When I was out at Hi-Rez Studios earlier this month the developers gave a presentation about Paladins [official site]. At some point during the presentation CEO Erez Goren crashed the stage and joined in the Q&A (which then turned into an impromptu game dev meeting). As part of that I asked for a bit more information about how flexible the team see the in-game champions as being. The answer touches on character identity and how the players currently approach variation – they want more characters with narrower skillsets and not jacks of all trades.
The main point of Paladins is that instead of following a skill build for a character which you tweak to fit the individual game you use decks of cards to create your own skill trees. Each character has their own set of cards which you can earn and then use to construct these different builds, tailoring a champion to your playstyle or needs. But at some point the developers have to decide how many cards each character can have and how flexible they should be. Can I have a Pip who goes full damage with one set of cards and full support with another or is he supposed to be smaller variations on one identity?
"It's a simple question but there's no simple answer for it. In fact I stayed up most of last night considering that question," says Erez. "It depends which portion of the community we're trying to cater to and what feels best, what's good for competitiveness and what's fun.
"So it's really fun to create weird builds and do wacky things with them but then they're either overpowered or underpowered or if you don't know what the other person's doing."
He describes an incident where a Pip (Pip is a squirrelly character who shoots out potions and a kind of sticky goop that slows you down, I'm not talking about myself here) turned up in a recent game and had a weird build centring on his adhesive strengths not his potions.
"It was this AoE damage build I was dying to and it made no sense to me. Why should that happen? This doesn't seem right – he should be shooting little bombs at me with his potion launcher thing. So I think we're in the latest iteration which we haven't talked about yet, I think we're actually going to reduce it some to be fewer more viable builds with more incremental ways to change your playstyle rather than dramatic things."
I think the element of understanding the enemy and their capabilities is important to flag up here. MOBAs and other games which use a cast of characters are really hard to learn so you take refuge in the knowledge that you do have and use that as a base on which to build. I know that Tidehunter in Dota 2 has a particular set of abilities so there are particular moves to watch out for or skills to guard against. He can create variance using items or levelling skills with different priority but I have a basic handle on what the character is for. He has a basic identity. If he could be anything or take on any role then he loses a lot of his inherent Tidehunteryness both for the person who plays him and, crucially, the player who plays against him. He's a preferred skin, not a sign of particular intentions.
"One of the reasons for that [approach] is we did some surveys and most of the surveys say that people want a lot more characters in the game. That was probably the number one thing – 'Give us more characters'. In a traditional shooter you wouldn't necessarily have that but now people see a game like Overwatch with twenty-something characters...
"In the beginning we started more with like a TF2/Global Agenda style where you have fewer characters. I think TF2 has nine and Global Agenda had the equivalent of about eight. We tried that and with a lot of cards we had a lot of variations. That was fine until people started playing a lot more MOBAS and played things like Overwatch which let you have more characters and everybody comes back with, 'No, we just want a lot more characters, not just a lot of variation'.
"People don't seem to appreciate the variation on a character as much as they do having a new character that does things that particular way."
He then brings up League of Legends, noting that if you wanted to play with an adhesive build you would pick a character who was created around that type of play rather than customising a different one to fill the role.
At this point lead designer Rory 'Drybear' Newbrough was pretending to take notes on his hand. "You got that?" Erez asks him. "I was going to talk to you about this later on but I might as well do it here. If that doesn't work it will change!"
I went past an office later and it looked like the on-stage development meeting had spilled over into a real one with the three leads on the game deep in discussion. I'm not sure how Paladins will pan out or whether they've already scrapped this idea in favour of another, but I liked the answer to the question and how it made me think about character identity in gaming so I figured I'd leave it here for those who are interested.