Atlanta-based Hi-Rez Studios is a hot player in the free-to-play games market supporting not just the recent conversion of Global Agenda to free-to-play but also two new games in the pipeline, the jetpack powered Tribes: Ascend and god-smacking SMITE. We talked with COO Todd Harris about the origins of the company, what it’s like being an independent studio in Atlanta, GA and what it is like trying to support an existing game with two more that have near simultaneous release schedules. Harris also has some tips for those looking to get into the gaming industry.
Examiner: The gaming industry is typically perceived as existing on the West Coast, Texas, and the Northeast. How did Hi-Rez come to setup shop in the North Atlanta suburbs?
Todd Harris: Good question. I guess the short answer is that the management team and some of our key personnel from other business were already located in Alpharetta. Our founding, which is a long story, is an interesting one in that Erez Goren, the successful serial entrepreneur in the area, he was one of the original guys that started Radiant System which is a local Alpharetta Point-of-Sale company. Myself as well as the rest of our management team worked together at Radiant Systems in the same Alpharetta office park. From Radiant Systems we grew another technology business, Blue Cube Software. The success of those companies let Erez have enough money to seed investment for Hi-Rez Studios. It was really just that we are already in the Alpharetta area, we had homes here, we knew it had a good business climate. That’s why we started Hi-Rez here.
EX: What advantages and disadvantages have you seen from growing a gaming company in the Atlanta area?
TH: There’s definitely an advantage in that Atlanta has good sources of young talent from places like Georgia Tech for programmers and SCAD (Savannah College of Art & Design) for artists. The state is active in promoting the video game industry with the Entertainment Investment Act that covers movies and video games.
Disadvantages would be the availability of experienced game development. Most of that comes from the west coast. So we chose to import some experienced developers early when we were founded early in 2005 and we would basically pair up the experienced folks with the new grads coming out of school or the self-taught people and that’s been a good formula.
EX: What advantages do you see being an independent developer specifically in the free-to-play market.
TH: There’s many advantages but the disadvantage with our first title was just getting our name out there. We were a new studio, we hadn’t made a game before, most game projects fail in this industry so there was a lot of skepticism. So the disadvantage was, with the first title Global Agenda, was just hard to get awareness. All the game media is on the west coast and so forth.
The advantages of being an independent were that we were able to make a very quality initial game because we were able to come up with the schedules, the art style, the game design. Really, all the elements we were able to determine those ourselves. I think that led to a more innovative title that I think, within the industry, got us a lot of attention.
Also, as an independent now embracing free-to-play, we are big on digital distribution. That means we can more go directly to the consumer. We can have a more direct and on-going conversation with the consumer which is good for gaming. We can put something out there and see what people like and see what people don’t like and pitch it.
EX: You mentioned that Atlanta is a good resource of young talent from Georgia Tech and SCAD. What advice would you have for those budding developers and artists looking to get involved in the game industry?
TH: #1 – Practice, practice, practice. And then more practice. If you are a programmer, download one of the many free game engines like the Unreal Developers Kit and try modding an existing game. If you are a digital artist, post your work to online community sites like Polycount or ConceptArt.org and get feedback from peers. You need to build a portfolio of work that truly impresses potential employers.
#2 – Develop a thick-skin for critique and iteration. You will lovingly craft digital art or program a feature, but then your initial version will have to change for game-design reasons, art-direction reasons, or runtime performance reasons. The best game developers solicit feedback and then improve their work based on that feedback.
#3 – Network with local organizations. Here in Georgia we have the GGDA and IGDA and a local game development conference in October called SIEGE. It is very helpful to know the companies and developers in your area. And for them to know you.
EX: Hi-Rez Studios has gone from supporting its first game to nearly simultaneously announcing SMITE and Tribes: Ascend with one stacked right on top of the other in terms of beta and release timelines. What kind of challenge has that been like?
TH: Everyone’s very busy. I think that across the board, we’ve found that having smaller teams work on these multiple titles is easier than a larger team all working on one title. And that’s because 1) is just the nature of software or creative projects where adding people often slows it down, it doesn’t make it go faster. And 2) at this point, after launching Global Agenda, the 50 people that we have are very experienced. They know the engine well. They can operate with limited direction and they are very very invested in the success of their project. So by taking the 50 people and dividing them into three teams with a lot of ownership, we’ve seen proceed more quickly. Decision can be made more quickly, etc. On the development side, things are moving faster than ever before on all three project fronts. So that’s worked very well mainly based on having strong people.
EX: With Global Agenda on Steam, are there plans to bring Tribes: Ascend and SMITE to it as well?
TH: We’ll certainly look at it. We haven’t formally announced anything there. We’re interested in all of the leading digital distribution platforms.
EX: With Hi-Rez supporting three free-to-play games, will there be any kind of incentivizing to maybe get someone who tried SMITE to play Global Agenda and someone who played Global Agenda to give Tribes Ascend a look?
TH: Definitely. There’s a line where it may feel a little too pushy and too commercial. The plan is for us to have a common patching system and launching system across the three games. If you are playing one game we really do want you to be one click away from a digital download and trying another game.
Hi-Rez Studios is currently at PAX Prime with playable builds of its upcoming Recursive Colony map for Global Agenda, two new maps for Tribes: Ascend before it heads into beta in September and the first publicly playable version of SMITE.
Be sure to check out our other interviews with Todd Harris about Tribes: Ascend (part 1, part 2, part 3) and SMITE.
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