Tribes: Ascend interview - map-making, eSports, and the argument for Tribes: Ascend 2

Tyler Wilde

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Recently, Hi-Rez Co-founder and COO Todd Harris announced that Tribes: Ascend—one of our favorite shooters—will not receive major updates for at least six months, with development almost entirely shifting to in-beta MOBA Smite. Harris later added the news that Hi-Rez is looking into releasing map-making tools for the community, a long-requested feature.

I spoke to Harris earlier today to discuss Tribes: Ascend's success, what he would have done differently, how map-making might work, and the future of the franchise.

PC Gamer: It's been a little over a year since Tribes: Ascend launched. Did its success meet your expectations?

"We acquired the franchise probably more out of passion than having a specific commercial return in mind."

Todd Harris: Yeah, it did. You know, as we've shared in other interviews or at least with the community, we acquired the franchise probably more out of passion than having a specific commercial return in mind. But it has been a profitable effort for us in itself, and now we have the franchise, and there's things we can do with it in the future.

I think it has long-term potential as well. But when we look at it, we're like, “OK, commercially, it was slightly profitable—not like a huge growth vehicle for the studio—but it made its money back," which is great, and I think it was certainly well-received critically. And also, we think it kind of established a new wave of free-to-play games. This idea of triple-A, or more hardcore free-to-play, as far as the production values, and non-pay-to-win.

In February we introduced this Game of the Year edition that let people pay one time and get all the gameplay elements, which is a new concept in free-to-play. So, with all those things, we think it's made a good mark on the industry, and it's a really good shooter. We're proud of what we've made. It's just at a point where, for the next six months, we don't really think it needs all that much more content, certainly in terms of guns, and it's at a good point to entertain what a lot of the users have been asking for for a while, which is a way for users to contribute their own maps to the franchise.

Is anyone actively working on those map-making tools, or SDK?

So, we have someone scoping out the effort right now. It's only in the past few days that we announced that as an intent, so we don't have a timeline, but someone is looking at- you know, there's a few different ways we can approach it. So right now we have a developer looking at the options, and what's the best way for us to go.

Would you expect something like Steam Workshop, or would you let players run unofficial servers?

I think it's too early to know. I certainly wouldn't use the word “Steam Workshop,” because that's been a tremendous investment for those guys, and it's a great platform, but we wouldn't use that, because probably the majority of our users are not on Steam. So we wouldn't want to require that.

"We support anything that's not enabling players to unlock content that would normally only come with time or money."

Right, but might it be a similar system—as in, you subscribe to maps in the client—versus letting people run their own modded servers that aren't operated by Hi-Rez?

Got it, I understand. I think sometimes, at least when I hear Workshop, I maybe get some vision of people creating custom content and selling that on a marketplace, or trading, that sort of thing. Definitely that's not what we're looking at. So, we'll just try to look at a system that's relatively simple but...bottom line, it wouldn't be Workshop, and we still have to look into the implementation, but we'd be looking that's something hopefully relatively simple that gives users flexibility to run their own maps. Beyond that, everything else is still to be determined.

What's your stance on the community-made SDK that's been in development for a while?

I don't know enough about the details, so we've kind of talked through that on a community show, and at this point, it's not clear to me whether that effort is trying to get around the server authentication and basically the monetization scheme or not. So, it has to get further along, and we've got to do some more discovery on our end to understand how compatible we could be with that or not. We support anything that's not enabling players to unlock content that would normally only come with time or money, that's getting unlocked for free. So we just have to understand whether there's a path we can work with that project to make that happen, and right now I don't know the answer to that.

Everyone here understands that the initiative is out of users wanting to create content, it's just working through what's technically able to come together.

Any idea on when we'll hear more about the official map making tools?

We'd like to have some sort of update within the next month, but again, it is very, very early, so right now we just want to communicate what our intent is and what the next step is.

On the next page: community feedback and the technical reasons for a Tribes: Ascend 2

PC Gamer: I've seen a sentiment in the community that while you listen to them, you don't act on their suggestions unless it fits your vision. Do you think that's true, or fair?

Todd Harris: I don't think that's true, no. I think it's definitely true that we've slowed down the content delivery recently, so I understand that. And I also think it's true that among the Tribes vets, there are opinions on the game—say the game's physics, for instance—that we didn't necessarily agree with.

But taken as a whole, from the start of the alpha even past release, I think there's numerous examples of us listening to community feedback where it actually benefited the game, and sometimes it was counter to our original thoughts.

"It's just that Tribes vets are a very opinionated bunch."

Examples would include, one: early in the game we had the idea of fixed classes, without swappable weapons, and we did a huge change-over in beta where you could customize your weapon loadout within a class. Another example would be the halving of XP prices in the game for unlocks by time. Another example would be the inheritance on projectile-based weapons, where the community wanted more inheritance, and we released a couple variations—a spinfusor that actually has 100 percent inheritance, even though no Tribes game has had that.

So I think there's numerous examples. Server browsers, and the way we present that, was another request. So I actually think there's been quite a lot of cases where we have listened to that feedback. It may not always have gotten patched as quickly as people wanted, but I think we have listened to the feedback. It's just that Tribes vets are a very opinionated bunch. There's some cases, for instance, in the case of just the basic game physics, where we are happy with the current implementation and some of the vets are not. And even in that case, we, for instance, introduced on private servers a way for users to adjust physics values and have a little more flexibility there. It's certainly not the flexibility of full modding, but it's more than many games provide.

Is there anything you wish you had known in 2012 that you know now about launching and running a free-to-play game?

"I think in hindsight we would have trickled out content more slowly."

Again, we're pretty happy with the performance of the game, the success of the game, and the review scores of the game. I think in hindsight we would have trickled out content more slowly. We released so much new content so quickly, I mean, really, in the first year I think we released about three years worth of content. If it was either trickled out like most free-to-play games, or if it was kind of bundled in quarterly DLCs, then perhaps that would have been a better path, because I think the community got very used to large updates very, very frequently, and that was a pace that we decided we just can't maintain, which is really what brought on the communication.

So, being better at managing expectations?

Yeah, I think so. Again, I think, though, we have to deliver on this idea of a path for users to create more maps, and I know some areas of the community there may be skepticism, so they'll have to wait and see it. But I actually, think that could end up being a very, very good next step for Ascend. We feel really good about the content that's there, but we understand it's important for the community to have a way to have updates coming regularly as well, and this could be a good next step.

You also said in your forum post that you'd be more likely to work on Tribes: Ascend 2 than release a major update. What's the benefit of not building on the existing foundation?

So, first, my main point in including that was that I want people to know we're very interested in the franchise long-term. It's not like we would be looking to get rid of it, but also, we have learned some things from a technical perspective, too. And so, other than this path for map-making like we've talked about, any other really significant feature that we think would benefit the game would be more easily done on a refreshed technical platform.

"Optimization, demos, and ranked matches are all things that would be best done on a brand-new platform..."

So, specifically, there's features that we have in the game Smite, such as the implementation of spectator mode, and a demo system that allows spectating on a three-minute delay, and a system for doing ranked matches, and all those you could put in the competitive support category. And those sort of things, to introduce them into the Tribes franchise, would be best done with the latest version of our technical platform.

Another thing I'd put in that category is just optimization. Tribes looks awesome, I think, but anytime you could expand the audience and allow it to run better on low-spec machines, that's good, particularly in free-to-play.

Optimization, demos, and ranked matches are all things that would be best done on a brand-new platform, versus trying to retrofit that into what we've already built for Ascend.

I had hoped Tribes would take off as a major eSport. Do you think lacking some of those features held it back?

All those features would have benefited it. I think some of the other challenges include the fact that Tribes is known by many people as a game that's played on a large scale, and even some of the logistics around LAN eSports events that require teams to travel...so we scaled down kind of the pub game to more of a seven on seven, but even that gets to be pretty logistically challenging when you have multiple teams needing to go to an event. And that's why I think you tend to see, obviously the success of fighting games, and StarCraft, one on one scenarios, and the max you tend to see is five on five in a MOBA.

That is just one challenge with it, again, in hindsight. But I'm with you. I think it's a very, very sport-like game to watch. Probably the most sport-like in terms of movement and fluidity as any game. So we still think, for the franchise, there's still that potential. So, it has a smaller audience at this point, but there's regular events and the regular audience on Twitch.

Maybe like the TV series Arrested Development, it needs to find the right time to take off.

Thanks for talking with us, Todd.

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