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Feature

Evolve Goes Completely Free On PC With Significant Gameplay Changes

by Mike Futter on Jul 06, 2016 at 04:15 PM

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When Evolve was first introduced to the gaming world, it made a huge impression at both E3 and Gamescom. Players were ready for a new kind of multiplayer that focused on cat-and-mouse chases, big boss fights, and the chance to be an overpowered monstrosity. 

Turtle Rock, which began working on the title under now-defunct publisher THQ, saw its aspirations start to crumble as Evolve neared release. A confusing set of purchase options and an overblown controversy over cosmetic DLC left gamers feeling lukewarm before they even got to try it for themselves.

Since its February 2015 release, Turtle Rock has continued to support Evolve. The game has eight more hunters than it did at launch, as well as two additional monsters. Still, many gamers saw a value mismatch, with a number suggesting Evolve would have been better suited as a free-to-play game.

We’ll find out if they were right. Evolve has been overhauled and will re-launch as a free-to-play game on PC called Evolve Stage 2, which will formally be revealed on July 7.

“When Evolve launched, the reception wasn’t what we expected,” studio co-founders Chris Ashton and Phil Robb said in a blog post. “Sure, there were some good reviews. There were also bad reviews. Yes, there was excitement. There was also disappointment – for players and for us. The DLC s***storm hit full force and washed away people’s enthusiasm, dragging us further and further from that first magical pick-up-and-play experience.”

If you already own Evolve, you’ll be granted founder status and anything you already owned will be unlocked. You'll get 3,000 silver keys, all past and future adaptations for any hunters and monsters you own, a number of weapon skins, and four founder-exclusive animated badges. Additionally, Turtle Rock is going to be doling out bonuses for founders over time.

Everything, including hunters, monsters, and skins, can be earned in-game. Most can be unlocked with earned keys. Badges are tied to progression milestones.

The idea of going free-to-play with Evolve isn't brand new. When Turtle Rock was working under the game at THQ before its bankruptcy, company president Jason Rubin suggested going that route. We learned more about that possibility in our look at the studio during our Evolve cover story.

"He led us down a few roads that resulted in some really good game-design decisions," studio head Phil Robb tells us. "Initially, we only had four hunters. Jason's a big proponent of the free-to-play stuff."

Rubin cautioned that it was unclear what the market would look like by the time Evolve was released and suggested Turtle Rock work up a back-up plan with a free-to-play model. "I had been looking at games like League of Legends, which sells characters," Robb explained. "That makes sense. I would rather buy a character than an individual piece of equipment. That's sort of where the multiple characters came from."

At the time, studio head Phil Robb told us that he didn't see a path in which Evolve changed business models. A year after launch, Turtle Rock is changing approaches, and is also taking the opportunity to rebalance the game.

There are a couple of key differences. Trappers were the position requiring the most skill in the original version. Isolating the monster in a dome, where it could be easily damaged, is extremely valuable to a team's success.

Now, every hunter has access to the team’s dome. It also won’t miss anymore. To balance this out, Turtle Rock has taken steps to ensure that you won’t be able to take down a less-experienced monster player in one dome.

As the monster knocks players down, incapacitates them, or takes damage, the dome will lose some of its charge. It also has a clearly visible recharge timer, so monsters and hunters all know when the next, inevitable fight is coming.

“No one liked to watch the monster not fight and die in a cage,” says lead designer Brandon Yanez. “So the entire flow minute-to-minute is just getting into fights and encouraging those fights. Dome goes up, there’s a five-minute timer, it’s ticking down. You can’t run out of a dome. If the monster gets an incap on anybody it takes off a huge portion of the time. If hunters start eating into the monster’s health, it’ll start taking increments off the time.”

In exchange, Trappers now have a dash ability and a planetary scanner that points in the general direction of the monster. This keeps the role valuable without penalizing the team for having a rookie in that slot.

All hunters will also have a very minor health recharge. This mitigates the situation in which you’re too far from a medic, or that player is still learning how to manage the team’s health.

Another big change is how the dropship respawn mechanic works. It used to be on a constant cycle of two minute countdowns. Now, it takes on more of a MOBA feel, with the timer getting longer as the match goes on.

Specific actions will increase the timer’s length. It starts at zero, but as the monster evolves and other actions occur during the match, it will permanently lengthen.

Turtle Rock has plans to roll out new hunter variants, cosmetics, and other content updates along the way. As the game transitions fully into a service model, the team understands that it needs to move at a faster pace to keep people engaged.

“We realize that throughout the past year-and-a-half, patches were coming too slow. Content was coming too slow,” Yanez explains. “We’ve put a lot of work into how we build things, our infrastructure, and the engine behind it so we can patch weekly if we need to. We’re going to try and keep that up. It’s super important that we can respond to things as a multiplayer service. We can’t have an exploit be in the game for as long as it may have been in the past. We have to be very aggressive about cleaning all that stuff up.”

Beyond patching, Turtle Rock expects that it will shift quickly to a multiplayer service model for content updates. You’ll start seeing more regular drops for both cosmetic and gameplay items.

“We are going to get stuff out fast. We have four hunter adaptions that are going to be hitting in the first two months,” Yanez says. “Every two weeks roughly, you’ll get a hunter. In the off week you’ll get new perks. That’s in addition to any skins or cosmetic badges that come out. That’s our fairly aggressive showing that we can produce this stuff and that we can patch quickly. We intend to have very regular character updates, perk updates, and additions to the game beyond that.”

Evolve’s tone is also changing. You’ll still be able to find the hardcore experience if you want to play ranked matches. But if you’re looking for something a little more approachable and friendly, those players will be able to have something to enjoy, too.

“We acknowledge more of the casual players now,” Yanez says. “We’ve made the non-ranked queue more varied. We won’t say what it is, but we acknowledge that a little more lighthearted experience is something that we want to press.”

Fans can look forward to some characters that might be off the beaten path from what they’ve come to expect from the game. We didn’t get too many hints, but community manager Cory Lanier (who is also on the balancing team) suggests fans won’t expect what’s coming next.

“The first hunter that we’ll be throwing out there will be a big surprise for a lot of people,” he says. “It’s one of our favorite hunters that we’ve ever had a chance to work on. It cuts across the whole project. Evolve is a fun game, and we just want to have more people playing the game.”

If you are looking for the tone or content of the original Evolve experience, you won’t have to look far. There’s going to be a ranked queue if you want to play competitively. And for those that own the original version, you’ll be able to select that, too.

“There’s still that place where if you want to play ranked and go competitive and try all that, cool. We have all that,” Yanez says. “That’s not a focus for us. The focus is getting to enjoy Evolve with as many people as we can.”

Part of Turtle Rock’s philosophy was giving some newer voices a chance to reshape Evolve into its new form. Yanez was a character designer on the original game, and the studio gave him the chance to flex his design muscles. 

“I played fairly competitively in the studio, with groups of people,” he explains. “After launch, I continued to do character stuff for Behemoth, but played tourney Evolve with friends. I gleaned information on high level competitive stuff, and then I’d go in and talk to our lead designer Chris Ashton about directions we should go.”

Lanier was plucked from Evolve’s community, after playing and streaming countless hours. “I met Cory because I was streaming the game nightly,” Yanez says. “Cory and our other balance-team member were watching on Twitch, and then we’d jump in and play together. We’d play a lot of Evolve, but also Dota and stuff like that. We bonded and it was a good experience, because I could see how they did under pressure. As I got to know them better, we got them hired one by one.”

As far as the game’s presence on Steam, here’s what you can expect on July 7. Anyone that owns Evolve on PC will see an update that will result in Evolve Stage Two. The original version has already been delisted and you can't purchase it from this point forward.

When it returns to the Steam storefront, anyone will be able to download the free version, which is in alpha starting on July 7. Beta is targeted for August. Expect balancing to happen once the public gets in.

You can unlock cosmetics in-game right away with silver keys. However, Steam Workshop support will not be present. Turtle Rock is considering adding it later, as well as the option for players to design items to be sold on the marketplace.

Console players might have a similar transition to look forward to. However, Turtle Rock wants to make sure things are in good shape on PC before considering an Xbox One and PlayStation 4 conversion.

"There are a lot of reasons why we are starting this Evolve Stage 2 Beta on PC. One of the main reasons is that, with the way updates work through Steam, we can iterate quickly without going through a submissions process," Yanez explains. "This means that we can more quickly identify and resolve problems and get Stage 2 to a place where we feel it is really solid and an excellent player experience. After implementing and testing these new changes on PC, if we find that players respond well to the changes, we would want to bring Stage 2 changes to consoles in the future. But for now PC is our exclusive beta platform."

Turtle Rock is giving Evolve another chance, which few could have predicted. We’ll see if the free-to-play gambit pays off and players who clamored for that model from the start give the game another shot.

Check back on July 7 to get your first look at the first gameplay trailer for Evolve Stage 2.

Note: We've updated a key point. Silver keys can only be earned. There is currently no monetization involved in the game. Everything is unlocked via playing.