US: 10 Feb 2015
Evolve is designed around an ideal situation: You knowing and understanding your role within the group, playing with others who similarly understand their own unique roles, all of whom are in constant communication with each other. In that moment, with those people, Evolve is a fantastic and exciting experience, but the real world is often less than ideal, which raises the question: Should the design of a game dictate the nature of the community that plays it, or should the community dictate the design?
Evolve is a four versus one multiplayer game in which the four are Hunters, each with a specialized job, and the one is a hulking Monster. The Hunters must work together to kill the Monster before it eats enough wildlife to evolve into a stronger form, and that’s where the game design conflicts with reality.
The four Hunter classes are highly specialized. The Trapper must trap the Monster, using harpoons or the mobile arena (a dome cage), otherwise the monster will consistently outrun the Hunters. Along that same vein, the Medic must revive fallen Hunters, the Assault must attack, and the Support must help wherever he can. If any player fails to adhere to these strict roles—if they try to attack with the Medic instead of focusing on healing—the Hunters are bound to fail. Unfortunately for Evolve, it’s difficult to get a handle on these roles, resulting in a rather large barrier to entry for the game.
Before release, I played the game in two very different situations that speak to this dilemma. I played the game at multiple PAX conventions with a developer watching over me, giving me tips and strategies on the fly. In these moments, I could feel the strategic depth of the game wash over me thanks to the running commentary that told me what I should be doing and why I should be doing it. However, later I played in the beta by myself, and by then, I had forgotten all those helpful tips. The game made no attempt to teach me how to play any class, so I was awful until a knowledgeable friend took on that role of mentor and re-explained those strategies. I got better, but that didn’t help the rest of my team.
Should I blame the game for its lack of a class tutorial? After all, the first Medic does have a sniper rifle implying combat should be a concern, even though the rifle is literally the last weapon/ability she should be using on the battlefield. Yet there’s nothing in Evolve that can’t be learned after a few games, so am I just impatient?
At the very least, it’s weird to see Evolve lean so heavily into class specializations when other multiplayer games shy away from that. The developer previously worked on Left 4 Dead, a four-player cooperative shooter in which each of the four character played the exact same type of character. No specialization at all.
Then there’s the quintessential class-based multiplayer shooter, Battlefield. It’s trended away from unique classes over the years. The games always have four classes, which are generally defined as “good-against-infantry,” “good-against-vehicles,” “good-for-long-range,” and “good-for-support.” However, over the years, abilities have jumped from class to class, so that now each class exists less as an individual specialization and more on a spectrum of overlapping jobs.
Looking at the current state of multiplayer gaming, the most popular class-based games, those that most demand that we “play our class” and “know our role,” are free-to-play. I’m thinking specifically of Team Fortress 2, DOTA2, and League of Legends. It makes sense. Putting that kind of demand on a player creates a barrier to entry, so these games lower their entry fee to $0 in order to encourage more players to come aboard. The games may be difficult to learn but they’re also free, and that alone is a pretty big motivator to keep playing.
By contrast, Evolve has a $60 entry fee and a steep learning curve. It seems to have been designed in a vacuum, naïve towards the reality of online gaming. Evolve now exists for me as a game that I play exclusively with friends, never alone, and never with strangers, which means I don’t actually play it that often. This disappoints me, as I know the game can be excellent, but who should I be disappointed with? Myself, my friends, the developer, or nobody?
Meanwhile, games like Halo 5 and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare have your teammates automatically call out enemy positions on the map. In an ideal world, players would be communicating over headsets and relaying that information themselves, but reality is less than ideal, and those games acknowledge that.
It’s always commendable to design towards an ideal, but multiplayer games would do well to emulate the old saying, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”