Hi-Rez Expo 2017: SMITE’s specialty adventures, Paladins’ first season, and SMITE Tactics’ PvE

One of best parts of attending conventions is talking with the devs. And during my trip to Hi-Rez Expo 2017, I spoke with a number of them about a variety of topics, learning more about the games as well as witnessing their contagious exuberance for their projects first-hand. I spoke with lead designers AJ Walker, Rory Newbrough, and Scott Zier about SMITE’s Season 4 changes, Paladins’ Season 1, and SMITE Tactics’ possible PvE mode respectively. President Stew Chisam also added a tantalizing tidbit, sharing news about the upcoming addition of more limited-time adventures in SMITE. Let’s dive in!

SMITE

If you enjoyed the variety of the one-off arenas Xing Tian’s Mountain and Fafnir’s Winter Wonderland as I did, this next announcement should make you happy: New adventures will be a regular occurrence! Did you catch when devs mentioned them in previous notes? If not, you are in good company; Chisam noted that these new events were pretty much a hidden line announcement. But he elaborated on the topic for us.

Chisam said that, like me, many players have appreciated having the events. They’ve been well received and many have participated in them. So going forward, SMITE is going to start having special adventures regularly. He said that the idea is to make changes beyond just the competitive scene, giving folks interesting alternatives to dive into the world. These adventures will last about six weeks each, having their own mini-seasons. However, these new adventures will not just be a similar experience to the two previous events; each one will be different and distinct. Chisam emphasized some of the adventures might be PvP, some PvE, some single-player, and some co-op.

In fact, the first two adventures are currently being tested, and Chisam explained they are nothing like the PvE arenas. Unfortunately for us, he wouldn’t reveal any more information than that. More details will be forthcoming in February, and the first adventure is set to start in late February or early March. Chisam is really looking forward to releasing the new adventures, which will have not only fun things to do but rewards as well.  “I think people will find [the adventures] a really cool thing to come in and do,” he said.

If you really loved those two PvE arenas and would like to see them again, there is a chance; Walker said it is possible that the arenas could return for a weekend or something, but that the emphasis is on the new adventures that Chisam shared. He did say that the team would definitely do more things like the Charity Challenge in the future. He also noted that folks are likely to see more temporary arena changes like in the past when the racetrack was added or the lava.

During his interview, Walker shared that he is really excited for the introduction of the Celtic pantheon. “I’ve been researching the Celtic pantheon a lot this year,” he stated, “and I’m just extremely happy that there’s just so many cool gods that keep coming up.” Despite my attempt to learn about other Celtic possibilities, Walker wouldn’t give any hints about which additional Celtic gods will be joining SMITE, just noting that three or four more will join the roster this year along with gods from other pantheons (including the Japanese Guardian that’s coming as soon as possible). He did admit to being very excited for the next couple being released, though.

At this point Walker asked me what gods I’d like to see, but I couldn’t envision my favorite goddess in the MOBA. He then shared that anything is possible, as his application for working at Hi-Rez he did a design based on or Minerva, the matron of the arts. (Could we see her in the future? You have to wonder…) Regardless of who comes next, Walker noted that the first addition, Morrigan, despite all her complexity, appears to have been pretty well received. Design-wise, Walker admitted “It’s going to be hard to top this one [Morrigan], I can tell you that!”

Walker also spoke some about Season 4, emphasizing the big item changes, which focus on starter items and consumables. “We’re trying to facilitate more diverse play with our gods,” he explained. The changes will help the gods have a few more play styles available to them instead of just having one main one, giving players more variety.” Generally we like it that ever god has a distinct role, but every god also has side roles. We want to make sure that those feel good too.”

Paladins

One of the first questions I had to ask Newbrough is why Paladins removed the original siege mode — it was my favorite! His answer was simply, metrics. “When we make game mode changes we base it off of a lot of things,” he explained.”Obviously metrics internally, and how the mode is performing, and also feedback from the community and what modes people are playing.” Despite my personal affinity for it, it just wasn’t as popular as the newer mode that had “more of a competitive shooter vibe to it.” Basically not enough people were playing it. Even when it was offered alongside the new siege mode, most players flocked to the new one. Without the interest, it just isn’t feasible to keep it going.

Another big change early testers lived through was the move from a small set of champions who were customized through decks to a larger set of champions and an overhaul of the card system. Newbrough said players kept requesting more champions to choose from with more differences in abilities, weapons, etc, so that led the team to changing around the system. That led to the decision to “reduce the amount of cards in the game and then start adding a lot more characters.”

I’d asked about the idea of starting Season 1 before the game even launches. Newbrough stated that that main idea with creating such a distinction is so that it is readily apparent that this is a brand-new threshold; many changes have been made at once instead of trickling on over patches, from adjusting the card system to champions to items. “It allows us to do some larger tweaks in a way that doesn’t just keep people on their toes constantly.” he said. Newbrough is excited to see players get in and try the big new change: specialty/talent cards. These cards will be the main thing players build their decks around. The idea is that these will help bring more excitement into building loadouts as well as give players a better chance at assessing teammates and opponents at a glance. He said, “That’s the number one goal of Season 1.” And of course, the devs will be paying attention to and taking feedback into account on all the changes.

In other Paladins’ news, Newbrough noted that work on the console version is moving along quickly, and he added that early access would be available relatively soon. As for launch on the PC version, there are still a couple of systems that the team wants to get in before that can happen. As for champions, the team is aiming to release 15 more in 2017; one being developed right now is a front-line character with runic abilities and the ability to manipulate shield, while another is an assassin-style character. Two new game modes are also in the works: one is survival mode, the other a PvE experience. And finally, response to the Paladin’s Invitational at the expo was really good, both in viewership and participation.

SMITE Tactics

Although SMITE Tactics is fairly new (it was announced just last October), it started its closed beta right at the beginning of the expo, where a number of stations set up for folks to jump in and play. How has the response been to the beta? Zier told me in our interview that the response has been “really really good so far.” He also reported that there are more beta sign-ups now than the previous Hi-Rez games got. Zier attributed a good share of this to SMITE fans wanting to check out the game.

In speaking with a few folks at the convention and trying the game myself, I noticed that one comment that cropped up was that the game seemed very early in its development for starting a beta. Zier stated that this this was actually intended. “The closed beta for us is not a finish point, it’s really like a starting point,” Zier explained. “We have a philosophy that we want players to come to the game very early and we want to get their feedback. We want to be able to use their feedback to make the best game possible.” So even though the team thinks it has a good design that they really like, it wants the game in the hands in players to see what they respond to and what they don’t. “And then,” he continued, “we’ll change the game over the next several months as we go forward into something we think is going to be successful for our fans and for us.” The alpha in November, he said, was just for technical testing since this is the company’s first game using the Unreal 4 engine.

Zier said that some very valuable feedback has already been shared, such as things that need to be clearer (like which character you have selected) and things that fans are really enjoying (a variety of boards to play on that change strategies, ability to play the minions). In all, Zier said that there is much more positive feedback than he thought there would be at this point. It helps, he said, that those in the beta are SMITE fans who already know and love the IP. That also means they have a familiarity with cards that complete newcomers wouldn’t have, such as knowing what the card ability would be since many mirror the gods’ abilities in the MOBA.

What will players find once they get in beta? Currently, there is a four-mission tutorial, but Zier said that it is only the first iteration. It does give the basics of play, but it is pretty sterile. He wants to go back in and put more story elements into it. Matchmaking is already turned on for random battles, and the friends list is also in so players can challenge folks they know. Ranked play is not currently available, but an initial version will be coming in soon. Zier explained, “We’ll go through a few iterations of ranked until we find the ranked system that really works well for Tactics.” Seasons will likely be a couple of months long.

For launch, Zier said that the goal is to have at least four pantheons, the fourth being the Chinese pantheon (hopefully released by the end of January), and plenty of cards to choose from to create the decks. Currently in play are the Greek, Norse, and Egyptian pantheons. Each deck, which consists of 20 cards, will only allow the use of one pantheon and the generic set of cards. Players can, however, build any number of decks. Zier also said more monsters are being considered for addition into the game as gods, such as the Manticore and Ceberus.

The final topic we explored was the devs’ desire to add more story elements to Tactics. I was curious how that could be implemented. Zier gave me the scoop, and it involves PvE. “For Tactics,” he said, “we have campaigns in the beta right now, it’s just a really rough pass. There are basically six missions you can do where you play versus a very simple AI.” he explained that this is mainly to allow players to unlock cards and pantheons. However, he added “What we want to do over the next couple of iterations is flesh that out into something that is really fun and challenging.”

Zier emphasized that nothing he was discussing right now is in any way a give that players can count on happening. But because the game is a blend of a collectable cards and a tactical board, there is room to explore more story through campaign missions.

“None of what I’m about to say will be guaranteed to ship at all – I’ve got to qualify that. This is just experiments we’re gonna do. But we’re going to try these little campaign missions where when you go into the mission you already have units deployed and the AI already has units deployed and it’s a little bit of a puzzle to figure out how to beat them.”

He also explained that the PvE could utilze larger custom boards while still drawing and playing cards. While the PvP matches are meant to last between six and eight minutes, PvE Missions can go longer.  The whole idea is players can get lore through a set of campaign missions where players have to problem solve their way through each mission. He described how objectives could be more than just killing the leader (ala the PvP mode), like destroying an object, destroying a number of objects in a set amount of time, or even rescuing a unit that’s in trouble. he said the team was really looking forward to experimenting with these ideas over the course of the beta.

Disclosure: In accordance with Massively OP’s ethics policy, we must disclose that Hi-Rez paid for our writer’s trip to and stay at this event as a member of the gaming press. Hi-Rez has neither requested nor been granted any control or influence over our coverage of the event, and the writer is paid exclusively by Massively OP for her work.
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