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Hi-Rez Co-Founder Todd Harris on Company’s History, ESports, And Ignoring Critics Who Don’t Even Play Games

During my time at the 2016 SMITE World Championship, I had the chance to sit down with co-founder and COO of Hi-Rez Studios, Todd Harris.

There are a lot of people making games out there, and many of them are turning toward the burgeoning eSports arena. Aside from your community focus, what makes Hi-Rez special?

Todd: Definitely, our focus is really community first, honestly. From, I would say, a marketing standpoint or an eSports standpoint, we think about eSports as a heart of the overall community, and I think other companies do also. What sets us apart is really how early and consistently we bring the community in during the beginning design and development phases. I would say what’s more traditional right now for some other studios, is they have a vision of a game and they take it very far to a point, and then maybe they have a beta or they do a grand reveal. They have very polished art, and maybe a trailer. Our philosophy is actually to put the game product in the hand of our end users much earlier in the process, and to really use their feedback to shape the game. And that’s casual users and committed users. So there’s a lot of things, but that’s the number one thing I think that makes us a bit different.

How would you parallel that to things like Steam’s Early Access program? There are a lot of creators trying to put out content very early, but not many who can make it worth the investment of a player’s time and money. Where’s the line for you guys there?

Yeah. I mean, its very important to treat players fairly right? In any business you want to treat your consumers fairly. At this point, because we have a track record as a multi-game studio, we have many of our community members who play our games tell us that they understand our philosophy. So our main purpose with a beta is not to actually try to get money early. We do tend to monetize during the beta because it helps support the process, but I think that’s really the main difference. We’re, if anything, I think we tend to be a little more generous during the beta process because it’s not our main focus to monetize. Our main focus is to get people who have a little skin in the game as far as money but are there committed to helping us to make the game better. And from a business standpoint, it really is a player’s purchases or play time over the long term. So basically, we don’t put out half-assed stuff and try to charge a lot of money for it.

Where do you see Hi-Rez going in the future? Obviously, we have Paladins incoming, and Jetpack Fighter just released. But what’s the trajectory that you guys are looking at?

I mean, we definitely aspire to be a multi-game studio first of all, because there are companies out there that are incredibly successful off of one game, and that’s great, but we do enjoy the game development process as well, and making new things. So, we want to be a multi-game studio and we want to honestly just continue to grow a global community who enjoys our type of games, and will potentially enjoy switching off their time between multiple games of ours. If you get a little bit tired of SMITE and you want something maybe with a little different feel and a shorter match time, Paladins might appeal to you. With Jetpack Fighter we’ve introduced mobile, right? So, at the end of the day our goal is to build a global community of people who enjoy competitive games, and that’s what we’re trying to do.

So, you’re going to stick with a competitive multiplayer focus, then?

I think that for the next few years, I would say we’re going to stay in the action multiplayer arena. It’s possible down the road, I could see us doing, down the road a PvE game that was co-op or multiplayer for instance. It would be much less likely for us to do a single-player narrative game. That’s not really our thing. So, online multiplayer, community-based. That’s all pretty core to us.

You picked up the Tribes/Starsiege/Earthsiege IP. After a while, now Tribes: Ascend is starting to come back as a fan-service sort of thing. Tribes was Halo before Halo

Totally. Good one.

— and it’s a behemoth IP, but it’s from way back. Are you guys looking at the next generation of Tribes? Do you guys see that IP as something you want to pursue?

We want to preserve the IP because it has a very deserved legacy. Like you said, it was Halo before Halo. It was the first game with indoor and outdoor maps. It was the first game with driveable vehicles. King of capture the flag. King of large maps. Right? It’s full of so many firsts. Honestly, in the short term, our goals were pretty simple, which was, you know, work with the current player base of Tribes: Ascend, even though it’s not large, but to try to keep moving the game in the direction that they want. That’s really what happened with the Out of the Blue update. And then also, as we mentioned in the media thing, releasing the other games just to again kind of keep all of those names relevant to folks. And then I would say, longer term, we’d love to revisit the IP in some form, but we don’t have any specific team or designers working on it right now.

So we can expect to see more Tribes in the future?

Yeah, Definitely.

Are you guys interested in acquiring any other IPs?

Those sort of things for us are very opportunistic. I wouldn’t say we have a strategy of acquiring older games. Really our strategy is to make fun, action multiplayer games, and in the case of Tribes, it was just good timing and a good match with what we wanted to do. So we’re not actively looking to collect other IPs, but if the right one comes along, then we’ll take a look.

[laughing] You’re about to get a lot of suggestions.

But let’s dig a little deeper on Tribes: Ascend. It was kind of a roller coaster, from launch until it was temporarily dropped. There was a lot of community drama surrounding how that was handled. How did you get there? 

So Global Agenda, of course, was our first game, and like all of our games, it was a labor of love. It took us five years to put it out and we were – and are – incredibly proud of it. It’s still probably my favorite Hi-Rez game honestly. I spent a lot of time playing it. My son still plays the game every once in a while. And I’ve worked on it in a more hands-on fashion as we’ve grown. Great game. It really was just, from a business… it was super ambitious. The amount of different types of content we tried to bundle into one brand new action MMO was very large.

The closest thing now would be a Destiny, but we did it with a much smaller team, and we tackled even more types of content like “Agency vs. Agency” territory. At the end of the day though, we were a smaller team. It was very ambitious. So from a design and team standpoint, it was great that we were so ambitious. From a business standpoint, we were in a situation where the team size that we had was difficult for it to support all the different types of content that players expect.

That’s a lot of plates to spin.

PvP plate. Instance PvE plate. Open zone PvE plate. AvA play. There’s the raids plate. There’s the double agent plate. You know what I mean? There’s just so much stuff in there so what we learned are the good things where we built a technical platform; we did tackle all these different types of content, which really became seeds for future games, honestly. And we learned from a business side that hey maybe what we need to do to be more commercially successful is be more “narrow but deep,” in the type of game that we deliver.

So that was our main learning there, so as much as we love it, its unfortunate that we can’t put more content out for the game, but that’s kind of the table that we set. It was really just an over-ambitious scope. But what we do know is that, in order to retain players, it generally does take frequent updates from the developer. And that’s where, as that small of a team, it was very challenging to try to update all the different slices. Your favorite part might have been the PvP, someone else’s was PvE, someone else’s was open zones, right? So, even if you tried to touch up each… It’s the blessing and the challenge of Global Agenda.

So how did that inform Tribes: Ascend?

It informed Tribes because we said okay we’re going to make a more focused offering. And so with Tribes, actually, from a scopes standpoint, we were much more narrow. We said “we’re not going to do a campaign, we’re not going to do PVE. I’m sure there would be people that would like it, but it’s just going to be a multiplayer game only.” And so that allowed us to make the scope smaller. We were going to do a jetpack PVP game, and that would be either third or first person. We had been kind of inspired somewhat by Tribes — it was one of the inspirations of Global Agenda. So We just narrowed the scope even further. And then said, hey rather than be inspired by Tribes, let’s just look into getting the IP, which is what we did — I did.

Right.

And then once we had the IP, it was a super passionate team; not a big team, 12-15 people that put that game out. And you know, I think the team executed very well. Honestly, it was a very well-crafted game.

And it got pretty big.

Yeah, people probably played Tribes more than all the other previous games combined. Partly because it was free, and that made it available. The challenge with Tribes was, I would say, a little bit of a lesson for us where wee could have done a better job a little bit on the monetization. It’s going to sound weird but we almost, we deliver very large updates in the beginning, rather than kind of spacing it out a little bit over time.

But fundamentally, I’ll take you back and say kind of that after Global Agenda we divided the studio basically into thirds. Where we have one third working on Global Agenda, one third working on Tribes, and one third working on SMITE. So we had all of those going for a while we were releasing Tribes, Global Agenda, and SMITE. And it kind of just got to, again, be a financial decision where we said Tribes is… There’s a very dedicated fan base but because the game is fairly niche and hard to learn, we think that unless we change the core of what it is, it’s not going to grow all that much, and it’s going to be tough to support a studio of our size.

So either we would have to downsize the studio because we couldn’t pay everyone’s salaries, try to change it fundamentally where it wouldn’t feel like Tribes and try to grow it — but it would be more like Tribes was starting to become Call of Duty or another shooter and could have had more “hit-scan” and faster “time-to-kill”. And we didn’t want to do that. So we thought alright we’re going to let it kind of stay Tribes, but know that it’s not going to support the business. And in order to support the business and keep paying people, we need to go all in on SMITE.

So why SMITE? What made you guys say, “Okay, this is our next thing?”

We will often have a small team of 3-7 people prototyping some kind. And that’s what SMITE started as – a prototype of yet another mode of Global Agenda. I mentioned there was Global Agenda, Tribes, and then when we kicked off with the SMITE team there’s was just a new team that was working on a new mode of Global Agenda. So we had all this stuff — we hadn’t quite learned our lesson — we had all these different types of content. And then, I think it was [staff member] Ares, said “let’s try another mode that’s kind of tower defense-like,” so we literally played the Global Agenda classes, put towers in with like turrets, and you had the robot minions coming up, like all the other PvE bosses. You had a jetpack and you were defending it with a jetpack at the end.

So SMITE started as a Global Agenda tower defense mode?

It was kind of a laned map with jetpacks and robots. And we played that for about a month, and people thought it was really, really fun. And it would have been fun in Global Agenda, but that was the time we had to make a hard decision…

…Does Global Agenda need another plate to spin?

Exactly. No. And we were seeing other games out there that were just one mode games that were doing really well. And we were like, “Maybe we’re working too hard or the wrong way. If a game like League of Legends or another game could have one mode and one map…” So at first it started as a game mode in Global Agenda, but we thought maybe it should be its own game. It’ll probably do better as its own game than underneath the umbrella of Global Agenda.

So that was a decision too. First decision was, “Try this mode,” then decision two was, “Let’s actually make this its own game,” and decision three was, “Well as long as we’re making its own game, should it have a different theme? Should it be the GA IP or should we come up with something new?” And that’s where the idea of gods came up.

It was a hard decision. Because on one hand, we could put this out very quickly because we have so much Global Agenda art it could be out probably in six months or a year. Or we could do a whole new IP of gods, which we knew would take 2-3 years just to make all the art, but everyone was so excited about that theme so much that we went with gods. That was about one month in that we decided we were going to switch it to gods.

So you decided to go with a religious theme. It’s a potentially controversial choice for a lot of reasons. Were you afraid of offending people?

Yeah, we knew that might come up honestly. I mean, really, the only place it really came up, which we also thought it might, was around the Hindu pantheon, because that’s an active religion. There’s one billion people that are worshiping that. But our kind of litmus test was, “We think gods are compelling.” We think, religion aside, if you just look at these things as works of world literature, there are inspiring stories there. And if we can find literature that shows gods battling one another, let’s go for it. So that was basically it.

So here’s the 2,000 year question: how long until players can main Jesus?

[laughing] We have no plans to implement Jesus. We get asked that every time. People do talk about, yes, maining Jesus — but no plans. But if we ever need really crazy PR, you know…

The internet at large — but more specifically the controversy surrounding GamerGate and social justice — has become a perpetual rage machine of late. You haven’t been immune. You’ve taken some heat for character designs, particularly Sol. How do you and your team react to that?

I’d say a couple things. I’d say, one, eSports, like gaming, when done right, can bring a lot of positivity into the world. As the simplest answer, we try to highlight that positivity. First of all, eSports itself is kind of the ultimate meritocracy. Right? I mean, it doesn’t care about race, religion, gender, language, right? I mean, you just compete on your merits… You don’t have to be a six-foot 350-pounder to play, like in football. I mean, you just let your skills speak for themselves. So I think actually it has a lot of core athletes associated with it.

I think you have to have a really thick skin when you’re making video games. And ultimately, again we’re in the business of working with our community to make something that they enjoy. So things from the outside, that aren’t actually our player community don’t actually bother us that much. Kind of like the new deities. I get hate e-mail for the inclusion of them. But they’re not from people who would play our games, or any games. And I get more fan mail from Hindus that are like, “I’m glad <whoever> is in there kicking butt!”

The majority of the demographic we’re serving is enjoying it, and so we’ll continue honestly to look at comments from our actual player community, around whether the players get to enjoy it and what appeals to them. And in the same way, we need different play styles. I mean, we need enough Guardians and enough whatever else. As they start asking for more visual designs, we’re going to do it. I think we’ve done that. I think woman characters in this event are strong warriors, not sexualized but still sexy. Amaterasu is another great new role model for the game. The new Japanese goddess will be a similar but diverse style. We do listen to the community. We don’t care too much about what’s outside the community.

I noticed that SMITE doesn’t represent atheism. Is there going to be a No-God? Or is that spectator mode? You’re nothing, just hovering there.

[laughs]

Thanks, I’m here all week. But let’s shift gears. In your opinion, why should non-gamers be interested in the eSports scene? Why should they care about what’s going on here?

Couple things. For one, just to stay abreast of trends and culture. It clearly has arrived as a phenomenon when you have a hundred million people on Twitch every month watching other people play video games. So it validates that there’s something there. Maybe a shorter way, they should… if it’s not their thing, it probably is going to be their kid’s thing, and from that standpoint, they should be paying attention to it.

But if you’re not a core gamer, why should you get involved in watching something like the SMITE World Championship?

I think the human interest stories help. We try to tell those stories. It’s the same way when I watch the Olympics – I may not know or care that much about the sport, but really if there is a compelling story that shows me where the competitor came from and what adversity they overcame.

You know, our competitors are very similar. So I think the stories’ adversity in many cases, and inspiring. Ultimately these guys aren’t doing it for the money; they’re doing it to be the best in the world at their passion. I think everyone can identify with that, that striving to be the best in whatever it is that you love. So I think that’s the story of not only Hi-Rez and SMITE, but that eSports will begin to tell more and more to help other people relate.

Thank you for your time.

Editor’s note: Hi-Rez Studios paid for travel and lodging accommodations in attending the SMITE World Championship 2016.

Follow Nate Church @Get2Church on Twitter for the latest news in gaming and technology, and snarky opinions on both.

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