If you’re into MOBAs, you’ve got more than two options, you know. League of Legends and Dota 2 maybe where the biggest prize pots are for pro players right now, but there are plenty of innovative new titles in the genre nipping at their heroes and champions’ heels.
Carving a third way out for itself is Hi-Rez Studios’ Smite, which left Beta just a few months ago, celebrating the launch with a huge $200,000 (€145,000) tournament. In just a few short years, the game has grown from nothing into a serious contender, with millions of players and big plans to grow as an eSport. To find out how the studio pulled it off, we spoke to several key staffers in-depth. In the first of our two part series, we grilled Hi-Rez chief operating officer Todd Harris about the game’s origins as a very different sci-fi title, and Smite’s astronomic growth. Read on for all the details...
Tell us where it all began. Where did the idea come from? How long has Smite been in the works for?
Way back in December of 2010 a small team at Hi-Rez Studios prototyped a three lane map using the player characters and enemies from our first game Global Agenda. The camera view was third person, the movement was WASD, but you progressed in match like a MOBA.
You went from originally planning a sci-fi setting to the current mythological one instead – how did that happen?
After one month of prototyping, in January 2011 our CEO Erez Goren proposed switching the theme from sci-fi Global Agenda to Mythology and gods. From a production standpoint that would mean extending our timelines about two years! It meant not using all our existing Global Agenda assets but instead designing and creating 50 brand new playable god characters, plus minions, jungle characters, environments, and so on. But we felt the mythology theme was so compelling we decided to go for it and create the new Smite IP.
Smite's controls and POV (point of view) are noticeably different to its rivals like League of Legends and Dota 2. Why was this decision made and when?
Our previous two games were both fast action multiplayer games with WASD movement and free-mouse aiming. Global Agenda is a third person shooter and Tribes: Ascend is a first person shooter. So we started with shooter controls and a point of view that is more like a shooter than like an RTS [real time strategy game].That makes the combat in Smite feel very different from the other 2D MOBA games.
Who was involved, and how many people brought the game to fruition?
From concept through Closed Beta the dev team was around 15 people – by Open Beta it was more like 50 people. And now it is getting close to 100 people.
What was the moment when you first knew you were really on to something?
We took a very early build of Smite to PAX Prime 2011. We only had six playable gods at that time and not a lot of promotion. But we had people waiting in line for more than three hours to play the game, and then many got right back in line! That was a very good sign.
Tell us something about the game's creation that's not publicly known?
At one point in development we tested out a mechanic that would force matches to end within a certain period of time. The final objective bosses for each side used to be a Minotaur. If a match went too long each Minotaur would leave its home base, march down the lane, and battle the other Minotaur boss to death. It was pretty ridiculous.
What made you decide to pursue Smite, despite its similarity to an already immensely popular genre?
The third-person camera makes Smite feel very different. The combat feels more similar to MMO PvP battleground combat or even shooter combat. The MOBA genre is popular but will continue to grow if games innovate rather than just re-skin existing games.
What inspired the choice for the roster of Gods on offer in the game? What did you look at for reference?
We started with mythologies that the dev team was most familiar with and that also had rich history of gods fighting one another. That has led us to the current seven pantheons: Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian, Chinese, Hindu, and Mayan. At this point we look for interesting gods who can also fill the desired gameplay roles we need.
Do you guys like the word MOBA? If not, why? It seems to be becoming a bit of a catchall.
The word MOBA is too generic for anyone to love. But at this point gamers at least understand it.
What did you identify as flaws with the likes of Dota 2 and LoL? What sets Smite apart?
LoL and Dota 2 are great games and have earned their place as the top two MOBA games. But Smite is the clear number three right now. In those other games 80 percent of the abilities are lock-on targeting and aiming is the exception. In Smite it is the opposite: you aim like 90 percent of your attacks.
In other MOBA games only one map has proven to be popular, but Smite has many different game modes and maps that are popular. So, Smite supports a competitive playing style since you have player skill with aiming and movement combined with MOBA teamwork. But Smite also supports more casual players because we have many more casual modes like Arena which is more like deathmatch.
Can you give us some numbers? How many players do you have now? How many hours are played daily/total?
At the game's release in late March we were at three million players and we are now well over four million. We are not on Steam but comparing to Steam stats Smite would sit around number 10 to 12 in terms of popularity and daily players. Most importantly to us the playing population has increased every month since the start of the Beta.
What's the regional and demographic split for Smite players – where is it most popular and why?
Our players are currently 45 percent Europe, 40 percent North America, 10 percent South America and five percent other. It is primarily just a function of where we have local servers, and more servers are coming. Later this year South America will get their own servers which will grow that region. And Tencent will be launching the game with servers in China later this year so that will bring tremendous growth in Asia.
Tell us about the time spent designing, testing and balancing all the characters. What is the process, how long is it and how many people are involved?
Character design and balance are both very collaborative activities at our studio. To create any new god character involves over 12 different individuals, each with a different specialization – example job descriptions Concept Art, Kit Design, 2D art for ability icons, 3D modelling and texturing, rigging, animation, gameplay programming, visual FX, audio FX, voice acting, QA testing, not to mention the marketing and community side creating reveal videos, creating and streaming patch notes.
Similarly with balance we involve a number of god designers but also get feedback from the eSports team, QA team, community subjective feedback, and actual play statistics collected from the live environment.
We consider ourselves a third MOBA option and the only 3D Action MOBA option. We think Smite is expanding the user base of MOBA games by adding many MMO and Shooter players.
Who are the best players in the office? ‘Fess up.
Brian “Lionheart” Grayson [Hi-Rez legal and business development manager], Bart Koenigsberg [Competitive and eSports Manager] and Kelly Link [Community Content Creator] are good. Travis Brown [International Producer] is good for someone who never has to play on-stream as part of his actual job description.
In terms of business and revenue, what can you share? How do you make money and is the game profitable yet?
Yes, Smite is profitable and has allowed us to double the size of our studio. The game is free to play and it is important to us that anything affecting gameplay can be earned simply by playing the game. We also offer a God Pack that gives you all the playable gods and all future gods for the price of a single purchase game. We make money by players purchasing gods or purchasing cosmetic items like god skins and voice packs.
The majority of players will never spend money but that’s OK – with an online multiplayer game it is helpful to have a large player population and we're fortunate that the Smite player community continues to grow every month.
Stay tuned for the second part of our in-depth interview in the coming weeks...
Want to experience the best of RedBull.com on the move? Get the app at RedBull.com/app.