The highs and lows of a ten-year journey towards the MOBA sensation that is Smite
The highs and lows on the ten-year road towards Hi-Rez Studios’ MOBA monster, Smite
W hen Erez Goren and Todd
Harris founded Smite creator Hi-Rez in 2005, their 50 staff occupied office space in the same building as one of Goren’s other firms, an enterprise software firm providing solutions for the retail industry. The new venture was the realisation of its founders’ long-harboured desire to make games their business, particularly MMOGs – these, after all, were the years right after World Of Warcraft’s launch, when the genre was at its liveliest.
Goren had developed and even sold games before, as a teenager, but his success, when it arrived, was in business-oriented software. Those companies provided not only the initial financial backing for Hi-Rez, but also the majority of its senior staff, including Harris, Stewart Chisam and Mike Dudgeon. “[Erez] was kind of done with that industry,” says COO Harris. “It was either retire or turn to his passion, which was gaming. We broached the idea of starting a game studio and he had enough funding that we could do it on our own terms. A few things were important to us. Number one, self-publishing. Number two, a passion for online games.”
In 2005, digital distribution was in its infancy and pen-and-paper-derived systems formed the basis of almost every MMOG. Ten years later, digital distribution is bedded in and ‘MMOG’ has come to encompass everything from the WOW- inspired theme park model to heavily instanced multiplayer shooters. At the point of its founding, Hi-Rez anticipated both of these changes. Its first game, Global Agenda, was a massively multiplayer shooter that ushered players through discrete competitive and co-op challenges, and had game-spanning character progression. It was a formula that many would subsequently adopt – notably, Bungie’s Destiny.
“When we set out to make our first game, we looked at where our strengths were,” Harris says. “At that time, our strengths were in the back end – stuff that most developers weren’t familiar with. Servers, databases, networking: all of the hard parts of an MMOG. We didn’t have real good competency at the client part, such as awesome-looking graphics.”
Early on, Hi-Rez augmented its core strengths with recruitment from its native Georgia. Being a new studio with no releases to its name, bringing in experienced developers proved a challenge. Instead, Harris and Goren turned to graduates of Georgia Tech and the Savannah College Of Art And Design, attracting key talent from elsewhere.
Global Agenda launched in 2010, initially using a subscription-free buy-to-play model, but soon thereafter becoming the first free-to-play game on Steam. This was another major industry shift that Hi-Rez straddled.
Nonetheless, Global Agenda made a loss. Players and critics alike struggled to determine what exactly it was, and free-to-play was still regarded with suspicion in the west. In 2010, ‘MMOG’ still meant an open world, quests and, more often than not, orcs. The game’s heavy use of instancing, at the time, damaged its claim to that title. As with Destiny four years later, it was a game-as-service entering a community with expectations set by decades of games in boxes.
“In hindsight, it was a little bit broad in terms how many features were in there,” Harris says. “A little shallow. Keeping all of those various content types up to date was a challenge.”
To cater to a market used to traditional MMOGs, Global Agenda gained open-world content in addition to new competitive and co-op modes. It was ahead of its time, but grew broad to the point where the cost of maintaining it was burdensome. “We joke halfheartedly that
Global Agenda was ten great games that made up to one good game,” says company president Chisam. “A key learning for us, as a studio, was that a lot of the games that have been successful recently have been very focused.”
When the company acquired the licence to cult PC sci-fi FPS Tribes, it did so initially out of enthusiasm for the series. “Our art director and lead programmer specifically said, ‘I will work night and day for free if you can get this franchise,’” Harris says. The concept was for an MMOG called Tribes Universe, which would be similar to Global Agenda in scope. Hi-Rez’s development had always prioritised early playability and regular iteration, however, and this – as well as seeing the weaknesses in Global Agenda’s structure – led to a different direction.
“Our project management philosophy is not that complicated,” Harris tells us. “We build the game every single day, we work to have it playable every day, and then we play it every day.” In Tribes’ case, this produced a multiplayer shooter where both the combat and the series’ unusual movement mechanics were working early in the process. Seeing the strength in these principles, Hi-Rez refactored Tribes Universe as
Tribes: Ascend, a free-to-play competitive shooter. Ascend scored well with critics for its smart refinement of Tribes’ formula. Nonetheless, the game was another loss-making project for Hi-Rez and caused fractures between the company and the small, passionate Tribes community. It was a double bind for Hi-Rez. On one hand, Tribes was beloved by a passionate fanbase that simply wouldn’t tolerate any dramatic changes to the game’s core design. On the other, Tribes was extremely niche – its original developer, Dynamix, was shuttered almost immediately after the release of Tribes 2 in 2001. To make a free-toplay game that would work on consoles or in Asia, Tribes would need to undergo changes that Hi-Rez wasn’t prepared to make.
Attempts to turn the game into an eSport struggled for the same reason: the audience just wasn’t large enough. Ongoing development
on Ascend was ultimately suspended to focus on the company’s next game, Smite, and if you read any article about a Hi-Rez game online today, it’s likely that someone will bitterly mention Tribes in the comments section. Nobody is more aware of this than Hi-Rez. Global Agenda taught the studio the importance of focus; Tribes: Ascend taught it that ‘focus’ didn’t mean ‘niche’.
“Looking back, some would say that we would have been better off making it a singlepurchase game,” Harris says. “Personally, I’d say that more people played and had fun with
Tribes having it be free than not. Our one regret is that there’s an expectation of ongoing updates with a free-to-play game, and we haven’t done that. That expectation would have been different were it a $20 purchase.”
Smite, a thirdperson MOBA with a mythological theme, is the game that turned Hi-Rez’s fortunes around. It began life as a new mode for Global Agenda, before the studio realised that – against the backdrop of the rise of
League Of Legends – it could function as its own game. It was more focused than Global Agenda but took advantage of the same technology and basic principles, while fitting into a commercial structure that audiences were beginning to understand more clearly. The MOBA was a game-as-service that the mainstream accepted.
Into this environment, Hi-Rez introduced its own ideas and methodologies: action game combat backed up by rapid development and implementation of updates. Not only did players understand it better, but the framework of a MOBA suited what Hi-Rez was already doing. In an MMOG or traditional FPS, additions are typically large-scale, bringing new territory, multiplayer maps, or quest lines. In a MOBA, a single playable character constitutes a discrete, saleable mini-project that the community wants and comprehends. Currently, Hi-Rez adds a new character to Smite every four to six weeks.
“Because we do software-as-a-service, we think of online games as being less like movies and more like TV,” Chisam says. “The traditional $60 console release is a movie. You work on it. You put it out. You move on. In our ideal world, you run pilots and some never make it out of the playtest lab. The good ones get constant updates and many seasons of content.”
Hi-Rez’s roots in enterprise software development are visible in this line of thinking: rather than release a boxed product and be finished with it, a successful game is a full-time concern. This has had other, more unusual consequences as well. Hi-Rez’s approach to community development – and particularly marketing – is distinctive in that it undertakes relatively few activities in the traditional way.
Hi-Rez instead works closely with Smite’s community and is remarkably unfiltered in its communication. In swapping enterprise software for games, Goren swapped meetings with corporate clients for YouTube shows, Twitch streams, and live eSports tournaments. All of its senior managers make appearances in a YouTube sketch show, Minion Has Spawned.
Hi-Rez has learned that its audience respects and trusts this unfiltered approach. As the company has grown to support Smite, a full-time publishing and media department has been established to produce the video content that has become core to the game’s public life. Hi-Rez is the only company that maintains a 24-hour livestream of its own game, and to achieve this has recruited from its own community, bringing streamers in as Twitch managers, and developing new methodologies. The stream directs attention towards the game, but also places the brand in the hands of the community.
This notion – that a community can, and should, be trusted with sending the message about a game – is a refreshing one. And to achieve it, the company has had to invent new systems specifically to manage communities via Twitch. “When I was starting out, we didn’t have a lot of rules,” says Yvonne ‘Lil Mamacita’
Chavez, a streamer who started at Hi-Rez full time in August. “You’ve got to come up with your own. The more you do it, the more you make your own rulebook. That’s what I’m still learning.”
“It’s a huge risk to the brand to do that,” says Harris. “On the other hand, it’s a huge risk not to do that. Consumers today, particularly gamers, are pretty jaded with anything that seems like an advertisement. If it’s a little more real, we think that’s better. People don’t like messages shoved down their throat. You have to entertain them, inform them – provoke them sometimes.”
Respect for players is inherent to this sentiment. That this respect is derived from enterprise software rather than the game industry – that it stems from a history of seeing customers as clients, not consumers – is a valuable lesson for anybody creating an online game and aspiring to see a community grow around it.
Todd Harris (left) and Stewart Chisam both worked for Erez Goren’s other companies before joining Hi-Rez Studios
Hi-Rez’s development method focuses on producing playable prototypes as rapidly as possible and then testing them extensively to see if they’re worth releasing fully. Teams work in relatively short cycles, particularly when producing new content for Smite