Light at the End of the Rift - A Launch Q&A with Hal Hanlin

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With the latest beta over and launch just a short time away, gamers are waiting with bated breath for Rift to be unleashed on the MMOG market. Game aspects such as multiple souls, dungeons that you unlock over time, and the dynamic rift invasions all have made Rift the game to play. Ten Ton Hammer sent our own Jeff “Ethec” Woleslagle to glean more behind-the-scenes information from Design Producer Hal Hanlin, who gave us quite a few details on the design process for Rift.

Ten Ton Hammer: Because we hear it all the time, how do you feel about Rift being called the ‘apex of WoW clones’?

Hal Hanlin: There are a lot of MMOs out there, and we don’t compare ourselves to those. We hold ourselves to the standard of standing tall in an industry that people think WoW created. I have all the respect in the world for WoW – they’ve expanded the MMO market in ways no one thought possible or have foreseen at the time. If they had not done that, the player base might not be sufficient to release games like Rift, or any other game that breaks the mold.

Ten Ton Hammer: If there had not been WoW, would say 500,000 people be enough?

Hal Hanlin: Back before WoW came out, 40 to 100 thousand was considered a success. Now that people have seen what WoW has done,  producers talk to each other and say, “Well let’s just shoot for 4-5 million.” Of course, they don’t amp up their production beyond the revenue of those expected 40-100 thousand subscribers, but we’re used to that aren’t we?

Random invasions will happen in zones, preventing players from falling into a trance of grinding

Ten Ton Hammer: What do you think makes Rift absolutely unique? What isn’t derivative in any way?

"We’ve shown people everything they wanted to see. If they didn’t know to ask for it, heh, that’s a shame. We have a huge amount of content we could talk about, but we have the ability to go from an idea to a testable event within a week. Given that we can do that, I don’t think the players that come to our game will ever be disappointed."
Hal Hanlin: No one else has elves. *laughter* I think it’s our method of putting together these elements in a way that is different and incredibly well polished. We hold ourselves to a quality of production that is not seen in the MMO industry, or even among console games. We hold ourselves to a standard that puts ourselves in front. We weren’t content with just a quest system, or a skill tree system, we went further.
Did we invent most of these features? No. But we made them better. Pong had two sides, does that make two faction PvP a copy of Pong? *laughter*

Ultimately we’ve brought a focus and a tradition of excellence to a genre that hasn’t seen that before. We have the potential with our technology to deliver a service that has not been done before. Our servers were built specifically for this game, and not based around 10-15 year old technology and architecture.

Ten Ton Hammer: The most interesting thing to me is the speed we’ve seen Rift come about, once it was rebranded less than twelve months ago. Heroes of Telara was announced a few years ago, development went dark for a period of two years, but once the game came out of concepting, what enabled things - from lore to all the pieces that make up the MMOG, the most complicated type of game on the market - to come together so quickly?

Hal Hanlin: For one thing, we had hundreds and hundreds of pages of lore for our quest system, and then the Rift system brought it all together. Once the technology made the merging of these two systems possible, things happened! 

Perhaps the best part about Rift is its multi-class system, which makes everyone a hybrid!

Ten Ton Hammer: Everyone who played the beta has noticed that as suggestions and bugs were posted, they got fixed and actioned (or responded to) almost immediately. The overall voice of players who have played your game is very favorable. Is that unique in your experience?

Hal Hanlin: Incredibly so. We don’t buy into any specific production dogma. We’ve had almost 4 years of practice working with this platform. Everyone who has been out here knows that if they want to do this new event, we have the tools and processes in place to get this new event in. The design team is experienced enough within the company, and experienced enough within the industry, to have the middle of the night epiphany to create something, and they go to the art direction, who then goes to tech, and then the producers, and a matter of weeks later we have Raid content ready to go live.

We’ve lived up to the things our CEO has said, and I was initially thinking we couldn’t! He set the standard for us and gave us the tools needed to make it happen. We have all of the marketing and hype behind us, the feedback, and more. All of our departments are working together and are not individual entities. We get an idea, we implement a prototype of the idea, and test it. If it doesn’t meet our quality standards, we try to polish it up a little, and if that doesn’t do it, we throw it out entirely. It’s easier to craft a new zone from scratch than it is fully fix a lesser one.

Ten Ton Hammer: The perception among your fans is that you’ve done a good job of being transparent to your fans. That counts for a lot in today’s market; MMOG fans are a pretty jaded lot. What have you done differently?

Hal Hanlin: We’re not making promises we’re not keeping. We say we are your next MMO. Why? We have graphic superiority, innovative and fresh gameplay built from a foundation you’re already familiar with, a class system you’re going to feel is intuitive and wish it was in your next MMO and more.

How do you kill what has no life? A big sword!!

Ten Ton Hammer: For better or worse, the gamers we talk to feel like they know everything there is to know about Rift. Do you have any aces up your sleeve?

"We weren’t content with just a quest system, or a skill tree system, we went further. Did we invent most of these features? No. But we made them better. Pong had two sides, does that make two faction PvP a copy of Pong?"
Hal Hanlin: We’ve been more open about this project than any other project I’ve been on. E3 2008, which you mentioned before, was very heavily scripted because it was a technical proof of concept piece. At Cologne with Russ Brown [Trion VP of Development], I was doing demos up in the executive area and it became really clear between us that our game is awesome. We’re not going to blow off the market hype, but at the same time, when talking to people new to the game, there’s no smoke and no mirrors. Our game is good enough to stand up on its own. 

Ten Ton Hammer: Put another way, you guys really haven’t talked about your road map after launch. Given the long record of mainstream market disappointments in the MMO space in the last few years, do you feel like you owe the player something to make them invest time and money into the game?

Hal Hanlin: We’ve shown people everything they wanted to see. If they didn’t know to ask for it, heh,  that’s a shame. There are level 50 expert dungeons of everything currently in the game, and they’re not just your typical heroic versions, they open up new wings entirely and there are 40% more bosses in these. We have raids we’ve talked about and raids we haven’t talked about. We even have raid Rifts we are currently testing. We have a huge amount of content we could talk about, but we have the ability to go from an idea to a testable event within a week. Given that we can do that, I don’t think the players that come to our game will ever be disappointed. It’s our game too. When I go home, this is what I play. Not because I’ve been told to, but because I want to.

Looks like things are going to get hot around here!

Ten Ton Hammer: Those are some very short development cycles. It sounds like you have a lot of confidence in your design team and this game.

Hal Hanlin:  I have crazy confidence in them! This is not confidence based on faith either, this is confidence based on watching what they’ve done and are doing right now. I’ve watched them do the work from start to finish and they are without a doubt, fantastic. They work together and keep all things coherent and transparent.

Ten Ton Hammer: Last question. So we’re less than a month from launch. Is there anything about the game you want to point out that maybe you feel us as the press hasn’t done a good enough job highlighting?

Hal Hanlin: The enthusiast press and the foundation press have listened well. I would love to have some great bullet to present you with right now, but candidly we really have gotten some attention about everything.

Our thanks to Hal Hanlin for this interview.

To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our RIFT Game Page.

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