In a recent trip to Hi-Rez Studios to cover their MOBA Smite, I had a chance to talk to caster-turned-designer Rory “Drybear” Newbrough about a very different game: Paladins. Hi-Rez’s new game is a hybrid FPS and card game: there’s a MOBA-esque cast of characters with unique abilities, but each can be outfitted in battle with cards that augment their stats and play styles. The card system is unusual for a shooter but fits the F2P model well and has the potential to be as addictive as it is in games like Hearthstone or Magic the Gathering. The 5v5 online multiplayer will also be plenty familiar to MOBA players, who may latch onto the game more readily than shooter fans.
Paladins launched its closed beta on November 16, and it wasn’t love at first play for me. I had some issues with the gun feedback, wide open maps and repetitive gameplay structure, which made for an interesting conversation with Drybear, Paladins’ lead designer. He had smart answers for how Hi-Rez plans to iterate on Paladins, with frequent patches and big experiments aimed at finding the fun.
Wes Fenlon, PC Gamer: What are some of the major questions that the fans and players are asking that you can answer for me? It’ll make my job easier!
Newbrough was a popular streamer and caster for Smite before working his way into design at Hi-Rez. He's new lead designer on Paladins.
Rory "Drybear" Newbrough: One of the big ones is whether or not Constructed is coming, being able to build your own deck. The answer is yes. We’re moving along with that as fast as we can. It’s in the game now, it’s just greyed out. We’re figuring out how that works. In the casual setting you pull randomly from all your cards, without building your own deck. We’re also concepting a system that allows you to play ranked games without some RNG, so potentially even pre-picking what cards you draw, and that allows you to shift it in the game, a little less RNG so you know exactly what’s going on versus. the wacky fun of casual where every game’s different, you get different draws.
So Constructed is coming. New champions. We’re obviously working on that. We have three in the pipe right now, but one that’s coming very soon, hopefully within the next few weeks [Ed. note: that champion, Evie, released with the latest patch!]. And obviously more cards with every patch. Changes to the siege engine. There were some complaints about how the siege engine works and how that interaction goes, with that push, attack-defend situation, how that feels between teams. And obviously major bug fixes.
We still have to restructure the rarity of some cards, some in common need to be moved up in rarity, so it feels a little better there. We actually have been iterating on the game a lot since the Gamescom Twitchcon builds. One of the systems we had there, there were 9 levels instead of 5, so when you hit level 5 you picked your fifth card, and then at level 6 you’d wrap back around and replace your first card with a better version of it. You can keep replacing those cards up to the fourth card. Eventually you could have all 5 legendaries. We’re going to experiment with putting that system back in now that we have a ramp up [Ed note: Hi-Rez implemented this change in the latest patch along with Evie].
PCG: From my time with Paladins, my coworker Tom and I were surprised the deck system wasn’t in, because that seemed like half the game. What’s the goal with the beta as you launched it? To get server stability right, or basic gunplay right? What are the steps that the beta’s going to take as you’re progressing?
We really wanted to test the free experience, and we really wanted to test the base gameplay experience. We wanted to make sure the shooting felt right, the interactions felt right, that picking the characters and how you built your teams felt right, and then the cards as well. Part of the reason we wanted to have you pick randomly from all of your cards is it’s a lot easier that way to get feedback on the cards. The cards that are lesser picked when you have a choice, generally don’t get any feedback or play. But if it’s forced random, you may have to pick those cards, and you might explore cards you may not normally like. And when you’re randomly drawn that card and forced to play it, you may think “okay, this is kinda cool, I like this card. I’m going to play it more.” So it gets over that initial barrier of entry where you don’t like a card by the way it looks.
That gives us a lot of data around which cards are important, what cards people like, what cards are making the biggest impact, and we can collect a lot of statistics around what cards are being equipped, who’s picking them, and that helps us a lot.
We wanted to see what it felt like when you couldn’t build your own deck. Because one of the core philosophies around Paladins—we learned this with all of our games but specifically Smite—you’d have the recommended build and the popular items build, and what we saw, we have a lot of statistics around this, when you have a recommended build, you tend to stick with it forever. Once you have your favorite TV show, favorite streaming online, favorite Youtuber, ‘this is mine, I’m not going to break from this. It’s in my comfort zone.’ One of the things that spurred the idea for Paladins was we wanted to break that system out.
There isn’t really a recommended [build], you’re shown random cards and have to draw randomly. That will constantly shift your experience. By removing Constructed initially, we get to see how that affects the way people play, and if they explore different options during the match. Once we move to Constructed, we’ll see if people build the same deck and play the same cards every time.
PCG: For a game where you have so much variety in terms of the way these cards can interact within a character and change their abilities, how do you balance that with the need for players to be able to understand what’s going on? If you’re going up against a character who has double the normal HP and can do more damage based on that, that’s not immediately apparent based on their character model, the way you know in a MOBA ‘this character can do these four things.’ How do you solve for that problem of players being able to understand what they’re up against?
Drybear: Clarity was actually a huge sticking point for me, working with the team. In fact, most of our artists I’ve worked with, I’ve been hammering into their heads that clarity is so important here, just because you can have such a wide slew of things that can happen in a match. You’ll see bits of this throughout the entire game. Our maps are a little more exaggerated, fantastical, painted with basic solid colors. The characters pop really well. We wanted to do that so you can see the characters, the projectiles, everything’s very clear to you.
We team color everything. For you, all the effects you do are colored and pretty, but everything your teammates do will be blue, and everything your enemies do will be red. Even if it’s the same character doing something you’re doing. That simplifies what you need to see and recognize. We also do a lot of standardization across effects. When someone has increased damage, it’s the same effect for everyone. Increased damage effect, increased attack speed effect, slowed down effect. Standardizing these allows you to recognize them easier. And we’re working in the UI to get more feedback in there. When you look in the health bar we do a standardization where every tick is 100 health.
Since you only have five cards, as far as modifications go, we built the system to have a base-level effect, and then intersplice effects into it to let you know what’s going on. For example, when you have the totem down for Grohk and it has the healing effect in it, when that becomes a totem that allows movement speed to be added to teammates that walk through it, you see these up arrows sticking out of the totem. That way you know this totem will move people faster. Standardizing those effects and applying them in the right places, and additive effects where it makes sense.
PCG: The game is made on the same engine as Smite, right?
Drybear: That’s right.
PCG: Probably my biggest criticism of playing it for, granted just a couple hours, was it didn't have the impact feel that a lot of my favorite shooters have. It didn’t feel as crunchy. It kind of felt like Smite, I guess, which doesn’t work quite as well shooting machine guns. How can you work with that engine to make the game feel more like a shooter?
Drybear: A lot of it is feedback systems. Some of the smaller ones make more of a colossal difference than you’d expect. Stuff like ragdolls, right? If you shot someone and they exploded and flew off the screen, that’d feel very meaty and very heavy. That’s something we’re looking to add as soon as possible. Versus if you just hit them and they fall down.
Sound’s a big part of it too. If a sound’s mono versus stereo. If something has a more guttural, deep bass to it. That helps increase your feedback and experience with it. Some of those things aren’t finished yet.
A lot of it, too, is the way the characters react. Stuff we added to Smite that made it feel a lot better, if you hit someone they react to it. When you have that kind of tactile feedback, that really helps. Really, just sound, the visuals, how the characters react, make a big difference. Working within our modified UE3 will be a challenge to make it feel as directly guttural as some other titles, but I think there's a lot we can do around feedback to make it feel just as good.
PCG: I think the other big challenge you guys face, other than making your game as good as you can, is what’s going on outside. Overwatch is the biggest, obvious name. There’s also Battleborn, Dirty Bomb for example.
Drybear: Dirty Bomb, Gigantic.
PCG: What do you see when you look out at your competitors and look at your game and weigh your chances? Is it scary?
Drybear: I think it always is...You can think a game will do poorly and it does really well. You can think a game will do really well and it just bombs. You don’t really know how the market's going to react to it. As far as the state right now, I think there are a lot of great titles out there, but we have something that’s more unique that allows us to integrate systems that people really love. Progression’s a big one. There’s no progression in Overwatch, not really any progression in Battleborn. Battlecry doesn’t have progression. Gigantic has a little but not too much.
PCG: God, I forgot Battlecry exists.
Drybear: Most people do. [laughs] That’s a thing still. That’s the big part, right? We’ve combined a lot of systems that we hope mesh in a very creative way. People love collecting things. You get the cards and build your own collection. People love modifying their characters and being free to create your own experience.
When you play a character in Overwatch or Battleborn, while they’ve crafted very excellent characters I think—I’ve played Overwatch, I think it’s a really well-delivered game—you really only have that one experience when you pick one of the characters. When you get ahold of a character in Paladins, and have a lot of cards, you can kinda build any way you want.
With Grohk you can build all totem cards and triple the size of my totem and add lightning to it and modify it in a way that I feel like is more fitting to my play style. You build your own experience that way. It allows you a lot of freedom, almost like a sandbox or RPG. And then when you start throwing in the randomness, it becomes less repetitive, right? While we still have concerns around the gameplay and game mode itself, the characters are very versatile, and change every single match. So maybe one match you get the totem cards, and then the next match your first card you draw is a chain lightning card, you go oh okay, maybe I’ll build chain lightning this game. You build something completely different. Whereas when you’re planning the same character from game to game, it doesn’t feel like it. So I think that’s what we’re really hoping for as far as longevity for the game.
On the next page: How Hi-Rez came up with the card mechanic, and how they plan to evolve the main (and, eventually, secondary) game modes.