Running a successful MOBA is a job that never finishes, and Smite is a project that has no end. It’s certainly not something that Hi-Rez would complain about. But for lead designer Scott Zier, who grew up with Civ and X-Com to become a player of tabletop games like Warhammer and X-Wing, the urge to pull the game’s cast of gods and immortals sideways into a new genre was building.
“It’d be really cool if we did a tactical Smite game,” Zier told Smite caster and designer Scott ‘Gandhi’ Lussier last year. “We’d have these awesome models and play it on a battlefield.”
This nascent ‘tactical Smite’ became a hot topic during Hi-Rez lunch breaks, and then a paper prototype developed on the side, with decks cut by hand.
“And then,” says Lussier, “it came to life.”
Although Smite Tactics’ art cards are no longer drawn in pencil and its miniatures now move in looped animations, it’s still rough and ready. There’s a reason for that: development started only in mid-July, with a dozen or so Hi-Rez staffers working quickly in Unreal Engine 4.
“Just from a design perspective, working with [visual scripting system] Blueprints has really streamlined the majority of my day-to-day,” notes Lussier. “Things where I used to go to programming, I’m now like, ‘Yeah, I can just use Blueprints.’”
Somehow, the game is already in a playable state in closed alpha.
As with Smite and the MOBA-shooter Paladins, Hi-Rez are planning a prolonged period of beta in which to measure player reactions to their turn-based concoction.
“Looking at the feedback, looking at the statistics, looking at the impact, the Smite experience helps,” notes Zier. “But from an actual balance perspective it's a whole different beast dealing with a more commander-centric game.”
On a Smite Tactics board, two players each control a leader taken from one of Hi-Rez’s mythological pantheons: Ancient Egyptian, Norse or Greek. This is their queen piece: a sturdy figure who can deal a little damage and take a lot - but must be kept alive, or the game is lost.
Every turn, a leader has the opportunity to summon a fellow god or lowly minion from those represented in a hand of cards at the bottom of the screen. It’s a system more than familiar to Hearthstone players. So too is the gradually growing store of mana that determines which cards can be played, and the pick ‘n’ mix deckbuilding process that precedes a match.
‘Too much RNG’ is a complaint spelled out in all-caps on forums the internet over - even those concerning Hearthstone. But Zier is convinced that, as much as a great CCG concerns strategy and skill, it also needs an element of randomness to force players to adapt and change their tactics.
“Either you’re looking at doing that with units for random damage like some tactical games have done, or you do it another way, like with the cards you draw and the strategies you have to employ from it,” he says.
Hi-Rez went with the latter. As you move your pieces about Smite Tactics’ battlefield, their damage and range is predictable enough to allow players to plan and plot the opposing leader’s demise. What’s unpredictable is the order in which your deck appears to you - leading to impromptu combos of cards that birth new tactics.
“Anytime you want to bring random elements into a game I think cards is a natural way to do that,” says Zier. “It’s fun to draw them, fun to look at them. When I think about all the games I used to play, cards have just always been at the core, that genre has always been there. It's really appealing to get packs, to open them, to get new cards. It's a core part of me as a gamer.”
“There’s always the collector’s side,” adds Lussier. “People will naturally grab towards something they can actually see that they’re completing. My mom still has my room entirely filled with baseball cards. She’s like, ‘Can I get rid of these?’, and I’m like, ‘No you can’t!’”
It’s 2016, so the team of course have evolving metas and eventual eSports success in mind.
“I think it's got a real shot,” reckons Lussier, who was a Halo pro in a former life. “The element of movement and board positioning and the rotating of the boards is something that should be appealing to a lot of players. It’d be really cool.”
Editor's Note: PCGamesN selects fantastic Unreal Engine games and interviews developers of their choosing for the long-running "Making It in Unreal" series. Epic has no influence on the editorial process.