Something that players don't get very much exposure to is the company culture at Hi-Rez studios. It's easy for us, programmed as a society as a whole, to imagine every high quality production as some kind of pretty face for the public. Every stream, YouTube, etc. as something staged and produced for our very eyes. The reality is that Hi-Rez is an outlier, their culture extends far and beyond just the film stage. The laughing faces and friendly behavior is another day at their studio. Having visited their studio multiple times, I can easily conform that while they are very hard working (with lots of people glued to the monitor, working on rigging, 3d modeling, coding, etc.), they are also very open, allowing anyone to walk up to anyone else to provide feedback, ask questions, or collaborate on projects.
Todd Harris, who we had some time to ask a few question, has his desk situated right beside several other coworkers, while the CEO, Erez, has his desk in a similar layout. In speaking with Thomas Holt (Art Director) and Mick Larkins (Paladins producer), I've found out their desks are very close to each other, probably 10 seconds away, and assuming they can't work something out over internal chat, they can easily approach each other's desks. This lack of barriers allows for fast development and open ideas among all of those who work at Hi-Rez.
While Hi-Rez isn't exclusive in its ability to have a great company culture, it is notable as they did start very, very small, with Global Agenda. It wasn't until really late 2014, after the launch of SMITE, that Hi-Rez really took off as a major developer, and now with the latest numbers shown at the SMITE World Championship (growth of 6 million to 13 million registered players 2014 to 2015), we know they're going to continue to grow.
During our Media Day tour, they were doing a presentation on Paladins, when the CEO, Erez, began an impromptu design meeting, having come up with a few new ideas, having the presenters take notes. This organic transition showcases how they're constantly working on ideas and ways to innovate their game, through multiple streams, with both the community and development working hand in hand to test their ideas, while they implement many of the community's ideas.
We took a moment of Todd Harris's time to ask a few questions relating their growth, their company culture, and the community.
TTH: Things have changed a lot for Hi-Rez since the small indie studio days of Global Agenda. What have been some of the growing paints in the recent years, especially with the surge in company size in 2014 & 2015?
Todd Harris: The best games are made by people who have passion for the project they are on. When growing quickly one of the biggest challenges any company faces is keeping that passion - making sure new employees as well as the existing employees stay motivated rather than becoming too comfortable or get the feeling they can not positively influence the project because the company is so large.
We've done a couple specific things to address this. First of all we tend to hire a lot from our player community. This hiring practice helps identify people who legitimately love our games because they were actively improving the games or community even when they were not getting paid for it. A second best practice of ours is to keep the team sizes as small as possible. A smaller working team size lets individuals make more of a contribution and of course it is more efficient as well. So rather than growing lots of management layers in our company and adding more people to an existing project we tend to start a new feature team or entirely new game project that lets a small team make a big impact.
Another challenge that is more unique to our studio is teaching them the "Hi-Rez way" which basically means community involvement very early in the design/development and tons of interation. That is an unusual way for a game studio to work but it is core to how we operate and our most effective employees thrive in that environment.
TTH: One of the interesting things about Hi-Rez is the desk layout, where everyone from the CEO down work in a quasi-open office layout. Do you feel like this is part of the magic formula for not only SMITE's rampant growth, but contributes to the rapid and aggressive Paladin's patch rollout?
Todd Harris: The open office layout does help with communication and coordination. But the magic formula is community involvement combined with embracing rapid product iteration.
TTH: Considering the massive cost savings of not paying for redundant office space for everyone to have their own offices, what are other ways that Hi-Rez respects its indie roots and acts responsibly with income generated from the players?
Todd Harris: We try to be relatively player friendly with monetization - an example being the Ultimate God Pack in SMITE which gives you all the playable characters for one single purchase. This tradition goes all the way back to Global Agenda where we offered an Elite Agent pack which was a really high value, no-brainer purchase. Beyond that we try to share income generated with esports players using team skins and chests and of course we do a ton of charity contributions as well. In 2015 the charity contribution from our community thru Hi-Rez, via virtual item purchases, was over $350,000.
TTH: Are there ever any concerns about the company becoming too corporate due to its growth? With already a second building, and soon, assumingly, multiple tournament tracks and multiple games, will Hi-Rez keep its strong community connection even as Hi-Rez continues to swell?
Todd Harris: More often than not companies tend to lose their hunger as they grow. But, across multiple companies, our CEO Erez has always been great about maintaining an aggressive 'startup' style culture even as we grow so that helps a lot. I don't think we are at risk of losing our strong community connection. Our end goal is fostering a global community of gamers who can enjoy and rotate between the multiple titles that we develop and publish. We'll always be about our Player Community, even as we work to grow it.
We thank Todd for his time talking with us. It's been a wild ride, and we here at Ten Ton Hammer can't wait to see what'll be coming up next.
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