Is Paladins Too Derivative to Compete?

(This was originally published on mmos.com on December 9th, 2015.)

Hi-Rez Studios, creators of the third person MOBA Smite and the high-speed FPS Tribes Ascend, are back with their latest entry into the free to play MMO market. Paladins takes many of the best elements from the most popular MMOs and simplifies them, creating a game that plays very well but doesn’t bring much new to the table. Considering that many game companies have risen to fame by borrowing ideas from other successful titles (e.g. Blizzard), that wouldn’t normally be a bad thing, but I wonder whether Paladins will be able to find its place in a genre so jam-packed with killers.

In terms of gameplay, Paladins seems the most like a combination of Heroes of the StormTeam Fortress 2, and League of Legends. Each match offers aspects of both objective-oriented FPS and MOBA design, pitting teams of over-the-top characters against each other to fight over control points and destroy each other’s base. Paladins’ cast is made up of highly stylized interpretations of classic fantasy and sci-fi archetypes: there’s a dwarven engineer, an elf that fires lasers from her bow, and a goblin driving a mech suit. It fits nicely among the pantheon of F2P MMOs that lean towards a specific artistic direction over graphical fidelity to be more accessible to players with less than stellar graphics cards.

Paladins’ greatest achievement is also its most blatant attempt at borrowing from another game: when a character levels up, the corresponding player is presented a choice between three cards. Each card represents a different way for the character to interact with other characters and with the world around them. The beauty of this design shines through in Paladins just as much as it does in Heroes of the Storm, but like the Trait system, the cards may also suffer from balance issues. As far as I’m concerned, offering a player blatantly worse options is almost as bad as not giving them options at all, and this type of mechanic has a tendency of presenting far fewer progression paths than the developer may initially intend. That being said, cards and traits offer many significant benefits over their item-based counterparts from other MOBAs—having the player progression mechanic tied to experience rather than gold allows players to focus on the game rather than on farming last hits or hoarding treasure.

If Paladins was the only FPS/MOBA hybrid on the market I have no doubt that it would be an unstoppable success. The reality, however, is that Paladins is participating in one of the most cutthroat popularity contests that the gaming industry has ever seen. Every established gaming company wants to be the next Riot Games, and Hi Rez is making it even harder for themselves by also going head to head against Blizzard’s latest powerhouse, Overwatch. Unlike the other games under Hi-Rez’s belt Paladins lacks the appeal of exciting new features or the nostalgic connection to a beloved franchise that made Smite and Tribes successful in spite of their competition.

The few matches I played of Paladins were fun but overall lackluster. If the game had a pay-to-play model I could see myself buying it and coming back once in a while when my friends wanted to give it a try. Free to play games, on the other hand, are meant to build a strong and devoted player base to promote microtransactions, which requires leaving a strong first impression. As the game stands now I don’t see many players sticking with Paladins for more than a month or two at most. I’m already struggling to find a reason to log on again, and the game isn’t even released yet. If Hi-Rez Studios is willing to take a chance and do something that innovates on the ideas that they’ve adopted then I may be willing to try it once more, but in its current state Paladins leaves me perfectly content playing the games it borrows from instead.

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