A massive shadow hung over the crowd at PAX East 2014. A 20-foot statue of Goliath, the first monster to be revealed from Evolve and now erected in fiberglass near the center of the show floor, loomed above the long line to play Turtle Rock Studio’s latest shooter. Though centered on jurassic brutes instead of the zombie hordes that made Turtle Rock famous with Left 4 Dead, Evolve promised to retain the emphasis on teamwork and cooperation that made L4D one of the most successful multiplayer games of all time.
In Evolve, four hunters team up against a single opposing player in control of a continually growing monster. It’s a classic cat and mouse setup, with each player assuming a wildly different role. The concept of asymmetrical multiplayer—meaning a game in which players on opposing sides have access to wildly different resources, rather than the same set of abilities—showed promise as a competitive game. Evolve was a major hit at PAX, and its hype continued for almost a year, stoked by detailed demos and cryptic reveals of gruesome new monsters.
Selling Evolve’s distinct experience as “the next big thing” in multiplayer gaming was a major focus for Turtle Rock in the months leading up to Evolve’s release. To connect with their potential audience, the developers needed to make sure the intricacies of Evolve’s atypical design were clear from the outset. With appearances at multiple gaming conventions, in-depth livestreams, tutorial videos, and open beta tests, no lack of effort was made to sell the four-versus-one hook that made Evolve unique.
Evolve showed potential to earn a place in the esports ecosystem.
Before launch, Evolve showed potential to earn a place in the esports ecosystem. In its design, a great deal of responsibility was placed on the communication and planning between teammates. Watching the chthonian antagonist grow through multiple stages of evolution further added to the appeal of Evolve as a spectator sport. The natural progression of a single match lent itself created a storyline that was easy for viewers to follow, watching the evolution of the hunters’ defenses as well as those of the monster. Before the game was out the door, the game’s publisher, 2K, was planning tournaments and organizing streams. Evolve seemed primed to carve out a new corner in the esports scene, one full of giant squids and scaly behemoths.
Only that didn’t happen.
Evolve returned to PAX East in 2015, this time taking the form of a major organized tournament. ESL brought the PRO-AM tournament to their stage and broadcast the live monster hunting around the world. This took place only a few weeks after the game’s official launch, before its sales and daily average players numbers became common knowledge. The tournament was meant to launch the game’s competitive scene, but, instead, it revealed its flaws as a spectator esport. By nature, Evolve was a slow burn and required a great deal of waiting on both team’s parts, to say nothing of the viewer. The monster needed time in the environment to grow if it wanted to pose any serious threat to its hunters. Meanwhile, those same hunters needed to lay spikes and nets to situate themselves and prepare for the impending fight. Tactically speaking, those first couple minutes of a match comprised much of Evolve’s moment-to-moment gameplay and exhibited a huge amount of strategic depth, but it didn’t translate especially well to broadcasting, and largely failed to capture the attention of streamers and spectators.
During the course of the tournament, teams took turns swapping between hunters and monster. This meant that, every round, a single player represented an entire team every round. But on the other side, four teammates were chatting, planning, and coordinating in-game. Broadcasters could jump between both perspectives, watching the monster grinding down smaller creatures in the environment to reach the next stage of growth as well as the hunters planning a strategy for attack. The asymmetrical format was a significant divergence from the 4v4 or 5v5 excitement of established esports like Counter-Strike or Dota 2. An observer mode later came to the game, hoping to better display each team’s progress to spectators. This update allowed for mapping the action hot spots in an individual match as well added an on-screen algorithm to display each team’s chance of winning.
These features were added in the hopes to make Evolve simultaneously more accessible and exciting to spectators tuning in to a streamed match. There were some attempts made to connect with a larger audience, but for all the anticipation that accompanied the buildup to Evolve’s release, its reception was decidedly lukewarm among critics and fans alike. Within the first month of launch, Evolve’s peak player activity on Steam sat at just over 27,000. The very next month, concurrent with the PRO-AM match at PAX East, Evolve’s highest record of activity had fallen to less than 7,000 players. Average player numbers per month fell into a nosedive as well, languishing at under 1,000 concurrent players for most of the year.
The expensive season pass plans for Evolve’s DLC did little to help the game catch on, with physical sales for the release on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One coming in around 300,000. Many fans were turned off by the extensive monetization of a game they had already paid $60 for, and felt Evolve would have been better served by a free-to-play model. This way, players could familiarize themselves with the atypical structure of the highly strategic multiplayer, and customize the tools, skins, and classes they purchased for use on their own team. Without the entry fee of a AAA game, more players may have tried Evolve with their friends at launch and found a routine team with which to compete.
Evolve came and went rather quickly.
For a game that had garnered so much attention before release, Evolve came and went rather quickly. Esports often crop up in unexpected places, when players in a dedicated community grow attached to a game and build the scene from the ground up. But Evolve’s launch had attempted to simultaneously promote a AAA title and capture the competitive spirit of streamers, only to miss both audiences. Its lack of success is evidence that very few games can be forced into major esports by developers. What hurt Evolve most in the long run was the lack of commitment from a substantial dedicated community to nurture its competitive scene.
By June of this year, Evolve had sunk to a dismal 106 average daily users on Steam. For anyone looking in from the outside, it appeared that Evolve was effectively extinct. The game’s selling point had turned into its crux, as the asymmetrical and highly specialized format made it hard for players to get attached enough to play regularly or organize teams. But Turtle Rock, who had listened to vocal criticisms about the game’s repetitive structure and limited variety, were working on a rebrand that would bring Evolve closer to what many felt it should have been initially.
Evolve Stage 2, the game’s free-to-play reinvention, entered open beta on Steam in July. Nearly every aspect of the game has been overhauled in some way; monsters are stronger, the user interface has been designed, and matchmaking options are more diverse. Over a million new users came to the game, and those who had already purchased it were rewarded with in-game compensations. The free-to-play model benefits players looking to get in on Evolve from the ground up, as the in-game market is less intrusive and all characters, perks, and skins can be unlocked with Silver Keys earned by playing online. More people are playing and talking about Evolve right now than at any other time since it launched, but Turtle Rock is still listening and responding to suggestions, criticisms, and feedback. In addition to revamped gameplay, Stage 2 adds new maps and matchmaking modes, including a more relaxed co-op queue lets players practice against AI enemies and learn their roles as a team.
The balance of gameplay is now centered around quickly getting to the action, as well as making core combat encounters varied and lengthy. In the previous iteration of Evolve, the beginning of the match required the monster to farm naturally spawned wildlife in order to gain experience and grow in size. The early minutes were far from tense, with hunters and the monster so far apart grinding to raise their own stats and skills that any sense of competition was lost. There were long stretches of time where each player was in their own corner of the map, not interacting with each other. Stage 2 does away with those quiet moments, in favor of more frequent player vs player encounters. All hunters now possess the ability to deploy the Orbital Arena, a dome previously exclusive to the Trapper class that was used to focus damage on the monster.
Though it’s now easier to find and attack the monster, these skirmishes have become more exciting thanks to significant buffs to the monster’s armor, health, and mobility. Like that massive statue had lorded over PAX East 2014, Evolve’s monsters are finally ferocious beasts that require the cooperation of four players to take down. Each class—Assault, Medic, Trapper, and Support—comes with its own perks that distinguishes how they control and feel in-game. Stage 2 shifts the focus away from rigidly defined roles in favor of keeping the group close together and centralize the action. The various hunters still have their own specialized features, like an alien hound dog used to follow the monster’s scent, but are naturally inclined to stick with each other rather than go their separate ways.
Everything about Evolve Stage 2 feels designed with a competitive spirit in mind.
With the hunters in a close-knit unit, and a more agile, imposing monster somewhere on the map, Stage 2 feels more like the “hunt or be hunted” premise that was promised initially. The new iteration of the game is more exciting to watch and easier to grasp thanks to its streamlined design. Cooldowns refresh more quickly and match timers go longer in sudden death, borrowing gameplay mechanics from many popular MOBAs, like League of Legends and Dota 2. Players don’t need to lock into one specific role and complete the same tasks every time they play, making Stage 2 much more accessible than the original game.
In short, everything about Evolve Stage 2 feels designed with a competitive spirit in mind. This radical transformation brings the game closer than it had ever come to the esports scene. Moving to free-to-play gives Evolve a second chance to capture a dedicated audience and build a community. After the relaunch in July, over 15,000 new players came to Stage 2. Only time will tell if people flock to the game on streaming networks and in major tournaments, but for a competitive experience with aspirations to be unique and appealing, Stage 2 is a massive step in the right direction.