Launching Rift: Part 1 of an Exclusive Interview with Scott Hartsman, Cindy Bowens and Hal Hanlin
As if the folks from Trion Worlds didnt 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 games 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, Rifts 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
Content, Content, Content
Its 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 whats 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 wont 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.
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 wont 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.
"Already the soul forums are ablaze with who is overpowered and pretty much everyone thinks everyone else should be nerfed."
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 wasnt 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.