Stu­dio Pro­file

The highs and lows of a ten-year jour­ney to­wards the MOBA sen­sa­tion that is Smite

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY CHRIS THURSTEN

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

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