Rift: Planes of Telara Postmortem Interview


posted 5/5/2011 by Charles Husemann
other articles by Charles Husemann
Rift has been one of the largest and most successfull MMO launches of the year and with a new patch just around the corner we sat down and chatted virtual with design producer Hal Hanlin about the development of the game and where gamers can expect to see Rift going in the future. (Note:Shawn Sines contributed heavily to this article).

How does it feel to have the game finally out and have people playing it? Did you do anything special to celebrate the launch of the game? Is the hard part of the game getting it out the door or maintaining and keeping the game up and running?
It’s been amazing. Having seen the game grow from where it was in 2008 to where it is now, I am blown away by it. Getting to watch hundreds of thousands of people live in that world is terrific. I’ve made console games and MMOs and there is just something so much more personal about Massively Multiplayer games. With console games you hear anecdotes or watch Youtubes of people’s experiences with your game. In an MMO, you get to watch them experience it first hand. You get to see the chat console light up with excitement when a major event begins. That’s fun!

Now that Rift is out, and players are finding the content, are there any areas of the game you've already decided to tweak? Anything that most surprised you about the way the game is being discovered/played?
We had years to imagine how players would experience the content. We had carefully diagrammed flows through every area. Of course we know all the underlying math… Then hundreds of thousands of players hit the game and all of a sudden you learn for real how good your planning was. In our case, we had some tremendous successes and a couple of humbling moments. What we learned more than any individual detail is that we have to remain as alert and nimble as any company has ever been; more so. We introduced our players to a world that changes and adapts to their actions. We devised systems which would make it feel like Telara was raiding the players! The appetite that the players have demonstrated for this is profound and we resolved to keep feeding them. Instead of rolling most of the company off onto side projects, the entire team is still focused on making the live game even better.

A demonstration of that is our ability to roll out a new 20-man raid one month after launch. We have incorporated much of the feedback from our community and are bringing out features they asked for like Looking For Group, appearance slots, and additional roles. On top of that, even, we added a brand new 10-man raid instance and 2 new 10-man raid rifts at the 2-months after launch mark.

We’re just getting our stride!

Rift is a game full of setting and background, how important is it to you to tell a story? How does Rift help players looking for that story find it?
Story drives everything we do because even if a player bypasses all of the quest text and just slams through the game, they are participating in it constantly. We don’t rely primarily on walls of text for our story. We immerse the players in the events, invasions and rifts and let the story soak in as they play. If anyone wants to dig further into the lore, we have a mass of information available in books, lore-relevant drops from mobs, and vignettes throughout the world. As we add more content, we continually strive for new ways to impart the story. In addition to all of that, we have Sagas, which are crafted by our Lore team and which are intended to be a deep dive into some key elements of the background and motivations of the Cults.

Time travel is a common sci-fi technique, but you're using it to push the game, maybe it's too soon to talk, but do will players get to see the results of their actions? Will you be handling divergent timelines or other common sci-fi timetravel related concepts in Rift?
Time travel, alternate versions of Telara… Yes, we love to play with those notions. With patch 1.2 (Spoils of War) we introduce our first of many Slivers. This one is a 10-man raid instance that takes place in an alternate version of Shimmersand and is a lot of fun. As you may know, we also have a dungeon called the Fall of Lantern Hook, which shows players another time-line when that town is completely decimated and players have to deal with the aftermath. Rifts and the story of the Planes and Cults makes this sort of thing quite sane and plausible. You can surely expect to see more along those lines.

We don’t have any immediate plans for branching storylines, mainly because it dilutes the amount of polish each branch gets. As you know, we have an immensely high standard for quality for what we put into our world. That came from making hard choices and throwing away lots of good content to retain only the great content.

We're  interested in the elemental convergence concept, and while the game sets up the death god as the main baddie, are there similar adversaries associated with the other planes? Is there a plot between these powers or is the rift phenomena just a result of the breaking of the veil?
Each plane has a primary enemy, the group of which are known as the Blood Storm. These gods/dragons have pillaged their way through the planes and arrived at Telara. Because it is the nexus of so many planes, it is valuable both for its intrinsic richness and as a route to other planes for additional conquest. The most powerful of these is Regulos, but each is a dangerous adversary. They began to fight each other for possession of Telara and the Vigil was able to imprison all but one: Regulos. Regulos was banished beyond the Ward. The cults of each dragon are still fighting while trying to free their own gods. With the weakening of the Ward, each day brings us closer to the moment when one or more are successful and only the Ascended stand in the way.

That core story is examined within the raid where players face Greenscale and is continued with River of Souls. It will keep unfolding over time.

How has the soul system been received by your players? Is there any thought toward allowing players to mix souls between the classes - for example a beastmaster/necromancer/justicar mix? or do you feel the existing combinations allow players to truly span play styles well enough?
Some players immediately grasped the power of the Soul system and began clamoring for additional Roles because they want to try more and more strategies. They wanted to refine their roles to be very situation-specific. Because of their requests, we added another Role slot with patch 1.2. Some prefer to play one role almost exclusively and that is fine, too. They completely master the tricks of that soul combination and can be powerful allies (or enemies) when you meet them. The point that has really resonated is there is no one true way to play RIFT. That has been received incredibly well. Players can argue for days about which combination of the same souls. That’s awesome. It’s exactly what happens in the office every day.

Hobbies are popular in MMOs and while Rift is about an epic struggle to save a world, is there a chance players could see a fishing system or other hobby introduced at a later time?
We are open minded about what the future holds. He have an over-arching plan of content that we will be rolling out. We have a long list of additional features that we (remember, we play this game for fun, too) want to add. The rate at which those features come out and which ones get priority depend on what they add to the game over all. In a world full of dynamic changes, each element has to be considered against every single other element. Stapling in a system that is completely incongruous with the soul of RIFT will ultimately result in a lot of rework. Instead, we listen, we hear things we get excited about, we plan and we act.

Rift features an ever shifting dynamic world. How do you handle footholds that establish in zones where players are light? are there incentives for players to join together to free areas they might already have cleared or progressed beyond? Is anywhere in Telara safe from a rift?
One of the main tasks for the people creating events and invasions is setting up thresholds for various locations. The system is built to look at the capability of players in the area to defend it. Of course it is a fuzzy number because players race from all directions to repel invasions. We do monitor this closely and modify future events based on the results of and tweaks needed to previous events.

As to incentives, what we did was remove the barriers from between players. We took away the zero sum game; the sense of If he does well, I will get robbed. This made players glad to see one another. If you’re fighting a rift and that timed-stage timer is ticking down and suddenly three more people show up to finish in the nick of time… that’s a rush. There is not a sense of “Hey, you stole my kills!” We see more chats that celebrate victories and compliment good healing/tanking/DPS. It is truly social gaming. Groups that merge together at the click of a button may stick together for four or five more rifts. They may spin off again and go different ways. No one is upset. No one feels slighted… it’s just very open and… well… social. That’s the single best word for it.

I also see people clearing quest hubs that they are above level for all the time. They obviously don’t need the quests there, but either they are offended that some Planar vermin would take their hub, or they just want that extra bit of Planarite to buy something neat. Personally, I buff up the Wardstones every time I can. Why? I am a Defiant! If I have the charge available (always keeping one for myself to use in the next rift), I make the area that much safer for my faction. It’s surprisingly hard to find Wardstones that are not fully leveled up, so I must not be the only one.

Finally, the only place I ever feel “safe” in Telara is in Meridian or Sanctum, though even that may be chancy. Everywhere else, when I log back in, I have one hand on the keyboard and the other one on the mouse because I may be appearing in the middle of a slaughter.

What’s been the biggest thing that’s surprised you since the game launched? What things did you expect players to do that they haven’t?
I was pleasantly surprised at how even after years of working on the game, most of the team here goes home at night and plays. For fun. We have brought our guilds from other games to Telara. This is not something I have seen before in the industry. Most places, when the game comes out, the team moves on, relieved to play something new. That is really exciting because it means we have real legs.

Do you have any tips for people who are just starting to get into the game? What about things for the folks who have been in the game since launch?
I would recommend sampling a little of everything. People naturally gravitate toward the quests because they’re abundant and right there for you at every hub. But there is so much more to do, you might be surprised to find that achievement hunting or collections are lots of fun. Have you danced with the squirrels? Have you solved the puzzles scattered through the world? The payoffs for wandering off the beaten path can be hugs. Or, if you’re like me, you can just jump in with a group at a rift and hop from rift to invasion to foothold and find that it’s 1:30…

Also, play with the souls. If you find a combination thatworks for you, awesome! But additional roles are pretty cheap and you can fiddle around with different combinations, just to see what they do. You may find that specific gameplay you have been missing in other games, because in RIFT you get to mix and match as much as you want.

What’s next for Rift? Could you talk about what the team is working on now and what we can expect to see in the short and long term?
We are not pulling people off of the live game at this point, though we are beginning work on some longer term content. It takes a huge amount of art and design collaboration to do what we do, so we try to look as far out as we sanely can. What is key, though, is that we view this as a service. We listen to players, we read the forum, we pore over the Likes/Dislikes/Bugs. We are building the future based on the needs of the current players, not some imaginary player base some way down the road.

We'd like to thank Hal for taking the time to answer our questions as well as Stephanie for being awesome and helping to coordinate this interview.