny, but I can tell from just looking at it that it is going in a different direction. Variety is good, the last thing we want to do is shovel out more shit that everyone else has been doing.”

Far from being concerned by the competition, Robb is delighted to see big publishers push new IP.

You can only pump out so many clones of the same game before people get bored,” he says. I don’t play a lot of those games because I’ve already played it. I want something new. Personally, I’ve been tapping into a lot of indie games.

I’m glad to see all this new IP. It gives me faith that there are publishers out there taking risks.”

Of course the publishers of Titanfall and Destiny are already talking about developing these new concepts into long-term brands.

And although there were times where Evolve’s future was in doubt, surely – with 2K backing it – Robb and his team already have one eye on an Evolve 2?

There’s a time in game development called the ‘wouldn’t this be cool’ phase and a ‘won’t it be cool when’ phase,” he concludes.

We are firmly planted in that latter phase. You can’t help it, you find yourself having to slap yourself when you say it. And then you just say: ‘Maybe in the sequel.’

We don’t approach our initial design thinking we are going to build a franchise. This is what we want to make, then we see how it goes.

Even when Chris [Ashton, co-founder] and I started it was all about keeping Turtle Rock going. It wasn’t about building a studio and selling it for millions and retiring, which is what a lot of business guys tend to do.”

He laughs: Don’t get me wrong, I love money. But that’s not our goal.”

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