evolve
// How Evolve’s enduring fanbase fought extinction and won.
By Fergus Halliday, a journalist who specialises in consumer technology, games, film and pop culture. He has been published in Gizmodo, Kotaku and Superjump and was previously the editor of PC World Australia. 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before... An ambitious and experimental multiplayer shooter from a developer known for making one of the greatest in the genre launches to solid sales and a mostly-positive critical response. However, the game fails to find momentum in an esports landscape that’s dominated by megahits like League of Legends and Counter-Strike. The game’s modest player base, already irked by aggressive monetisation, quickly declines in size. Eventually, an attempt is made to relaunch the game as free-to-play. You probably think you know how this one ends, but you’re wrong.

Back in October 2016, Turtle Rock announced that support for its 4-versus-1 monster-hunting shooter Evolve would be coming to an end. In an open letter to the game’s community, the developer celebrated the community around its follow-up to the iconic Left 4 Dead but left little ambiguity about who pulled the plug.

This is the life of AAA game developers who aren’t self-funded and don’t own their own IP. We don’t get to make the call. We all know that going in but we still sign the dotted line because we love what we do,” the letter read.

If that wasn’t enough, Evolve’s publisher 2K Games made it very clear who was responsible for charting the game’s next chapter.

Today, Turtle Rock finishes development on the project and begins to transition day-to-day server operation to 2K, as we take the operation of the Evolve franchise fully in-house,” the company confirmed in a blog post.
2K EVOLVE

With no new content in sight, Evolve lingered and languished for another year or two. In September 2018, 2K announced the inevitable. The servers for Evolve were going to be shut down. The end. Evolve was too weird to live, but set to die the same way all competitive multiplayer games do. This would be a familiar story with a familiar ending if it wasn’t for a loophole.

While the ability to play matchmade games of the free-to-play Evolve: Stage 2 disappeared with the game’s servers, the original version of the game (retroactively branded as Evolve: Legacy) still supported peer-to-peer multiplayer. You couldn’t buy a new copy of the game, but if you and four other friends already owned a copy (or could source some CD keys from elsewhere) then it didn’t take that much tinkering to tee up a match of Turtle Rock’s asymmetrical monster-hunting multiplayer game.

This odd loophole lent itself well to the inherent novelty factor that comes with a multiplayer game as idiosyncratic as Evolve. While there’s definitely some shared DNA between what’s here and titles such as Dead By Daylight, there’s nothing out there that quite delivers the same blend of grungy and desperate science-fiction action that Evolve evokes.

While it was originally pitched as “the video game version of Predator”, the final product owes more to games like Cabella’s Dangerous Hunts than it does to things the likes of Capcom’s Monster Hunter franchise. The dynamics of predator and prey are a great fit for the sandbox-y multiplayer scenarios that Turtle Rock Studios has put together.

MARKOV - EVOLVE
Every role in Evolve matters,” a longtime fan of the game who goes by the name Jasper explained. "You won't be catching the monster without a good Trapper, but without a good Medic, you will fall one by one. Every role has [its] own play style and has a significant impact on the game.

Jasper also emphasised the tactical dimension that the escalating power mechanic in the game brings.

The stronger the monster gets, the more intense each fight is and the more the hunters start becoming the hunted,” he said.

Slow and steady does not win this particular race against time. If Monster Hunter is about working together to wear down an overwhelming opponent, Evolve is about learning to work well together before your adversary becomes too powerful to overcome.

As with Left 4 Dead, the best bits of Evolve shine the more you play it. The more chances you have to see the different characters, monsters and maps play off one another, the more you learn to appreciate how these disparate parts can snap together in new and exciting ways. This tilt towards LEGO-like variability echoes not just Turtle Rock’s notorious zombie shooter but also classics of modern board gaming like Twilight Imperium or Dune.

All this is to say that the unique charms of Evolve gave it gravity for a certain kind of audience who couldn’t find what they were looking for anywhere else but the Evolve Reunited Discord.

A community quickly arose out of the ashes of the world’s latest “dead game” for those who wanted to find it. The first effort at this space ended in strife, with the original admin deleting the server. After that, many of the more active members began a migration to the appropriately-named and newly-created Evolve Reunited 2.0.

EVOLVE REUNITED 2.0
A community rises from the ashes.

At the time of writing, the group boasts over 50,000 members. If you’re someone who hasn’t thought much about Evolve since it came and went, that figure might come as a surprise. However, platforms like Discord have proved to be a boon for many smaller and more niche communities in the gaming world and that’s definitely the case with Evolve.

Even if they were divided by timezones and schedules, the ability to coordinate matches via a shared channel made it possible for Evolve’s community to continue to engage with the game as it was meant to be played rather than move on from it. Eventually, even this sanctuary would come under threat.

One day, the members of Evolve Reunited 2.0 collectivity logged on to discover that the peer-to-peer multiplayer in Evolve: Legacy was no longer working. Rather than prompt despair, this existential crisis proved galvanising.

The flock of furious fans who refused to let Evolve die moved to attract the notice of the game’s publisher directly. The group launched sometime akin to a letterbox or political campaign, with community members mobilising en-masse to flood 2K’s various customer support channels with demands to bring the peer-to-peer servers back online.

It’s easy to imagine a world in which these demands were ignored. That’s usually how things go. Dead multiplayer games tend to stay that way.

But in July 2022, Evolve’s publisher responded to the community’s demands. However, it didn’t just address the issues with P2P multiplayer. 2K took the unprecedented step of bringing the multiplayer servers for the free-to-play Evolve: Stage 2 back online.

“It's been exciting (and admittedly a little surprising!) to see the recent community interest in Evolve. Servers are functioning for players who own the game to be able to matchmake with others,” the company said in a statement at the time.

More than just flicking a switch, 2K Games re-enabled features such as the game’s daily log-in bonus and distributed 140,000 CD keys for the game to the Evolve Reunited Discord server. These keys were broken into 4-packs that could easily be shared between friends and proved to be a lifeline for latecomers looking to give the game a try but dismayed by the fact that it couldn’t be bought or downloaded via Steam.

If you were to value those keys at the usual $60-per-copy then it adds up to around $8.5 million in free copies of the game. Even if those hypothetical copies of Evolve were hardly flying off the shelves by this point in the game’s lifecycle, it’s a substantial gesture for a company to just gift that many keys to a community-run Discord server.

What’s more, 2K’s bet on build-it-and-they-will-come proved to be modestly successful. August 2022 went down as the most active period in Evolve’s history.

Even if it didn’t surpass the numbers that the game was doing at launch, the last time there were this many people involved with the game was four years earlier. At one point, the game almost overtook Turtle Rocks’ Back 4 Blood in daily concurrent player count on Steam.

​​We were super confused initially because they never said anything about Stage 2 going back online. That quickly turned into excitement and we tried to spread awareness that the servers were back and tried to get people to play the game again so there maybe was hope to revive the game and maybe even potentially get it relisted on Steam,” Jasper said.

Even if this reinvigorated community wasn’t huge, it was still loyal and more active than ever. In the following months, Evolve Reunited 2.0 gave away CD keys to new players, organise tournaments, ran art contests, collaborated with voice actor Mighet Matanane and embraced the renewed era of the game that brought them together.

Play Video

One fan even created an Evolve Board Game, made playable via Tabletop Simulator. Another began work on a spiritual successor to the game. The fan behind that project said that while other 4v1 multiplayer games like Dead by Daylight and Video Horror Society do offer similar thrills, they fall short in key ways.

His take is these 4v1 multiplayer games fail to capture the tension that the predator-prey dynamic in Evolve evokes. Nor can they surpass the sense of escalation that occurs over the course of a match. To him, these asymmetrical mechanics are second only in importance to the ferocious monsters.

Admittedly, it’s still early days for this effort to build a more Evolve-like multiplayer game. The individual behind it has been designing new monsters out of clay before modelling them and is currently looking for a new writer to help tie the concepts he’s produced together. In the future, he’s hopeful that launching a subreddit and releasing more information about the project might generate enough interest for him to raise funds for it via crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter.

Game dev is a risky business but the seemingly-unkillable fandom around Evolve seems like an opportunity that any potential successor might want to capitalise on.

Another admin of the Evolve Reunited 2.0 Discord, who goes by the handle “Pinocchioh” first joined the server when it had around 2000 users and it has grown more than tenfold in the time since then.

With our staff actively doing giveaways/tournaments/events we grew that number over a few years to about 14,000 users. Once we officially got Legacy/Stage 2 back [online] and word began to spread the number started rising fast,” he said.

Once the group began working with 2K to distribute CD keys for the game, it exploded to as many as 70,000 users.

Unfortunately, this era of collaboration between the community and the publisher of Evolve has proved more short-lived than the former expected.

In June 2023, 2K announced it would begin the process of sunsetting Evolve for good. The Stage 2 Multiplayer servers were taken back offline and an end date was set out for the Peer to Peer multiplayer that had sustained the scene long enough for the community to mount a comeback.

On July 6, 2023, we will bring the Evolve servers completely down for a final time and the game will no longer be playable. The support and enthusiasm of the Evolve community over the last several months is much appreciated, but the time has come to dedicate our resources to other projects,” the company said in a statement.

It was tragic news, especially for a community that felt like it had won the fight to keep Evolve online just twelve months earlier.

It really affected us because we had put so much effort into reviving the game,” Jasper said.

In the weeks prior to Evolve’s second pronunciation of death, communication had become more and more one-sided between 2K and Evolve Reunited 2.0. 

When the news broke, the community was still pretty pissed that they had given everyone hope with the keys, linking the discord in the in-game news feed and stuff and just decided to shut it down again.“
HANK - EVOLVE
Approached about this story and the decisions it has made around Evolve over the years, 2K Games declined to comment.

With the doomsday clock moving again towards midnight, various members of the Discord server began to work towards a solution that would allow them to continue to play the game for good.

Although Evolve itself has never been modded, more technically-talented members of the Discord community around the game have managed to find some cracks in the armour around the game’s code.

We can't modify game logic, but we can change the library files Evolve uses, basically shared code included in Windows. [That's] not really important here. But we can modify those libraries and change what those do, giving us limited control over the game,” Jasper explains.

It’s not enough to crack the encryption on the game, but it is enough to tweak how the outgoing traffic is handled.

When the peer-to-peer multiplayer in Evolve first broke down, a few members of Evolve Reunited 2.0 managed to find a workaround that allowed them to continue playing. This server emulator was based on a project called Goldberg, which has been used to support all kinds of abandonware. Someone else had already done the work of adapting and extending this tool to emulate the servers for other 2K titles, so it wasn’t that much work to get it to do the same thing for Evolve.

MAGGIE - EVOLVE
The emulator for Evolve basically relies on Goldberg emulator for matchmaking, the rest was custom-made for the 2K servers Evolve uses,” Jasper explained.
What we do is we redirect all traffic to that server, which has been taken offline by 2K, to a custom version...That server then responds with responses we have just grabbed from the official verification server before it went down.”

Now, the community is determined to build on this foundation and find a way forward. The hope is to have a custom launcher that simplifies the process of installing these workarounds available within the next few months. While the community has held firm thus far, those involved with managing the group know that it’s only a matter of time after the game goes dark before the server begins to decline in size.

“There are so many people who are going to leave and just give up. Without the game, this community is DEAD,” Pinocchioh said.

The Evolve community has faced extinction before, but this may prove to be its final crisis. As the game that brought them together becomes abandonware, it’s an opportunity for that same community to take charge of its future.

These sorts of fan-led efforts have happened before and will almost certainly happen again. What’s really interesting about this particular case of a fandom fighting to preserve the game that gave it gravity is that it challenges and complicates the question of who really owns Evolve.

On paper, 2K owns the intellectual property rights to the game. If Evolve 2 was ever going to happen, it would have to earn their approval.

And yet, the credits for Evolve are over a thousand names long. The designers, coders, artists and producers on that list own that work in another way that nobody else ever will. If we can hold that overlapping ownership in our heads and hearts and know it to be true, it suggests that the answer to who owns a game isn’t really as fixed as the lawyers might like it to be.

Games are built by labour and capital, but a multiplayer one like Evolve cannot exist without players. A publisher can pay millions to fund the development of a title, but if nobody plays it then it’s just another dead game. At least, it is until the players get involved.

These days, we’re seeing it more and more. It happened with Netrunner. It happened with Duelyst. It happened with Killzone, Warhawk, Shadowrun and The Showdown Effect. Players might not own the legal rights to a game, but they own a different sort of collective power over it instead: the ability to decide whether it lives or dies.

It’s perhaps telling that when faced with the choice of evolve or die, communities like the one described above opt for neither. They already know what they want and if 2K won’t rise to meet that demand, they’re more than prepared to fight to satisfy it themselves.

The community that endures around Evolve may not own it, but it belongs to them now more than ever.
Fergus Halliday
Written by
Fergus Halliday
Fergus Halliday is a journalist and editor for Reviews.org. He’s written about technology, telecommunications, gaming and more for over a decade. He got his start writing in high school and began his full-time career as the Editor of PC World Australia. Fergus has made the MCV 30 Under 30 list, been a finalist for seven categories at the IT Journalism Awards and won Most Controversial Writer at the 2022 Consensus Awards. He has been published in Gizmodo, Kotaku, GamesHub, Press Start, Screen Rant, Superjump, Nestegg and more.

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