I’m the biggest Left 4 Dead fan most people will meet. I’ve sunk thousands of hours into the 2008 cooperative shooter I initially wrote off as “yet another zombie game” – during my undergraduate years, I have probably worn my L4D hoodie an average of twice a week, and will continue to.
Yes, I do occasionally wash it. It’s a cool hoodie, alright?
Evolve was announced in early 2014 with its plethora of promotional materials all touting the byline “from the creators of Left 4 Dead,” Turtle Rock Studios. I can’t tell you exactly how many people asked me if I knew about Evolve, if I was interested in Evolve, whether I was going to preorder Evolve – even acquaintances who barely knew me would bring it up.
I told them the truth – I was skeptical. I never preordered nor purchased it, but as it turns out, I was not skeptical for the right reasons.
When Evolve launched, it sold around 300,000 physical copies in its first month and received an aggregate score of 77% on PC, and was even granted scores of 9/10 from IGN and 8.5/10 from Game Informer. The game was the second-best-selling game for the month of February 2015. By all measures, Evolve looked to be a success.
Within months, however, the game’s online population dwindled significantly. According to Kotaku, at any given time the PC version averaged 9,030 players logged in at a time during its release month, but the following month that statistic fell to 2,759, a decrease of 69.44%. A year and four months later, it averaged 106 average players, just before Turtle Rock adopted a free-to-play platform for the game in July 2016.
This change gave Evolve a new breath of life – the active player-base initially increased by 2,768% – but just three months later, the game tanked again and Turtle Rock released a statement announcing their abandonment of the game.
“This is the life of AAA game developers who aren’t self-funded and don’t own their own IP,” co-founder Chris Ashton wrote. “We all know that going in, but we still sign the dotted line because we love what we do.”
Today, their publisher 2K Games keeps the servers online but no further updates are planned.
“It was an extremely fun and well-built game, but the community abandoned it,” said gamer Nathan Larson, an animation major at Grand Canyon University. “There is no single player content, so the game is essentially worthless [now].”
Video games put their longevity at risk when the entirety of their content is multiplayer-only. If gamers lose interest in the title, there’s no one left online to play with.
Evolve tossed those dice and lost. Considering its excellent sales and respectable reviews, it’s a wonder why the game fell flat so soon after its release.
Before Evolve I had not personally noticed a video game simultaneously release three different editions, all offering differing amounts of content within the game.
“Evolve, Evolve Digital Deluxe Edition, Evolve PC Monster Race Edition” – It’s just too much. Wesley Yin-Poole of Eurogamer wrote an article weeks prior to the game’s release entitled “Untangling Evolve’s convoluted DLC (downloadable content) plan,” which lists the differences between each version of Evolve and the significance of its “season passes.”
“DLC is generally made so that companies can continue providing new content to players for free without releasing a new game,” said Larson. “In theory it is a good idea, but nowadays developers have stopped developing a full game so they can meet the deadline, with hopes to complete it in updates and future content.”
Such was the case with Evolve. Content was cut to meet a deadline, released later via season passes guaranteeing “free” additional characters and content in later months after paying extra for those features upfront.
According to Turtle Rock Studios co-founder Phil Robb, “If we thought we could have finished all those monsters and hunters for [shipping day] we would have put them in the box.”
He went on to state, “Ultimately, TRS makes the games, we don’t sell them. We then have to trust our publisher to make the best decision on how to sell that game.”
Well Robb, I’m genuinely sorry 2K Games didn’t make the best decision on how to sell your game. In recent years, video games such as Titanfall and Overwatch have risked being multiplayer-only and had success, games like Battlefield 1 and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands have risked the multiple special editions model and been successful, but taking both chances seems to frequently spell disaster – Watch Dogs and even Star Wars Battlefront suffered for it.
A notable exception to this is Destiny, which launched in Q3 2014 to mixed reviews, ultimately receiving an aggregate score of 76%. Created by Bungie, the Halo series’ development team, it enjoyed excellent sales, initially shipping more than $500 million to stores worldwide. Despite this, the game was subject to significant criticism – according to many critics and consumers alike, the worlds were massive but the gameplay lacked depth.
“Destiny had a rocky release, and the first DLC didn’t fix much,” Larson said. “I’m glad I did preorder it though, because I stuck with it and it is now one of my favorite games.”
What changed? According to Larson, “the [developers] listened to the users and actually worked to fix the broken system.”
Critics complained about the lack of a cohesive story – Bungie made sure to focus more on the story in later updates. Critics complained about the lack of interesting characters – Bungie added Eris Morn and filled many new missions with quips between her and Cayde-6, a popular character voiced by TV actor Nathan Fillion. Critics complained about the most talkative character’s poor voice acting – by the game’s second year, unannounced, Bungie replaced every last line with a new actor.
These were not cheap or easy fixes.
“It was an anomaly, and I don’t expect that to happen [with] any other games any time soon,” Larson said.
Destiny was the last game I preordered. While I respect Bungie’s dedication to slowly but surely fixing their massively multiplayer online game, I’m not as patient as Larson. I don’t personally believe it’s proper for a development team to expect their consumers to pay for and play a half-complete game for a year just because their publisher is impatient.
“People don’t see the issue with encouraging game [developers] to release bad games that they patch later and coast off of marketing,” said gamer Martin Matasovic, a sophomore computer science major at University of California San Diego. “As far as they’re concerned, it’s their money and they should spend it how they please.
“They don’t really care if their purchases don’t pan out because games, in general, are surprisingly cheap for hobbies,” he added.
The business model continues to function because, according to Matasovic, “there’s always a fresh market of customers who get swept away by the hype and haven’t been jaded by games like No Man’s Sky, Spore, and Watch Dogs.”
All three of these games enjoyed excellent sales in their first month before quickly dropping off in popularity. Shortly after its release, No Man’s Sky even faced an investigation by the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority, although they were cleared of any potential charges.
The business model of rushing half-completed games out the door is a risky one, but it’s apparently profitable, as the trend shows no signs of slowing down. Chris Kohler of Wired flippantly suggests, “If you’ve ever preordered a video game and felt disappointed by your purchase later, let me suggest a great thing to try: Stop preordering video games.”
“Vote with your wallet and remind people who’re planning to preorder that there’s no reason to,” said Matasovic. “If they don’t listen, remind them of times they’ve been burned. Mildly though, because harassing them won’t change much.”