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Paladins: When A Shooter And A CCG Have A Baby...

Playing your cards right

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The other character question I had was about Smite. Will Smite characters start popping up in Paladins at all? The answer is that Hi-Rez are trying to separate their IPs so if they do have any Smite references it won’t be in the manner of Heroes of the Storm or other all-star games, it’ll be more like nods to a shared creator. An Ares skin for the Fernando character, for example.

“We might stick Ratatoskr in one of the maps and do little things like that – we’re all big fans of both titles – but we want to make sure Paladins stands on its own as an individual IP and has its own character base.”

Talk turns to gameplay again. I know the team has two maps in development but we haven’t spoken about different game modes yet. It’s here where Drybear thinks the team can address a problem that they noticed with Smite.

The problem is that Smite’s various game modes are pretty different experiences and involve different maps, monsters, timings, objectives and metas. If you’re used to playing Arena (which is where you try to escort minions to a portal on the other side of this round, open play space) then Conquest (the 5v5 lane-pusher you’d recognise as akin to Dota or League of Legends) is utterly baffling. It can be hard to keep a sense of a coherent or unified player base.

“What we’re trying to accomplish with this game it to try and make it so the base experience, much like many shooters, is the same,” says Drybear. “When you play Halo for example and you play extraction or another game mode, it still feels like Halo because you’re playing the same characters with the same weapons. It’s more about learning the map.”

There are three modes that are on the table at the moment. One is about capturing and holding points, one is ticket-based (e.g. you start with a certain number of tickets and the objectives you take against your enemy cost them tickets). The last is about collecting an army of zombies within a time limit then pitting them against one another when the time runs out.

“The goal is to try and fit as many as possible on the same maps so they use the same core capture point and base system but they mix it up in interesting ways,” he says. “That way if you play Paladins and I play Paladins we have similar experiences and we can share those.”

In terms of the cards, they’re all linked to characters although some do the same thing. Pip’s Lob and Cassie’s Heavy Cord both have the effect of letting weapon shots travel 50% further. They have also birthed enormous spreadsheets in the Hi-Rez offices.

“We’re saying every character has to have a minimum of 30 cards or as close as possible. If you only have 10 cards it feels very flat because there’s not many options. You may not get the cards you want – that sort of thing. We want to make sure the floor [the game’s barrier to entry as opposed to its skill ceiling] is the first thing we’re concerned about and every character has a plethora of options. As we grow we’ll see. There’s going to come a fork when we decide do we want a lot of cards on a few characters or a lot of characters with few cards. That’s going to be a pretty easy divide as maybe we have 45 characters and each character has 45 cards, or 20 characters and each character has 90 cards. That’s going to be an interesting divide. When we hit that row we’ll figure it out.”

In terms of how the game will develop in other ways, Drybear doesn’t want to go down the expansions route, nor is he keen on adding cards to the point where some become invalidated or obsolete. That doesn’t mean not introducing new systems over time nor are cards immune from being reworked. It’s more about not pursuing a development plan where a lot of content is locked away.

On the business model front he says, “For us the champions will be free into the future so you won’t have to worry about getting characters. For the cards themselves we are still deciding a monetisation plan. We don’t have that model yet. We’re focusing more on making those cards part of a collection process. We’re trying to make that as accessible as possible.”

The idea is that you’ll earn cards through wins, chests by leveling up and earn gold by playing. Currently in beta it seems that you get a chest when you level up your account (the radiant one drops five cards) and you get a card when you win. Obviously that stuff’s all being tinkered with and it makes sense to be super generous in beta so people are actually trying the cards and seeing if anything breaks so that might all change.

Speaking with Stew Chisam he adds:

“The game will definitely be free to play. We’ll probably evolve the exact mechanics of all the different pieces of monetisation over time. Obviously with cards there’s some opportunity for card packs to make some real money although we believe very strongly that anything that affects gameplay should be able to buy for a reasonable price in in-game currency – you don’t have to pay for it.

“80-something percent of our revenues on Smite come from cosmetics and it’s taught us a valuable lesson. At this stage to be honest we worry very little about monetisation because this is now our fourth free-to-play game. (Global Agenda didn’t start as a free to play game but it ended there.) Through that process I think we’ve learned the most important thing by miles and miles is to get a game people want to play.”

Ranked is proving an interesting challenge at the moment though. “Because we’ve blended these genres we get all the benefits of the genres and all the downsides,” is how Drybear puts it.

One of my thoughts is that if Hi-Rez succeeds in making the game super-varied and with all these myriad potential playstyles that might mean a heck of a lot of learning and anticipating if you’re trying to counter champions and builds.

“I’ve been losing sleep over the last few months trying to figure out how to make that ranked mode work in a way that isn’t obstructive in some way. You have the RNG aspects, you have the meta aspects – generally it’s a little bit easier for ranked because the people who gravitate towards ranked are your hardcore players that will stay up all night creating a spreadsheet of what’s the most efficient thing to build and all that.”

One of the ideas being batted around at the moment is that you could set the card drops for each level, laying a character’s card deck out like a skill tree and picking the options that best fit the game you’re having. Another option is to have a couple of ban/pick phases, one for champions and another for cards. Again, it’s very much a game in flux on that front at the moment.

The last thing I wanted to mention is the scoring and feedback system particularly when it comes to rewarding things that aren’t shooting in a shooter.

“If you look back at Global Agenda we actually did a lot of this. There was a system – don’t tell anybody! – in there where at the end of a match there was a big long scoreboard of different stats and it would justify to the one you were best at. So if you were the best healer or the best tank or the best damage or you captured the most points that would be the first thing you see and it would be highlighted like ‘You are the man! You are the girl! You did it – you’re awesome!’

“You can also look at psychology, Skinner boxes, reward loops and making people feel good, how that works in the brain. It’s very fascinating. But really a lot of it is making sure whatever aspect you’re trying to accomplish you feel you’re doing it well.”

To that end, scoring is going to be tailored to each character. For example, Fernando is a character with a relatively short range flamethrower for his basic attack, he’s pretty tanky and has a shield as one of his abilities so you generally want him down on the capture point while you summing the siege cannon. He’ll likely get a lot of points for tanking damage and for being on the capture point. Grohk is an orc shaman with a chain lightning attack so he might get lots of points for zapping multiple enemies with that.

At the moment it’s not like that though. The majority of your score is just match performance stuff like kills and damage dealing and healing.

One thing which is in place at the moment is the game not explicitly differentiating between you getting the killing blow and you getting an assist. It’ll make a slight difference to your score but in terms of the verbal feedback the game gives they’ve been consolidated. It’s to do with limiting toxicity.

“You start looking at it like, ‘We’re doing good!’ rather than ‘I’m not doing as good as I could be’.”

Player responses and behaviour are also influencing other aspects of the game. “It’s one of the reasons why the minimap isn’t perfectly on the screen, you have to tab for it. When you see the a minimap and you’re on the point and you look at your teammates across the map you’re mad about it. ‘You’re off the point, what are you doing?’ If you don’t actively see that you focus more on what can I do on the point.”

I’m wondering whether that will change once ranked gets added in. Perhaps the ability to track teammates and co-ordinate will be more valuable than the behavioural aspect when it comes to ranked or team-based play. As I say, it’s still very much a work in progress.

There’s no full-release date scheduled but constructed decks are expected to arrive either by the end of 2015 or at the start of 2016. I’ve had fun with the casual mode but I think how constructed plays out will govern how much of a timesink Paladins turns out to be for me.

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