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One of the more interesting, and popular, games at TwitchCon in San Francisco last week was Hi-Rez Studios’ Paladins. It’s a hybrid of first-person shooting and collectible card game mechanics.
While I was standing in Hi-Rez Studios’ booth, waiting for my turn to try out this bizarre mashup, I found myself with an excitable man wearing a Paladins’ T-shirt. He seems wired, like a 5 year old that’s downed a pitcher of Kool-Aid all by himself. I can’t tell if he’s snorted a couple of lines before coming back to the booth or if he’s just really excited to see people’s reactions to the game.
Seeing as the employee in question is Rory Newbrough, the lead designer of Paladins, I am leaning toward him experiencing a creator’s high — that endorphin overload of seeing other human beings responding positively — as perhaps intended — to something you’ve created out of nothing.
I hesitate to speak up and ask too many questions at first, not sure if this is a good or bad time to be discussing game design with him. On one hand, he may be so into the moment that I’ll get some really great incite. On the other, I may send his high into a nose dive.
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No one wants to be the guy that crashes a designer’s creator’s high. Yet, I don’t want to be the game industry writer that passes on a designer interview, either (and for more, check out part two).
GamesBeat: Can you tell me a little bit about the mechanics of Paladins? It’s a first-person shooter, but with cards?
Rory Newbrough: Right. So depending on the type of cards you set up in your hand, [this] determines what style you’re going to want to play. For example, we have a class that throws a bomb. And [using a card] you can change that bomb to leave an acid cloud behind that burns people.
Newbrough: So there are a lot of different things you can vary there. You can pick something [a card] that generates more health, or that allows for something more defensive. You could … maybe increase your maximum health or generate quicker cool downs [on effects]. So there is a lot that you can do to kind of customize your game play based off of what you want to do.
It is a team based shooter, so we have seven playable characters in the demo right now. They all have different sets of abilities and weapons that they bring with them, what with being a first-person shooter. So you pick the character that you want and modify them with the cards.
GamesBeat: So the card system, how does that work? Do I have to buy cards? Are there card drops? How do I get these cards in my hand so I can use them?
Newbrough: So Paladins is very similar to other collectible card games. You’ll open card packs and collect cards that way.
Newbrough: There will also be ways to unlock them in the game. Once you have them, before a match, you’ll go through a deck-building process. You essentially collect 15 cards, put them in a deck, and load them into the game yourself.
Once you’re in the match … every time you level up you’ll start randomly drawing cards from the deck and you get to choose which one to equip. It’s almost like a buff or like you’re equipping something. And those [card abilities] will stay for the whole game.
Newbrough: The cards themselves have ranks on them. So they start weaker in the beginning but then they’ll rank up over time. So really this adds a bit of a “traditional RPG [role-playing game] and MOBA” feel where you’re playing the match, and toward the end, you’re 10 times stronger than you were at the beginning.
Obviously, you achieve experience as you kill other players. You start leveling up, then pick a new cards, etc.
GamesBeat: So do certain cards only work on specific characters?
Newbrough: Actually, most of the cards are pretty general. They’ll work on everybody … but there will be [some tied to specific characters].
So, there are three types of cards: Armor cards, which are basically defensive and utility based; Weapon cards, which are mainly meant to modify your in-hand weapon and how or what you fire; then the third type of card is Ability, so what these will do is modify the abilities of your character. And all of those are customized for that character.
So, for example, this guy [he motions to a tiny goblin like creature that sits inside of a 6-foot-tall mechanized piece of armor, with a Gatling gun hand], one of his Ability cards will bring in a second mechanized arm gun, so he can shoot twice as much.
So these cards can do stuff like enhance your firepower, or the rate of fire has increased, or when you equip this card you’ll do more damage. Stuff like that.
Newbrough: So most of the Ability cards are linked to characters, but the Weapon and Armor cards are for everybody.
GamesBeat: What sparked up this idea to throw cards into a FPS game?
Newbrough: We kind of iterated a lot on this game. We’ve actually been working on this for over a year now. And we knew we wanted to do a FPS after Smite. We knew we wanted to make it objective based as well. So we kind of decided … to look at it [the genre] and say, “How can we modify this experience?”
You know, we decided on this idea of how do we make it so we can use whoever we want, however we want, and customize the character as we see fit. And we wanted to make it fantasy as well, so it [the cards] could’ve easily been replaced as a “buff” or “equipment,” but we looked at one iteration of the game and said, “Oh, Hey! We like cards. We’re card game fans. Let’s put them in there.”
And so we started exploring how do we actually put cards in there and make them work?
We tried [his eyes roll back and makes a sweeping gesture with both arms] … everything under the sun. We iterated on so much stuff, like how to get the deck building process to work. How to pull up cards that make sense. Stuff like when you die, the cards will go into cool down. We experimented a lot!
It was really just a lot of ideas to get to where we are.
GamesBeat: There had to be a time where you had this idea on paper, but then you had to create something tangible to work on. What was the original prototype like then? It sounds like the original idea is way different from what we’re seeing now.
Newbrough: Originally it was just buffs. We just had little buffs that could change the character a little bit.
Newbrough: And the more we played with it we started to realize that, “Hey! This is just like cards!”
So we started exploring what we could do with that. We then started saying, “Well. Let’s try making it so I can choose what subset [of card buffs] I can bring into the match.”
Right? And just start building a deck. And that started making a lot more sense.
You know, we also didn’t want people to get overwhelmed. So they have a small subset of cards to choose from [decks are 15 cards]. A small set wound up feeling really good. So we felt, OK, now this is feeling really good. So let’s push it to the next step.
GamesBeat: Right! So, cards are definitely being drawn randomly, right? Just like a card game.
Newbrough: Right! So, the main thing as well is that you’re drawing three cards at every level up, and there are 15 cards in your deck. The probability of getting what you want is pretty high, right? So we wanted to make it so if you didn’t get the cards you wanted, that this still makes every game that you play feel different.
Part of the reason why we wanted to rebuild the concept from the ground up using a card system, is that in other games like Smite you may wind up picking up items in the same way over and over again … because that’s what you know. You’re comfortable with it. You know it works.
But this game [Paladins] forces you to do something different every game. When you load up a new match the experience will be different because you’re choosing from a randomized set of cards.
GamesBeat: Hmmm. Yeah!
Newbrough: And also, the first few cards you get may dictate the combos that you build.
So you may draw a card around a specific strategy. And you say, “OK, I think I’ll go with that build this time around. So I want to make sure that I try to pick this card that works well with this.”
… Or maybe you get a card that modifies a different ability and you say, “OK. That’s my ability. Let’s make choices that make that really strong.”
You can also really focus on a skill you already have. So you can build up a deck and say, “OK. I’m going to just focus on fire this game.”
GamesBeat: It sounds like there is also potential to build a deck that can play just one style.
Newbrough: Well … [winces] … you cooould. But sometimes the one card you want [to build a one-dimensional strategy] gets drawn last. So then you’re stuck trying to work around that.
I mean, you’re dealing with other players to. There’s a bit of counter-play there. When someone’s deck revolves around, “I set you on fire,” the other player could have a card that makes them immune to fire. Once they draw that in, it’s like, “well … maybe I’ll try to swap something else in there.”
Newbrough: A lot of in-game, in-context decisions are being made inside the match and as you play you can potentially play with decks that have very similar styles, but it won’t behave the same way every time.
GamesBeat: What about multiple copies of cards in the same deck?
Newbrough: Uh, no. Only one. One copy is all you need. But, there may be cards that you can toss in there that do similar things. Like, you could have a card that says, “You can heal X amount when out of combat.”
Then another that says, “You heal quicker when on a mount.”
So different things like that really dictate the direction of your play style.
GamesBeat: Sounds cool. So what first-person shooter modes are in this?
Newbrough: It’s just one mode, but with three phases.
So when the game starts, a capture spot becomes active on the map. Once that is set, you’ll move with your team to go capture it. Once that point is captured, a Siege Engine will spawn. It automatically beelines toward the enemy base and it will try to destroy it.
Each base is composed of three gates: the outer gate, the inner gate, and the vault. And once destroyed, you win the game. Gates can’t be destroyed otherwise. There’s no winning the game on your own. You have to have the objective [Siege Engine] there in order to do it.
So it goes from point capture to attack or defend. Because the defending team needs to stop the Siege Engine, but they’re being shot at by the other team. So it’s this weird dynamic of fighting the other team, while trying to fight this Siege Engine. While on offense the team you’re with is trying to protect and push the Siege Engine forward, so it’s this sort of attack mode … with a bit of escort in there.
So when [the Siege Engine] is destroyed, it goes back to point capture … and back-and-back-and-forth.
GamesBeat: This sounds like a lot of stuff to try to keep track of as a designer. How has it been trying to keep this concept from becoming so convoluted that it goes off the rails, because it sounds like you have three different concepts that require a lot of attention.
Newbrough: For us it’s been a huge challenge, we look at this — I mean, [gestures to monitor] the UI is very simple. The gates up top, your abilities, and the cards.
And this happens maybe three or four times a week where we have to stop, evaluate, and make sure our simplicity is still there. And we really try to boil it down.
This is why we went with it … not being attack, defend, and capture. It’s one at a time. Go capture. Now attack or defend. That way, you only have one thing to do at a time.
Newbrough: We also noticed that, with some of our other games, we’d have four other objectives that you could do, people wind up splitting up or going somewhere else. We really wanted to make sure that everyone is focused on one thing. Capture a point and then all 10 people are there.
One base to attack, and all the people are there.
You’re always, as a unit, fighting together for one idea. And that really helped simplify the gameplay as well. People aren’t getting lost. You’re not going anywhere else.
Newbrough: We also wanted to make sure the UI was very simple. You draw a card, click on it, you’re done! You’re not stuck having to look at anything else.
It’s been a huge challenge for us to make sure that things are simple enough that you don’t really notice that sort of illusion there. Like this [otherwise complex idea] is really simple.
I mean, it’s been a year and we’ve really worked hard at nailing down this feeling of simplicity.
GamesBeat: Right, so … how many designers are on the team?
Newbrough: It’s just me and one other right now.
GamesBeat: Wow! Wait? Just two of you?
GamesBeat: … to lay out and balance all of this?
GamesBeat: … OK.
Newbrough: The other is our CEO, he loves games, and he’s always had this vision of what the game should be. We also have producers that are very invested. Everyone is a part of the design process, but technically, yeah, we’re a very small design team.
GamesBeat: Yeah. It just seems like a lot to try to get right.
Newbrough: Yeah. It’s been a lot of effort.
GamesBeat: We may need to talk more about that after I’ve tried this out.
Newbrough: Absolutely. It’s actually a lot of fun to see people play and get feedback, and that’s something that we really like to do. This is pre-alpha, and there aren’t very many studios that would bring a pre-alpha game to a convention. This is actually our second convention; we took this to GamesCon as well.
What we like to do is, like, make sure the gameplay experience is awesome. You know, make sure people play the game, get feedback on the game, and start tailoring it based off of the type of experience people are looking for in this type of game. So we take it out here, don’t make a big thing, and let people play it.
We’ve seen some big things, especially in how people react to the gameplay. Also, if you notice the art style, it’s very fantastical but basic. How we colored everything … there’s nothing super-detailed or anything, and what that does is it brings a lot of clarity. Characters pop very easily. You can see where they are on the map. You don’t get confused. You don’t get lost.
Newbrough: We are also only coloring the effects, just for you.
So only your effects will be colored the way they should be. All enemy effects are red. All ally effects are blue.
This way you know where something is coming from, what character it’s coming from … if this guy was on your team [pointing over the shoulder of someone playing Paladins], your effects would all just be blue, blue, blue, blue, blue.
And we did that so that when a red thing flies by, well, OK! That’s an enemy attack. And when a blue thing flies by, that’s just my teammate.
We want as clean of an experience as possible, so like, “I get what’s going on. Now focus on the cards.”
GamesBeat: Since we’re going into more of an art direction conversation, what was the color philosophy you adopted for the characters? What are you doing to make them be seen clearly? Did you run with characters only being in a certain color palette or maybe environments should only be cool colors? These are things to consider since you’re going for visual simplicity.
Newbrough: Right. Yeah! I mean, we considered a lot of that. If you look at [this character], she seems to have a color scheme that’s similar to this map here.
We actually have two maps here, ones an enchanted forest with sort of brown brushy vines. So she blends in really well with that … but a lot of this has to do with the outline. If you look, there’s a faint blue line around the allies and a red outline on the enemy characters.
We did a lot of work on that. In fact, it probably took us about two months to isolate exactly how we wanted to do the outline system so that every character pops out from the background. We also did a lot of map adjustments so things popped the way we wanted them to.
GamesBeat: Yeah. I see. So, what did you design before this?
GamesBeat: Smite. OK. And …?
GamesBeat: … is that your only game?
Newbrough: Right, right. No. These are the only two titles I’ve worked on.
GamesBeat: What did you do on Smite?
Newbrough: God design, game balance, maps, a little bit of flow design there as well.
GamesBeat: But you were designing before that, right? Maybe doing some personal projects on your own?
Newbrough: No. Smite was the first.
GamesBeat: Really? So, what’s your background before Smite?
Newbrough: So, I’ve done basically everything. Product management, international relations — I’ve traveled around the world selling games. I’ve done some esports casting as well, getting to understand the competitive scenes and what pros like. Then I moved directly into game design from there.
But my background is in competition and understanding what that means and also meeting with people who are not necessarily competitive players … it really gives me a wide spectrum for what players actually want.
Also, before I became the game designer [for Paladins], I was helping with Smite. You know, “the strong characters are too strong, the weak characters are too weak … and then balancing them.”
You know, I was doing that for about a year. It’s just very natural for me.
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