We spoke to Hi-Rez employees and executives about the studio’s rocky winter.
The Paladins Cards Unbound update back in November was a controversial one, to say the least. It made major changes to the way the game’s stat-boosting cards are obtained and used, angering many of its players — and according to one source within developer Hi-Rez Studios (who reached out to me under the condition that they remain anonymous), the update was just as controversial within the studio as well. Hi-Rez COO Todd Harris confirmed to IGN that this claim has truth to it, but also said that the studio is ultimately confident in the decision that was made.
Rumors of internal strife have been swirling around Hi-Rez for well over eight months. Since mid-2017, whenever Paladins or Hi-Rez’s popular MOBA Smite received a contentious or unpopular change, some players would point toward a notorious collection of reviews taken from Hi-Rez’s company profile on Glassdoor, a site that lets employees anonymously review employers. While these reviews can be posted by anyone and therefore cannot be verified, many players latched onto the consistency with which they paint Hi-Rez as an unhealthy work environment.
They resurfaced once again with the announcement of the Cards Unbound update. The update was announced at the height of the loot box debate which defined the second half of 2017, to a predictably negative reception. Shortly after, a Hi-Rez employee contacted me wanting to share their thoughts on the update, their perception of the studio, and the validity of the rumors regarding its management and practices. I was able to verify their identity after meeting with them in person, and then reach out to Hi-Rez directly for a response to the claims they made.
According to this source, Cards Unbound was mandated by Hi-Rez executives and pushed through against the will of most, if not all, of the Paladins development team. They claim many designers expressed disappointment and disagreement when the update was announced internally, and they personally believe Cards Unbound is an unhealthy “pay-to-win” change. This source also cited several of the Glassdoor reviews in that same Reddit thread and supported many of their claims regarding studio leadership and morale.
“I don’t think anybody wants to put levels on cards,” the source told me. “I don’t think anybody wants to have a power level difference within casual and ranked. It’s just a pay-to-win system. The company is being forced to do something that people within the company don’t want to do.”
I don’t think anybody wants to have a power level difference within casual and ranked. It’s just a pay-to-win system.
Looking to corroborate both this source’s story and the longstanding criticisms of Hi-Rez, I reached out to several Hi-Rez employees. Most of them did not reply. Those that did declined to be interviewed, some fearing for their jobs.
During the 2018 Hi-Rez Expo last month, I also contacted Hi-Rez by email seeking a response to this source’s account. Hi-Rez did not directly address this source’s claims in their initial response, instead deferring to a public statement made in November on Cards Unbound (which you can read here). Shortly after, IGN sat down with Hi-Rez COO Todd Harris at the Expo itself in order to dig deeper into the internal and external controversy surrounding Cards Unbound.
A universally controversial update
“Generally people were on board with that idea in the studio,” Harris said. “But it’s a big change. And so like any big change, there were debates. Some were pro, and some were con, and even then the particulars of the system had to be debated. We have knock-down, drag-out fights all the time when it comes to game design. Everybody is super passionate, right? Cards Unbound was controversial and it was also controversial inside the studio, and we hashed it out and we made a decision and now we’re moving forward with it.”
“We had a concept that Paladins would be a platform with multiple modes,” Harris explained, “and some of those modes would be more over-the-top and arcadey but others would be more fair and balanced. The general thought with Cards Unbound was, ‘Hey, it seems there is this appetite of players for this more arcadey, less fair thing that we went away from. What can we do? What system we can put in place that serves both audiences?”
Cards Unbound widened the gap between Paladins’ Competitive and Quickplay modes. In Competitive mode, all players have access to all cards, which are normalized to a set power level. But in Quickplay mode, while players still have access to all the cards in the game, card power is not normalized. Instead, cards need to be leveled up by collecting duplicate cards via loot boxes called Chests. As a result, longtime players with higher-level cards wield a demonstrable advantage over players with low-level cards, especially new players. Many players felt this system was unreasonably grindy. Harris agrees.
Cards Unbound was controversial and it was also controversial inside the studio, and we hashed it out and we made a decision and now we’re moving forward with it.
“The first system that we put on PTS [Public Test Server] was not a good experience ultimately,” he said. “We as players all played it without extra currency and, just, the math was kind of wrong. That was point number one. It was too grindy. We definitely listened to the feedback and the system evolved based on that. But ultimately, for some people, it was too big of a change. But I think we, as a studio, are very willing to stand behind the current implementation as meeting those original goals of Competitive being even more fair than it was before. You have all the cards at the competitive level, day one. And Unbound is there for people who want to play that sort of style.”
Given Harris’ remarks on Quickplay being a “less fair” game mode, it’s not a stretch to interpret “people who want to play that sort of style” as ‘people who want to be able to pay for power.’ However, in response to people calling the system pay-to-win, Harris reaffirmed that there is currently no way to directly spend real money on Chests with cards, though you can still buy them as part of one-time bundles. This was revealed in Cards Unbound’s initial patch notes as a temporary measure while the new system was being tuned, but hasn’t changed since.
The great loot box backlash
The update’s original patch notes also mentioned “some recent questionable moves by full-price games,” referring to the then-white-hot loot box controversy largely stirred by Star Wars Battlefront 2 and Destiny 2. My anonymous source was also sharply critical of this move, calling it “the worst possible timing they could have picked.” According to Harris, this was another major sticking point within the studio.
“Probably the biggest internal debates that we had were less around the goals of the system—because everyone understood—but the timing,” he said. “Because we knew we would be seen as being tone deaf to what’s going on in the industry with loot boxes. We made that bold decision because we thought it was for the good of the game long-term, knowing that one of the downsides would be, people would just be, ‘WTF? I’m done.'”
Our sense is that people are warming up to it in general.
Despite this initial blowback, Harris says that after several iterations Cards Unbound is on the uptick, calling Paladins “flourishing,” and describing last December, the month Cards Unbound was implemented, as a “very good” month for the game. This comes as a stark contrast to the expectations of my source, who was adamant back in November that the update would “kill the game.” But Harris says it hasn’t played out that way.
“We look at people who came in before the drama that are just new, and they are playing longer and returning more post-[Cards Unbound] than before,” he said. “If I look at Reddit, that community specifically has been pretty vocally against it. But what we try to do is look at the expressed feedback on the various channels. That’s Reddit, that’s our own forums, that’s Facebook. They all have different slants. And then we also survey folks. And our sense is that people are warming up to it in general.”
Hi-Rez also hopes to bring players into, and perhaps back to, Paladins with its newly announced Battlegrounds mode, which takes cues from PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. It’s a 100-player free-for-all set on a large island dotted with loot and surrounded by ever-encroaching fog. If nothing else, Battlegrounds is completely different from Paladins’ Quickplay and Competitive modes, and is seemingly unaffected by the changes in Cards Unbound.
There’s no denying that Cards Unbound was initially unpopular with many Paladins players, and there are undoubtedly plenty of dissenters today despite attempts to improve it. But Harris is optimistic, and points toward a previous Paladins update, the addition of a toggleable third-person camera, calling it a “big, big blowup” that “the community survived.” It’s unclear whether the system will yet evolve into something both sides agree on — but what is clear is that, even within Hi-Rez, Cards Unbound seems to have been a difficult and contentious update.
Austin Wood is a freelance writer for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter.
Additional reporting by Brandin Tyrrel.