Hi-Rez Expo 2018: Assessing the new expo venue, game experimentation, and esports

    
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Did you catch our latest Stew Talks? It’s like Ted Talks, but about gaming and Hi-Rez. When I sat down with Stew Chisam, President of the studio, at the latest Hi-Rez Expo, we had quite a chat — so much so that we only covered half of it last time! Now, we delve into the final topics of our conversation. We’ll cover the games of the past and esports of the future. And I have to know Hi-Rez thinks of the current venue. Will this partnership really benefit the studio? I hope so because from where I sat, the change was a whole slew a negatives to outweigh the positives, making the expo less fun for fans.

The good of Dreamhack vs HRX venue

One of the very first questions I had to ask Chisam was about the change in venue and time for HRX. As our interview was in the middle of the con, I knew there would be more factors to study after its conclusion, but I wanted to know his impressions of this radical change. And it was radical. Even ignoring the change from the first week of January to the weekend before Thanksgiving (not the greatest choice in my opinion), the entire setup went from a center where Hi-Rez was the only attraction to a massive hall where it was only the back corner amid other vendors.

“The nicest thing I think about the previous set up was the intimacy of it. And the venue kinda promoted that intimacy in just the way it was structured and things like that,” he said. “I think what’s great about this venue is actually just that scale of it is really nice.” He noted that the team could do a lot more with the expanded space. Although I can’t tell by any exact measurements, there definitely seemed to be more room for larger play areas, more play areas, and better line management at swag and gifts.

Being at this combined convention also meant being open to a larger audience. And we aren’t talking space-wise; being a part of Dreamhack meant that a whole massive crowd of people unfamiliar with SMITE and Paladins were there and able to check the games out. He stated, “Having the audience opened up to a much lager group of people, both Hi-Rez fans and non-Hi-Rez fans I think is great. It’s allowing us to expose the game to a lot more people.”

As for the partnership itself, Chisam said Dreamhack has been great to work with. He is very interested in helping building esports in Atlanta, and that’s what Dreakhack is aiming at. As he put it,

“Having a premier convention like Dreamhack here in Atlanta that brings in a lot of esports and gaming things is healthy for the city and healthy for Hi-Rez in the long-term. Because the healthier ecosystem we have here in Atlanta and Georgia around gaming the better access to talent we have and all sort of other things. That’s been a really positive side.”

Chisam says he appreciates being right in the heart of downtown Atlanta too as it makes for easier travel for attendees, and it boosts the downtown economy. He did dish about the impact of other gaming stuff happening that weekend as well as how the massive pro football game around the corner would affect attendance locally. (I can attest that trying to walk back to the venue after that game was like a fish swimming upstream.)

One positive I could definitely see was the possibility for Hi-Rez to introduce something non-SMITE or Paladins related. With the very core of attendees being SMITE fans (that Paladins attendance is increasing!), they likely don’t care much about any other projects outside of their games/IPs. In fact, I had the feeling that if SMITE Rivals or Bot Smashers were introduced to their intended audience — mobile users — instead of to the SMITE and Paladins players, they would have been met with much more enthusiasm.

Chisam agreed that debuting new things (especially non-IP related or mobile) at HRX did not have a positive track-record. One problem is that there are a lot of big differences between mobile monetization and PC monetization, and the PC/console players really seem to rebel against them. As for trying to delve more into mobile, Chisam explained that there are three classes of games on mobile: One is IP extension games (Paladins Strike); another is opportunity for cross-platform (what Fortnite did); and the third is a new IP focused only on mobile (Bot Smashers). “We’re more focused at this point in our evolution on the first two of those than the third,” he stated. Mobile games are more meant to be “a little bit of fan service to those who love our IP.”

The bad side of venue changing

Timing-wise, I asked whether that date was going to be set or the studio would consider shifting it back. With holidays so close, I questioned how much harder it was for fans to make arrangements to attend this fall. I know it impacted one in my own family! That, and the fact that many could have already planned on the January date for time off and therefore missed out completely. I don’t have numbers: It could have been the size and setup of the building, but it seemed like fewer folks were in attendance this time.

But Chisam told that numbers are in fact up, but it’s hard to separate Dreakhack and HRX attendees. He told me that he honestly really loved the January date. However, that time had two problems. One was the possibility of weather issues. (Yes, an ice storm did shut it down one day a couple years ago.) The other was one I never realized: He explained that many Hi-Rez employees haven’t had holidays in years. They’ve chosen to give up holiday time to make things perfect for the fans. Cumulatively over years, that was a bit much. “It’s absolutely brutal on our employees,” he said. Later, I did hear from one employee how much she was looking forward to celebrating with her family this year as she hadn’t in a long time.

In light of that, I can acquiesce to a time change (just hopefully not so close to Thanksgiving please!). That is the simpler thing. The venue itself, however, might be a more difficult fix, but a fix is probably needed. I had to express some serious concerns about the venue setup (and no, not just because there was no Bento Bus!). While I can appreciate that more people could get in the venue, and more people unfamiliar with HRX could be introduced to the games and studio, the physical setup was horrid. Instead of being in separate rooms or taking turns on the main stage like at the Cobb in previous years, the Paladins and SMITE finals were taking place right next to each other. I was surprised they weren’t at least across from each other if not at opposite ends of the hall. And I really wish they had been.

Instead, the screens competed with each other for your eyes, and the simultaneous shoutcasting competed with each other for your ears. It was an assaultive jumble of sounds making it hard to follow either well; one might be building excitement and get loud while the one you were trying to watch was calm. This discordance actually forced me off the show floor and up into a quieter press room to watch through the windows and on the TV. It also appeared to drain the energy and flow of spectating; I did not enjoy watching the matches nearly as much this year, and even with the two audiences side-by-side it seemed less enthusiastic as a whole. Maybe that was because different sides would cheer at different times, but it definitely felt more muted.

I’d heard one comment that the event planners assured Hi-Rez that this set up would work fine but that the studio wasn’t happy with it. I hope it wasn’t! While there were positives I could see coming out of the larger venue (and I sincerely hope the games get more exposure from it), what should have been a capstone of the season was a let down. I asked Chisam if Hi-Rez thought it would utilize this venue again and continue with the Dreamhack partnership. He answered, “We are a very experimental company, we like to try different things and see what works best.” He then stated that he expects to learn from this year, combine it with knowledge gleaned from previous years, and “hopefully next year will find the best of both worlds.”

Games gone, but not forgotten

A HRX will never go by that I don’t ask Chisam about the loss of the games. This year, on top of Global AgendaTribes: Ascend, and Rivals, we add the corpses of Hand of the Gods and Bot smashers. The good side of game experimentation is getting good games. The bad side is losing them.

Chisam noted that HOTG is still running on servers, but even with passionate employees and a core audience, the studio is not investing to any real level in that game right now. Chisam said it just didn’t gain market traction. He did say, “We think there are some ways in the future we can kind of pivot what we did with that, maybe in more interesting ways, and we’ll look at that if the timing’s ever right.”

As for Tribes, Chisam said that they really love the IP. He also noted that Hi-Rez owns more than just Tribes – it’s got the whole IP universe, including Earth Siege and Star Siege. “Every time we talk about developing new games, we talk about ways to use that,” he said. “I am sure at some point we’ll return to all of those things and do new things.”

Regarding Bot Smashers, the team for that actually was moved to the surprise project, Realm Royale. Chisam explained that last Thanksgiving Realm Royale wasn’t even on the radar for the studio whereas Bot Smashers was being developed. The idea of the Paladins mode cropped up after the holiday with just a couple people experimenting, but the studio quickly discovered its potential and it took off, so that project needed more people. It just so happened that the best-suited ones were working on Bot Smashers.

But that doesn’t mean the little mobile game is gone for good. Chisam reminded, “Nothing ever disappears with us. Like Bot Smashers in particular, I think we really love that IP.” He still thinks the bots are really fun and the devs developed a lot with that IP: “We all would love to come back to that at some point.”

Esports

While we already covered the changes in the esports scene perimeters, I was curious as to some of the other logistics. I wanted to know about what local provisions were in place for this move of esports league play to Atlanta. What infrastructure was in place? And perhaps even more than that, with the addition of US college championships and high school leagues to the change to local-only league play, did Chisam see pro SMITE and Paladins play becoming a North American niche?

While Chisam told me that President of Skillshot Media, Todd Harris, was the expert on the subject and would better answer most of my questions (unfortunately, I was not able to meet with him this time around), he could assure me that “good accommodations are being made around those types of issues.”

He also said he could address my final concern – in fact, he stated that he some qualms and concerns himself. He remarked there is some validity to concerns, but the team has been aware of them and Chisam feels it has been working hard to mitigate them. The organizations are making the decisions about whether or not to relocate, travel, or even keep playing right now, and as he understands it most of the EU orgs are choosing just to travel and not relocate. He added, “I think people are going to be surprised on the level of European participation, and the enthusiasm level of European participation.” He even thinks this could be a really good thing for the Euopean scene.

Chisam really feels that the local league play will be a boost for esports (both players and viewers), Atlanta, and Hi-Rez.  Before, they were limited to what they could do. Now, even the regular season has more options. And of course, secondary content will be much more prolific. “A huge part of growing fan attraction to these sports is growing up secondary content,” he said. We’ll have to see how it all shakes out.

Massively Overpowered was on the ground in Atlanta for Hi-Rez Expo 2018, bringing you expert coverage on SMITE, Paladins, and everything else the Hi-Rez substudios have up their sleeve!
Disclosure: In accordance with Massively OP’s ethics policy, we must disclose that Hi-Rez paid for our writer’s travel to and accommodation at this event. Hi-Rez has neither requested nor been granted any control or influence over our coverage of the event.

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