Following weeks of rumours and leaks suggesting that Hi-Rez Studios was bringing its free-to-play battle royale Realm Royale to Switch, we can exclusively confirm that the game is coming to Nintendo's console. It joins team-based first-person shooter Paladins and MOBA SMITE to form a trinity of games set in the same universe. After launching as a beta on other platforms, the game appears to continue Hi-Rez's line of quality Switch versions, and as a cartoony-style F2P battle royale, it gives off strong Fortnite vibes at first glance. There's more to Realm Royale than meets the eye, though, with a focus on fantasy, forging and - above all - fun.
We sat down with lead designer James Horgan, executive producer Mick Larkins and brand director Alex Cantatore for an exclusive chat about about the game's origins, working with Nintendo and the challenges involved with building and maintaining a quality battle royale game. Oh, and chickens...
First, a little history for anybody who isn’t familiar with the game. How would you describe Realm Royale to a Switch gamer who perhaps hasn’t seen it on other platforms?
James: Realm Royale is a class-based Battle Royale. We take a large number of players against each other - they’re going to choose classes with different abilities and different end goals and play styles to try and gain an advantage over the course of a match. The number of players will whittle down until there’s one player or one team ending victorious.
Realm Royale started out as Paladins: Battlegrounds, a mode inside Paladins. What was behind the decision to rebrand the game when it spun out into its own thing?
Mick: I was involved with that whole process, on that prototype and game mode, and then when we went into full production on Realm as a standalone game. We did demo the first iteration of the Paladins: Battlegrounds battle royale mode at our annual HRX Event in January 2017 and got very positive reception there and then we went full force on making that a game mode within Paladins. From the get-go we knew we wanted to make a fantasy themed, class-based battle royale. It became apparent during the production of that game mode that where we wanted to take it with objective-based gameplay - the way that classes would work with an open-ended battle royale experience - that the Paladins characters were a little too compartmentalised for what we wanted to do with the game and when we released it, it wasn’t necessarily bad – actually, a lot of players started flocking to it to try it out within Paladins – but it was apparent that we couldn’t really go far with where we wanted to go being within Paladins. So, we quickly branched off of Paladins, stayed within that universe and IP, but began to explore the relationship between classes and finding your loot, and then also introducing more objective-based gameplay with the Forges, which we thought were an innovative step in the battle royale genre.
The way Paladins is made doesn’t allow one character to have another character’s gun, so we built a game where that was possible
James: One of the big things that we wanted was to get tactile with the loot and when we were in Paladins: Battlegrounds that was a problem we had because we couldn’t give you a new gun. The way Paladins is made doesn’t allow one character to have another character’s gun, so we built a game where that was possible – to get you different weapons, different abilities. Then we figured out a way to make a class system that can use everything but wants to play a certain way.
Mick: The classes are Warrior, Hunter, Mage, Assassin. The Hunter is better with the bow, and the Mage has an ability that lets you fly through the air. You can use the same abilities as other classes but the Mage is going to use it better. It’s more like you’re picking a path to go down rather than being locked into ‘this is the only way I can play this class’. One of the big things for Hi-Rez Games in general is a lot of opportunities for player choice and expression. If you look at Paladins, there’s the whole card-building deck building system to customise your loadout. If you look at SMITE, there’s a lot of different build paths and ways that you can play each character in different roles. That’s kind of preserved here with our system in Realm Royale.
The game will feature cross-play ‘on participating platforms’ – does that mean Sony isn’t playing ball?
Alex: It means that we will have cross-play on Xbox One and PC, and I believe the official Hi-Rez statement is ‘We are technically ready to support other platforms when the opportunity becomes available’, or something along those lines. We think that it’s a better situation when players can play with their friends wherever they are and we’re striving to achieve that goal on all of our titles.
I believe the official Hi-Rez statement is ‘We are technically ready to support other platforms when the opportunity becomes available’
In terms of cross-play support, is that a difficult feature to implement? Some reports claim it’s as easy as flicking a switch (pardon the pun)…
Mick: At Hi-Rez we have an initiative we’ve been working on the past few years supporting cross-play on all of our titles, so since we have a common platform and technology, we paved the way with our previous titles SMITE and Paladins, so that the work involved in doing cross-play is largely inherited on Realm. There is a lot of background information and things like database merging and things like that that we have to handle, so on the back end from a technical standpoint, it’s not trivial. However, it is a core part of our technology.
James: It wasn’t easy, but we’ve done the work already.
Mick: Things like Realm and future Hi-Rez titles should expect that same level of support on cross-play.
So, you’re ready if the situation should change.
Mick: Yes, absolutely.
James: From a game design side, it’s also something that we have to think about. If you support a bunch of different platforms, obviously there are considerations for different input methods and how it’s going to look on screen, especially with Switch because it does have the handheld mode. When you’re on cross-play that’s even more important because now all those people have to play against each other, so you have to work really hard to make sure that it all comes together to have a unified place because people have different ways of playing the game.
For example, if somebody’s playing at 60fps and somebody else is on 30.
Mick: Also, on a gameplay front, we do take the fact that we’re cross-play into account as we’re designing the game. A good example of that is vertical mobility and a lot of the fast movement – we want to make sure that the gameplay experience is enjoyable across all platforms, so throughout Realm’s development process that was a part of our process for figuring out what would work well on both Nintendo, other consoles and PC so that one platform didn’t have a particular advantage over another.
James: And also, that comes down to input methods. You can put a lot of buttons on a mouse and keyboard and on a controller you have around 14 or 16, something like that. There’s only so many things you can press.
Mick: Even then, we were looking at the number of abilities - that’s another thing that’s a little bit different than what’s in Paladins, with the alternate and the number of abilities and everything. We wanted to make sure that between weapon swapping, using abilities, disenchanting, which is a unique feature in Realm, that that experience felt good and it didn’t feel like we were trying to mash in all these PC controls onto a controller.
How long has the Switch version been in mind? Was it there from the beginning or was it something that you came to afterwards?
Mick: Being on the Switch has always been a goal for Realm Royale. We pioneered that with Paladins and SMITE and so as we were going through that early beta process of Realm, we let the other games at Hi-Rez kind of ‘pioneer’ that tech and now we’ve inherited it in Realm and we’re just about ready to go.
We’ve seen some pretty amazing ports come to Switch recently, as well as some that haven’t measured up. SMITE and Paladins perform admirably - what sort of concessions have you had to make to get Realm Royale running well on Switch?
We haven’t really changed anything on the gameplay side. It’s really just about optimisation and making sure that it’s compliant with the high standards that Nintendo has.
Mick: On the technical front - I’m not sure that this would be so much a concession but a blessing - working on the Switch, being able to undock it and have a different set of minimum specs really caused a technical challenge because we have a really giant map and performance is really important in a game like this. So as a part of the whole Switch technical process, we went through a heavy period of optimisation which actually benefited the game as a whole. We implemented technologies that would help us perform giving an optimal experience on the Switch, and so I don’t think of that necessarily as a concession. The Switch version of the game – we don’t even like using the word ‘port’ – is pretty much verbatim what it is on the other platforms. We haven’t really changed anything on the gameplay side. It’s really just about optimisation and making sure that it’s compliant with the high standards that Nintendo has.
James: As Mick said, we don’t view it as a port. As a result of developing it internally, and all of us working on that as well as the rest of the game, we get to reap the rewards of the optimisations that we make for the Switch, as opposed to having someone else port the game and they’re doing all the performance stuff that then doesn’t go to every platform. We made the game better for every platform and the Switch is the driver for that – obviously it’s something we want to do anyway, but the Switch gives you very clear goals to get it to work, especially in handheld mode.
So future updates will be platform agnostic?
Alex: With both Paladins and SMITE, since being on Switch we’ve shipped all our updates simultaneously across all platforms. We don’t expect that to change for Realm. We consider it to be a full-fledged member of the cross-play ‘universe’ for these games.
Mick: The only difference really is if there’s going to be promotional items such as the awesome new Founder’s Pack that’s going to be a Switch exclusive where you get exclusive Switch content.
Does the Switch version have any exclusive features? (gyro controls, perhaps)
James: We do have the capability to do gyro controls – we made them on Paladins. They’re not yet implemented into Realm but it’s something that the team is thinking about. It’s just figuring out where that stands with a lot of the other features that we want to bring to all our platforms, including the Switch, and making the game experience better as a whole. Ultimately our development time so far has been fairly short. We built this game pretty quick and we’re already on the Switch which is absolutely... it amazes me still!
How dev-friendly is Switch from a development perspective compared to other platforms?
Alex: I think every platform definitely has its quirks. Everything has its strengths and weaknesses. Obviously Switch sets these hard technical standards that you’re trying to get good performance, so optimising it to run well on Switch was a challenge that we had to overcome. But from our experience, Nintendo’s been great to work with. The toolset they’ve provided us with has been great – I haven’t heard any complaints from anybody. It’s been a good process and we’re happy with development.
Obviously, the Battle Royale genre took off fast with two or three big names at the top. Certainly in terms of presentation, we’d say you can see the influence of other games on Realm Royale – in what ways does it differ from the competition?
I think it owes a lot to Paladins more than the other big battle royales. Obviously, everybody’s influenced by everybody else to some extent, but the heart of Realm Royale lies in its roots from Paladins.
Alex: In terms of the presentation, I think it owes a lot to Paladins more than the other big battle royales. Obviously, everybody’s influenced by everybody else to some extent, but the heart of Realm Royale lies in its roots from Paladins. Paladins is a fantasy, cartoony shooter game and a lot of that carried over to Realm Royale. I think a lot of Realm Royale’s uniqueness really does come from that fantasy root. You have these fantasy classes and abilities and weapons. You can get on horseback at any time and traverse a world that feels almost more like an MMO than a traditional battle royale landscape, and there’s this added element of forging, which I think is a really unique, interesting thing that other battle royales don’t have. You can disenchant items that you don’t want and then take the shard to these Points-of-Interest on the map called Forges where you can craft weapons and abilities that you do want. When you start to craft, smoke starts coming up from the Forge and lets everyone around you know ‘oh, there’s somebody in there trying to craft something’ and it creates these really interesting battles around Forges.
James: The thing about Realm is that fantasy element is permeated throughout the entire game. You can get on a mount, ride across the map, which in and of itself feels really good and ‘magical’. Sprinting through a big Battle Royale map has always felt a little tedious to me, but riding on a steed feels fun. When you die you turn into a chicken, or some other creature if you have a cosmetic item, and that’s really fun and unique! When it comes to the gameplay, there are a number of things that are unique about Realm at various different levels of play. At the initial level when you’re just onboarding the game, you’re getting introduced to these abilities and how you use them that gives you another way to interact with the world and fight against enemies. And then when we get up to the very hardcore, passionate, high-skilled players, with the Forge and with our talent system you can say ‘I’m going to craft a longbow – I will get a longbow this match,’ and in other battle royales, you’re just going to have to get lucky finding it, or kill someone and take theirs. We allow players to more reliably get closer to the thing that they might want.
Mick: There are, in my mind, eight major pillars to this game that differentiate it. Those include: the mounts; the ability to disenchant loot that you don’t need in order to turn that into a currency that you can use in other ways on the map; the abilities; the objective-based gameplay around forging new things; classes; the diverse fantasy world; the talent class progression system so you can actually progress your character; and when you die you turn into a chicken, which is a lot more interesting ‘down-but-not-out’ gameplay.
Alex: As we’ve mentioned, we’ve seen all the games take influences from each other. I think two influences that Realm has had on the battle royale genre as a whole that we’re seeing now are our pinging system – Realm was the first game where you could put an indicator on the map and show everybody else on your team ‘hey, go to this point’, which was a really good feature for us in the early days and people were blown away by it – and also Realm was the first game to introduce a resurrection mechanic for your team. One of the things that you can do with the shards you acquire is resurrect your entire team, bring them back and keep fighting, and Realm was the first battle royale to offer that mechanic.
Mick: During the development process – and this is true for any game – there’s always going to be draws from what consumers and our audience are expecting to see in a particular genre and we don’t want to stray too far away from that. So, if there are things that are successful, that work, that define what a battle royale is and that’s working, then those are things that we want to make sure that we provide a really good experience for, and then refine those areas where we can offer something unique.
There’s bound to be cross-pollination to some extent with all these takes, and now you’ve got things like Tetris 99 getting in on the genre, too…
Alex: The Tetris one’s real fun!
It is - I’m terrible at it, but it is great! So, for the future, do you have the full release pencilled in yet? What are your plans?
Alex: We don’t currently have a date or anything pencilled in, no. One of the good things about the way Hi-Rez develops our games is that we follow a very iterative development process, and we just keep working on something until we think it’s ready. So we’re going to keep doing that and, when it’s ready, it’ll move into a full release state. But, even in its current beta state, we think the game is really fun – it’s very playable. It’s not an ‘early beta’, it’s a pretty far-along game that we think provides a really good experience to players.
How easy is it to implement changes from player feedback? What’s the process like for pushing a patch through Nintendo’s certification? How long does it take, roughly?
James: In terms of a full patch, across all of our different platforms we generally budget a week and a half to two weeks for the whole certification, internal PTS [Public Test Server], that process where we get the build right, and then we get it out to the public.
Alex: I will add in that Nintendo’s been good about working with us in the past. If there is an emergent issue that we need to fix – if something goes live and the players find an exploit or whatever it is – they’ve been really good about turning around on things very quickly to be able to get that addressed. There is a standard period of time that is longer, but when issues come up they’ve been [great].
Mick: Also, as part of our internal development process, we have dedicated teams whose sole purpose is to interact and collect feedback from the community. These are community managers, customer support, our operations team which monitors Twitter, reddit forums, those kinds of things. We have regularly scheduled sync-ups with community teams on the dev side to make sure that their most pressing issues are getting in front of us and we’re able to talk about the most pressing things. Also there are key members of our dev team that are very active on social media as well, and that relationship with the community is very important. If we do find a either a bug, a major design issue, balance – those kinds of things – we do test those things internally and are pretty transparent, especially when we have our release update where we go over those changes. We gauge the feedback from those. On the PC we have PTS – that’s a little bit trickier to turn on for consoles – and then once we feel pretty good internally about those kinds of changes, then we push the release out on all platforms.
Alex: We very recently just did a survey of our players and got tens of thousands of responses about what weapons they thought were powerful, what abilities they thought were powerful and we tried to listen to the people that are passionate about the game but don’t engage on social media. There are a lot of people that play the game everyday but they’re not on Twitter, they’re not on reddit, and based on that feedback in this most recent patch, we actually made some changes to abilities that players thought were overperforming or underperforming that our vocal community was like ‘why are they changing that – that’s not the thing that we’re upset about!’ But it is the thing that this non-vocal majority really was concerned about, so we try a lot of different things to hear our players’ concerns.
Social media tends to draw the most extreme reactions – positive and negative. With recent reports of an endemic crunch-culture at Epic and other studios, and considering the constant updates that characterise the types of games you’re making (games as a service), how do you strike a balance between responding to feedback and implementing changes, but also having a life outside the studio?
the whole point of our studio is to make multiplayer games as a service and we have a strong background in how to do that properly. I think what you’re seeing is that perhaps some other games studios that are newer to this idea are delivering really high quality content, but it’s coming at a price
Mick: I can answer this question, to a certain degree. I’m proud to say that on Realm Royale and I’d say from most of all the development on all Hi-Rez’s games, we do not have a crunch culture. Now, that’s not to say that we don’t passionate group of developers and that sometimes we do go above and beyond, especially when there’s a critical milestone to be had, but we do not incorporate [crunch] into our development process. From the get-go – I’ve been at the studio for going on fourteen years now – the whole point of our studio is to make multiplayer games as a service and we have a strong background in how to do that properly. I think what you’re seeing is that perhaps some other games studios that are newer to this idea are delivering really high quality content, but it’s coming at a price at the frequency at which they release. We strive… our internal procedure allows us to have weekly updates, which is what we’ve been doing in Realm Royale, releasing new skins, new guns, those kinds of things every week, and then every so often we’ll release a great new bundle of premium content, and then we’ll also release a slew of Battle Pass content. This is the result of years and years of refinement of our development process and we can do so actually with a much leaner development team, and I’m very proud of that fact, that we’re able to do that.
James: Especially with games as a service needing a live operations team. Crunch is bad enough when it’s towards a release milestone, but if you’re doing it for a live operations team, it’s a game that’s going to run for as long as it can. There’s no stopping – you have to figure out how to get things at the right pace. You can make games of the best quality and people can stay fresh and creative and still move very quickly to make premium content. As Mick said, we’ve figured it out. There’s some sort of special sauce that makes all that work.
Mick: It really just comes down to an experienced blend of keeping your agility and being able to jump on things quickly and being bold enough to change direction when needed, but then also having the discipline of scoping your workload appropriately.
Finally, what Switch games (besides Paladins and SMITE, of course) do you find yourself playing when you’ve got a spare five minutes?
Mick: I know it might be cliché, but for me it’s Breath of the Wild. I think that’s one of the best games I’ve ever played and I was very excited when we started working on Realm Royale because being able to make a Hi-Rez game finally where you’re in this giant world with a lot of diversity, being able to ride around on horseback – it brought back a lot of the great moments that I had traversing the world that was in Breath of the Wild. I think the pacing and presentation of Realm Royale is more appropriate for the Switch than either of our other two games in that regard.
James: For me, Octopath Traveler was a ton of fun. Actually, Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundle I found really good just for the way I play with the Switch, where it’s sort of a borderline Game Boy when you’re on the go - Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundle, man! It’s fun for five or ten minute [sessions] and hopefully that’s something that you can do in Realm, too. You can play solo, you don’t have to explain it, you can just go in, frag – maybe win, maybe lose, maybe leave half way through because that doesn’t affect anybody – and I think that’s an awesome experience for people that are on the go. Maybe you’re waiting in your car, parked outside an appointment for ten minutes – pop a Realm match.
You might be waiting a couple of years on that one!
Alex: Yeah, I literally bought a Switch when they announced Metroid Prime 4 because I love the Metroid Prime series so much. ‘Yes, it’s coming – I need it now, I’ve got to get ready!’ and then it’s like, ‘Okay, I guess I’ll keep waiting…’
Mick: You’re going to be really ready…
Alex: I’m going to be so ready! But, yeah, Axiom Verge is great.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that we might have missed or that’s important?
Mick: It’s not that important, but it’s just really a thrill to release a new game on such a legendary console made by Nintendo. It’s always a great accomplishment and I can’t wait to see a whole new audience that we’re going to find with Nintendo players and I’m really excited to have them finally be able to participate.
James: I’m going to tell a little story about our chickens because I think the playerbase is going to think ‘how did they come up with that? It’s so strange!’ Originally, it was like ‘okay, we’re programming this battle royale, we should put in a down-but-not-out’. It is permadeath, but we want to make sure that someone really got you and it wasn’t just a stray shot from a bajillion miles away. In Paladins, doing a down-but-not-out state for every character would be a lot of animation work to test something. So, we were like, all right, we have these chickens that are used for the character Pip – let’s just hook that in because that’ll allow us to test a theory. And then it was hilarious and tons of fun and it completely stuck, which I don’t think anybody expected. It was like, all right, whatever, we’re just going to prototype this mechanic with this temp asset and then – no, it’s just amazing!
I get less upset playing Realm Royale than any other battle royale, for sure.
Alex: One of my favourite moments from the development of the game was when they added the chicken song when you’re down – “BOK-bok-bok” [imitates chicken song] – it’s hilarious! You kind of can’t even be that upset when you die because it’s like ‘Man, I got turned into a chicken and I almost escaped’. If you escape long enough as a chicken you turn back into a person and you can start talking again. It is a really fun mechanic – I get less upset playing Realm Royale than any other battle royale, for sure.
James: Especially with Count Bokula who is our most recent chicken release. He’s great because he’s this little vampire, he’s just walking around…
Mick: The chicken mechanic gives us endless material for fun and goofy stuff like that in the game – it’s just a fun game to work on.
Alex: Yeah, and if I had one last word, I think that Realm Royale is fun at its core in a way that a lot of games aren’t. Realm Royale does not take itself too seriously. One of the most recent mounts that we released is literally a pile of slime that you get sucked inside of and [you] ‘blop’ along in a pile of slime – he’s called Blorp…
James: He’s got a mount emote where your character tries to escape and Blorp pulls him back in – it’s so good!
Alex: It’s just goofy, it’s fun. It’s the kind of thing that I think is going to be perfect to pick up on your Switch, play a round or two and just have fun with your friends. You don’t need to make it like ‘Yeah, I’m going to play eight hours a day out this game’ or anything, like some of our other games – it’s just always a part of your life because it’s so much fun.
James: Right, I think its actually kind of a throwback in that way. There’s two kinds of gaming throwbacks: there’s the hardcore, maybe Quake or DOOM, and there’s like – no, this is fun. Don’t think about it too much. ‘What are they trying to do h–‘, no, no; it’s just fun!
Our thanks to Alex, James, Mick and everybody at Hi-Rez Studios. Look out for our verdict on the Switch version of Realm Royale soon. In the meantime, do you like the sound of it? Have you tried the game on other platforms? Share your impressions below.