Behind the Scenes of RIFT and the World of MMOs

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The massively multiplayer online gaming industry—sometimes referred to as MMO or, if role playing is an active element, MMORPG—can be very big business, by any standard of the entertainment field.

Just how big? Take a look at the top dog in the industry at the moment: World of Warcraft. WOW launched in North America in November 2004, with a price on the box of around $50. There have been four expansions to the game, each costing (upon release) roughly $40 per expansion. Now, because players hop into the persistent world and play on a server run by the company (Blizzard, in this case), players pay a monthly subscription fee to play. For WOW, that runs $15 a month.

As is the case with most MMOs, the player community is transitory. Players have a tendency to hop from one game to the next new one, check it out and then either stay or return to another one where he or she has established a relationship with the server community and likely has acquired a lot of stuff (high-level armor, status, power—the general attributes of being "uber"). The WOW community of players has, like all MMOs, fluctuated, but as of Nov. 8, it had a subscription base of 10.3 million players. All paying $15 a month. Can you say "cash cow"?

WOW is the gold standard to which many MMO developers aspire, at least in a financial sense. Each aspires to take the baseline formulas of the genre and improve upon it to entice players to jump in, try it out and stick around. If the game is well-managed from the development side (and this includes regular content updates, "live" content—managed events that occur inside the persistent world on a regular basis—and themed world events, which can sometimes mirror real-world holiday seasons), then players have enough to do, are involved and are happy. Stagnated content is the bane of any MMO. There are also the intangibles that add an element to the game that creates interest—things like housing, massive player raiding content and even server communities.

The onus is certainly on the company to develop and maintain a solid game if it hopes to recoup development costs and turn a profit. That means putting together a solid core of industry professionals that have the vision and talent to create an inviting and entertaining persistent world.

Trion Worlds was founded in 2006 by a pair of industry veterans, Lars Buttler and Jon Van Canegham, with the goal to produce MMOs and MMORTS titles, real-time strategy games in the persistent world space. While having projects in development (the RTS title, End of Nations, and another game that will pair with a SyFy channel show—the first of its kind in which references to each are prevalent in the media and where what happens in one can influence events in the other), in March 2011, Trion released a fantasy-based MMO called RIFT.

RIFT features some of the stock elements that veteran MMOers have come to know—from player-vs.-player combat to raid dungeons (where groups of players battle superior monsters for bigger rewards), from crafting items to harvesting and traveling to diverse areas of the world as the player levels up in abilities. It also features some items that may be new to many, such as the persistent planar invasion that must be repelled and sometimes takes massive groups of players to track the open rifts in the world, battle the invaders and then take on the boss in an epic fight that can last a while even with more than 30 players swinging swords, launching arrows or casting spells.

Recently, I had the chance to chat with Hal Hanlin, design producer on RIFT, about the state of the game, where it has been, where it is going and what the development team has learned in the process.

BW: RIFT has been in release for just about nine months. Of course, there have been some launch and growing pains, frequent updates and so on, but through this launch, what have been the biggest take-aways the dev team has had concerning the evolution of the game and maintenance of the game?

Hanlin: A challenging part of releasing as many new features and content as we have is judging how much is enough. We want to make sure that we are bringing out enough content to keep our game world fed with dynamic changes, but it is possible to put out too much new stuff and cause people to feel like they are losing ground. We’ve been working to find the balance that works the best, giving the front runners something to look forward to, while allowing the rest of us to feel good about our progress.

On that same note, what has the community for RIFT taught you about maintaining and keeping an MMO rolling?

Our community has been fantastic and we have a very open dialog with them. Whether that means we are basking in compliments or that they are calling out areas where we can improve, we listen. Frequently, we get to smile to ourselves when someone requests something, because we know something similar is already in-progress. Other times, we get inspired by what we hear and change what we’re working on to include something new. Regardless, we do pay close attention.

Sometimes, frankly, we can’t do what a given player wants us to do because their idea would directly damage another group’s game-play. Our goal in those situations is to keep the dialog open and explain the choices we make. We strive to address the needs of each gamer type. If a given patch has little for PVP-players, role-players, solo players, raiders, or any other segment of the community, we certainly have something more directed at them in the pipeline in the near future.

The "live" team for RIFT must be a very busy group—it seems that every time there is even a minor hiccup in the game, a patch filters through in short notice. How does the team stay so on top of this and react so quickly?

Most of our developers are also avid players of our game, so they witness problems and can start responding to them immediately. When something breaks, those of us who are playing at home see our chat channels light up with discussions of what to do and who should do it. The whole process is amazing to watch from the outside. There is no blame, there are no witch hunts. If something broke, the change that caused the problem is identified and action is taken. Within a couple of minutes, there is work happening.

We also have a large number of developers who take great pride in sifting through the mountains of data that come in each day. Some of our designers—Chris Cates jumps to mind as a master of this—come in every morning and run searches against all of the incoming reports to see if they can identify trends and find broken content. They are so good at it that fix notes are often submitted before the official “top issues” email comes out.

We know that creating code for a persistent world is a laborious process and filtering in new content may mean accidentally creating a bug in established code. Considering the number of world events that are constantly taking place, how hard is it to create, test and then implement content without hiccups?

One of the hardest aspects of generating content as quickly as we do is reproducing bugs that only happen with thousands of people trying to participate at the same time. Artificial Intelligence "bots" just don’t do the same things players do, so we have had some interesting challenges. When a hiccup does occur, we try to be very forthright with the community. We’ve established a good reputation for really treating the MMO as a service, not just as a boxed product, and communication is at the core of that.

What has been the biggest surprise for you about the way the game has been received and its current state of play?

Most of us have been with the game for years. By the time we launched RIFT, it had become such a part of our lives that I was a little afraid that my perspective was flawed. There were some tense days leading up to Beta, where I wondered whether the game was really as great as I thought it was. Apparently so! It’s been terrific watching so many people enjoying RIFT the way I do. That’s not really so much a surprise as an affirmation, but it was a very welcomed one.

About seven months in and approaching a major holiday, with or without specifics, does the team have plans for a seasonal celebration?

Yes. There will be a series of events and quests leading up to the Fae Yule. The Fae have decided that the staid and dignified celebration involving candle lighting to guide travelers home needed their special touches. They have ... added their own spice to the event.

Of course, with the holidays, there are some triple-A MMOs about to be released. Do you have anything specific planned to counter the "let's all go check out the new game" syndrome that seems to be a part of the MMO genre?

I have no way to prevent people from being curious about other games so I don’t lay awake thinking about them any more than worry about what WOW may do. I only care about making RIFT better with each successive patch. Also, I am convinced that no company out there can match us in terms of responsiveness, dynamic gameplay, or the rapid development of new, free content. Most companies treat games like static, boxed products; that players are willing pay for the exact same content over and over until the day the company charges for an expansion. RIFT is a service and players benefit from a steady stream of new, fresh gameplay.

Anything major you can share with us about what may lie ahead, in the near or immediate future, that is not holiday-related but likely of extreme interest to RIFT players?

Without going into any specifics, we are planning some great things for the time around our one-year anniversary. I should also point out that there are several dragons yet to be slain, so players can look forward to more raid content. Also, we have a host of non-combat features in mind, which will expand what players do in Telara when they are not stabbing things. It’s going to be great!

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