SMITE Interview Part 1 — Lead Designer AJ Walker Talks Dreamhack and Upcoming Gods
SMITE recently announced King Arthur and Merlin as upcoming characters so it's a good time to discuss how the game stands out with a historical roster.
It’s the biggest time of the year for SMITE. Hi-Rez Expo features the game’s world championships on PC and console as well as cosplay and announcements for the Georgia-native developer’s 3rd-person MOBA.Hi-Rez Studios has combined its expo with DreamHack Atlanta this year to bring eSports together on an even larger scale.
I got the chance to sit down with AJ Walker, who has been the Lead Designer on SMITE for the past three years, to discuss the new combined event as well as upcoming characters, including the game’s first non-religious pantheon, cross-play, and the Nintendo Switch port. Since the interview was quite long, we will be splitting it into two parts. This first part focuses on Hi-Rez’s appearance at Dreamhack and recently announced characters, including King Arthur and Merlin.
Noah: What’s it been like so far having Hi-Rez Expo at Dreamhack?
AJ Walker: Oh, I like it a lot. It’s really cool. It doesn’t feel all that different to me–in most ways. I’m still watching SMITE games, I’m still talking to Press, and I’m still bumping into fans everywhere I go. But there are other things to do too, which is great. It looks like the SMITE area is pulling huge crowds; in fact, seating has been packed the whole day, even on day one. It’s also great that there are a few more options for food, more options for other games. People can check out indie games–it’s great to be part of something so big like DreamHack.
I’m glad we could be part of the selling point that brings all sorts of people here and helps those game developers get great exposure for their games too. It’s good for the organizations too, I was speaking with an organization today who was watching their Paladins team play and then be like “now we’re going to watch our Halo team play!” That’s great! We want the eSports organizations to want to work with us too. I think it’s a really good collaborative effort that’s been really positive.
N: For Atlanta particularly. It seems like a beacon for eSports. There’s everything from Hearthstone to Halo 3. It’s nice to see it all together but still be able to go watch a few sets of SMITE.
AW: It was very nice to have our own personal touch at the old place and I do like that, but this one has been really cool too.
N: So there’s a ton of huge announcements for SMITE this year. What’s been your favorite one so far?
AW: Probably the gods. That’s the thing that I really gravitate to and it’s a big part of my job too, to dictate the upcoming god schedule. The god schedule coming up is really exciting. Just the way we’ve pivoted to get the lore and cohesion in the whole game to be much better, each god arriving has a purpose in the story and has a relationship to the god before it and the god after it. The way we were able to make all those things work is super exciting.
It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s like a Sudoku puzzle. You move one number and everything else needs to be moved, rearranged because you can’t have two hunters in a row, you have to get your male, female, and creature. There’s a lot of different variables in planning out the god schedule, so when you finally get this tough puzzle and you get all the pieces to fit into a good spot and then announce it to the community to pretty positive reception – that’s really awesome.
N: I know specifically this year you’ve come out of the gate telling people which gods you’re planning. Is that new for you? What is it like to announce that we’re getting Set, Horace, Merlin, King Arthur, and I’m not even going to attempt this last one…
AW: Jorm! You can just call him Jorm, short for Jörmungandr.
N: What’s it like to say “here you go this is what you can expect?”
AW: You know, it’s something new so we’ll see how it goes. It’s a bit of an experiment, but we like to do that a lot. We like to try new things and see how they go. We want to constantly be challenging ourselves to find new and different ways to excite our players, keep them interested, and get them to participate in the community more. What we like about this is that it gives everybody something to look forward to.
Generally, as a rule of design, you want to make specific things for a specific audience. We don’t make a god and say “everyone will like this god.” We want to make gods for certain types of players and different types of cultures and different types of art styles. When you only announce one god at a time people feel left out, saying “Aw man I really wanted a Creature god and now I don’t get one.”
Instead, we created this year – split into two parts – half of which we can announce all at once that gives somebody a little bit of everything. Even the players who are most excited for Horace Set, they’re excited right now, even though in the old strategy they would be kind of bummed or confused or unknowing all the way up until we finally announced them. We wanted to embrace this transparency that we’ve been leaning towards a little more in the last few years.
N: I imagine it works really well too because focusing more on lore and having a schedule for gods lets you play a few steps ahead rather than putting one number in at a time for this extended metaphor.
AW: It’s really about getting everything to be cohesive together. Gods are still mostly a gameplay feature. We add new things to the game, new ways to play, new ways to win, and new specific roles to a pro-meta or a team comp. We want to challenge ourselves further to keep making better gods, and that extra lore element to add even more cohesion between them was just another way to lift our quality bar a little higher. So I like it. It’s a challenge but game designers work well with challenges. It’s important to have that.
N: So you’re introducing Merlin and King Arthur right, do you know their pantheon name already?
AW: We’re probably going to call them their own pantheon: the Arthurian Pantheon.
N: You’ve opened it up now. I mean, SMITE is the “battleground of the gods,” but now there are non-gods in SMITE. Was this because you felt limited by the god pool in religions?
AW: So the thought process was that every year we do something new: new pantheons, new cultures, and new characters. Those are the things we really want to do. We want to stay true to the game too. When we did the Celtic Pantheon, we did a lot of Celtic gods. We had done that kind of set up a couple times. We wanted to improve on it, challenge ourselves, and change it. That’s where we came up with the multi-pantheon announcement last year.
So we said, “we’re not adding one pantheon, we’re adding three: Slavic, Voodoo, and Polynesian, but we’re not going to fill these pantheons out.” That was because we wanted to find more diverse characters in different types of cultures and with different kinds of gameplay. So we really liked those characters. We had those characters in mind really more than the pantheons themselves. The key was that they fit the overall tone of the game. It’s like ancient literature, stories handed down from person to person of these mythical beings.
Maybe they’re labeled as gods, maybe not. Achilles and Cerberus– fantastic characters, maybe not necessarily gods. [Achilles and Cerberus are] linked to Greek mythology which is, of course, the most well-known mythology. We found that Arthur and Merlin made us feel, pretty strongly, as though they fit these criteria, although maybe a bit on the edge. But we’re taking that three-pantheon approach from last year and saying “what can we do this year that still fits SMITE, brings us something new, something surprising, and interesting, but something still SMITE?”
I think Arthur and Merlin are the quintessential fantasy characters of all time…so we felt that they fit pretty well and we thought they were really cool, interesting, and just such amazing characters that people have used in so many games, movies, TV shows, and anime. We wanted our chance to make a really cool Arthur and Merlin. We also had really cool gameplay ideas for them that we thought would fit their personalities really well.
N: How do you think you’re going to approach gods going forward if these new gods have access to this new technology, these melee combos in Arthur’s case, or advanced stance switching? Is there any plan to bring this new technology you’ve created for these characters to the rest of the god roster?
AW: There will be specific god updates, but having new mechanics on new gods doesn’t mean those old gods are outdated. We still see Athena getting played here all the time. We saw Serquet, we saw plenty of earlier gods getting played quite often. We saw a really good mixture of new and old gods actually throughout this weekend. Arthur’s new melee combo style is just something new to the game. We want to do keep doing that on all new gods, but we don’t necessarily think that sets any precedent for changing old gods.
Honestly, most people like their gods the way they are. Even if the god is a little underpowered [players] don’t respond really well to big reworks so we’ve been focusing more on meaningful balance changes that can keep the god’s identity but bring out their viability, and for the most part, that’s been really successful for us. We’re going to keep pushing ourselves with future gods–Arthur, Merlin, Jorm, Horace, and Set–to come up with these new mechanics and new ways to play.
You know Jorm will really be a fun god to design because we’re going to be playing with this idea of how colossal he is. How infinite he is. It brings about game design questions already like “How should he be Cc’d? How should he move?” We can create really cool things with that. We’re still in the brainstorming process for a god that far away but we have a lot of good ideas and we’re excited to focus on those and the same goes for the gods after that.
N: I have no idea how you’ll do it. He’s just so big!
AW: He’s supposed to be infinite so we’ll see how we’ll interpret that. We obviously can’t make a god that’s ten times the collision box of every other god that would not be fun to play. We’ve found that actually being a large hitbox is a huge nerf to a god. It makes you easier to hit with abilities.
N: I know. Khepri is massive.
AW: Yeah! He’s massive. You get hit by a lot of abilities when you play Khepri. He was still strong for quite a while. There’s a lot of things to consider now going forward with Jorm and we’re really excited to explore that.
N: Now that you’ve got this Arthurian Pantheon, what do you think could be next for these kinds of mythic characters or “legendary heroes?” Is it the Knights of the Round Table or The Lady of The Lake?
AW: We definitely discussed those options when we were talking about Arthurian. I had god pitches for all of those characters. I had a Lancelot pitch, I had a Lady of The Lake pitch, I had a Gwynevere pitch, I had a Morgan la Faye/Morgana pitch. She’s either a dark sorceress or Merlin’s understudy depending on the lore you read. I had been pitched for all of that and they were all contenders but we didn’t want to overdo it on this new thing.
We didn’t want too many of those gods at first–or those “heroes.” It’s on the table but I think you can see in the god video for this year that nothing else in the rest of the video looks very Arthurian. We’ll probably be taking a break from it for a little bit, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t come back to it in the future.
N: SMITE has succeeded on so many levels because it is totally new and different in the MOBA scene. A third-person over-the-shoulder MOBA succeeds for so many people because a lot of people hate top-down, a lot of people hate clicking to move, so…
AW: I was one of those people.
N: It’s the only MOBA I can play at all competitively and I was thinking: League of Legends or DOTA 2 have more freedom to create characters based on whatever idea pops into their head, right?
N: So if they want a character to be able to do something they just graph a persona around it. You guys, on the other hand, have to reverse-engineer that. I see that you guys are moving into these “legendary heroes” and it seems like there are other characters out there who aren’t quite necessarily gods but would just succeed so well in this third-person over-the-shoulder environment. Like you mentioned, there’s no precedent to include guns in the game or crazy sci-fi themes.
AJ: Even though that’s a common meme in the community! “Give X god a gun. Give Kuzenbo or Khepri a gun.”
N: Thankfully there’s always skins for that. Anyway, I always felt like it has so much opportunity for that.
AJ: No, your comment is very astute there honestly. I envy other games’ freedom to make characters of their choosing. If they want to make a character that has this type of gameplay they can focus their art directly to it. They can tailor the whole experience and backstory to fit directly to that type of gameplay. We have an extra challenge, but it’s also an extra benefit. Every character we make has some resonance already.
You don’t have to learn who King Arthur is. You don’t have to learn who Zeus is like you do a new League or DOTA or even Paladins champions. It’s great how we can have that instant connection with people before they even see the character and before they even see their visuals or their gameplay. Achilles means something to you. You can picture your 10th grade Latin class or you can picture Brad Pitt slaying people on the battlefield. It’s different for everybody but there’s something there.
It’s really awesome working with mythology but it is an extra challenge because we have to align so many variables and axis that history is another one. When you line that all up it can be very difficult but we do our best to do some creative interpretation but not so much to completely alienate people from a character they love. It’s a very interesting process and I really love being a part of it.
There’s more to this interview, including Walker’s thoughts on the game’s cross-platform and cross-progression announcement. You can expect the rest of the interview to be up on DualShockers soon. You can currently play SMITE for free on PC, PS4, and Xbox One, with the Nintendo Switch closed beta beginning on January 24, 2019.