The free-to-play first-person shooter, Paladins rose to near instant success when it hit Early Access on Steam last fall. The game had 100,000 new account sign-ups within 24-hours, which grew to over a million within a week. Today, the game has over five million players worldwide while still in Early Access, prompting the developer, Hi-Rez Studios, to include it as part of the recent Hi-Rez Expo (formerly the Smite World Championships). There, eight teams from around the world competed in the Paladins Invitational for a $150,000 prize.
Todd Harris, co-founder and chief operating officer of Hi-Rez Studios, sat down with [a]listdaily at the Hi-Rez Expo to talk about the remarkable success Paladins has seen in just a few short months. He also details the company’s future plans for the game and how it intends to continue growing the game as an eSport.
Was there much promotion for Paladins before hitting Early Access?
It was first shown at Gamescom two years ago, and then we had a pretty quiet closed alpha period leading to the Early Access in September. Since Early Access on Steam, the population has been incredible—five million new players in a few months.
What do you think contributed the meteoric rise of Paladins while it is still in Early Access? It’s technically still in development.
Well, a Hi-Rez game never comes out of development—we’re very much games as a service. But really, it’s the fact that the game scratches the itch of both shooter and MOBA players. Those are two very dominant genres right now, particularly for the Steam audience.
How will you continue to grow Paladins?
Based on our experience with Smite, a multiplayer champion-based game gets more interesting with more champions. We’re now up to 20, and the rapid addition of new champions is our main priority going into 2017.
Our plan is to put in another 15 during the calendar year, which is going very fast. At that point, we think we’ll be in a good place—from a competitive and eSports standpoint—where there’s enough interest from players who want to play competitively, those who want to play in a pro scene, or watch. After that, we’ll probably take a pulse and slow down a bit, but we won’t stop.
Another big initiative for us in 2017 is bringing the game to consoles. We have a very small closed alpha population on both Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and we want to bring it to a more general audience this year.
With Paladins taking off so quickly in Early Access, when does the life cycle of a game officially start now?
I think the lines for milestones are blurred compared to the old days, where you cut a gold disc, shipped it to a retail store, and left it alone for a long time. Sometimes, there are more marketing milestones these days than something significantly changing in the game. For Paladins, having millions of registered accounts is pretty significant, whether we call it Early Access or not. I think we’re keeping that label on mainly because we know that there are still a few core systems that we haven’t put into the game yet. There’s also the champion number. Twenty is good, but we want more before we remove the tag. It’ll probably be spring or summer time before we take the tag off.
Since Paladins took off so quickly, without much marketing behind it, where do you go from here? How do you continue to promote the game?
For us, it’s continuing to keep the players that were attracted to the game engaged with it. Again, we think adding new champions is the best way to do that. We’re also doing new maps, and we’re showing a new castle-themed map called Stone Keep here at the Hi-Rez Expo. Then, we’ll be experimenting with new game modes throughout the year. It’s great to get an initial rush of players, but it’s even more important for us—as a free-to-play game—to keep them playing and interested. That means constant new content. We’re updating the PC version every two weeks, and most times, there are significant content additions in each patch.
What is the significance of hosting the Paladins Invitational at the Hi-Rez Expo so soon after hitting Early Access?
We did a Paladins tournament at Dreamhack over the summer, before the game was even in Early Access, because it was important to get input from competitive players. That’s kind of how we see this invitational. We know that if we do some prizing, we’ll get feedback from competitive players who will find every exploit and they’re going to help us with balance. It’s a great way to accelerate the balance and tuning of the game. It’s more that than coming out of the gate to declare that it’s an eSport.
We’ve announced some other products here at the show, and we want to have multiple games in different competitive genres. Even the branding of calling this the Hi-Rez Expo, compared to prior years of it being the Smite World Championship, is signaling to the community that this is the start of a multi-game and multi-platform event. So, we’ll continue to grow as long as there’s an audience that wants to play our games competitively.
When do you officially declare a game as an eSport?
The community declares a game as an eSport, not the developer. So, it’s just seeing when that appetite is there. There were three stages that we went through with Smite that we hope Paladins goes through. The first is community-organized tournaments, maybe with some support from the developer. The second is a series of invitationals that bring teams together. The third is when either Hi-Rez or a third party is running a regular league, so that teams can play on rotation. Then both spectators and players have some predictability for when teams play, and that shows a maturity in the competitive scene.
My expectation at this point is that we will continue to have significant competitions in the first half of 2017, and the back half of the year is the time to look at whether a league structure makes sense for Paladins. That structure would mirror things that we’ve done in the past for Smite. We certainly have aspirations for it to be played regularly and competitively, and we’ll keep talking to players and eSports organizations to identify when the time is right.
How different is the console eSports scene from PC right now?
The console eSports scene has typically been a little more about open brackets and open sign-ups. Players are finding their way there, and may have to pay for their own travel. There are different expectations there for how tournaments are run.
Does Hi-Rez’s reputation with PC gamers make it easier to bring games to consoles?
I think it was pretty separate with Smite. Many people knew Smite as a brand, but not so much Hi-Rez at that time. I think it’ll be more of a boost when we come out with Paladins because there are a significant number of people who enjoy free-to-play console games. With Smite, we hadn’t earned a reputation on consoles yet.
What is the key to maintaining long-term engagement for a game?
It’s two things. The first is going back and listening to a community. The second is frequent and meaningful content addition. Even though Smite has 80 gods, that team is continuing to release new characters and is making significant game updates. For example, at this event, we’re announcing a big update to Conquest, which is the primary competitive game mode [for Smite]. It’s this balance of listening to the community and understanding what they want, but also being daring—maybe more daring than the community may be comfortable with—to make sure the game doesn’t get stale.
Given the number of competitive shooters out now, is it risky to bring a new one to the market?
Yeah, but every game these days is risky—it’s a risky industry. I think maybe what is more risky is trying to do something that you’re not passionate about. Yes, the game industry is crowded and aspiring eSports is also crowded, but we feel that the types of games we enjoy playing and making is (at their core) the same as they were 11 years ago, when the company started. Those are action multiplayer games that can be played competitively. That was the thought going into Paladins, which is different enough so that it found an audience. Making something that’s exactly the same as what’s out there typically doesn’t work.
Todd Harris will be speaking at [a]list summit on 2/16/17. Go to alistsummit.com for more info.