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Hi-Rez’s Mick Larkins on ‘Paladins,’ Esports, And Being a Little Different

Mick Larkins has been with Hi-Rez Studios for more than a decade and now finds himself at the helm of the studio’s next major title, Paladins.

Larkins has personally witnessed the company’s evolution from a tiny startup to a major contender in the online gaming arena. At the Smite World Championship 2016 event, I got a chance to take a hands-on look at Paladins’ development progress and spent a few minutes with the man himself.

First things first. Tell me about yourself. What’s your story?

I’m Mick Larkins. I’m executive producer on Paladins. I’ve been with Hi-Rez since the very beginning, for ten-and-a-half years or so. So, we built up the studio from a very tiny little startup with people who had never been in the industry before and had the crazy idea to make some online games as a service.

Kind of a new way to make games back then. It was definitely a new thing. Free-to-play hadn’t been invented really yet in the way that we know it now, and we were at the forefront of really defining that genre with our first game, Global Agenda, and building up our technology with that game. And then after that, we went on to make Tribes and SMITE, and now we’re on Paladins right now.

The unique thing about where we are right now is that we’ve ballooned into over 225,230 people now. Global Agenda and then Tribes, and then SMITE, and SMITE is still taking off and still beginning and we’re bringing more people into the scene, onto the dev team, building and growing SMITE more than ever, but at the same time going in parallel with Paladins, and actually going back to Tribes. For a moment we kind of stopped development on Tribes, and now Tribes is — I was lead programmer on that. That’s my baby. I’m a big Tribes fan and I’m glad that we have the luxury of being able to put a team back on that project, and so now we’re developing games in parallel, which is a whole new set of challenges. But it’s exciting times.

Paladins will be launching alongside a lot of competition. Blizzard’s Overwatch, Battleborn from Gearbox, and Epic’s Paragons are just the foremost. What is the Paladins secret sauce? What sets it apart?

Well, so then, there’s a few things there. The way all that happened, at least for us, is making a game like Paladins is a very logical step for us to do, because we have a very strong shooter background; our first two games were shooters. Then we went and made the MOBA genre, which had already started being established by the point we started SMITE. We made that more shooter-like with a third-person perspective, the skill shots, and that kind of stuff.

It’s a good time.

The shooter kind of control scheme and the visceral-ness of being in a shooter is kind of at our core in a lot of our games — all of our PC games. So it made sense after seeing everything that we could do with SMITE, applying some of those principles back to a true shooter. Yeah, there’s a few MOBA-esque elements, I guess, in Paladins, but it is definitely in the shooter camp. And so, for us, you know, we were developing that on its own, like it just makes sense.

And yeah, you see some other games coming out and I think it starts to make sense for other studios too, you know? Probably in a similar way. But each game really kind of offers its own thing. Yeah, they’re in some ways competition, but at the same time, it’s not like the old MMO days where it’s like you had one gamer that played, you know they would subscribe to WoW or one of those kind of games, and then they would only play that, and every other MMO was either really big or really not.

But at the same time, Paladins really offers some unique stuff that you’ll never find in any of these other games. First of all, it integrates a collectible card system, which is really, really different. Like, I’ve never played on an online game that had a collectible card system integrated into the action, into an action game.

The card system seems somewhat reminiscent of Titanfall.

Yeah, I actually haven’t played Titanfall. Members of our dev team have. So I can’t really speak for that, but ours is a true, like you build a deck. And you build it for a champion. And you bring in those cards, and there are collectible card game elements directly, like and if you play big card games, like Magic: The Gathering, and those kinds of things, there are those elements, front and center, but it’s in the confines of a shooter. Which is really unique, and it’s really cool. Other things that we do, which is really different, is that our maps tend to be a lot more wide open and not really corridor-based.

There’s nothing wrong with corridor-based maps per se, but wide open maps just kind of have a very different pacing to them. And they have very arena-style weapons. There’s no aiming down sights, really. There’s no pixel hunting. It’s a little more, I guess, “arena” sounds like the right word. But also, players can ride mounts, and there’s no other shooter that I know of that you can play competitive online, that you really can get on a mount. In Tribes we had vehicles, but the mount is really core to the pacing of the whole game too. It’s different. We’re doing our own thing and it’s actually kind of neat to see others in this similar genre. That means that we’re on to something, that means there’s going to be a movement.

True enough. Everyone seems to want to take a crack at this emerging sub-genre.

And there’s nothing really wrong with that. Just like MOBA was a movement, I think this kind of hero-based team shooter makes a lot of sense to a lot of people.

One thing I’ve noticed from my time with Paladins so far is that the maps seem to be very flat, very lateral. Are you guys planning on building more verticality? I know you’re from Tribes, and Tribes is all about being 800 feet in the air at 100 MPH.

That’s right. I can talk for days about that kind of stuff. Yeah, so really quick. Yeah, I mean I actually just came [to the arena]. I missed out seeing the games today because I was actually at the studio. The Paladins dev team was all working on new experiments today and that’s what we do. Every week we come out with new experiments, and you’ve been playing the beta, we patch every week with brand new crazy stuff. Some of it sticks, some of it evolves, some of it is really good stuff. Some of it goes horribly wrong and we patch it the next week. (laughing)

So one of the things we’re actually playing today are some new maps. And we’re trying out some new things, especially with verticality. And with — even though we’re not dumping out corridor-based — adding more cover elements, those kinds of things. We’re actually trying out some new game modes too, some new game rules. If you’re familiar with playing the beta, you’ll see that we’ve been changing some of the mechanics about how the siege-engine works, we introduced the casual queue a few weeks ago, so that the folks that just wanted to play point capture, or just wanted to siege, they could do that.

And so, we’re experimenting with what we can do with game modes, and really working with our community, the dedicated Paladins community which is forming, on figuring out what doesn’t work and what does work. And then, once we kind of figure that out, like in SMITE there’s Conquest, Arena, all these different game modes, right? We had Domination. Like, I made Domination in SMITE, and it’s not in the game anymore. There were some people that liked it, but generally speaking it just didn’t go that well. That’s what beta is about, you know you try these experiments.

So, anyway, yes, we are trying verticality. We are trying new map design ideas. You know, we started down that path a little bit with the second map, Enchanted Forest. That’s the one with like, the big trees and everything. There’s a lot more rolling hills, line of sight isn’t as flat as it is in the temple ruins map, but our third map is going to be, probably, experimenting with even more of that. And its going to be called Glacier Keep. It’s going to be a snow/ice-based kind of map.

You mentioned a lot of the CCG elements of games like Magic. How far do you intend to go with the cards? Will we see more than just internal champion effects? Cards that affect the environment, for instance?

What’s interesting is that one of the experiments we’re trying internally – we’ll see if it comes out this next week or so…

It’s a big design question, I know.

No, I know what you mean. We’re also, with our maps, trying some new gameplay mechanics. I probably can’t talk about them too much. I need to be careful of [what features we’ve promised].

Of course.

But you’ll probably see them in a couple weeks. And what we’re going to do is try out different environmental hazards or environmental things. Because honestly, the maps right now, they’ve been made primarily from a design perspective but they don’t really feel alive quite yet. So we’re trying to do a lot of things to kind of bring a little more life and a little more individuality to each map. And so we’re going to be trying out a few ideas there.

And if those work, then I would not find it all that surprising to find some cards that also interacted with those kinds of things, but we’ll just see how that works. Generally speaking, though, the cards are going to be either affecting your weapon, like your damage, or they’re going to be affecting your utility, or armor or abilities, that kind of stuff.

The cards right now provide a lot of variety to customize an individual character. During the press event, we talked a little bit about how people have mostly been asking for a bigger roster. Are you going to be shifting your focus toward a wider roster, or try to juggle both?

So, you were there during the press day, right?

Yes.

So you saw when Erez went up there and started answering questions, kind of on a whim?

It was very funny. It came off as an impromptu design meeting, right in the middle of the presentation.

(laughing) You’re never going to get that anywhere else, I don’t think. Genuinely, you got a glimpse into our creative process. That’s exactly what we do. We are completely iterative-design driven. Every day we play test. Even today. Even yesterday. We have SWC, we have all this stuff going on, playtesting the game, trying out new experiments. If they pass dev, we put them out to our beta testers. If it passes that, it goes out.

And so, one of the areas we’re currently looking at is the relationship between having a more limited roster with deeper characters, which is what we did in Tribes. So in Tribes, we didn’t introduce any more classes. In fact, I think in the new patch, they cut down on classes. I actually haven’t played the latest patch, but I think that’s what they were doing.

Right.

You know, in Tribes, we release new weapons for the classes, new abilities for the actual classes. You know, Team Fortress did a similar kind of thing, they didn’t introduce any new characters, they kind of added depth to them. So, we could either have a more limited roster that goes deeper with the characters for sustainability because you have to keep things fresh, or you can have a bigger roster with more specialized characters.

And so, we’ve been developing the game primarily with the former, where we expected there to be, you know, the card elements have a lot of different varieties for how to play with the champions. And we’re going to definitely try to keep that variety, but we’re finding that our players are more positively responding to wanting more champions, and I think that’s just where we are. Maybe it’s the MOBA influence on things, I’m not sure, but I think our audience today — I think a modern gaming audience — prefers to get exciting new, different characters–

Distinct personalities, as opposed to statistic buffs?

–yeah, than kind of the more, what I would say maybe even harder core, you know, new cards. That’s not to say we won’t come out with new cards for the new champions. But I think we’re re-evaluating what our champion pipeline is going to be. We actually have, we have at least four, if not five champions coming out in the pipeline right now. We’re trying to get them out as soon as we can.

How do you playtest something with so many variables? It seems like balance will become exponentially more difficult as you add cards with more effects to an even deeper champion pool.

That’s exactly right. So, it’s actually harder I think. But it depends on what restrictions you put on yourself. You have to put on some sort of restriction in order to balance things. And I think that’s true. I think it’s actually harder to balance the game if you say, Cassie or Fernando, has 100 cards to choose from. And how those cards are chosen obviously plays into it. I mean, are there only damage cards? Are there only health cards, you know? Can you only play one of each of those? What are the categorizations or categories of cards?

A lot of those things kind of balance, so there’s some ways of balancing through that, but we’ve got a lot of experience making SMITE, where as parallel to SMITE I think this is actually where we’re going to take a lot of our data from, is that every month or so, every four to six weeks or whatever we come out with a new SMITE god; we have over 70 now. The SMITE gods do very specific things, but they also can use the items in the store. There’s a lot of things to balance there. and it’s a very challenging thing, so it’s definitely not easy.

I don’t think a game is ever completely balanced, but it is something I think that, as long as you set the right restrictions on how players play cards, and you develop your champions within a certain set of restrictions that are fun to play, I think it’s very possible to get good balance out of that. And we have a really, really great design team.

Again, we are design-focused. And we also have developed, over the course of ten years especially with SMITE and Tribes, we’ve developed really good analytics, really good statistics, so we can measure all sorts of really good player data on what’s working from the balancing standpoint.

One subject that is always big in online games is personal customization. You’ve spoken about some cosmetic items, both earned and through monetization. How deep does that go? Will you be able to change, say, the cut of Barik’s beard?

We actually had that in the game at one point.

Tell me about that.

Yeah. We had that in the game and what that did was it… In order to do that, from a technology perspective, you have to create your characters so that they’ll animate, you have to get your art pipeline to support that kind of thing. So, we did that exactly with Barik. We had one that had different braids, one with a bushy beard, one without and —

So what happened?

So we actually had that in the game, and what it did was, it limited, even though it allowed players to swap things like beards and hats and arms and things like that within the character, what it did was it limited the kinds of pieces we could actually create, because it had to fit the art pipeline. So imagine, you’re running along and Barik’s beard is kind of moving around, right? Those are bones that are driving that animation. So if you swap a beard in there, it has to follow that same set of bones.

And there’s only so many variations you can get with that, so actually it was more limiting than freeing it up. Whereas, if we were like, let’s make a Santa Claus Barik skin or something, we could make a whole new set of bones and make it thematic towards that.

We spent a lot of time figuring out which side, and we have now committed to, just going the full skin approach. And you know what? We nail it on SMITE. SMITE has really awesome skins. And really awesome champions. And you know, it wasn’t always that way. We’ve gone back and fixed a lot of the old ones. The old ones, it was kind of a work in progress, kind of like how where we are in Paladins right now. But we know that pipeline and we do that really well, and so there’s not really, it didn’t make sense to really deviate from that too much.

And then we also have the added bonus of we can be a little more creative, I think, on our weapon skins. We’ve got a few things in the pipeline, who knows if they’ll work out or not, but we’ve got some different things for skins on weapons and how you get that, that we’re not prepared to talk about that right now, but I think that those are going to be, something new and different that SMITE doesn’t have because obviously it’s not first-person, but it’s a new way to customize your character. And so we’ll see where that goes.

Hopefully in a few weeks we’ll have something out there so you can try it.

SMITE has obviously gone all-in on eSports, so I’m going to go ahead and take a wild guess and say that Paladins is headed in a very similar direction?

Well, so I wrote that camera code, to do all the spectating, and my buddy Joe, another programmer. The two of us started Paladins, and did all the UI for it. He and I essentially wrote all that system. We are huge eSports fans, huge into spectating. A lot of things that we designed Paladins around is that we weren’t painting ourselves into a corner with spectating. In my opinion, first-person shooters don’t do a great job right now in spectating, because they’re very hard to follow. You have to know the game in order to appreciate the game.

But I want to solve that. We tried a lot of different spectator things. In the early days, SMITE just had a free third person camera, but no one knew what in the world was going on, because SMITE is a game about positioning.

And so you have to have a camera in order to know where people are. And so we looked at football, and football does a side angle, right, it never cuts the camera when the ball is live. You know, we’re looking at all these little details in sports. But you can’t really do a side panel in this because of the jungle. So we looked at tennis, and the corner back camera, and that kind of stuff, and the kind of helicopter camera.

Right. So how did that affect your work on Paladins?

I think we did a really good job in that if you don’t know SMITE, you know the red team’s going this way and the blue team’s going that way, just like in football, that team’s going that way and that team’s going that way. I want to solve that, I want to improve that for shooters as well. And I think we’re setting some things in Paladins that will hopefully [make it] the most watchable first-person shooter.

I really want to do that stuff. And that started with Tribes. We started the whole thing wth Tribes, and we learned what worked and didn’t work in SMITE as a spectator. On day one, Paladins was first-person SMITE. We took the god Anubis, and made him a first person character, and that was the first Paladins playtest. So we have all the technology that we made for SMITE in Paladins, so we can take it to the next level.

There’s also — that’s like a very specific game kind of thing — and then overall we’re one of the leaders in eSports. We have our own conference and sell out big arenas like this. We know what we’re doing, we have great eSports staff. Because, here’s the thing — you can’t force eSports. It either develops or it doesn’t. You cannot make a game and say, “This is going to be the next big eSport.”

People have tried.

People have tried. But you know what, you also have to — it’s like a two- or three-way street. You have to nurture the scene and you have to grow the scene, and you have to make sure you don’t get in the way of it. So that’s actually one of the reasons, we have several, that was one of the reasons we have the $100,000 tournament coming up.

I mean, who does a six-figure tournament, much less any tournament, during a closed beta? But it forces the issue. It also forces the dedicated competitive guys to come out of the woodwork to start forming the teams, and they’ll start giving us feedback and tell us what we need in the game and for us, that’s like a really good investment.

$100,000 for getting [the eSports scene excited]? That’s a win for us. And it’s a win for them. We can’t force that issue as a studio, but we’ve got resources.

[At this point the media room is flooded with noise after the results of a match in play] …Clearly! Good luck, and 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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