Rift Interview (PC)

Fresh from a recent hands on session with RIFT, Strategy Informer got to talk to one of the brains of the outfit. Will Cook, Dynamic Content Designer and MMO veteran shares with us his hopes and dreams for the game, as well as his view on the genre as a whole. Enjoy!

Strategy Informer: In the past couple of Beta Patches, you guys have been doing big feature drops, and you've really developed the game into a content-rich MMO. But it almost seems like you've done everything that's really been planned in MMO's for the next couple of years - where do you go from here?

Will Cook: Well, that's very nice of you to say, but we're our harshest critics, right? With any luck, like any good community, they will be frustrated and furious with us half the time. I will say that they can be, and I encourage them to, so long as they keep telling us what they want. We have a big old list of things we'd like to do, and even I have a ton of things that would be crazy in any game, let alone an MMO. Half of those ideas though seem to have made it in the game anyway, I mean I never thought they'd get in there. I never thought we'd get Invasions on the Road, taking over Quest Hubs... that sounds like suicide! You NEVER stop a player from levelling and questing! That's Dumb! That is a RULE - Never put bad guys on the road!

What we realised though was, put bad guys on the road in the right spot, players don't always have to defeat that challenge, they can just dive off the road. It's like the Hobbits from The Lord of the Rings when they're being chased by the Nazgul. It's an incredible experience. These are crazy ideas that no one thought would work, but we're actually getting a lot out of them.

So, whilst it's kind of you to say that we've nothing left to conquer, there's a lot of new MMO's coming out on the Horizon. I hope they do well, I hope they push us. I hope WoW throws a bunch of resources at copying our success as that will help push us further.

Hmm, That's not a real answer... I don't think I've told you what we actually have planned. World Events! We've got World Events coming in our first content update. Hopefully we'll blow you away with what we're planning. Putting the whole world on fire at once.
Strategy Informer: Your 'soul system' skills mechanic looks very complex at first glance, are you worried that some people may find it too daunting?

Will Cook: Yeah, that "paralysis of choice" question keeps coming up. Imagine a set of legos, right. At one time the class system was that, you were given one soul, and then maybe you'd unlock another soul, or another slot every ten levels or so, and you'd have to keep levelling up and questing to unlock everything. But that's kind of like handing you a lego set one block at a time and telling you to play with it. So we realised we wanted to give you more souls, more slots, more points, and give them to you right away because we want to start you playing with this.

If that's a little scary then we'd happily take that consequence because it's just too damn fun. the way we introduce you to the starting experience, which I'm really happy about, is that you get points early on but you don't have too much to make it too confusing. So you have a signature ability attached to each one of the souls you choose, and you have enough points to put into maybe the one or two souls you want to concentrate on first. But right around that time you may start getting fatigue, or don't think your original combination isn't all that powerful, and it's right then that you unlock the rest of the souls, very early on in the game. Re-specs are cheap, we offer multiple roles.

A story I like to tell is how, in WoW, I've tried playing a druid about ten different times, and right around level 15 I'm like "eugh, when does this come together?", and my friend is like "Level 20 man, level 20 is when it comes together" and I'm like "I'm not going to make it dude! Not gonna make it!" And I haven't been able to do it yet, but I hope too one day.

Even in RIFT though, I hit my level 15 syndrome, but I can easily switch [Soul combinations] and suddenly it's a new game for me.

Strategy Informer: The last major MMO release was Final Fantasy 14-

Will Cook: Was that major? Hah! Sorry. (Ed: Burn).

Strategy Informer: Well, you could argue they're still dealing with all that. But what lessons did you take from their launch?

Will Cook: What lessons did we take? Hmmm... If you're going to release in the US and Europe, don't make it a grind fest? If you're going to talk about innovating make sure you do it? Make sure you don't release a buggy game because we should have learned that twenty years ago? Those are all very negative things about a game I was really excited about, and some of it was beautiful I loved some of the stuff they did. I don't like to denigrate someone who I might work for some day or someone who I think had great ideas, just got stuck between a publisher and a budget or something.

But... lessons you learn: You've got to release a finished game. We didn't talk about release dates, we didn't talk about what we were going to do until we HAD it. Until we knew when we were going to launch and what we could get done. BETA's are such a weird kettle of fish these days. One, you can't have a closed beta anymore as you're just releasing information to the public, so it might as well be an advertising period so BETA's have become marketing nonsense.

So I think we took the best strategy we could, and we decided to run Alpha forever, much like WoW did, make sure the game's really solid, do some stress teats... And then Beta, if it HAS to be an advertisement, if there's no choice in the matter for us, let's try out this service model. We keep talking about it so let's do it. Since we're still in Beta if it doesn't work we can go back to the drawing board. Luckily the Betas have all gone well and we're really happy where we are.

We started off with modest goals and it's now like we have really hype, which is weird for us because we were trying to stay away from hype. We're quietly confident, I guess.
Strategy Informer: Some problems that MMO developers have is that they spend so much creating the world and the technology behind the game, that content is a little sparse at launch. How have you managed you avoid that problem?

Will Cook: The content of our world is matched up exactly with the creation of our world. The size of world is very carefully planned, it's what we wanted to do. The global highway, the dynamic content, the infrastructure of the game is all meant for what is there. the levelling curve, the content in the story is all meant to be where they are, the pace is intentional. You don't need to do every quest in a zone to level, that's a common content problem, just look at Aion.

And we also wanted to make sure we didn't peter out, especially after the flair and fun of the starting zones. If you look at Warhammer, some fantastic beginning zones, really got you into the flavour... but then after that you think maybe the scope of the game was too large, as it petered out after that. It was disappointing for me as there was so much flavour in that game, but we had so much to work on that it was difficult to maintain that focus through each and every quest hub.

We hope that the amount of content for us is... well it's not really an issue. You can quest all the way through the game, but we also have complimentary content that we hope is more reusable. Quests are one and done, right? But a Rift... you could do with twenty people, and the Rift would scale itself to meet that, and it's a different feel to when you do it by yourself. We can add more Rifts pretty easily. They don't need their own area, or their own story, or go through localisation, and unlike a dungeon they don't need art either, so we can add end-game Rifts in especially.

I'm not worried about the amount of content in our game, especially end-game. With our expert dungeons, RIFTs etc... we have more at-launch end-game content than any MMO launch, ever. We have PvP, Plane Factions, Rift Raids, instantiated raid, zone events... that should be enough for any end-game player, and if it's not, feel free to complain to us.

Strategy Informer: With some of the rule breaking you guys have been doing, you've mentioned worst case scenarios and fears that it all might back-lash - care to elaborate on that?

Will Cook: Well, worst case scenario, someone who's really tired, has finished their quests and needs to turn them in and log them off for the night. I'm sure we'll run in to that situation. We can't avoid, w can't pretend that we're always right 100% of the time and that this isn't wild and crazy an a bit of an experiment.

I think that sometimes, and in MMO's especially because they are such large projects and they cost so much money and time and everyone's jobs are on the line... you don't really want to take a lot of risks in that scenario. So when you come across something that's been established as a 'rule', like don't put monsters on the road, making sure quest hubs are safe... these are maxims that are supported by a little bit of evidence but it's hardly a scientific study. I wonder if in game design we cling to the rules of thumb we've seen work in the past. Every experiment is a multi-million dollar project so it's not like we can guess with this stuff.

But yeah, we're scared... I mean take world events, are we going to force people to play these events? Are they going to get angry at us for that? Or are we going to create a new type of community that has less negativity to change, maybe it will embrace the fact that you don't need to quest every day. Yeah I worry about those changes though, I don't have a full proof answer... I hope the community respects us for it.

  Strategy Informer: You guys are providing a very hands on approach to serving your community, what are the challenges there?

Will Cook: I think the only real reason myself, and any designer who's not also an engineer or whatever has a job is that there's something, that's not on a résumé, and it doesn't make for a good portfolio, but it's about trying to decipher what someone is asking for. This comes back to what I was saying earlier about accepted rules of thumbs etc... Say people say "I hate mobs on the road", which isn't actually real complaint, but what they're really saying is "I want to feel safe so that I can feel in danger when the exception happens", if there's no pattern there's no exception to that pattern. That's something you have to decipher, when they say they don't like something,

When someone says "I don't like Zone Events". Well, ok, what don't you like about them? "I don't like feeling overwhelmed". Ok, well maybe that's a problem of information, maybe they're not aware that something's going on and that they need to change their behaviour, or maybe they really do just want to keep questing and so we need to restructure how our world events move around the world. Making that relationship with the community work is a matter of respecting their opinion - I mean it's very easy and very common for developers to get impatient. I'm as guilty as this as anyone but it's easy to get frustrated and just say they don't know what they're talking about.

Quite often they don't, but, they have a feeling, you know? There's a reason why they are upset and so long at least you respect that, you'll eventually figure out what the solution is. I guess what I'm saying is we want their feedback, we want to know what they think is wrong, and then we'll use our designer powers to try and give them as close an answer to what they want as possible, not necessarily what they're asking for.

We'll do our jobs as best as possible but sometimes doing our jobs is not giving you exactly what you ask for.

RIFT is quickly shaping up to be one of the most surprising MMO launches this year. The level of content at launch, the agressive hands-on approach... Guild Wars 2, The Old Republic et al better get a move on, as they may have some stiff competition! Thanks to Will for taking the time to talk to us.


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