PAX AUS 2014 – Todd Harris & The Future of SMITE
MOBAS are big players in the gaming world of 2014 and while a lot of critics see the genre as one that Riot and Valve have locked down between them, developer Hi-Rez has pushed SMITE to growing success. I caught up with Todd Howard, co-founder of Hi-Rez and lead designer on the game during PAX AUS 2014 to talk about the game’s past, present and future – not to mention how they are planning to the popular MOBA genre to more players than ever.
It’s been a long road but SMITE is finally transitioning out of beta. How’s that process been?
Todd: It’s been good. Actually we had a long beta process. We released it in North America and Europe in March this year so it’s out there and available – we’ve got five million registered players at this point and just this week we released servers for Australia. We’ve had actually a decent Australian community already but they were dealing with high ping and so now that’s much much better. As with our previous games we’ve tried to work with community and yeah, it’s been really awesome.
So with SMITE, what was the reason you chose to go with this cast of characters spanning mythologies where most games will simply choose to focus on one?
T: To us, I guess that’s what’s unique about it. Certainly games have mythology for reference before but the idea that we’d have all these pantheons in one battleground it’s kinda like something you’d argue about like ‘who would win – Thor or Zeus?’ So the original thought was to just look around the globe for literature and mythology where 1) there’s a bunch of diverse gods (so it has to be polytheistic) and 2) in the original source material they have to be shown battling one another with unique powers. So that was the original criteria.
Do you have any plans to ever expand the roster by perhaps moving sideways into cultural figures and urban myths or legends?
T: We get asked that a lot and I mean, never say never but it’s not our first source. Our first source is the older more established ones and that’s one of the cool parts [of the game] – we get to say that our lore has been play tested for thousands of years. What’s cool is that these particular stories have been around for so long that they speak to particular archetypes within each culture.
A lot of gamers and developers have this impression that between League of Legends and DOTA 2 the MOBA market is pretty much locked down at this point. How has your approach to wedging this SMITE-sized niche between them been?
T: I do think that if someone’s making a top-down isometric MOBA with a similar feel to League and DOTA and Blizzard’s new one – like there’s a lot of exceptional developers doing that really really well. So we actually came at it differently.
We started SMITE as a multiplayer mode in our first game Global Agenda. It wasn’t like we saw this MOBA category and said ‘hey how can we do that’, it’s like as a developer of online first person shooter games/action games/competitive games, ‘hey we’ve got is third person combat that we feel like we know and enjoy’, we added tower defense elements and it then it kind of grew into a MOBA with the game mode of Conquest. So in general I would say it is crowded but I honestly think the word MOBA is being redefined and I think that SMITE is part of helping that. The fact that now there’s a third person action game that’s called a MOBA, the fact that were gonna be bringing it to consoles where people said it would never work. Like, it’s an expanding category but you definitely have to innovate to find an audience because there’s already good games for people who wanna play that stuff.
On that note, do you see the console market as the next big frontier for MOBAs to move into?
T: Yeah, I do. I think there’s certain geographies where MOBAS aren’t that popular – like worldwide there’s some geographies – but as far as a major platform where there hasn’t really been a breakout hit yeah, there’s a lot of people who enjoy console gaming [and] a lot of people who enjoy competitive multiplayer gaming like Call of Duty players and they’ve probably never tried playing a MOBA. So yeah, I do think it’s the next area.
Companies like Valve and Riot have had interesting approaches when it comes to managing the toxicity of their player bases. Does Hi-Rez have any thoughts, success or strategies regarding this?
T: The MOBA game type is tough because the rules of the genre itself means that the weaker player is going to bring down their team and the enemy team is going to win.
First we have a number of modes and maps are more casual. So our most popular game mode the game right now is Arena, not the three lane map that is like DOTA. That map is the most competitive – it’s where the e-sports scene is – but most of players here at PAX are playing Arena. So you jump into Arena, you don’t have to worry about lanes, there’s not that complicated meta and you’re not going to get that toxicity and hate for playing wrong.
We also have this feature where when you start by default, the system will auto choose your items and autoskill your abilities. It’s a really powerful feature and the designers have customized that for type of god and for game mode, so again you’re not going to be yelled at for building wrong. So we think those things make the game easier to use and that helps a little bit. The other thing we do is we actually think the VGS system helps a lot. So this is a system that came from Tribes where we could quickly macro and call out voice commands that let you call out to your team. That also helps train players and a lot of people use that instead of chat – so it’s not talking to each other. We also don’t have all chat so you can’t talk to the enemy team easily Ina map. So there’s a number of systems we’ve done in addition to the standard stuff like being able to mute players, ignore players, of course report players and we think that helps keep thing positive.
Following that mention of your first game, I have to ask if you’ve any plans to revisit Global Agenda at some point in the future?
T: Yes. Most of our resources by far are in SMITE – we’ve doubled the size of our studio from 75 to 150 just this past year. That said, we have let the community know we are working on a spiritual successor to Global Agenda. It will not be called Global Agenda 2 because it will not be an MMO. it will be basically an objective based shooter that’s inspired by the core PVP elements of Global Agenda and that’s kind of something that we’re working on in the background and when we’re ready, we’ll talk about it.