Yesterday was my last day at Hi-Rez Studios. I have some time before my next job starts, which means a little vacation, maybe some new Quake maps, and also some time to reflect. All of the information in this post is publicly available, but I wanted to gather it up in one spot.
My first day on Paladins was the launch of closed beta, November 17th, 2015. I started as an associate level designer under Jordan Smith as lead level designer. At that time, Paladins had the look and presentation of a fantasy Team Fortress, but it played like an MMO’s PvP arena. Paladins had a limited set of roles and a first person camera with shooter gameplay, but the combat was far more about the calculus of a high time-to-kill brawls. Damage-over-time attacks and crowd control abilities like stuns, slows, and fears were key to winning objective fights. The mismatch of player expectations around first person gameplay was a problem for many players.
The closed beta of Paladins had its niche, but the design needed to change for the game to succeed. In those first few months, the decisions about the game’s identity seemed like a knot of many interacting factors: lower or higher time-to-kill (TTK), fewer or more champions, random cards or decks or item shops or levelups. With distance—and a false confidence that comes from forgetting the details—the choice seemed to be 1) make a niche, casual game embracing the random cards on the MMO Arena combat style, or 2) make a mainstream, competitive game with a fast TTK and less impactful cards. It took a long period of experimentation to settle on the second option, and then another long period of experimentation to get our levels up to speed.
This was the topic of my GDC talk at the Level Design Workshop (slides here, video isn’t public yet). The short version is that we spent 2016 redesigning maps for faster competitive design, believing that we could serve a wider range of player motivations at the same time. This left many non-competitive player motivations forgotten, and I feel we’ve only come back to serve our wider audience in the last few months.
In the summer of 2016, I was promoted to a mid-level role and Hayley Williams joined the team as an associate level designer. As we finished the redesign for the maps, we also worked on early versions of what became “Stone Keep”, which we released in January of 2017. Around that time, we also started a public test queue of greybox maps to help us vet the quality of new designs before entering full art production. The team kept updating the test queue and adding new maps until the fall. By July of 2017, with the three of us designing maps for the test queue, we understood the formula for solid competitive designs. Unfortunately, if you care about competitive play, the formula is strict. That’s why all of the Siege maps from “Stone Keep” onward are variations of a c-clamp shape.
This limitation was frustrating. I built “Sandbridge” and “Sewer” for the test queue as alternatives to the c-clamp formula. They were fun gimmick maps for the test queue, but they would have made terrible competitive maps. A good rule of thumb: if you want players to like your map, don’t name it “Sewer”.
2016 had been about solving the problem of level design for Paladins, and the first half of 2017 was about refining that solution. This was a slower, easier task, so I sought new challenges by moving to Smite Adventures.
After that, things sped up and blurred together. I worked on Smite Adventures for a few months, then I worked on the battle royale prototypes that led to Realm Royale, and then I came back to Paladins. I moved my desk 5 times in 2017.
In these last few months on Paladins, I have tried to improve some processes so the team is set up for success. There are some great things in the works, and I’m looking forward to experiencing them as a player.
My Time at Hi-Rez (approximated from memory)
- Winter 2015: More Siege?
- At launch of closed beta, we had two maps: “Temple Ruins” and “Enchanted Forest”. These were designed by several level designers who left the project before I joined (I believe it was Katelyn Pitstick and Kevin Powell) and by Jordan Smith.
- In this phase, we explored new Siege layouts and we released “Glacier Keep”, designed by Jordan Smith.
- Winter – Spring 2016: We add payload
- I built “Outpost” the first payload map, a remake of “Ice Floe” from Global Agenda with a few minor gameplay adjustments.
- Other maps of this period were “Serpent Temple”—later renamed “Hidden Temple”—and “Frostbite Caverns”, both payload maps designed by Jordan Smith.
- Spring 2016: Survival!
- “Tropical Arena” – I built it as a skirmish arena for 2v2 and 3v3s, but plans change and we released it for the 5v5 survival game mode.
- In this period I also designed the layout that became “Snowfall Junction” a year later.
- Late summer 2016: The massive 3-Lane Siege maps turn into 1-Lane Siege maps!
- “Frog Isle” – a new siege map drawing inspiration from the canyon objective of “Temple Ruins”.
- “Serpent Beach” – a siege map modifying the sunken city objective from “Temple Ruins” with a new payload route.
- “Jaguar Falls” – a siege map modifying the ruins objective from “Temple Ruins” with a new payload route.
- “Timber Mill” – a siege map remixing the second half of the payload push on “Outpost”.
- “Gauntlet” – a siege map remixing the first half of “Outpost”, later removed from siege and turned into the tutorial.
- “Fish Market” – a siege map remixing two objectives from “Enchanted Forest”
- Other maps of this period were “Waterfall”, “Frozen Guard”, and “Ice Mines”, which Scott Zier started as modifications of “Glacier Keep” and which Jordan Smith finished for release. Zier worked on the project for a few weeks to guide the design process.
- We removed “Waterfall” in the next patch along with “Gauntlet”.
- In this period, we also removed Survival and then later on removed Payload, but I forget when exactly.
- Winter – spring 2017
- “Stone Keep” – the first new siege map in the one-lane format
- “Snowfall Junction” – the first survival map built with survival rules in mind! But then we disabled Survival (again?) and released the Onslaught mode.
- “Primal Court” – a layout revision for “Tropical Arena” as an Onslaught map.
- My memory is really fuzzy on when exactly Survival went away and came back and then was replaced with Onslaught.
- We also started the Test Queue for releasing work in progress greybox maps and getting feedback. I released 7 of these maps in the first half of 2017:
- “Undercity” – a map designed to gauge the response to high-complexity maps.
- “Grotto” – became “Splitstone Quarry”.
- “Frog Isle Redo”
- “Forward” – the only payload map we released in the test queue.
- “Moss Garden” – a high-complexity map inspired by a David Bowie song.
- “Sandbridge” – a map designed for flying flanks and long sniper sightlines.
- “Sewer” – a map designed for healers and tanks with no room for flanks.
- Spring – summer 2017: focus on Siege and competitive play
- “Splitstone Quarry”, a siege map attempting to be slightly more complex than “Jaguar Falls” and “Stone Keep” to serve our competitive players.
- Another map in this period was “Brightmarsh”, designed by Jordan Smith. He also designed “Ascension Peak” in this period, which released the following winter.
- Summer – fall 2017: Smite Adventures
- “Corrupted Arena” – a remix of the Arena map to have pits and meteor strikes. The design started before I joined the team, and I helped guide it to completion.
- “Shadows over Hercopolis” – a 3 player cooperative dungeon in the style of an MMO raid with an ice region, lava region, and an underworld. Travis Brown led the design with Dishant Samtani and Matt Barcas working on the design of the encounters, bots, and boss behavior. I prototyped the encounters, implemented the designs into the level layout, and coordinated with environment art.
- During this period on Paladins, Hayley and Jordan worked on maps for the Onslaught and Team Deathmatch game modes. Hayley designed “Magistrate’s Archive”. Jordan designed “Foreman’s Rise” and “Trade District”. “Ascension Peak” art also started production. I forget if “Snowfall Junction” and “Primal Court” were still around at this time, or if they came back as Onslaught map after having been disabled.
- Fall 2017 – Spring 2018: The royales
- In this period I worked on the version of Paladins Battlegrounds that we showed at HRX. I led the map design for this initial version, but got help from the rest of the Paladins design and environment team as we wrapped up.
- After HRX, I did the groundwork for version 2 of the Paladins Battlegrounds map, which we released in March 2018 for a few days before shutting it down and taking it back to internal iteration. During the new phase of iteration that led to Realm Royale, I returned to Paladins.
- Spring 2018: Back to Paladins
- Aesthetic and gameplay touchups on “Frozen Guard”, “Ice Mines”, “Frog Isle”, and “Timber Mill”.
- Early summer 2018:
- “Rise of Furia” – an event map that starts with a platforming climb up a tower and then turns into a Team Deathmatch brawl.
This timeline is a list of my public works, and I mean “public works” as a play on words. First, these are the works that went live to the public, not the many levels and experiments that didn’t make the cut. There is no “Stone Keep” without the dozen versions before it and the lessons we learned from them. Second, “public works” because I like how Paladins is open to the public, like a small town diner. As a level designer, I feel like I’m working at the grill to serve you something, or that I’m a line cook in the kitchen working with a team to make the best meal we can. Because I work in multiplayer, nothing I’ve built will last forever, but I want it to be excellent for as long as it does.
That also means ownership is kind of a weird concept. In the timeline of my work above, I tried to give credit where due. “Serpent Beach” and “Jaguar Falls” are some of the best maps in Paladins, and those were modifications of older work by other designers. Now that I’m off the team, my contributions may also be subject to modification, touchups, and reworks to make the game better. It means after a while I won’t be able to go back to any of “my” works as they were, but it also means they never were “mine”. This is a weird feeling that I am still processing, but there are definitely some maps that I hope the team will get around to reworking (Frog Isle, please)!
Working on a live project for a couple years has meant facing all of the ghosts of what could have been. There is a ghost of Paladins for every card system. There is a ghost that pivoted to consoles earlier, and another that never went to console at all. There are ghosts of art, where we could’ve leaned into the sci-fi inspirations instead of the fantasy. After these years, I can’t play Paladins without feeling haunted by all the forms it could have taken.
The ghosts that haunt me most are the ones where we didn’t chase esports and competitive play. This was at the heart of my GDC talk. I imagine a version of Paladins that could have been the Mario Kart of first person shooters. Maybe if we’d done that, I would be writing a similar post looking back and imagining Paladins as a competitive game. Collecting these ghosts seems to be part of the job.
And while some of these ghosts may have been better games, many more would have failed. There was a moment when hero shooters seemed to be the Next Big Thing, like MOBAs had been a few years earlier, but then a few of those games didn’t catch on and battle royales took off instead. We were incredibly lucky that Paladins found an audience. I want to emphasize, this was luck and not thanks to skillful foresight or expert design or market research or whatever. I am very lucky that I was able to work on Paladins for a couple years, and I am proud of the work I have done to make the game what it is.