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The MMOnitor: Rift

Gaze into the Rift, and it gazes back into you

In the latest of our series of interviews with MMO creators, big and little, we go back to last year's best MMO, Rift. We saw it as a mechanically-experimental game that had stuck to a safe fantasy MMO formula. Our three interviewees are Chief Creative Officer Scott Hartsman, design Producer Hal Hanlin and Producer Adam Gershowitz. Let's see how they see themselves now...

RPS: How is Rift doing?

Hartsman: Rift is doing great. We're out there every day, not just making new content but playing it, so we're able to communicate with the audience, really well. As they're asking for things and what they're finding more and more, as we're playing the game, it's not only things that we were noticing but that we agree with too. We're able to be the most responsive developer anyone has ever seen. Rift has grown so much that, if you're been playing since launch, it's barely even the same game.

Hanlin: We're at about the eight month mark now and we've done six major updates. Each one of them has put in things like new raids, instances, systems (like the looking for Dungeon system), tons and tons of bug fixes, and even with the 1.6 update there's a new zone that's two or three times the size of any of the other zones. Where other games are putting out new zones and instances once every 6 to 12 months, we do it a lot faster.

RPS: Monthly updates, which is more than any other MMO, and the amount of polish you're managing to keep in there is impressive as well.

Hartsman: We've only lost like four or five designers to, y'know, heart attacks and brain wipes. (laughs) Don't print that! We have the benefit of the platform. Back in 2009, we telling everyone how great our platform was and how flexible it was and it's true. We're able to generate content without burning anybody out. We've got a lot of people able to work in kind of real time situations, so we can drop the events in and see how they change the world on our desktop, so by the time it gets to PTS (public test server, I guess – Ed), it's been playing in a live environment for a long time.

RPS: You're iterating it on the private betas then, to fix everything as it goes along?

Hartsman: Pretty much yeah. The people in the office here play it quite a bit. Any designer can pop up his own server at point, try stuff out. It gets a lot of iteration and testing before we see it on Alpha. That said, we also put it on the PTS pretty quickly.

Hanlin: Well, also we don't marry ourselves to one idea. We're players of this game too, we're players of MMOs, we know what people tend to like. We also listen and so we'll do what we think is going to be really, really awesome and if it gets a response other than 'wow, that's great!' we're listening. We take feedback and we can iterate so quickly in between when it hits PTS and when it finally goes live, we've been able to iterate on it two or three times based on direct feedback from our community.

RPS: Any designer can pop up a server? So any of you can make a server where you're King Buff?

Hartsman: Yeah, but that's local servers. We are PROHIBITED from giving ourselves the best gear.

RPS: I saw that there have been a few fake Trion phishing sites set up. Has that been happening a lot recently?

Hartsman: Oh, yeah. A lot since launch. As weird as it sounds, it's kinda sign of success. It's definitely something that happens when you've got enough users going on, you kinda paint a target on your head. This month in particular... we keep a really close eye on stuff, usually we get four or five scams a month. This one was about eleven.

RPS: Nice, that's a good sign. Are you thinking of giving the scammers early access next time you launch an MMO?

Hartsman: (Hysterical laughter) Probably not so much. There's a pretty involved behind the scenes set of activities that goes on. We've got our own internal security teams, as well as two outside independent security companies that we work with on an ongoing basis. Us and our outside companies, we have very close relationships with the main domain registrars as well as many of the ISPs out there. So what happens is that a user gets some phishing mail; they forward it to our abuse mailbox and then all three teams pick it up. If it's fraudulent, a lot of the time we'll have the domain shut down within 24 hours. I don't know what gives our security teams more pleasure than seeing them knock an entire fraudulent domain offline in a day, so that domain can never mess with anybody else ever.

RPS: What with the recent Steam hack, it’s nice to see someone taking security seriously; everyone’s being hit at the moment.

Hartsman: I don’t know about the Steam situation, but I read that at least their stuff was encrypted. Without getting into too much detail, we’re very strict about what data can exist where and which systems are certified to do what, and which networks don’t even know which other networks exist. We keep improving it all the time.

RPS: The most important is not to tell the press about that stuff. The hackers will be reading it as an instruction manual. So don’t tell me anything, please.

Hanlin: Who says we’re not feeding you false information?

RPS: I mean, the Half-Life 2 code got stolen, I hear, because some doofus put an unsecured computer on Valve’s system. It’s so easy to make a mistake.

Hartsman: The level of sophistication of an intruder these days, compared to the last generation of games, it’s not even a comparison. These days it’s hackers that are tailoring solutions to specific companies and it definitely drives operations and security people crazy to keep up with it.

RPS: Do you think playing it safe in terms of game design has served you well or limited your audience?

Hartsman: I don’t look it as playing safe. We knew very well that there was an adventure RPG audience that we wanted to go after in the first place and so the balance for us has always been how much familiarity do you provide versus brand new. One of the things we’ve learned, watching the last five or six years of MMOs launch, in the post World of Warcraft era, is that with a given audience if you diverge too far from base expectations no matter what your quality is, you end up not attracting a sufficient number of users to turn it into a successful business and, pardon me, as much as we love keeping people entertained we also love keeping our jobs and our teams.

The only way to do that is to make a game that continues to have enough people enjoying it and paying for it. We very intentionally looked at every single system we were shipping and asked “is this the place we want to innovate? My favourite example; in-game mail. There’s not a damn soul out there who wants an innovation in in-game mail but when it comes to a world being under attack with all kinds of crazy shit in the world and towns being taken over and so on, yeah htat’s there an appetite for. It really came down to what people were going to be able to look at, pick up and play and realise it’s not the same thing as everything else.

RPS: It’s interesting you say that, as I saw Defiance at GamesCom and... is that being built on the same platform as Rift?

Hartsman: So, we think of the platform in a few different terms; you saw the xxx announcement. Think of our platform as having five distinct components: there's what happens during the creations of a game itself; the network and operations platform; the billing platform; the service platform; and the publishing platform. It will be using four of the same ones of those games and the game technologies are similar and shared only where they make sense because there's a lot of differences between what a pixel-perfect shooter needs and what a world-explore, world-kill target-based RPG needs. So on the gameplay side, no, their stuff is completely custom for what they need. On their rendering side, same answer there; Defiance's renderer needs to run, not just on a PC but on a PS3 and Xbox 360 also. Beyond that, there's definitely a lot that's shared.

RPS: Talking about the PS3 development, the first PS3 MMO DC: UO went free to play last week; what do you think the future of MMOs on the consoles is looking like?

Hartsman: I think that it's really interesting. One of the things I've consistently believed since before my time at Trion is that business models aren't really a religion and they shouldn't be. It's about what's the right fit for a given audience on a given device. You want to come up with a business model that makes sense for the audience playing it. What we're going to see on the consoles is analagous to the PC; some games might work great with a box and recurring sub, others might not and come up with their own unique variant. As you see more online product coming to console, you're going to see more of that variance in general.

RPS: It seems strange that they've gone straight to F2P , bypassing all the other payment models they could have gone for but anyway...

Hartsman:, that is an interesting point! Especially given the explosion we've seen in social games and other zero-barrier games, people aren't viewing free to play as a statement on quality the way they used to. It's more “for this audience, this seems appropriate so we're going to do that.”

RPS: That considered, from this point do you think anyone will start work on a straight subs-based MMO again, or do you think people will be developing without a profit model in mind, as mad as that seems?

Hartsman: I honestly think you need to know your model when you're designing the game and if you don't you'll end up with a failure regardless. I wouldn't say failure, but you'll definitely end up with a significant pivot. I have friends who've worked on games that have been monetized as free-to-play but there were no elements of free-to-play design in the game at all and as a result the game didn't do well at all. But at the same time, I've also seen subs-based games that weren't designed with the depth or breadth of activities that a subs-based game required, didn't succeed at subs, but went just fine with a lighter monetization option. It really is core to the game design, and the more people realise that, the more we're going to see matches of game and model from the outset.

RPS: I talked to the Fallen Earth team two weeks ago, who've made that move. Do you think that the three-tier model (free, cheap and VIP) they're using is going to be dominant?

Hartsman: Yeah, but what those teams are doing is taking anywhere between six and twelve months and actually converting and modifying the game to work on that model, so to all intents and purposes it has been built for that model. The reason that model's so attractive is that it is so flexible, that you don't have to be perfect with your monetization-match; it has three different ways to make money.

RPS: It is interesting, that we're taking so many of the models from the social and mobile games; five years ago MMOs were the big sexy genre; everyone developer wanted to be working on an MMO and every company wanted to be publishing an MMO. Now everyone, from indies to EA, is pouring resources into social/mobile; do you think they've taken sexy away?

Hartsman: I don't think they've taken sexy away. What they've done is introduced a way that you can get something built a lot less expensively than an AAA MMO with huge expectations of quality and breadth and so on. It's more like a different more approachable model for a start-up developer. I have friends that have been at successful companies in that space and unsuccessful ones. I've spent time in there myself; I don't think one is sexier than the other, but I do definitely think they attract different types of people who want to work on different types of things. In the MMO business, we get to come to work and create great worlds for people. Yes, metrics are an important part of our business, but we don't live and die by them, whereas Zynga will be the first one to tell you “we're a metrics company in a game company's skin.” It really just depends on what it is that gets you excited in a day; you can do work in either world?

RPS: Do you think MMOs are still centralising, like you guys did, or do you think they're going out to try to find the niches that aren't really satisfied yet?

Hartsman: People are out trying to find niches; the best example of this is Minecraft. What those guys have been able to pull off, the following and the job that they've done... I mean I am in awe. I'm really glad for it. But, for example, you wouldn't confute Minecraft with Farmville; it's totally different. I'm really glad that there continue to be people pushing what PC gaming means in lots of different directions.

RPS: Minecraft is going 1.0 next week; are you guys playing that?

Hartsman: I am not presently; I know half of our art team are playing it to such an extent that when one of them went on 'daddy leave' he returned to find his entire desk and surrounding area covered in boxes painted as Minecraft blocks. And had to bust his own way back in.

RPS: Skyrim is released today and I'm aware that it's going to suck at least 100 hours of my time out. (Incidentally, the reason Dan has taken over two weeks to write this interview up - Ed). Do you think single-player RPGs are competition for MMORPGs? Do you see a decrease in user numbers when something like Skyrim releases?

Hartsman: As a temporary thing, absolutely. And also attendance at the office? Yeah, we tend to see that too. The reason you're talking to the three of us is that all that's HERE. (laughter) We don't tend to see them as a long-term impacts, but we do see people taking a 1-2 week break. Obviously anything that competes for people's time can grab their attention. Single-player exploration world sandbox games where the whole world is able to be about what you have done? I think those will always have their place and the Bethesda guys do a familiar job at it.

RPS: To some extent I play MMOs as a solo-player first and join in later. Do you find as Rift gets older, the game moves towards PvP?

Hartsman: Both activities are incredibly well-done and both continue to be popular. Remember we have this entire content layer that revolves around huge skirmishes out in the world. So much so that we're launching an entire new game system around it in 1.61.

Hanlin: One of the interesting things is that PvE and PvP can actually live in the same space. Since players play these games for so long, they tend to flip-flop back and forth. You may have a couple of weeks where you just want to kill people and Warfront and PvP are the way to go, and then you get tired of it and the game is so broad that you can get take a break from it without ever leaving the game world and that's kinda one of the big benefits of a game like Rift.

RPS: How is Warfront doing? I did notice a few complaints on the forum about queueing, balancing, lack of focus and lack of content for it, relative to all the other content you're pouring in.

Hanlin: I think it's kind of funny because we've been constantly updating our PvP content; one of that the things about the PvP players, though, is that they're ravenous in how quickly they consume things. With 1.4 or 1.5, we had the Library of the Runemasters, a new Warfront entirely. We've introduced alternate modes for the other Warfronts, spicing up their flavour. We've also put a co-op system in, adding a metagame into the PvP system, we've done PvP rifts... So we've been updating PvP quite a bit, but as you alluded to, one of the greatest challenges is making sure that everyone has a fun enjoyable experience and as the game matures and people get towards the high end, it gets harder and harder. Our biggest challenge moving forward and we're taking seriously is for people just entering the end game now and players at the far end, how to make the experience the best for both of them.

RPS: How has the storyline developed since launch?

Hanlin: One of the things we've been able to do is roll out these periodic events, you've seen how quickly we've been doing them, and with each one we progress our overall global story. This has been really exciting for people to actually a world that is different from the day they joined and it's going to continue to evolve and they can be a part of that evolution.

RPS: I remember when I stopped playing there was a big PvE even which crashed the server; I assume nothing like that's happened since?

Hanlin: It's one of those things; because we're always pushing the boundaries of what our system can do, even though we know it better than anyone, we try and push it even farther... in that particular case, we didn't lay it out in the most intelligent way and we've learned from it. We also bolstered what our servers are capable of, we upgraded our hardware, but then more importantly we just refined how we're going to approach these. It's the greatest thing about this team is how quickly we adapt to a new situation. We have the tools and talent to say “okay, that didn't work, how about this?” and come back immediately with an absolute win after something like that.

Gershowitz: The other really interesting thing is, even from a technology base, even if we wanted to have everyone in one place at one time, we learned something from our players there is that it's not necessarily the best design decision either, because not everyone's available at 5PM on a Saturday, for example. It's not just a technology thing, it's a quality of life thing. So when we looked at our newer events, we took that feedback very seriously and we said; okay, we're going to spread out the story. You can still experience that truly, huge massive story, but it's going to happen in more compartmentalised pieces around the world at different times so even if you weren't there at that one time at that one place at that one section, you still have opportunity to log-in next Tuesday over the course of the event and see what's going on.

Hanlin: And, I'll add even further to that, Adam's exactly right. We refined how we presented it, but we also were a little creative and gave people the opportunity to watch. So, for example, when we launched Hammerknell, we gave people the opportunity to sit in town and get a replay of what happened. They could talk to a herald and witness the actual event, with translucent models and so on, so people could experience it without having to ditch work to be there. We learnt and we adapted. One last thing we did was the Chronicles, which tell even more story. We're mindful to give people a chance to experience the story and not just let it run past 'em.

RPS: Which question of the following do you prefer not to answer more? A question about subscriber figures or a question about going free-to-play?

Hanlin: Both of those are pretty tough to answer. Suffice to say, we have answers to both. As far as subscribers go, you're not getting exact. All I can say is; we're super-happy with how we're doing and it's quite obvious by how much we're updating the game, that the game is healthy, wealthy and wise because if we weren't doing as well as we are, you wouldn't be seeing updates every six months, you'd be seeing a lot of us on Linked-In and Facebook saying “hey guys... we need work.” Subscription numbers are doing great and then the free-to-play model; you have to know what your game is for and what it's built around; Rift is built around a subscription service. We built all of our technology and game design and philosophy around it and we're really embracing it and making it work.

RPS: If you were going to work on something else, even outside of Trion, what would you like to work on?

Hanlin: That's a really tough question because Trion's already doing what I want to do. I love working on Rift and I also get to watch Defiance progress and participate in playtests on that, so I'm really happy with what I'm doing! (laughter)

Gershowitz: One of the great things about our studio is that it's full of people who really do love what they're doing so when you ask us what kind of games we want to work on, they're usually these type of games! Myself, I love working on MMOs and RPGs and online games, so there's a whole variety of games I want to work on in the future and, quite honestly, Trion's doing at least 2/3 of those right now.

RPS: How do you think the MMO audience is going to change over the next few years and how are developers going to adapt?

Hanlin: we're already seeing some striation in the community because they are people who want very slow-paced, meander and see the scenery gameplay and there are people who want adrenaline-pumping give-to-me now gameplay. I don't think it's one community now. The MMO community has grown SO much that there is a market for most types of games. Now it's a question of 'what's the right level of development to support that market?'

Gershowitz: It's kind of interesting, MMORPG doesn't necessarily mean 'massive monolithic game', it never really did. For a little while it went there, but like Hal and Scott said, there are lots of opportunities for really fun online games with hundreds if not thousands of players. I think what we're going to see over the next couple of years is still subscription games like Rift and World of Warcraft, but also room for tons of new ideas and development and products, like Defiance and End of Nations and League of Legends and Minecraft. It's a huge space now and it's really breathed life back into the PC market.

RPS: Do you find that the audience moves around a lot more and tries everything; do you think that helps them settle on the game they love or do you think that just keeps them moving around?

Gershowitz: Um, it's tough to say. In everybody's life there's room for a couple of games, true and blue to their heart. If you've been worked in MMOs as long as some of us have, in the short term new game launches always have a slight effect, but the people who really love your product always come back. Even if a new MMO or singleplayer game launches, your numbers dip and come back around. There's a reason why MMOs stick around for a decade. How many other games out there celebrate a ten-year anniversary by having content updates for the original thing? “Hey, Nintendo just release new levels for Mario 64, congratulations.” (laughter). There are plenty of places that you go out and visit but you always come home and that's the great thing about an MMO.

Hanlin: I will expand on that, because I do think you hit on a very telling point and that's now the number of products on the market has grown, you have to be driven to meet your players' expectations and not just dictate to them what they're going to get. The old model was 'take it, like or leave it'. More than anything else, Gersh and I spend our days trying to figure out how to be more reactive to the community in ways that stay true to the game and let's us be in dialogue with them. Our community just revels in that. We're able to respond more quickly than anyone has. I honestly think that's going to start defining what the marketplace has to do. I think the Leviathan games are going to find themselves hard-pressed when are making demands they don't respond.

RPS: I think you're probably right; I think to do that and release as much content as you are in 1.61, that's a compelling proposition.

Hanlin: Also, we have our first real mobile application coming out, right after 1.61, our first in-game tie-in app, coming out late November / Decemberish. Players are going to have the opportunity to do simple things like chatting with my friends, seeing what my guild is up to... one of the most interesting aspects of our game is the zone events. You can subscribe to a given server and your phone will let you know when something is going down so you know when the perfect time to log-in is. Of course, because we wanna go further than that, we've added some scratch minigames that you can pick up and play for extra bonuses as well. It's one small step for us, one large step for our player base, as it just means we're going to expand that app too.

RPS: Is that your equivalent of Dust 514 then?

Hanlin: No, we just want to keep people connected with their friends. One of the best things about MMOs is that you build communities of friends that last long after the games. If you can keep that in-game network in touch with the out-of-game network, it really does keep the game more sticky and more enjoyable.

RPS: Given that it's 11.45pm on a Friday, I'm going to have a drink now so I'll stop there. Thanks for your time.

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