Launching Rift: Part 1 of an Exclusive Interview with Scott Hartsman, Cindy Bowens and Hal Hanlin

Rift Logo

Rift Logo

As if the folks from Trion Worlds didn’t have enough on their plates, we decided to add a couple more entrées as we assaulted their headquarters to get a firsthand report on the state of Rift. Fresh off a week of GDC, but always eager for more, we sent Ben and Jeff on a trek from the cozy confines of San Francisco into the South Bay to sit down with Cindy Bowens, Hal Hanlin and Scott Hartsman. We hit on some hot button issues that have cropped up in the first two weeks of the game’s launch and gained a new appreciation of the staggering amount of work that comes with launching an AAA MMOG. Part 1 of our conversation dealt with servers, content, community and faction balance issues.

Servers and Queues

A problem that many developers wish they had presented itself within moments of the servers going live for the headstart – there were more players than there was space on the servers to handle them all. Trion used a multifaceted approach to handle the issue as new servers were brought online and server loads were carefully monitored and adjusted with stability being the main goal. Hal Hanlin, Rift’s Design Producer, told us of the level of anxiety felt by the team as they watched the server queues fill up and the trepidation they had with flooding the world with too many realms at the risk of spreading the playerbase too thin in the future. " The worst thing we had to deal with at launch was just watching the queues fill up and the anxiety that came along with it." Hal stated that while it was a trying experience it was also a positive one as various members of the team rose to the occasion to keep things running smoothly.

With 99 servers now in operation there were some real concerns about population balance. Cindy Bowens, the Community Lead for Rift, was encouraged at the overall numbers – reporting that the majority of servers were sitting at medium load heading into the first weekend of wide release. The expectation is that numbers will rise over the next few days as new players sit down with the game for the first time this weekend. Scott was pleasantly surprised to say the least at the server demand given that his estimation for a successful launch, in the early days of the project, numbered in the thirties. One factor that Scott had us consider was that the game actually had 4 separate launches with North America, Australia, England and Europe at large all having different launch dates.

With great demand, comes great responsibility

One of the big gripes that seemed to come up frequently was why so few servers were announced initially. Cindy lamented that "It's really a catch-22, you can't please everyone. We did everything we could as fast as we could to try and take care of the queues, but that's just a fact of life on launch day of an MMO." It certainly was an untenable situtation since putting the list out there was a risk but not putting it out there would have resulted in a huge outcry from guilds trying to plan their launch day strategies. Scott brought some further insight to the issue from a numbers standpoint;  " We have perfect visibility into our own sales, we do not have perfect visibility into most third party sales and we had almost zero visability into retail pre-sales, because retail operates week to week and month to month where internet operates second to second and minute to minute."  So there was a bit of a shock factor to the total number of players that were beating down the doors on headstart launch day and Scott confided that he would have liked to have had more servers on that initial listing if he could do it over again. All things considered, I think most developers would have a much longer list of mulligans for their launch day, so kudos to the folks at Trion are most certainly in order.

Content, Content, Content

It’s a well-known fact that gamers are never satisfied and that we are forever inching closer to our proverbial carrot on the stick, so the team was nonplussed when we asked them “what’s next?” First up in the cycle of content release will be a public test shard that will push the full spectrum of content for some very raw testing.  We were slightly disappointed to hear that it won’t be a persistent test server, but Scott and the rest of the team have a very good reason behind that decision – live test realms build up a sort of immunity as they are constantly bombarded with bugged code.  This creates what Scott referred to as a “dual reality” and prevents the developers from getting an accurate picture of what the content will look like when it goes live.

rift asha character
We have good reason to believe that the test server will have plenty to offer when it is first launched as it was revealed to us that there has been a team working on post-launch content for the past 6 months. While that team was relatively small, it has increased in size recently and will continue to do so as current issues get ironed out and adjustments become fewer and farther between.

Another worry that we had in regards to content was addressed by Hal when he answered our question about the challenge of keeping rift invasions fun for new players that come into the game later. As the majority of the playerbase moves through the content and becomes immersed in end-game, starter zones won’t have the same robust population to attend to the task of closing rifts. Not to worry says Hal, the system is designed to scale in difficulty based on the number of players in the area so it should be playable, and enjoyable, no matter how big the party size.  Scott pointed out that no matter when you come into the game you will definitely get to experience plenty of invasion content and gave the example of Freemarch that has a minimum of 10 possible events that can crop up as well as the more static story based events that are running.

Community Relations

"Already the soul forums are ablaze with who is overpowered and pretty much everyone thinks everyone else should be nerfed."

Cindy Bowens
Community always plays a major role in any game, and while forum rants are to be taken with a grain of salt, the team at Trion Worlds is keeping a close watch on fan feedback. With the forums being the main point of contact between many gamers and the team, they are always on the lookout for trends and common concerns. It also became pretty apparent that this community team has a handle on what it takes to be successful and to keep discussion moving forward – they are also smart enough to know not to reveal which faction they play publicly. Cindy assured us that they will be adding, and have already added, more members to the team to keep pace with the population in what is often times a reactionary process since one can never predict exactly how big the community will be.

Faction Balance

Faction based games can be a ton of fun for players as they give a team vs. team mentality and help in the overall immersion factor. A major downside of faction based games however is when one side becomes the dominant population force and skews the enjoyment of all parties involved. Cindy gave us the first bit of encouraging news on this front when she stated that the split was within single percentage points and Scott reinforced it by stating that it was currently sitting at nearly a 50/50 ratio. This wasn’t achieved through happenstance however, Scott pointed out that knowing players who had been involved since beta 1 would likely stick with Defiant since it was the only available faction at the time prompted them to modify the intro to help persuade newer players to look upon the Guardians more favorably. The team may consider this a bit of backend gamesmanship, but based on the results we certainly hope they keep it up.  

Keep an eye out for part 2 of our interview where we learn more about the team, bug reporting, battling gold sellers, and the meaning of turtle pants.

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

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