At Gamescom 2016 we got the chance to speak to Todd Harris, the Chief Operating Officer at Hi-Rez Studios, about their highly successful MOBA game Smite as well as their upcoming shooter Paladins: Champions of the Realm.
"It's a lot of business as usual", Harris said. "Smite obviously continues to grow for us now, I think since we last talked, not only PC but Xbox One and now PlayStation 4 so new gods, continued events, just a lot of talking with partners because as it's a continued to grow as an esport there's a lot of interest in that. Then we're talking to a lot of folks about Paladins. So Paladins is the game that we debuted here last year actually and it is our team shooter and free to play version so we're talking to a bunch of people ans showing that off as well."
Smite has also started challenging big games like Dota 2 and League of Legends in terms of esports earnings, accumulating just under $6,000,000 in prize money over 71 tournaments, and so we asked Harris about the game and how Hi-Rez are supporting its esports scene moving forwards.
"Fortunately Smite, because the gameplay is unique, a MOBA with aiming, it's found a really nice community. It's certainly not as big as a Dota 2 or a League of Legends, but it continues to grow in both team participation, prizing and viewership as well so I think if you look at 2015 Smite was the number four esport from a player perspective in money paid out". He continued "we feel great about that because those other franchises, some of them are 15 years, 18 years old if you go back to original Dota, so being a relatively new game and finding that community is encouraging and as long as it continues to grow then we're super happy about that, so it's been good for the game. Also Smite is unique because it's a MOBA you can play on console and that's a whole separate esports ecosystem, we don't do crossplay intentionally but we're seeing that find a nice community as well."
"I think we get a lot of questions since we're a mid-size developer, but we go pretty hard after esports and we always say it's the community that really decides if something is an esport, it's a pull from the community, you can't push it, but you can be there to support it if you see the appetite. With Smite we started very casually with weekend tournaments and giving a little money to the community that was organising it and now we have eight team leagues in Europe and North America and Brazil and Latin America and China and Australia so it really has grown a lot in two years."
"We're trying to kind of follow that same path with our new game Paladins and again you start by just seeing if the community appetite is there to play it competitively and if it is then obviously we're going to be there to support it."
There can often be a challenge involved with esports though, especially in regards to updating it since players often have a fixed view of what they want from a game. We talked with Harris about these challenges in more detail and how they go about making changes to their games.
"It's a balance I think", he responded, "because with free to play games as a service the developer likes to put updates in because that helps to keep the game interesting and obviously it supports the business side of the game as well, with new things for people to unlock or purchase. So it is a balance but I think the games that have been relatively successful, I mean including Counter-Strike with its cosmetics, obviously League has changed, Dota 2 has just introduced a new champion, the first one beyond the original Dota they introduced at The International, [this is] the same with Smite and you'll see the same with Paladin. I think that pro players do want the game to stay the same so that they can master it but we've found that the top players can adapt".
Harris went on to say that the major changes will tend to be rolled out in a season period, using the example of the Japanese Pantheon that they introduced last year, hinting there may be more surprises this year as well. "When we introduce a new God, say in Smite, we first put it on the public test server, we get feedback, then we put it in the regular play, but it's not eligible for competitive play, and then after a couple of weeks or a new god then it's eligible for tournament. It still doesn't mean it's perfect but it allows for some vetting before it's immediately there when money's on the line".
The balance, he said, is between what the audience want and what the players want, because audiences always want something exciting. "Competitive gaming has been around forever, since I grew up people wanted to be the best and they played, but to me what grows from competitive gaming to esports is its interesting enough for spectators to view and like you say sometimes there's a lot of excitement about how they're going to use this new god or this new item".
We returned to Paladins for a bit to talk about the challenges of standing out with a hero-based shooter, especially considering the growth of popularity with games like Overwatch existing in the same space. We asked Harris about how he approaches that challenge and how Paladins stands out.
"Smite took the MOBA and added aiming and dodging", Harris responded, and in regards to Paladins, "Team Fortress 2, Overwatch, certainly there's some strong games in that category so the things that we're going to that are unique [...] number one, in Paladins you don't character-swap within the match and so there's pros and cons but it's certainly different". He also said that this makes it easier for spectators to follow one hero all match and that "there won't be two Pips on the same team" which helps with that as well.
"Also in Paladins you can modify your character's abilities kind of on the same level as items function in a MOBA. So even though it's a shooter if you want to play a little more damage-dealing playstyle or lower your cooldowns or have more health and some more interesting buffs as well, you can do that through a card system. If you like a team shooter and you get attached to a character and you really want to master that and you really want to customise it and tweak it a little bit, that's really the niche that we think makes Paladins different and we feel like it's going to find a good community of both casual and competitive players that want that change."
"I guess art style would be the third element. Many team shooters a pretty accessible, cartoony art style, and Paladins does as well, but definitely going in a more fantasy direction so rather than sci-fi you're going to see archetypes and characters that are just more fantasy and our environments and our characters continue to stay in that direction."
We talked a little more about the upgrades that come in the form of cards for Paladin as well. "Right now in Paladins there's two sets of cards. You have a deck building that you're out-of-match tweaking which gives you different playstyles for the match, and then during the match you have burn cards. There's a credit economy in the game so similar to Counter-Strike, I mean in principle, you're earning credits based on your performance and you can spend those on burn cards and that lets me counter your playstyle during the match. So those two systems we think will keep the game interesting for people long-term and that of course is really one of the unknowns with this team shooter genre."
In terms of Paladin's development process, Harris said "it's at a good point, the core mechanic is really nice. We're mainly focussed on adding a few more maps as soon as possible because we don't have enough right now, it's a little stale, so the one's we have right now the team's done a great job but we need more, so that's priority one. Then [the priority is] more champions over time as well as just more polish of the user interface so we're basically in a closed beta state but we expect to move into open beta very, very soon". Paladins: Championbs of the Realm is currently planned for a beta release on PC, but will be coming to consoles soon thereafter.