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Survival Of The Smartest: Evolve

UPDATE: Use this link to sign up to the beta, and there's an RPS group already in there, I believe.

For the past few months I've been playing around with an unreleased gaming application called Evolve. It's an interesting piece of software, rather like Steam without the digital distribution, and with a whole load of other functionality that is otherwise spread across different applications such as Hamachi, Raptor, and so on. Evolve is an attempt to merge all of that stuff into a single system that will encompass both LAN-bridging systems to play older games, and social networking systems to make it easier for people to play in larger groups. It's a website, a social network for gamers, and an overlay with stuff like an in-game browser. It has even more exciting features planned, too, as this interview reveals.

Impressed by what I'd seen, I decided to talk to founders Michael Amundson and Soren Dreijer and find out a bit more about where the Evolve project – which is about to launch publicly – is going.

RPS: Can you tell us a bit about the background of this project? Where did it come from?

Amundson: Back in the summer of 2005 Soren was working on a PC gaming app called LANBridger, and he built it because he was having a bit of trouble playing a few different LAN games - namely things like Dungeon Keeper, and I think Halo might have been on the list too – across the internet with a couple of his friends in Denmark. So he was working on that and I happened to be studying abroad in Denmark that fall. We had got to know each other via an adventure gaming website, and so we grabbed lunch a few times and ended up chatting about games. He started talking about LANBridger. This sounded pretty cool, and it was before things like Hamachi and so on had really surfaced. We started talking about how it covers a lot of useful cases where people are playing games across the internet and the games aren't co-operating. We figured that we could do a whole lot more than create a network-level application, which was all that was the original intention.

After about three years or so we realised we should call it something better than LANBridger, so we came up with this Evolve concept, and we started working on a whole suite of services – chat, sharing information like Facebook, friends systems, status updates and so on. Fast forward a few years from there and in 2010 we had something to debut to people. That was where we started our first closed beta.

RPS: So what sort of state is Evolve in now, in 2011?

Amundson: All the functionality of the application from way back in 2005 is in there, and we have built that into a system called “parties”, which let you group up with friends and that automatically puts you on a virtual local network, which works across the internet. For older games, where the servers might have been taken offline, or where they only had LAN protocols, this is a great way to play.

We also have a full-fledged IM client, with group chat available, this allows you to see who is playing what, interact with people, join people in other games, and so on. We also have an activity feed that tracks what games you have been playing, and for how long. You can also see that in other people's profiles, see what people are playing and what they are up to.

So we have basically been building a social network, and we're ready to do something more interesting than simply being a social network, which brings us to where we are now...

RPS: So why would I install this when I already have Steam installed? Which I do. And most of our readers will.

Amundson: Sure, that is often the first question we have to address. What we felt Valve had done with Steam is approach the platform as a mechanism to distribute games. They had everyone working to unlock Portal 2, for example, as a consequence of that. But, for the rest of it, well, it feels like Valve's zeal isn't there. There are areas where it doesn't feel like the functionality is fleshed out. When you log in the first thing you see is the store, it is there to sell you something. Recommendations, new stuff, that's the priority, and the community is hidden a few tabs across.

You can create a group on Steam, but you also want forums, video-sharing, things like that. Steam groups have a calendar and a chatroom, and that's where it stops. Evolve is a purely social counterpoint to Steam. There's X-Fire, Raptor, and so on, too, and these are more trying to be a chat client. The stuff they offer is a glorified IM client that might let people know what game you are playing. What we trying to bring into Evolve is the step way beyond that. For example we want to offer a widget platform, where people can take a bit of functionality they've built into a game via the overlay we've created.

Dreijer: This is where we are fundamentally different to all those other guys. We're trying to make it the same experience you have on the desktop – all your chat windows and so on, that can all be brought into the game. We want to be able to offer a widget platform to add to that, so people will be able to bring in a CPU-usage meter, for example, or a map for playing WoW, and so on.

Amundson: Maybe I want a quick search for WoWHead, and I could use a browser and visit the WoWHead homepage, but maybe that's overkill. People could instead do a widget that could allow you to get these search results up in-game. Another example might be data-mining, and people like saving out data from their games and analysing it. Widgets should be flexible enough to do that. A DOTA replay manager, for example, could take data out of that for the widget and give players more data to work with.

RPS: So these are plugins purely coded by users?

Amundson: Yes, a parallel would be add-ons for WoW, or plugins for WinAmp.

RPS: So you are are announcing Evolve to the world... what's next?

Amundson: We're now fully opening the beta over the next few months, and we're aiming to deliver matchmaking. And we're doing that differently. One of the most frustrating experiences in gaming is having this game you are really interested in playing, but you don't have any friends online to play it with. Well, then you fall back on matchmaking. That's fine if it's a game where you can hop-in solo and have a blast, like Team Fortress 2, but if you are playing DOTA those hop-in experiences can be a lot less worthwhile if you can't get people together ahead of time. So what we are looking at is allowing people to get matchmade and dragged into a channel simply because they are interested in playing a game like League Of Legends, or Magicka, or something like that. The idea is you fire up Evolve, select a game, and that says “I'd like to play this, fix that for me”, and then Evolve finds other people who are interested in that game, and matches these people up and puts them in a voice and text chat room, as well as a virtual network. So instead of having to struggling forwarding ports to play Borderlands, for example, you can just play, because you are already connected via the party's virtual network. Evolve has already done the hard work! We're trying to get that wrapped up in the next couple of months.

Dreijer: The other issue with matchmaking in games is that if you fire up a game and hope to get matched, then it doesn't work if there aren't that many people around at the time. For some games it's okay, but other, maybe older games, it isn't. So you could maybe set that up in Evolve and say “search for me” and Evolve does that while you play something else.

Amundson: Right, matchmaking is only ever with people who are online, in-game, but not playing. Evolve should allow people to go play The Witcher, but still be available for matchmaking in Magicka.

Dreijer: So you could set it up to say “if anyone ever pops up who wants to play Dungeon Keeper, then I want to play”. And when that person comes online you get matchmade.

Amundson: Universal matchmaking. It's a spontaneous chat channel and virtual network that allows people to meet up and play. It's all the tools they need to get a game going.

RPS: That is clever. Is there anything else you need to explain about Evolve so people get how it is different from other overlays?

Amundson: This is a platform that exists in the same way on the web, on the desktop, and in game. What distinguishes us from the competition is that you are at work with a browser open, and it allows you to access chat, forums, even widgets. And that is much the same experience as you would have in-game with the client overlay running. The reality is that gamers spend most of their time in-game, and so we want to bring all that stuff into the game. If you can do it on the web on Evolve, you can bring it in game.

RPS: Hmm! So, you are not tied to either digital distribution or a major chat client. How do you expect to pay for continued development? Evolve is, surely, going to be free to use?

Amundson: So at the moment monetisation is one of those things that we're punting on. We're building a kick-ass product, and we're working on getting people to be interested in it. When it comes times to monetise there are a variety of options – like making some new features paid-for additions to the client, or simply allowing people to upgrade to “support of Evolve” status and unlock additional features. That subscription might give you access to a more sophisticated set of tools.

There are also some interesting ways to do advertising. The more obnoxious advertising gets, the less people seem to be interested in it. We think it might be better to get big companies to sponsor events – so we could do a certain amount of paid-for functionality that becomes free for a few weeks when a company sponsors it.

Dreijer: We've also been looking at wagering. We have groups and clans on Evolve, and we could do ladder systems. We contemplated adding wagering to that.

Amundson: That's a lot of what's going on in the pro-gaming circuit, and making it a bit more friendly. There's a difference between someone who will take a week off to play at a pro-tournament, and the people who are just good players, and we think we can offer something to that wider audience with that.

RPS: So people can go away and try Evolve now?

Amundson: Yes!

RPS: Thanks for your time.

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Jim Rossignol