Tribes Ascend: How Hi-Rez Got It Right
Tribes: Ascend was released last Thursday to much fanfare; Game Front’s review will be available soon. The Tribes series became popular at its inception, but a procession of sequels gradually tarnished that legacy; Tribes: Vengeance was particularly reviled by fans and critics.
Things changed, however, when Hi-Rez Studios took over the franchise. The Georgia-based devs made a number of deft design moves that not only improved Tribes: Ascend — they offered a model for other studios to follow. Read on to learn how Hi-Rez got it right.
1. By Understanding Their Responsibilities
When I interviewed Hi-Rez COO Todd Harris at GDC, he said that their message to the fans when they first got the Tribes license was: “we’re happy to have Tribes –we’ll try not to eff it up.” Studios with shiny new licenses can often be overambitious, or too eager to “put their own stamp” on the franchise — Hi-Rez succeeded in part because their goal from day one was to make a game that would please old-school Tribes players. Which leads us to the next topic…
2. By Working Closely With the Fans
To make sure that their new game had that distinctive Tribes feel, Hi-Rez contacted top-ranked Tribes players of yesteryear early in the design process, let them play Alpha builds, and asked them to give their feedback on how the game was shaping up. One important early change suggested by fans was the removal of modern-style “hit scan” weapons in favor of weapons like the Spinfusor (see our Spinfusor giveaway!), which fire physics-modelled projectiles that actually take some time to arrive at their target. This kind of old-school weapon behavior was a distinctive, beloved feature of the old games, and by working with fans, Hi-Rez was able to better understand its importance.
3. By Knowing What to Change and What to Keep the Same
Balancing the old against the new is a challenge in any sequel, but Hi-Rez focused their gameplay innovations on a few key areas. The achievement system will help new players learn the game, and help all players track their progress. Then there’s class customization, which was specifically requested by the community. Other than that, the studio worked on making sure that Tribes: Ascend felt as true to the old game as possible, keeping the speedy gameplay, the projectile weapons, and the emphasis on teamwork.
4. By Holding a Long Beta with Frequent Iteration
Since Tribes: Ascend is a multiplayer-only game, providing the best possible online experience had to be a priority. By inviting large numbers of people onto their servers for a lengthy open beta, Hi-Rez could gather a wealth of important data while also fine-tuning their game. During the beta, an extensive series of updates introduced new features, maps, and weapons, ensuring a trial by fire for everything that needed it. New players had a chance to get their bearings, old players had a chance to give their feedback, and Hi-Rez had a chance to see how their title would work in practice.
5. By Doing Free-to-Play the Right Way, for the Right Reason
According to Todd Harris, Hi-Rez went free-to-play to save money on marketing and spend it on actually developing the game — I can’t think of a better justification than that. When it comes to gameplay, we’ve heard the refrain over and over since the start of the year: “free to play, but not pay to win.” For some companies, this is just a bit of boilerplate, but reviews of Tribes: Ascend suggest that Hi-Rez have actually gotten this balance right. Cash infusions add breadth to the game but not depth, and players who don’t open their wallets can more than hold their own.
We hope that Tribes: Ascend becomes to be a big success – it’s still too early to tell. Even if it doesn’t, the way Hi-Rez goes about their business is exemplary.