Earlier this week, I got to sit in on a conference call with Scott Hartsmann of Trion Worlds to talk about their upcoming MMORPG entitled Rift. The game, which will launch on March 1, 2011, is shaping up to be a fresh take on the genre and is drawing the attention of avid MMO fans worldwide. Read on to find out all of the information revealed / covered during our session including a brief introduction by Scott Hartsmann and then a lengthy Q&A session.
Note that some of the questions may seem out of order, but that is the format of the roundtable, they are kept in this order to keep any references made to previous questions in tact. The questions below are a mix of our and questions from other outlets.
Introduction from / of Scott Hartsmann and the Rift project
Hi, I’m Scott Hartsmann, the executive producer of Rift. Aside from converting oxygen to carbon-dioxide and taking up space at a desk, I am in charge of a studio full of what is, easily, the most talented developers I have ever worked with across all disciplines of the game. We have got a pretty amazing team full of experience; about half of the team has hardcore MMO experience and the other half of the team has hardcore, single-player, high quality, AAA console experience. So, we have these two different sets of specialties trying to learn from one another and draw the best from each other’s pasts. We get to bring the best of both worlds to play in our MMO where we’re able to do things like have amazing-quality graphics that are running, at least on our current build, 75 frames per second on high end hardware, which is generally not something that you see in the MMO-space. Usually you get, “ah, its an MMO, we can have crappy performance, its okay”. We are not that. We are trying to make sure that everything we do actually does shine.
We are making an MMO that we consider really fun. We have been in testing for about 8 months now with real users playing a real MMO and we are going through our beta stages. Rift is, quite obviously, a fantasy game which I would imagine most of you know by now. We’re set in a world amidst a war between the Guardians and the Defiant with a bit of a bit of a faith versus technology theme. We have a world that is at the nexus of all of the known planes in its universe. The story of our game is the story of what happens when all of those planes collide with an otherwise unsuspecting planet.
How does the game run in terms of compatability?
The engine scales all the way down to really crappy, old hardware. We have actually got two renderers built into the game; we have a low quality renderer for somebody who is coming over from other games who may have perhaps nine year old hardware. The game will run just fine and they’re able to play with their friends. If you really want to see it shine, having something (system) made in the last four or five years is definitely recommended. For us, its mostly about making sure that we are making a game where we can get as many people to come on in and play and not have to worry about barriers when they are trying to have their friends play with them.
Can you go into detail on the definition of what these “Rifts” are in the context of the game and how they work in terms of the consistency of the game-world?
Fictionally speaking, a rift is what happens when two planes of the world intersect. Telara is the defender of the nexus and all of the planes in its universe, a rift occurs when one of these planes intersects with Telara and the boundary between these planes and Telara becomes very “thin”. Eventually, that boundary can tear and you end up with these “rifts” poking through and you have all of the denizens of these planes actively trying to take over Telara. The longer that rifts go untouched, invasions will end up spawning and they will end up taking over parts of the world. At its core, that is the fiction for the game.
In terms of gameplay mechanics, we have got all different kinds of rifts themselves. They are designed to be sort of a massive-social experience where that, combined with our public grouping system, lets people just walk up and immediately be part of an event and be rewarded for it. We also have simple rift events at the low end which is what people have seen the most of in the betas; they get progressively more complicated and progressively more interesting all the way up high end, expert mode rifts where players are actually going out and finding ways to actually open up rifts and luring out specific invasions. There are also raid-rifts where you and 10-20 other people all do raids via these rifts. These are not “instances”. They are in shared space. We do have raid-instances, but the general dynamic content system is all in a shared world.
Mechanically speaking, think of a rift as a building block. One of the key features of the game is these gigantic, zone-wide events that we have which people have been playing in the betas. You can be in our game and just wandering around a zone, minding your own business, when all of a sudden the skies go dark and zone objectives come up for everybody in the zone. Suddenly it is you and 500 other people actually playing through the story where we have rifts taking place, invasions taking place, quest objectives going on and it is just gigantic, massive chaos... and a whole lot of fun. From what we have seen thus far, it seems as though Rift is geared toward the more mature, dedicated gaming audience where other current gen MMO’s seem to have gone the opposite direction and geared things more towards grabbing the the casual online gamers. Is this something that was done intentionally and is there a certain audience that you are looking to attract?
The visual style for the game is definitely supposed to be high res and highly detailed as opposed to overly stylized and “cartoony”. That is very much an intentional choice. That is what our artists are amazing at, it is what they are passionate about and that is the world that we are making. The gameplay itself is set up to be very accessible to somebody who has little MMO experience all the way up to somebody who has been playing them for a really long time. What we are trying to go for is for someone with little experience to be able to walk in, pick it up and go “okay, I get what I am doing here, I am able to have fun and this does work”. Then the more time that they spend with the game and the more that they choose to learn about it, the more complex they will realize that the game actually is; we intentionally set up the game at the low end so that it is approachable to people who haven’t played MMO’s before. We don’t throw a ton of new concepts at people right from the outset and yes, that is very intentional. People have to feel like they’re at least understanding how to do basic things such as navigating the world and defeat your opponent(s). Otherwise you end up with a game where its not fun. Its kind of like how much fun would it be to wander around in the car and have no idea where you are going? You’re lost, you’re frustrated... it just isn’t fun.
We definitely have a couple of easy steps at the beginning and then, within the first hour or two of gameplay, people get out into a shared world and start seeing these big zone events and start seeing invasions. They start seeing rifts and see their world taken over which is something that nobody else is doing. It is difficult to train someone for the concept of “your world is about to be taken over... be ready” when a lot of the experience is a result of emergent gameplay. We kind of have to step people up and into that; get them comfortable with their character and then see how they do on their own.
How are you going to handle this shared world and these zone events when you have players of a wide variety of levels?
The way that it works right now, if you come into a big zone event players can group together with one another and they will discover that being “over-leveled” doesn’t make it any easier. The level of challenge is retained across the levels. As far as grouping up with friends of different levels and doing dungeons, you can do that right now but we are also, post launch, going to be looking into adding new types of systems that will address this issue and make it easier.
Can you describe what the game’s end-content will be like, in general?
What is there in terms of the end-game? A metric crap-ton... I don’t know how else to say it.
We intentionally designed the game around making sure that we were going to have plenty of end-game content. I think that one of the biggest mistakes that people have made in the last few years is rushing games out the door when there was just a certain amount of progression gameplay and a gigantic cliff of nothing to do once you get to the end. In terms of hours of playability, I am 99% sure that we will have more end-game content than we do have leveling content by the time that the game ships. The way that it works right now is that there are lots of zones to level up through, lots of dungeons to play through, then, once you get to the max level, there is a bunch of new options that will open up to you.
If you are a PvP-er, there is the option of leveling up your prestige, which is kind of like an end-game PvP-progression leveling system. That helps you unlock abilities and PvP-souls. On the PvE-side there are two regular dungeons that are for level 60 players then, as they gear up a little bit, they will be able to take on the expert modes of the dungeons. There are two complete tiers of expert mode dungeons which give you a chance to revisit dungeons that you have played through before and entire new areas will unlock in the dungeon which will progress the story even further. You end up playing through larger experiences as well. At the same time you will have single-group, expert rifts out in the world which are on par in difficulty with our expert mode (post end-game) dungeons. You also have 10-man raid rifts out in the world as well as 20-man raid-instances. We will be shipping the game with one right off of the bat and we will be talking more in the future about the events we’ll be unlocking not too far into the future.
Back on the PvP side, we also have one, high end warfront which is our instance PvP. It’s reserved for max level players; it is the Battle for Port Scion, which is really kind of cool. We will have new types of dynamic content events that will take place in the world as well; we are going to be showing off one of the samples of the new-types which is Ancient War-stone combat which is like a PvP / land control / takeover game. This also takes place in the shared world and it will also exist at the high-end. We have spent a lot of time making sure that there is sufficient “stuff” to do once you get to the max level because for a lot of us, myself included, we love the journey, the journey is half of the fun, but the other half had better be there too.
It’s easy to see that there is a lot of story behind Rift, is there a “progression-plan” in the game that relates to the persistent world that leads to a vanquishing of the common enemy?
I will answer the question indirectly but I think you will be able to figure out whether it is a “yes” or a “no”. I think that story in general, whether it is fiction you are reading or whether it is an interactive story that you are playing through like an MMO, is more satisfying when they have a logical conclusion. When they have a satisfying ending as opposed to an “older school”, Mario-”your princess is ALWAYS in another castle”tale. Its better to tell stories that do actually have a flow and do have their major turning points and actually end. Then, you get to tell a new story.
In terms of progression, one of the things that we have been spending a lot of time on over the last few months as we run through beta is writing down the specific plot points that we are going to be steering towards over the coming months and years. This helps us figure out exactly what shapes the updates to the game are going to take and what new events, zones, and characters will be there to clearly and visually show the progression of the story. We have the story that we want to tell first... which leads us to figure out what environments to tell it in... which leads us to figure out which characters need to be there to show it off. This all comes together to be broken down into the update plan or event plan we’ll use to tell the story now and forever.
In the beta, it is often hard to get involved as a lower-level character in rifts where there are a lot characters grouped because enemies die so fast at the hands of higher-level characters. What is you plan to keep players from “overwhelming” the rifts, especially early on?
In general, the game doesn’t reward players for doing that sort of thing, which is good. For example, guild quests are one part of the game that uses rifts to get people leveling up, but those only pay out if you are fighting rifts that are your level. In general, we are trying to make sure that they’re aren’t any active incentives for people to go around and screw with someone else’s gameplay like that. There are still a lot of things that you can do to join in with other players, even if they are a higher-level. We don’t have things like “oh, you’re grouped with a high level person, you don’t get any credit for that”; we would much rather be inclusive by default and only prevent that in places where we would absolutely need to. We don’t reward people for giving someone else a hard time.
The other part of it is that this is a dynamic system. It does know how many people are around, it does know where they are, and rifts and invasions are what we call a renewable resource; its not like we are going to run out of them any time soon. For us, its more about making sure that the systems are there and that if these kinds of things happen, enough content is around for people to keep them interested and taking part.
As the player base matures a majority of the population increases their level, will new players walk into towns and areas that are barren?
They will definitely log into some interesting things but no, the system is definitely aware of the number of people that are around it. For example, it is highly unlikely that you are going to see an event that requires 400 players to occur in a place where there are only ten. That would be very “not fun” for the ten. The entire system is aware of the number of people in a given zone, on a given side, in a given map-scene, it’s really kind of cool how the whole thing works.
Is this “dynamic population” monitoring also a part of the material gathering and when resources respawn?
Yes. Crafting material raids as well as general creature spawn raids are also aware of how many players are around a given area. Our first beta, before we were tuning that system, was crazy. There was nothing up... developers were going into the game and spawning quest mods by hand just keep things flowing through, and then we used that data to tune the population system and then by beta two we ended up with almost no complaints about it; as we have been getting new data form each beta test, we have been going back in and re-tuning it to a point where “I can’t progress my quest” isn’t even a complaint that we hear.
Where do you see Rift going in a couple of years... what areas can you see your company expanding on in the future?
The thing that I like the most about our universe that we have and the way that it is set up, is that when we’re talking about Telara and the intersection of six known planes, note that is “known” planes. The universe origin details a large number more than that; we have a universe in which it naturally makes sense for new and exciting things to be happening all of the time. It can get progressively crazier and crazier as well, where eventually we’ll be talking about going to visit the plane(s). Right now in Telara, when you look at the landmass, you can it and can go “this pretty much looks like it’s one gigantic, super-continent, I wonder what else is sitting here on this world. There are other things there, on that world, and nobody knows what they are like because everything on Telara is such a train wreck right now with all of the stuff going on. With the conflict erupting in the planes, it’s not a stretch to imagine that yes, there is more to this world and its probably in even worse shape. It’s also not a big stretch to imagine that there’s another part of the world where maybe it has its own “type” to defend it...we’ve put a lot of thought into all of these things and like I said earlier, our big, immediate focus it to make sure that we have a sane-progression that involves fun, live-content as often as players need it, both for expanding and leveling up as well as the end-game. We are really focused on the launch experience right now and the live experience that is going to happen soon after. I would like to think that we have a reasonably good reputation for reacting to our players’ concerns and that is our overriding focus. We want to keep Rift up and live.
Why the decision to go with what many would consider to be generic dwarves, elves, and humans on one side of the game while the other has such unique character styles?
That was definitely a stylistic choice. It fits into our story very well where you have the ancient Mathosian king which was the start of a lot of the problems and then you have which races in the world were aligned with the Vigil. Which races were viewed as less than the more pragmatic races that turn out to be “not less than” at all? It was mostly a story choice because we really want make sure that we are consistent with the fiction wherever we can be. With that said, though I can’t talk too much about it, we do have plans to expand that kind of selection over time on both sides.
Rift seems to take itself very seriously, how do you intend on addressing the virtual “battle fatigue” that is likely to develop from extended exposure to such a serious setting?
Fortunately, it is not quite as bad as it sounds at first but yes, it is set up to feel like there’s a certain amount of intensity and a certain amount of tension in the air. At the end of the day I don’t know if I can say that a game that has death-touched companion in it named Harbringer of Regulos and fire squirrels running around the landscape is too “too serious”. There is a fine line of taking yourself too seriously and we have been trying to stay on the right side. Yes, we want to emote this serious world but we need to be able to have our moments of levity also... we just have to be careful and not turn into a parody of ourself. I think that would be taking it one step too far.
There is some amount of humor there and there are safe places to go, it’s just not the places that most people are used to. There is a tabby named Smelly-cat running around Meridian if you look hard enough; there are little things hidden like that all over the world. The University has some fun ones on the Guardian side because the guy who does that part is mostly deranged <laughing>.
Beyond the dynamic event system, what are some other ways that you plan on differentiating Rift from World of Warcraft?
Honestly, differentiating ourselves from World of Warcraft has not been one of our big goals. Our goal has been to stand out on our own. We know that to a lot of people, MMO equals WoW, which is something that happens when you get that many people crammed into one game. That said, it’s more about how are we standing out on our own compared to the rest of what’s going on in the world. I like to think that our soul system is something that people are having a whole lot of fun with; the gigantic, mass scale zone events where 70 people are needed to pull together in Stonefield, 400 people are needed to pull together in Silverwood or the ability to just hop into a public group or a public raid by targeting a guy and clicking a button. It’s those kinds of elements that, as people spend more time with the game, will help them realize its depth.
Its intentionally supposed to be very accessible on the surface, but the more time that you spend with Rift the more that you realize the unique stuff that is there. The rest of the stuff is just a vi near so that players can get used to it really easily. We want the person whose picked up any of these “hot-button” based MMO’s, WoW being one, to be able to get into our game pretty easily. You can sit on the beta servers and hear “oh, this game is just like WoW” or “no, this game is just like War”, “no it’s just like Vanguard”, “no, it’s like Everquest”. Yes, those are all fantasy games... yes, they all have “hot-buttons”. In that regard, totally... but on top of that we do have our own unique stuff. Once you start looking at the unique types of event stuff out there, such as this new PvP land control type of event which was developed start to finish in about a week and a half, you see’ll we have the ability through this system to be constantly creating new “kinds” of content and that is where I think that it starts to get really exciting. It’s not just you getting more of the same types of gameplay with this game like you can get in any other; not only are we giving you more content but we are giving you more “types” of things to do too. That’s kind of cool...
What do you plan on doing if one of the factions becomes a lot more popular than the other in terms of the numbers of players?
I am not terribly worried about that because there is a very specific reason that we do not have a mass-scale land control game in PvP right because because if you are going to have one of those games, you definitely need even sides. That is why most of our PvP objectives are objectives out in the real world and they do not prevent other people from actually playing in the area, which is important. Then we have the general war-fronts themselves which come with their own population balances. Then we have the ability for war-fronts to form across servers so you end up deducing the two sides down that way too. A lot of it has been designing around no needing perfect balance but if the balances stay true in live as they have in beta, we should be just fine. We’ve definitely had enough people in the betas where I don’t think that we should expect a gigantic swing in either direction.
What is your strategy to convince would-be gamers who may be concerned with the lifespan of Rift, considering so many MMO’s go under so soon? How do you get them to take the initial leap?
Honestly, and I don’t say this to be mean but I say it to be factual: the difference between our game and the others is that our game functions. Most of the games that have failed simply didn’t make the bar of being a functional, commercial product. That isn’t to rip on those guys making those games, I have friends who have worked on other games. Most are overly ambitious projects that technically aren’t sound. They fall on their face, they aren’t finished, and they aren’t particularly fun. Rift is finished, it has all of the things that you need to succeed and the only thing that is going to convince those people is when its around and succeeding in six months. Then they’ll believe it. I think that a lot of gamers in the world, especially in the MMO-space, have a feeling of uncertainty that a new company or a game is going to be around because there have been so many that have been hyped, launched, sucked, and then fallen down. That has been the a lot of the internet-chatter around a lot of these games.
The only thing that will ever convince a person like that, who absolutely has a right to demand proof, is that when the game is there in six months, and thats the right time for them to look into it and they have some faith, I say that is great. I would like for us to be able to convert those people purely by putting our money where our mouth is. That is just a part of the state of the world that we live in; its a little sad on the part of MMO-developers: MMO’s are the most frequently underestimated pieces of software that you have ever heard of in your life. They are harder to make than most people think they are and everyone, usually very smart people, go into them thinking we have got all we need, the people, the money, the resources, the network, but the trick is that if one of those pieces falls down, the entire thing is worthless. That is really, really difficult.
I was asked just a couple of days ago as to what’s the biggest thing I am afraid of (in terms of development). I don’t fear any single, big thing. I think that what any rational MMO developer fears is which of the thousands of insignificant things that I have to deal with on any given day is going to be the one thing that I am going to miss. That one thing is going to be the thing that takes the whole thing down; they’re just that complicated. They’re fun as hell when they work right and they’re great when you get them rolling and all of the pieces are moving good. Its about constantly being vigilant for “which of these thousands of things is the thing that I definitely need to be paying attention to right now”.
Do you have any plans in place to combat potential “gold-farmers” which tend to haunt MMO games?
We have actually had a learning-spam filter in the game for about eight months now. It’s technology that is fairly easy to deal with these days. The nice thing about the proliferation of spam is that the spam-filter technology has gotten better over time. Most of us who use Gmail accounts for example don’t even see spam any more because the filters just catch it. We have one of those built into the game right now...
If time, technology, and money weren’t a factor, is there anything that you would have liked to have put into Rift that you haven’t?
That is the most dangerous question ever and I am going to tell you why. Give a developer an infinite number of any of those and we can fill it with ANYTHING. I think I will use a writing analogy here: if you notice that when you go from first draft to finished product on a book or an article or anything, you will notice that most of the editing is an improvement. Most of your editing is “cutting”, so its really about knowing what core pieces you actually need to accomplish your mission as clearly as possible. That is really what we have been aiming for. Hypothetically, if someone walked into my office right now and said “here is a billion dollars and one more year of time, do whatever you want”, I think that we would end up with a worse game at the end of that year. The reason is that developers, myself included, tend to over-bake something and over-think something.
This is one of the reasons that we have been iterating in front of users as we have been developing the parts of the game over the last eight or nine months now. We always have “them” around this reality check so we don’t keep going back and keep re-doing the same stuff. We can look at actual people playing the game and be telling us we like “this” and we don’t like “this”. Honestly, I really like where we are and I think we are set up in a healthy way to be able to continue adding more stuff that people are going to continue to want once we are live. That is a huge, huge focus of our company from the CEO on down, and I could not be happier about that. We are focused on making sure that we get customers in and we give them a great experience, all the way from customer service to development to the community management. In our beta events, our developers themselves have been on the servers, watching chats, keeping a “temperature” of the general community and making sure that we are an active part of it. This is one of the first games that I have worked on where I‘ve got developers walking around going “can we launch this thing... I’m ready... let’s do it”. Swear to God, I was downstairs just before getting on this call and one of our systems guys said that exact phrase to me.
We would like to say thank you to both Scott Hartsmann for taking the time to speak with us and for Stephanie Schopp for setting everything up. Rift launches worldwide at the beginning of March... check it out.