Interviews

Storm Legion and Beyond: Hal Hanlin Talks the Future of RIFT

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Last week, I attended a Rift: Storm Legion press day for Rift at TrionÂ’s headquarters in San Francisco. We were treated to a preview of the expansion, set to launch November 13th, and had the opportunity to chat with its developers.

I sat down with Hal Hanlin, Design Producer. Hanlin is personable, animated, funny and, most of all, tangibly enthusiastic about his game. We talked about RiftÂ’s place in the competitive MMO space, and what the future holds for a game that remains one of the last successful subscription-based titles.



The Trion team has mentioned that the expansion serves as a sort of reward for existing players. Are there any plans in place to bring in new players?

See, that’s one of the reasons why we’ve introduced Dimensions [player housing]. And our additional soul purposes make things easier for new players. We originally had 3 or 4 purposes on each calling, but now we have 10, and we’re able to give people much more information in a friendly way--we’ve taken a lot of the pain out of it. So, say you’re thinking that you just really like the Tempest. Cool! You choose the Tempest, and then you say “Give me a sane build,” select one, and you’re off to go play.

And those are viable builds? Do the min-maxers have any advantage over those who use purposes?

Every one of the souls serves a purpose, so youÂ’re not going to fulfill every function with one. If you choose any of the purposes, thatÂ’s a viable class, and youÂ’re able to jump in and play our game. This sort of system was made for people like me. IÂ’m a derp. IÂ’m a complete derp, and IÂ’m asked to test things if people want to see if an idiot can figure them out. IÂ’m being self-effacing, but the fact is, I will make a mistake if it can be made, because I just donÂ’t read, I donÂ’t care, I just want to click and go play and kill stuff.

RIFT: Storm Legion interview

So, we haven’t dumbed it down, we’ve just removed the stumbling blocks that had you going, “Oh, my god! I have to pick three souls from this one blurb of text. And now I have to figure out how that all overlaps. And the only way I can do that is to dig deep in the [soul] tree and figure out...wait, this affects attack power, and my guy depends on it....” And you have to start having raid level conversations at level one. So, what we’re doing now is, you’ll go, “Hey, I want to be a storm guy, so I’ll choose the...storm things. And hey, that looks cool! And I like the tone of this one. I’ll choose this one.” So, you choose that [purpose], and if you don’t like how that one works in a couple levels, you just start a different one. The system is very friendly to start-overs.

You know, we havenÂ’t revamped everything; we havenÂ’t rebuilt the new user experience. And it isnÂ’t my goal to do as part of the live game moving forward. We want to find more things that we can incorporate into [the early levels], but those are small spaces, and thereÂ’s now this huge world out there [in Storm Legion], so if anything weÂ’ll just accelerate the time it takes to get through that first area and out into the world, and then out into the even bigger world.

WeÂ’re not only expecting to have our earlier subscribers come back, we also stand to benefit from the people who were waiting to see if we were going to stick around, you know? And when a game is solid enough to keep the user base weÂ’ve kept and create a new expansion pack, while generating as much service level content as we have, I think weÂ’re getting more cred, I really do.

So, IÂ’m expecting to see more than just our original fans with the launch of Storm Legion, IÂ’m expecting to see a pretty big bump.

ThereÂ’s some steep competition for you guys right now.

ThereÂ’s always been steep competition. When we launched, [World of WarcraftÂ’s expansion] Cataclysm had just launched.

Sure. But for anyone who wanted to play something new, or wasnÂ’t into WoW, Rift was it when you guys launched. Now there are some big competitors such as Guild Wars 2...

"ThereÂ’s always been steep competition. But IÂ’ve been on this pony long enough to know itÂ’s not gonna buck. LetÂ’s keep on riding."

Guild Wars 2 is awesome. Star Wars: The Old Republic is still out there. So many big gaming launches have happened on the road that we’ve travelled, and we went through all the fear and agony. I remember when Skyrim was about to launch and there were these naysayers who were saying, “Oh, Skyrim’s gonna kill Rift!” Skyrim launched, it was an awesome game and people loved it, but they came back to Rift. Same thing with Star Wars. It’s a fantastic game, but it didn’t kill Rift--we’re still solid. Now people are saying, “Oh, Mists of Pandaria came out, it’s gonna kill Rift!” You know, I’ve been on this pony long enough to know it’s not gonna buck. Let’s keep on riding.

I logged into Rift recently after not having played for quite a while. I was pleasantly surprised by how many servers I saw, and most of them with medium load.

The population is healthy. And I think part of it...the exciting thing is, we did a damn fine job with mentoring. Mentoring and Instant Adventures have breathed new life into the game. There are people running around the starting zones all the time. So, IÂ’m really happy with our population right now. ItÂ’s a nice, healthy infusion; we have a constant inflow of new characters coming through.

Here’s an example. I had my level 50s, two of them. I was helping my son progress with another character, and I was in Stonefield, and I killed something and suddenly thought, “Hey, I could be getting experience for this!” So I mentored myself down and all the sudden I was in an Instant Adventure. So now I’m in a zone event, and everything that’s happening is progressing my character further down his path. I was blown away by our own game, because all of the systems work.

EverythingÂ’s kind of turning to free-to-play right now, and Rift is one of the last holdouts. The Secret World unfortunately didnÂ’t manage to pull off the subscription model...

I like that game.

I do, too. But youÂ’ve got a steep hill to climb when youÂ’re going to charge $15 per month. And so far, Rift is pulling it off. What do you attribute your success to?

"Rift is a service. It's not a boxed product. We're not charging $60 for the right to pay us $15 a month."

I will stand on any roof and I’ll yell it. The fact is, Lars [Buttler, Trion CEO] exactly nailed it. A year and a half ago--more than that--he and Scott [Hartsman, Rift Producer] were telling this team over and over and over, “Rift is a service, it is not a boxed product. We are not charging $60 for the right to pay us $15 a month. It is a service.” And he held us to that standard.

Scott did a fantastic job of continually setting sign posts for us to work toward, and I had a dedicated team--we all did--and the team is so fanatical about this game that, for us, the idea of going for too long without delivering more rich content was horrible. Because we play the game. I have team members who’ll send me email at 2 AM saying, “I just ran across this quest that somehow got broken by this thing.” That team member’s not telling me that it’s broken and someone needs to fix it, he’s telling me what he’s working on tomorrow. And I come in and, sure enough, he’s working on it.

The passion and the drive to deliver Rift as a service is whatÂ’s kept it alive day after day and month after month. IÂ’m committed to that idea. No one can convince me otherwise.

Do you think that the subscription model is getting to be a tougher sell?

Totally. And I think we’re partly to blame for that, because a subscription comes with the expectation of service. And service is expensive. Service is hard. You have to have engineered your entire system to support the service level that we provide. You can’t just say, “Ah, we’ll keep cranking out content.” If your game isn’t designed to have new things added to it constantly, you’re going to have colliding things that don’t make sense, and it’s going to become a mish-mash that just won’t work.

I have so many friends in the industry, and I hate to say it, but they canÂ’t do this. They didnÂ’t start at this point like we did, so they canÂ’t get to this point for free.

YouÂ’ve mentioned Dimensions, and how they were a direct response to player demand.

Oh, totally.

What were some of the other things in Storm Legion that were big ticket items players have clamored for?

I think Carnage quests. Let me explain:

People have a love-hate relationship with quests. They like directed content; they like being rewarded for things that are generally fun. Combat is fun. Getting experience is fun. Getting paid to do it is funner. Right? So, people like questing, even if they donÂ’t like how questing has come to be, the current expectation of: exclamation point, accept, run, follow dot on map and mash on pretty bags of xp, then come back and get new things to do.

RIFT: Storm Legion interview

We still have that in Storm Legion, but what we wanted to make sure of is that when you’re talking to an NPC, he has something to say besides, “Go kill these spiders that are eatin’ mah crops!” That part diluted the actual information. So, now we’re making sure we’re telling you an actual story. We’re telling you what Crucia’s up to, and we’re telling you why she’s doing it, and why you have to stop her from doing it. And oh, here’s how we’re going to stop her from doing it.

So, Carnage is a direct result of that. You want the directed content? Cool. Run around in the world. YouÂ’ll see a mob with a little thing over its head. Go kill it. YouÂ’ll now get a quest that will reward you for killing a bunch more. You can functionally move your character forward--you got the big burst of xp and money, and you feel good about it because you didnÂ’t have to play rubber band and bounce back to the NPC just to get that next nugget of xp.

So, now we’ve merged that with Instant Adventures. See, you jump on an Instant Adventure and it’s just taking you to these locations so that you’re progressively seeing more and more things. There’s more of an organic feel to it, rather than running into a little Christmas tree full of exclamation points, not reading anything (just accepting as fast as you can click the button), and running out to complete them as fast as you can close them. You come back, and you’ve maybe accomplished a little something, but you’ve learned nothing. Well, we want that to mean something more. We want you to go, “And now I know why Crucia’s doing this! And now I know why this six-armed monkey is evil!” as opposed to just, “Ugh! Now I know that Farmer Jones and I are never talking again.”

"We understand that the industry migrates. And youÂ’d better keep up; get the paddle in the water and move the boat."

So, all this is a result of player feedback. And we count ourselves as players, like I said. It gets old for us, too. We understand that the industry migrates. ThereÂ’s no perfect state thatÂ’s going to be eternal. The industry loved the notion of quests, because previously that thing hadnÂ’t existed, and now weÂ’ve moved over to this other thing, and youÂ’d better keep up; get the paddle in the water and move the boat.

So, now you offer the player both options--the old school quests and a newer representation of that.

We really...you canÂ’t be everything to everybody, or youÂ’re nothing to anybody. But, what we do want to do is make sure that everybody feels like there can be something for them if they just look for it. Like, maybe you canÂ’t get the gear you want because you donÂ’t like raiding, but, by gosh, you like crafting. Or maybe youÂ’ve found a way to make a lot of money and get your gear that way. So, there are a lot of ways you can improve your character, which is what weÂ’re after.

What does the future look like for Rift?

We made a couple of choices that Scott and I definitely learned from, and the rest of the team learned from. For example, in one of our update packs we had three major features come live all at one time. We had mentoring, which allowed players to come together in this great community experience where theyÂ’re progressing together--the high level character and the low level character. We had Instant Adventure at the progression level. Those two worked pretty well together, but they werenÂ’t one-to-one--it wasnÂ’t like you had to do one thing to do this other thing. But then we also had Conquest. And when we put those three things out, we siphoned our players into three different groups, and Conquest was far and away the most popular, and it was just dominating everything, but that meant that there were fewer people exploring the other new features.

"WeÂ’re about getting players to play with other people, weÂ’re about dynamic content, and weÂ’re a service. And we can do that like no one else can."

So, in the future we’ll continue to roll out new content. We’ll learn from our mistakes, or...maybe they weren’t mistakes, but we’ll learn optimal methods for doing what we were doing before. Maybe we’ll say, “Hey, let’s focus on this for the player base. Everybody can participate in this.” And we’ll just roll things out in a way that doesn’t burn players out. Because even I go in sometimes and think, “That’s a lot of stuff. We put in a lot of stuff.” I mean, 56 pages of class change notes! And that isn’t even mind blowing; we’ve put in novels worth of release notes.

So yes, that is Rift. We’re about getting players to play with other people, we’re about dynamic content, and we’re a service. That isn’t changing. The rate of flow, or the specifics of what we’re doing, that’s always going to change. We’re always going to say, “Hey, what is correct for where we are now?” And we can do that like no one else can.



We'd like to thank Hal Hanlin for taking the time to chat with us about Rift and Storm Legion. For more details, check out our Storm Legion preview.

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