Stu­dio Pro­file

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


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.


Tur­tle Rock co-founders Chris Ash­ton (left) and Phil Robb are both fer­vent ad­her­ents of the no-shave-till-ship pol­icy

Founded 2002

Em­ploy­ees 96 Key staff Chris Ash­ton (co-founder and de­sign di­rec­tor), Phil Robb (co-founder and cre­ative di­rec­tor)

URL www.turtle­rock­stu­ 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

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