Exclusive Interview With Todd Harris, COO of Hi-Rez Studios, Creators of SMITE

Modern free-to-play games have a tendency to get stuck in ridiculously long beta periods. I can’t even count how many MMOs I've played for months at a time entirely within the nebulous “open beta” period. On March 25th, SMITE, a MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) from Hi-Rez Studios will finally step out of beta and join the rest of the industry in the light of release.

I have been playing SMITE for months now, so this announcement raises a lot of questions. What is going to change with the game on release? We already know that all character data will persist, but what changes will be made to differentiate the game from beta?

Why release the game now?  Is there some special reason, or is this just how the timing worked out?

With these questions in mind, I was able to get an interview with Hi-Rez Studios’ COO, Todd Harris. Regarding post-release changes, Harris said there wouldn't be any major overhauls, but there would be changes coming to three key areas.

“We've been trying to just continue to polish the game with every patch but there's really three categories of things we are trying to improve over the next few months before release.

“One is a better experience for brand new players. Specifically, improving the tutorial, actually replacing the current tutorial with the new one. And also restructuring some of the play menus so it’s just more obvious for new players. Some of the survey feedback that we get when we survey new players is that it wasn't necessarily obvious what to do when they hop into the game. So, that’s a problem. [We] want to improve that. So new player experience is number one.”

Harris continued,

“Number two is art polish. You've been playing so you know we've gone back and redone some of the god character models and textures. And we've also redone maps, but we have more of that planned. So specifically we’re going to look at the Arena map and kind of bump that up in visual style...Another thing in that category is the end bosses, that are Minotaurs, the art team is actually working on a replacement for that.

“The third is quality of life features. So an example of that is the friends list in the game is a bit awkward to use. Those are the type of things that we want to be better when we call the game release.”

Harris admitted that these things had been on the roadmap for a while, but the feedback from beta confirmed that these were problem areas that needed to be worked on. To find time to make all of these changes, and to support the game post-release, new God releases might slow down as a side effect.

Harris said,

“We’re [releasing Gods] at a very very fast clip right now. Basically one every two weeks and if you count redos sometimes even more quickly than that.

"I think we’ll stay in the ballpark of two weeks to a month for a new God, but we actually want to increase the number of skins. The community’s asking for more cosmetic skins and enjoys those but because we are doing a lot of redos right now we can’t generate as many. So I would just see some of our production shifting to skins but still doing frequent releases, [but] not going longer than a month, most likely.”

When asked about the timing of release Harris said that Hi-Rez “want(s) the game to be really polished when we call it release and we haven’t been in a hurry because the game’s been growing month over month.”

Harris also admitted that the eSports tournaments happening early in 2014 were a factor.

“We wanted at some point to do a big tournament, a 100k prize pool tournament that would be associated with launch. And that was another thing that we didn’t want to delay any further. We thought quarter 1 of next year was a good time for that because there would be enough professional teams and we’d have enough experience hosting tournaments.”

Currently the eSports arena is being dominated by League of Legends, another MOBA by Riot Games, which could be considered a direct competitor to SMITE, but Harris is not concerned.

“I think [League of Legends is] encouraging. I think that it validates e-sports and helps eSports get exposure in the mainstream media because headlines like the Staples stadium was sold out or the numbers of millions of people that watched [the League of Legends World Championships] being more than the Stanley Cup, right?

“Those help break through the noise and get attention. We think eSports is growing as a category and we actually think MOBA is also growing as a category. There’s room for more than two offerings, certainly if they differentiate.”

Harris hopes that this push towards eSports and focus on live-streaming will make SMITE a hit post-launch. Currently there are over 2.5 million players, which is impressive for a game in open beta, but Hi-Rez want to dwarf that in the near future. That number isn’t even counting the Chinese audience, which is still going through a series of closed betas guided by Tencent Games, a Chinese Online Game publisher.

Todd Harris made a point of thanking the community for all of the feedback, which the entire studio takes very seriously.

“Although I pay a lot of attention to the community, Erez, our CEO, is very interested, legitimately interested, in what the community thinks. He frequents Reddit, he watches tournaments, he often hops on stream when we are doing patch notes himself, so I think that kind of trickles through the organization.”

Even though Hi-Rez actively watches the community, sometimes it is hard to listen to the hordes of people on the internet, especially when people get upset.

“The community should understand that the people here are working really really hard to make the best game they can and no one wants to hear their baby is ugly. But if people are bringing very reasonable feedback in a calm tone and backing it up with a well reasoned argument then those things get attention. They get passed around the studio.”

So, if you want to be heard, don’t rage. Bring calm logic and you have a much greater chance of being taken seriously. Harris closed by thanking everyone that is already playing SMITE and active in the community.

“I’d like to thank the community for supporting us through a very extended beta and we’re looking forward to launching an awesome game together.”

It is obvious that the community is very important to Hi-Rez and the SMITE team, which is refreshing in the modern gaming industry. Not many companies listen to their community and actively make changes based on complaints and feedback.

It was a great opportunity to talk to Todd Harris about the future of SMITE. It looks like there is quite the roadmap laid out for the Hi-Rez team post release. Hopefully SMITE can live up to the expectations of the team and become a new force in eSports.


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