One thing I can say about the Hi-Rez Expo is that no matter what time of year the studio has it, it’s always full of information. There’s always more to do than I can get to; having it at a new venue at a new time didn’t change that. Besides panels and championship matches (and this year, a studio tour), I had the opportunity to sit with a number of developers to learn more about the expo reveals and discuss details more in-depth.
Such was the case with SMITE. One person I chatted with was Lead Designer AJ Walker, who talked with me about the newly revamped arena, Avalon’s addition to the pantheons, and how cross-platform account mergers might work. And although as a PC gamer I am definitely not competent at a controller, I also tried my hand at the new arena on the Nintendo Switch.
A new arena
Anyone who loved the old Corrupted Arena adventure is sure to be excited by the announcement of a new and revamped arena. What will change, and what will stay the same? Unlike many convention announcements, this one was made the same day the new arena actually went live, so players had a chance to jump in and experience it for themselves. If you haven’t yet, here’s what you can expect.
Walker described the revamp as visually bringing the arena into line with the rest of the game. After the new Season 5 Conquest map was released with the sides of Chaos and Order, the arena’s coliseum felt more out of place. Here SMITE had an art style that wasn’t a part of the most popular game mode. So that changed. The arena is now themed order and chaos as well, with Bellona, the most aggressive and war-like goddess, heading up the Chaos side, while Hera, with her more diplomatic and trust-based ways, watching over the Order side. Here, players can also more easily distinguish at a glance which side of the map they are fighting on just by the colors involved; chaos is dripping in red hues while order is decked out in blues and golds.
Walker pointed out that visuals were basically the only thing changed. “We made a very intentional choice to not change up the gameplay too much,” he explained. As the most popular mode, devs didn’t want to mess with the rules or core gameplay. So there are no additional obstacles or disappearing ground like in the Corrupted Arena. The one exception is the addition of the Minotaurs. These armored, beefy combatants take the place of the biggest minion in the match. And unlike those placid ball carriers, the Minotaurs will fight back! They are definitely more visually appealing than their predecessors as well!
Response to the addition of Avalon to the pantheons has been mixed. Even here on MOP some readers have been disappointed in stretching out to include these two fantasy icons, whereas others are excited for the fresh variety. Walker discussed how the placement of Merlin and Arthur and then Jormungand, Horace, and Set was very purposeful. It was to strike a balance between stuff that is heavy on the Norse lore and oft requested and stuff that is new. “You don’t want to try to please everyone with everything because then you just get diluted things.” he stated. With Avalon, the team took a very specific focus on something new to maybe bring new people in.
Even though pantheons are no longer filled out, I asked if Merlin and Arthur were the only ones planned for Avalon, and who else was considered during the development process. Walker said yes, as with most anything at Hi-Rez, there is a possibility of more, but none is planned as of now. He then told me a number of other characters were considered from Avalon, including the Lady of the Lake, Guinevere, Morgana, Mordred, and even Knights of the Round Table like Lancelot and Sir Tristan. However, not only did it make sense to start with the most legendary, the most mythical, but the others didn’t necessarily have enough lore to fit in without stretching things too much. Walker himself pitched many, including Guinevere. She was so light on lore and needed to be really heavily reimagined, so Walker was going for a battle priest, but that might have been too much of a stretch. Lady of the Lake was also discussed with possible water magic and weapon summoning. Neither of these ladies made the cut.
When I asked Walker to look back and look ahead at favorite SMITE things, he noted that he was proudest of Season 5 Conquest. The map revision was stunning and redefined SMITE’s art style, and a new pro player discord started this year allowing for better direct communication. Looking ahead, Walker discussed changes coming to Season 6, which begins in February. He talked about adding a little more complexity to pro scene in the late game, stating:
“The map feels really good, but the solo lane and some of the late game battles were things we wanted to focus on to improve. We wanted to pick very specific things we wanted to improve instead of trying to change too much. We’re going to take the same approach to god balance.”
He added that leaderboards in ranked play will now be by skill rank instead of time played, emphasizing quality over quantity. There will also be a role queue for Conquest, so players can pick what role they want and be matched accordingly instead of getting stuck with something they don’t. These, and other changes, were driven by player feedback.
Another big difference will be that folks will be able to play alongside others using different input. The cross-platform queue is actually a cross-input queue; with cross-platform play, those on controllers and those using keyboards and mice can group together in general play (think of the more robust queue pool!) — or not. He emphasized that there will be a setting allowing players to opt of this and queue only with those using the same input method. Hi-Rez is really interested to see how it works out. The pro leagues, however, will be split by input scheme, so controllers will be one and keyboard and mouse will be the other as opposed to defined by console vs PC.
I got my hands on SMITE on switch and played arena on the expo floor show. Since I have held a controller less than five times in my life, I didn’t know how this would turn out, but I didn’t do too poorly all things considered! I had some trouble spinning and facing ways I didn’t mean to, I kept forgetting which trigger was my main attack, and I had to have help finding how to access the store, but I was still able to win in my matches. (Yay for teammates!) Luckily I was able to play a god I was familiar with, even if he didn’t have the items I was used to, with abilities I was comfortable with, even if I hit the wrong buttons for them.
Play was smooth, and my guess is that folks who like controllers will love this. And the on-the-go portability is pretty impressive — not that I could pick up and move around with the Switch on the con floor! Perhaps because of my inexperience with the console I can’t say too much for how it feels when it plays, but I think the fact that a total controller newb was able to still navigate and play says something positive. The experience wasn’t quite authentic feeling to me, however, since I got to play on a massive screen instead of the teeny Switch one. But since players can hook their handhelds into a TV and do the same thing, I guess that really isn’t inauthentic. And I had so much trouble with where I was looking that on a smaller screen I’d have no chance! I think having SMITE on Switch, and especially cross-platform so you can just pick up and go and run a few matches while waiting in lines or whatever, is going to be a big boon to the game.
I’d have spent a bit more time with the Switch, but I had to let others have their turns. My only running a few matches had nothing to do with it being a controller. Mostly. I can definitely see the allure, if only I were not controller-averse.