Paladins lead designer talks balance, iterating in beta for the hybrid FPS

PCG: Was the card system the inspiration for creating Paladins? Was that the first idea, or did that come in later?

Drybear: It’s interesting for us, because, this is kind of a running joke internally: every game we make starts out as Global Agenda 2, and then starts evolving from there. So originally we wanted to make another Global Agenda, and then shifted from there.

We realized, we loved Tribes, we wanted to make another shooter. The cards weren’t really a factor until maybe 9, 10 months ago. The project’s about a year and a half old now, so about halfway through we realized we wanted some kind of modification in there. Once we put it in it made a lot of sense. The mounts came shortly after. So really what we like to do is just riff on an idea and then throw it in the playtest and see what it feels like. Once we get the feeling for it, we get that natural reaction, we start moving with it.

This is kind of a running joke internally: every game we make starts out as Global Agenda 2.

We knew going in that, something we struggled with with Smite, you can go to any one of the MOBA websites, pick a recommended build, throw it in the game and they’ll use that for the next six months. We really wanted to break that rut of using the same thing over and over. We wanted a system that lets you organically shift your gameplay constantly so it feels fresh and unique. The card system, really, it could’ve been a talent system or a buff system, but when we settled on the fantasy theme, the cards fit.

So about halfway through the project we got the cards, and once we played more and more with the idea we realized, it’s really fun to just modify your character, build different things, and internally when we’re playtesting it, about eight months ago, we’d look at it and say, every time you played a game, you’d be like I wish I had this card, or I wish I had a card for this, or what if there were cards that interacted with each other? We realized we wanted to make it part of the experience.

Paladins Ruckus Cassie Web

PCG: Someone cynical might say cards are the perfect microtransaction element to put in there. But that wasn’t at all the impetus for it?

Drybear: The first thing we always look at for games, and this is why people always wonder why we take a pre-alpha game and take it to Gamescom...for us the only thing that matters is gameplay. Finding that fun gaming experience and building upon it is what makes it feel like a real game we want to play internally. All our playtesters are devs. Producer, president, CEO. Just to make sure it’s a game we like.

We know we can evolve the game, we know we can make it prettier, make some of the systems better. But none of that matters if the game’s not fun. You can spend three years on a AAA title making it the prettiest, nicest thing ever, but if people don’t like playing it, it’s not worth it. So we want to make the gameplay as fun as possible. We know F2P is very forgiving in that way. The community’s built over time, they attach to the game and become really hardcore and give us feedback to help shape it. So we wanted to throw it out there and see how it feels.

PCG: You mentioned you’re looking into changes to the gametype you have in there right now. What’s the reaction to that been like and what are you looking at changing already?

Drybear: A lot of it is stuff we kind of expected going in. We had a base game mode that mixed a lot of things. A little like escort, attack and defend, capture point. There are a lot of different elements of different game modes that go in there. We tried to create, similar to how Paladins mixes a few things in a creative way. There’s obviously situations where it feels like you’re just running back to your base, one-dimensional defending the siege engine or capturing it. We want to get some more dynamic gameplay in there. We’re reevaluating the maps and how they interact with the game mode. Overall it’s good to see that people are playing consistently and then starting to have gripes about how the game mode plays.

When you get big departures between game modes, it makes it less of a communal thing.

One of the biggest questions is are we going to add more game modes. One thing we saw with Smite as well...if you have too many game modes it’s difficult to share your experience with friends. Say in Smite, I’m an Arena player and you’re a Conquest player. We don’t really have a connection. You say Gold Fury, I don’t know what that means. Say I’m an Arena or Assault player, and then I go to watch tournaments and it’s all Conquest. That doesn’t relate to me. I know those characters, but what are they doing? I don’t get it. When you get those big departures between game modes, it makes it less of a communal thing.

We really want to try to push for just one game mode. We will eventually plan to have additional ones that are supplementary and fun and exciting. We’re experimenting with capture and hold, full escort, domination-style ticket systems. The reception so far for the game mode we have has been pretty good, they just want some tweaks around how you interact with the siege engine.

Every day this week with our internal tests we’ve tried something completely different, like you can’t damage the siege engine anymore and now it has a timer on it, or you have to shoot the gates, the siege engine doesn’t shoot the gates anymore. We’re rapidly iterating on that and seeing what feels better.

PCG: I think that’s an interesting point about game modes that i hadn’t thought about before. I totally see what you mean about Smite, having played Conquest and Arena and knowing they’re completely different. At the same time, I used to play tons of Halo, played a lot of shooters over the years, and I’ve never thought of shooters in that same way. I’d play CTF and I’d play Assault and Team Deathmatch, and those are very different experiences, but something about it being in a shooter was different. I guess it was more about my knowledge of the map and raw ability versus in a MOBA you have to know timings and rotations and all that.

Drybear: A lot of it, too, is in a shooter, you’re going to be the same character with the same guns. In shooters in general, it is more about the map, and while it’s still CTF or Dominion or Extraction, you can really feel like, the game was the flavor. We want to capture that in a way that makes sense. We’re basically at this point half shooter, half MOBA, so we don’t want to go too much in the MOBA route for the game modes and the style and then it’s drastically different. We want to keep that same shooter feel where you can share experiences across the board.

PCG: How frequently are you going to be putting out significant updates?

Drybear: The running joke right now is, our build strategy right now is today and tomorrow. Whenever you ask me, we’re probably going to build today or tomorrow. Just like Smite, we want to be very consistent with the updates. Because we’re early, we’ll probably be even more aggressive. We’ll probably be patching at least once a week, fixing a lot of issues, getting those critical bugs out of there.

And then also just putting content in there. One of my fears, as design, is there’s just not enough things to do...For a character-based shooter you kinda want to be around 13-15 characters to make sure you’re not seeing the same characters every game, a lot of characters to choose from. A lot of it too is you want enough characters to reach different demographics. With [nine], maybe there’s not a playstyle in there that someone really wants to play, and we’d miss out on that player.

PCG: The game’s in beta now until release, right?

Drybear: Right. Once we start, the train is rolling and we don’t stop.

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Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).