Storm Legion and Beyond: Hal Hanlin Talks the Future of RIFT
Last week, I attended a Rift: Storm Legion press day for Rift at TrionÂs 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 RiftÂs 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, thatÂs one of the reasons why weÂve 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 weÂre able to give people much more information in a friendly way--weÂve taken a lot of the pain out of it. So, say youÂre thinking that you just really like the Tempest. Cool! You choose the Tempest, and then you say ÂGive me a sane build,Â select one, and youÂre 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 youÂre not going to fulfill every function with one. If you choose any of the purposes, thatÂs a viable class, and youÂre able to jump in and play our game. This sort of system was made for people like me. IÂm a derp. IÂm a complete derp, and IÂm asked to test things if people want to see if an idiot can figure them out. IÂm being self-effacing, but the fact is, I will make a mistake if it can be made, because I just donÂt read, I donÂt care, I just want to click and go play and kill stuff.
So, we havenÂt dumbed it down, weÂve just removed the stumbling blocks that had you going, ÂOh, 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....Â And you have to start having raid level conversations at level one. So, what weÂre doing now is, youÂll go, ÂHey, I want to be a storm guy, so IÂll choose the...storm things. And hey, that looks cool! And I like the tone of this one. IÂll choose this one.Â So, you choose that [purpose], and if you donÂt 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 havenÂt revamped everything; we havenÂt rebuilt the new user experience. And it isnÂt 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 thereÂs now this huge world out there [in Storm Legion], so if anything weÂll 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.
WeÂre 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 weÂve kept and create a new expansion pack, while generating as much service level content as we have, I think weÂre getting more cred, I really do.
So, IÂm expecting to see more than just our original fans with the launch of Storm Legion, IÂm expecting to see a pretty big bump.ThereÂs some steep competition for you guys right now.
ThereÂs always been steep competition. When we launched, [World of WarcraftÂs expansion] Cataclysm had just launched.
Sure. But for anyone who wanted to play something new, or wasnÂt into WoW, Rift was it when you guys launched. Now there are some big competitors such as Guild Wars 2...
"ThereÂs always been steep competition. But IÂve been on this pony long enough to know itÂs not gonna buck. LetÂs 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 weÂve 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, ÂOh, SkyrimÂs gonna kill Rift!Â Skyrim launched, it was an awesome game and people loved it, but they came back to Rift. Same thing with Star Wars. ItÂs a fantastic game, but it didnÂt kill Rift--weÂre still solid. Now people are saying, ÂOh, Mists of Pandaria came out, itÂs gonna kill Rift!Â You know, IÂve been on this pony long enough to know itÂs not gonna buck. LetÂs 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, IÂm really happy with our population right now. ItÂs a nice, healthy infusion; we have a constant inflow of new characters coming through.
HereÂs 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, ÂHey, I could be getting experience for this!Â So I mentored myself down and all the sudden I was in an Instant Adventure. So now IÂm in a zone event, and everything thatÂs happening is progressing my character further down his path. I was blown away by our own game, because all of the systems work.
EverythingÂs kind of turning to free-to-play right now, and Rift is one of the last holdouts. The Secret World unfortunately didnÂt manage to pull off the subscription model...
I like that game.
I do, too. But youÂve got a steep hill to climb when youÂre 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 IÂll 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, ÂRift 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.Â 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 whoÂll send me email at 2 AM saying, ÂI just ran across this quest that somehow got broken by this thing.Â That team memberÂs not telling me that itÂs broken and someone needs to fix it, heÂs telling me what heÂs working on tomorrow. And I come in and, sure enough, heÂs working on it.
The passion and the drive to deliver Rift as a service is whatÂs kept it alive day after day and month after month. IÂm 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 weÂre 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 canÂt just say, ÂAh, weÂll keep cranking out content.Â If your game isnÂt designed to have new things added to it constantly, youÂre going to have colliding things that donÂt make sense, and itÂs going to become a mish-mash that just wonÂt work.
I have so many friends in the industry, and I hate to say it, but they canÂt do this. They didnÂt start at this point like we did, so they canÂt get to this point for free.
YouÂve mentioned Dimensions, and how they were a direct response to player demand.
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 donÂt 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.
We still have that in Storm Legion, but what we wanted to make sure of is that when youÂre talking to an NPC, he has something to say besides, ÂGo kill these spiders that are eatinÂ mah crops!Â That part diluted the actual information. So, now weÂre making sure weÂre telling you an actual story. WeÂre telling you what CruciaÂs up to, and weÂre telling you why sheÂs doing it, and why you have to stop her from doing it. And oh, hereÂs how weÂre 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. YouÂll see a mob with a little thing over its head. Go kill it. YouÂll 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 didnÂt have to play rubber band and bounce back to the NPC just to get that next nugget of xp.
So, now weÂve merged that with Instant Adventures. See, you jump on an Instant Adventure and itÂs just taking you to these locations so that youÂre progressively seeing more and more things. ThereÂs 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 youÂve maybe accomplished a little something, but youÂve learned nothing. Well, we want that to mean something more. We want you to go, ÂAnd now I know why CruciaÂs doing this! And now I know why this six-armed monkey is evil!Â as opposed to just, ÂUgh! Now I know that Farmer Jones and I are never talking again.Â
"We understand that the industry migrates. And youÂd 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. ThereÂs no perfect state thatÂs going to be eternal. The industry loved the notion of quests, because previously that thing hadnÂt existed, and now weÂve moved over to this other thing, and youÂd 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 canÂt be everything to everybody, or youÂre 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 canÂt get the gear you want because you donÂt like raiding, but, by gosh, you like crafting. Or maybe youÂve 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 weÂre 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 theyÂre 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 werenÂt one-to-one--it wasnÂt 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.
"WeÂre about getting players to play with other people, weÂre about dynamic content, and weÂre a service. And we can do that like no one else can."
So, in the future weÂll continue to roll out new content. WeÂll learn from our mistakes, or...maybe they werenÂt mistakes, but weÂll learn optimal methods for doing what we were doing before. Maybe weÂll say, ÂHey, letÂs focus on this for the player base. Everybody can participate in this.Â And weÂll just roll things out in a way that doesnÂt burn players out. Because even I go in sometimes and think, ÂThatÂs a lot of stuff. We put in a lot of stuff.Â I mean, 56 pages of class change notes! And that isnÂt even mind blowing; weÂve put in novels worth of release notes.
So yes, that is Rift. WeÂre about getting players to play with other people, weÂre about dynamic content, and weÂre a service. That isnÂt changing. The rate of flow, or the specifics of what weÂre doing, thatÂs always going to change. WeÂre always going to say, ÂHey, what is correct for where we are now?Â 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.