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PAX West 2017: Hand of the Gods Interview with Scott “Gandhi” Lussier

Hand of the Gods PAX West Interview

While at PAX West, I had a chance to sit down with Scott “Gandhi” Lussier, lead developer for Hand of the Gods, and talk in-depth about the Hand of the Gods development and its future in casual and competitive environments.

I heard a rumor that Hand of the Gods was originally just planned as an add on mode to SMITE. Was that correct?

No. This was never going to be an add-on to SMITE. A year and a half ago myself and Scott Zier pitched an idea of a turn-based strategy game based on the SMITE universe. Once that was greenlighted we decided on what platform we would use. As a studio as a whole, we decided it would be best to start getting people ramped up and understanding UE4. In a game like Hand of the Gods, it was a more controlled environment with fewer iterations than if we were to do say a shooter. It was the first project we ever did in Unreal 4, and we have a lot of knowledge inside of it now, we know exactly how our pipeline works, and we know the strength of it. So it was never planned to be inside of SMITE; it was always meant to be its own stand alone game.

There’s no single player campaign right now. Is that something you’re planning on adding in?

When we look at Hand of the Gods, we see it as PvP-first. Internally, all of us want to do a PvE story mode. We actually have the time to do it. In SMITE, it’d be a long arc for them to do it. For us with the power of UE4 and everything else we could do it relatively quickly, but it’s about evolving that story. Right now,  the priority is making sure that PvP is good. From there we’ll take a look at story mode.

Hand of the Gods has been compared to Hearthstone and Duelyst, which has caused some concerns about the microtransaction model. How do you plan to handle this with card unlocks?

Obviously, we’re going to try to get every pantheon in SMITE into Hand of the Gods. But when we release a pantheon, every pantheon is required to have a base set of free cards. We’re not going to make everyone buy everything all the time every single time – it would be foolish of us to do. At Hi-Rez, we always make sure that a free-to-play player who really loves the game and puts time into the game can play without spending anything. You see that in Paladins and in SMITE, and it’s true for Hand of the Gods as well. So for example, the next pantheon we’re going to be doing is Hindu, that’ll be coming out at the end of September. Inside of that, they have base free cards and then there are free cards for other pantheons as well.

What is the lead hero for the Hindu Pantheon, and what’s the meta planned for it?

Meta-wise we don’t have a true sense of control style with our game, and we knew that from the beginning that if we followed the arcs some of them would be very iffy for us to make. Like the Norse for example, it makes sense if they’re all about aggro and spawning multiple little units that go out and attack the base and makes sense. Egyptian, we do a little bit of the afterlife, a little bit of the healing, both things that kind of fit inside the lore. So for Hindu, we kind of played into the whole “pillars of life” and the different decisions and how you have to kind of wait out and so they’re not passive by nature in our game, but they’re playing a longer game. That’s their plan. Their leader is going to be Ganesh. For a long time I was saying it was going to be Kali, I really wanted it to be Kali, but it just really didn’t fit the plan.

Are you going to have additional leaders for each pantheon, or stick with one leader for each throughout the game’s lifespan?

The current plan is to make sure we have one leader per pantheon. Down the road, we’ll probably be doing different game modes, like tournament mode. Spoiler! We’re developing a tournament queue that has unique rules that break the conventions of our game but also promotes long term play. So one of the ideas is that you can play as Odin, but you can only use Egyptian cards for example, or you play as Greek, but you don’t have Zeus, you have Odin – those kinds of things. Really we’re trying to get people to play the game in different ways than in standard.

You held a tournament here at PAX West this weekend. Can you tell me more about what your eSports plans are currently?

PAX West is our way of introducing Hand of the Gods. We haven’t done too much, obviously, throughout closed beta. We always want to test things. Here, we wanted to get a bunch of people to play it and get their hands on it. So we decided to do an open tournament, where all you have to do is show up, you get one sticker, and then you sign up for the event. So long as you play and you have the sticker, you can play in the tournament.

Hand of the Gods is currently on PC and planned for console. Are you planning to do mobile too?

Mobile is something we’ve talked, and it’s probably something we’ll evaluate later on in the year. It’s in discussion but nothing has been said or decided. Really for us our focus is on getting PC ready and also getting console ready, which is the most important thing for us. We’re hoping to have that closed beta in fall.

Hand of the Gods Blademaster Card

Blademaster Card

What are some of the challenges you’ve run into developing Hand of the Gods recently?

I don’t even know where to begin, honestly. I think the first thing for us, and something we’re still trying to figure out, is what’s the best way for us to release this content. When you look at Paladins, SMITE – we’ve released content every two weeks, without missing a beat. We’ve done that on Hand of the Gods, and been consistent, but the question is: is it better to hold and do one big bold patch per month, where there’s 40 cards instead of 20 and 20? So right now, we’re releasing cards every two weeks, but it depends on how difficult I am on the programmers.

But the big thing is balance, and the balance affects everything. Obviously, we don’t wait to balance. Every two weeks, we see a problem, I adjust. I’m always looking at the game consistently, every day I’m playing two to three hours as soon as I get home. I’m always looking at what my vision is for what these units should do, and are they being included. Obviously, we have to look at stats, and everything else, but the big thing that I notice is that when you make a balance change to a card, a lot of players know exactly what it’s worth, they have a direct comparison, because there’s a mana cost associated. Whereas on SMITE when we make these balance changes, not every god is a 1:1, you know? So if I overnerf something that card’s just dead. So we always have to make sure that any change we make that the card still stays viable.

How do you plan on addressing power creep?

One of the perfect examples of power creep is the patch that’s going out next week. Obviously we went through some changes, we had cards that hadn’t been touched and updated to what they need to be to reflect the current state of the game. I’ve changed 30 cards, and we’ve reworked 15 of them, there’s balance changes for 15 cards, there’s new abilities, new everything for cards the players already own. There’s no need to rebuy them or regrab them, there was none of that. You had it and you get it. That was our way of saying hey, we knew that these cards weren’t up to standard, here’s a buff directly to them or a complete rework, try it out. The key for us is 1) always make sure we have a vision of exactly what the cards need to be and 2) if there is a problem inside of the meta, if a card’s controlling it, you have to address it. Sometimes we’re going to overnerf the card, it’s what’s gonna happen. Sometimes we’re going to overbuff it, that’s how it works. But if I’m not always on my toes and thinking about it, it could get the best of us.

That’s obviously going to become more difficult as time goes on. Do you have any particular plan on how to manage the increasing card base and making sure every card is balanced, whether you have 200 cards or 2,000?

One thing I do every Monday, I run a statistical analysis of the game. Inside of that, I have a breakdown per pantheon (including the neutral ‘pantheon’), and from there I look at the game as a whole. So I filter by the entire game, then by the pantheons, and look into each of them and I see exactly where the average attack is, where most of the mana curve is, and adjust it based on that. Whenever I have an outlier, I can focus it down to say, Norse 3 Mana Cards, I can look at those cards and go “okay, this card is clearly better than everything else, we have to fix this one.” For us it’s making sure that data is always driven home, but we also don’t let the data control the fun. There’s a certain element where you’re always just kind of balancing the fun out of it, then the game can’t be fun. There’s some times where it’s going to happen, where I’m going to make a decision like “this card is going to deal five damage for three mana, and that’s it,” but as long as that’s not always the standard and that power creep doesn’t happen, I think we’re good.

Hand of the Gods Annihilation Screenshot

Casting Annihilation

Is there a plan to at one point, once Hand of the Gods is ‘caught up’ with the current state of SMITE, have simultaneous releases of god at the same time?

I think so. For me my biggest dream has been to create my own gods – gods that SMITE isn’t going to get to, or down the way they might get to, but there’s a lot of them, especially in the Norse pantheon, that I’d love to bring to life myself, to say that was me that did that. But I think that’s always on the table. One of the things that we are doing is developing our own creatures, so we’re actually working on releasing two brand new hydras which have never been in SMITE before, only inside Hand of the Gods.

One thing we’ve seen Blizzard do with their games is a lot of cross promotion, where you may play World of Warcraft to earn a card pack in Hearthstone, and so on, across all of their different games. Is that something you’re hoping to do between Hand of the Gods and the other Hi-Rez titles?

Absolutely. There’s no way we’re not going to do some kind of a tie-in with Paladins down the road, there’s guaranteed to be more SMITE tie-ins. There’s a lot of fun stuff we can look to do especially if we do good down the road and add a story mode, obviously the SMITE team is going to weigh in on that and we can probably expect to see some skin tie-ins and things along those lines.

Do you think in the future you’ll include player run tournaments?

No doubt about it. I think this game thrives in a competitive atmosphere and to not cater to that is foolish. We’re going to make sure that while it may not happen in version 1 or 2, we’re going to make sure there are player created tournaments in some way, shape, or form. There’s also tournaments created by us that are giving rewards and driving people into that atmosphere because I think it’s exactly where this game thrives.

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