The Left 4 Dead creator remains unscathed by stormy weather
We drop in on a surprisingly hirsute Turtle Rock, the Californian creator of Left 4 Dead and Evolve
Beards are everywhere, rather defying the winter sun of Southern California. Turtle Rock has issued an edict around Evolve, the four-against-one monster shooter that’s set to launch in February: no shave till ship (no snip till ship for the studio’s female staff). For every inch of hair trimmed at the game’s release, money will go to charity. Outside the kitchen-cum-boardgame stadium hangs a list of participants, a specially commissioned stamp branding ‘Failed’ across the names of any violators.
No shave till ship typifies the mindset of this peculiar Lake Forest enclave; Turtle Rock has remained frenetic and characterful despite the kind of upheaval that has ended other studios. In a way, it still feels like the 2002 startup that contracted on Counter-Strike: Condition Zero and Source, and dreamt up Left 4 Dead. Though its ranks have swelled to almost 100, touring the Turtle Rock of today feels like intruding on a family occasion. In-jokes hang in the air, grins flick between staff, and creative director Phil
Robb chuckles spontaneously. In this curious, intimate climate, Left 4 Dead all but spontaneously animated itself. While collaborating on CS: Source, Robb and design director Chris Ashton found inspiration in the community – players were developing modes of their own, or “goofing off”, as Robb puts it. Turtle Rock had licence to fiddle too, having developed
Counter-Strike’s AI. And so it unleashed the apocalypse on its internal servers.
“We started just for fun,” Ashton says. “I took the Counter-Strike levels de_dust and cs_italy and made them nighttime and scary, and Phil took the skins and made zombie skins from them. Out of that, Left 4 Dead was born.”
Valve was an obvious choice for publisher: Turtle Rock had worked closely with Gabe Newell and co since the Xbox port of Counter
Strike, and Ashton was a former employee. But both he and Robb had been artists at EA earlier in their career, and their experience of a goaloriented regime had instilled a militaristic work ethic that kept their projects on track despite Valve’s fabled hands-off approach. The distance, however, allowed the studio to develop L4D as felt natural. “We didn’t have milestones and stuff like that,” Robb says. “With Valve it was just: ‘Make progress.’ That’s a very relaxed way of working, and I think only Valve can do that.”
Valve’s values have been internalised. Today, Turtle Rock’s office is open plan and each rig is secured to its desk. One tug on a plug and the workstation goes mobile. Hierarchy is an afterthought, if not quite the enforced non-issue of Valve HQ. “People ask about job titles, and we say, ‘You call yourself whatever the hell you want,’” Robb says. Ashton clarifies: “You can call yourself Superman, but while you’re here, we’re going to need you to do certain things.”
The working relationship with Valve proved so effective that Newell’s firm bought the studio from founder Mike Booth in L4D’s fourth year of development, and Turtle Rock became Valve South. There was something in the water. “I worked at Valve,” Ashton says. “A number of other people who worked at Turtle Rock were also from Valve, and one thing we had in common was that we left not because we didn’t like working there, but because of the [Washington state] weather… So I think Valve was very interested in a Valve South studio – instead of losing people because of the weather, why not have two studios? We’d been working with them for seven or eight years up to that point, and very successfully. We had a very good relationship, and so it just made sense.”
Working across state lines put strain on the loosely structured studios, however, and the new arrangement meant that L4D struggled its way towards completion. Despite the difficulties, the partners persevered, both managing to take something away from the slog.
“Communication in the company happens because you’re sitting next to somebody,” Ashton says. “We’re not really set up with a bunch of other people to facilitate communication, and neither is Valve, and so that last year on Left 4
Dead was really difficult. Gabe came down and we were talking about the future of the studio, and we all decided the best thing was to roll back out and be an independent studio again.”
It was a move of deep understanding from a large company towards what was then a tiny team of 13, but a blood price had to be paid. Valve retained the rights to L4D, although the re-formed Turtle Rock’s first act was to take on a contract for the game’s DLC. Of more immediate importance was the departure of Mike Booth: founding Turtle Rock was one thing, but the notion of effectively founding it all over again was just too much for one man.
This time around, the task fell to Robb and Ashton, who wanted to run screaming. “Chris and I come from a development background,” Robb says. “We’re not businessmen; we never wanted to be businessmen. All the stuff that’s like business, I don’t want anything to do with. But we [re-founded] Turtle Rock because we didn’t want a good thing to end.”
The first question, though, was what to do with its freedom.“That was a scary place for us, because we’d been with Valve for so many years,” Robb says. “That work dried up, and we were like, ‘Well, what are we going to do now?’ Ultimately, that fear of potentially having to close our doors… Fear is a great motivator. Some of the best stuff I’ve ever done has been done while I was terrified.”
Turtle Rock began dredging up old ideas for something presentable. It was a more deliberate effort than L4D’s immaculate conception. The team stumbled on what was then labelled Prey – not Human Head’s 2006 shooter, but something ancient, a concept that technical limitations
“FEAR IS A GREAT MOTIVATOR. SOME OF THE BEST STUFF I’VE EVER DONE HAS BEEN DONE WHILE I WAS TERRIFIED”
had forced into hibernation. With new hardware liberating the studio from those constraints, the idea was resurrected, and then it grew. The name rather wrote itself.
“Evolve was an idea from the pre- L4D days,” Robb tells us. “Whereas L4D was an idea that was spawned out of watching something that people were doing very naturally, with Evolve it was more like, ‘I want this experience. I’ve never had this experience. Why not?’ And lo and behold, we’re game developers!”
“Look at Evolve now,” Ashton says. “Look at all the huge outdoor environments, the lush plants and foliage, and rocks – you look at that stuff now and you think about doing that ten years ago. It just wouldn’t have been the same game. It was something that had to wait until the time was right, until the technology could support it.”
Pragmatism drove the decision to license CryEngine. As a rule, Turtle Rock doesn’t build its own tools, dedicating its limited resources to games and games alone. The cost is a choke on the bonds it’s known for building with players. Modding, at least legitimately, is out of the question, since the CryEngine licensing terms offer no scope for community content.
Turtle Rock won’t, however, be deterred from putting players ahead of business. “Rule number one: you don’t fracture the community,” Robb says. “Ever.” It’s a mantra repeated often, and Turtle Rock is frank about its post-release plans for
Evolve. Map packs will always be free, but Turtle Rock isn’t completely against the concept of paid DLC. Instead, staff are approaching it as they have every project since Counter-Strike – from a player’s perspective. Turtle Rock will bring new hunters and monsters to the roster in a manner similar to that employed by League Of Legends. People who want to play as them must pay, but others can still spot them out in the wild. Even without owning the full collection of characters, their inclusion among your team will keep the metagame changing. It feels one step away from a considered take on free-to-play.
“The games we’ve seen be successful at [free-to-play] are all very similar, at least in North America,” Robb says. “I think Evolve could do it, if that was the way we wanted to go, but I don’t think we’re really prepared. You know, a new IP, a totally new gaming experience, and then a completely unfamiliar monetisation scheme. That, I think, probably would be just a little too much.”
That the team is in a position to plan out its DLC at all belies the tornado Evolve survived in development. The new Turtle Rock has been through quite a bit, choosing THQ as its first publisher and sharing its woes while ramping up work on Evolve. It was an informed decision: Turtle Rock had only ever been published by Valve, but had enough experience to know that at least some horror stories are true. Turtle Rock needed a deal that wouldn’t cost its soul.
“We went on tour,” Robb says. “We went to just about every publisher that would have us, and certainly L4D played a big part in getting our foot in the door. That was nice. I remember talking to Derek, our agent, and I was like, ‘What are the chances that any of these publishers are actually going to pick this game up?’ He said: ’Slim to none.’”
Derek’s estimation was off. Every publisher approached expressed interest in Evolve, but only one demonstrated an exuberance to match Turtle Rock’s own. THQ fought hard, and Turtle Rock was impressed by the enthusiasm. At this point, it was public knowledge that the company was in trouble, but Turtle Rock’s co-founders saw some of their own studio in its plight. As Robb puts it, they’re suckers for the underdog. Not that Turtle Rock is a charity – there was a strong case for selecting a struggling publisher.
“The game would not be what it is today without them,” Robb tells us. “Because they had so many problems, they left us alone for a year. For a year, we had the freedom to explore, and do our iterative process like we do everything.”
So Turtle Rock survived its pact with a publisher, and kept working as it always had, integrating the Counter-Strike approach with the creative and collaborative freedoms enjoyed with Valve. By the time THQ succumbed to its creditors (a “hiccup”, according to Robb) and Evolve passed into the hands of 2K at auction, Turtle Rock had a game unmistakably its own.
In the 12 years since its first port, Turtle Rock has been assimilated, spat out, re-founded and picked up by a publisher that imploded. This hurricane of change would have stripped the life from most developers, leaving only a label. Yet here sit Robb, Ashton and 90-plus others in a sea of charity beards and giggling at an unspoken joke. Turtle Rock celebrates its idiosyncrasies, convinced that if this isn’t the right way to be making games, it’s by far the most fun. Dauntless, it rides each storm, sheltered by self-belief, migrating with the weather.
“BECAUSE THQ HAD SO MANY PROBLEMS, THEY LEFT US ALONE FOR A YEAR. FOR A YEAR, WE HAD FREEDOM TO EXPLORE”
Turtle Rock co-founders Chris Ashton (left) and Phil Robb are both fervent adherents of the no-shave-till-ship policy
Employees 96 Key staff Chris Ashton (co-founder and design director), Phil Robb (co-founder and creative director)
URL www.turtlerockstudios.com Selected softography Left 4 Dead, CounterStrike: Condition Zero, Counter-Strike: Source
Current project Evolve
Turtle Rock’s offices are divided into large, open segments. If creative juices aren’t flowing in one location, the plug comes out and the desk can be wheeled to a new home. Personal communication, unmediated by managers, is highly prized – a commonality with Valve