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

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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 style="font-style: italic;">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
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, style="font-style: italic;">Rift’s Design
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."
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 style="font-style: italic;">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.


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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 style="font-style: italic;">"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;  style="font-style: italic;">" 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,

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.

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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.


the soul forums are ablaze with who is overpowered and pretty
much everyone thinks everyone else should be nerfed
style="font-weight: bold;"> style="font-weight: bold; font-style: italic;"> style="font-style: italic;">."

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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