RIFT Impressions: Loving and Hating That New MMO Smell

Almost everyone likes new. In our culture, newness gets an undeserved sense of respect and cachet. There’s a sense of anticipation and mystique about an upcoming film, a new restaurant, a fresh-faced music artist, new politician and yes even a brand spanking new MMO.

We all like to believe that just because something is new that somehow it will be superior to what came before. Newness in the realm of product and service development seems to imply that all lessons of the past have been learned and the result will a better product. But this is not always the case.

Newness and even youth is all about having potential. Remember when you were 16 and the world was your oyster? So it is with the typical new MMO. We put our hopes, dreams and aspirations into new MMOs because we think finally “this is the one”.

Time after time, we MMO players have been burned by the much ballyhooed “new” MMO that comes knocking on our door like an optimistic salesman. Despite the hype, despite the empty promises that this time — things will be different — we get suckered and fall for the same scam. Like the classic comics character Charlie Brown believing that Lucy will keep holding the football in place we have this enduring faith that MMO companies have finally learned their lesson.

How Different is RIFT Really?

Despite having that tantalizing new MMO smell, I’m afraid RIFT is yet another competently crafted yet predictable amusement park ride that has copied most of the standard feature in today’s MMOs.

Today’s MMOs reminds me of how automobiles have slowly progressed since their introduction into our way of life. I remember when automatic transmissions, power brakes, power steering, air conditioning and even seat-belts were considered optional equipment. Today it would be unthinkable not to offer these features as standard equipment. So it is with the MMO industry and the features that many players expect to see new MMOs.

After 12 years of existence, the MMO has become a mature product much like an automobile. A car is basically an engine with a steering wheel, accelerator, brakes and a seat.  You get your choice of styling, colors, leather or cloth, and other bells and whistles but in the end it is still a car that transports you from point A to point B. And so it is with MMOs.

Even though RIFT has its own unique take on features such as art, story, world, classes and even some dynamic content it is basically still a standard MMO in the style of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft.

While RIFT takes one step forward in new features, it takes two steps backwards in its unambitious and outright replication of existing MMO conventions and mechanics such as the promotion of solo gameplay, quest-centric character progression, crafting, achievements, PVP and more. The result is a paint by numbers MMO that lacks authenticity and feels rather soulless.

With the exception of the rifts, invasions and the soul system to a lesser extent, RIFT is arguably a carbon copy of almost every MMO that has gone before it.

MMO Fatigue Setting In

Part of the problem is that with each passing year we see fantasy MMOs that keep recycling the same old mechanics and design archetypes and end up with the same tired formula. There is a sense that we have seen it all before. MMO fatigue has set in as we’ve all become so familiar and blase with how virtual worlds operate. Familiarity breeds contempt.

Instead of trying to be more revolutionary, unambitious developers like Trion opt to go the safe route and copy WoW. The result is RIFT.

Here’s an interesting, somewhat cynical and painfully long video (you’ve been warned) that shows how unoriginal and derivative RIFT and most MMOs actually are:

[yframe url=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55F9IKW2T2M’]

The Problem with Rifts and Invasions: A Lack of Consequences

Every MMO since EverQuest has a “hook”. WoW had solo progression via questing as it’s prime selling feature. Upon closer inspection Trion’s signature RIFT hook  is fraught with problems. The big pitfall with rifts and invasions is that if players choose to ignore them (and they eventually will if nothing changes) there are few if any consequences.

Once a rift emerges it exists as a temporary nuisance for the nearby traveling or questing player. Friendly NPCs and mobs that they need to interact with may be dead or impossible to get to because of the rift stands in the way. Many players might choose to flee and complete other quests. So far so good, this is appropriate dynamism and makes Telara feel a bit more real and believable.

The next step of a rift is that invasion parties spawn and head toward settlements. The worse that can happen here is that travelers using the roads are killed and inconvenienced for a few minutes.

Eventually the rift spawned invaders reach a settlement and kill all the NPCs. If players fail to rally and defend the towns eventually the NPC’s unceremoniously despawn. Within seconds the original friendly NPC’s all respawn as if by magic. This strikes me as very unrealistic and unbelievable and detracts from immersion.

How to Improve Rifts

From a game design point of view, the current rift system is half-realized and lacks polish. Why not give players the chance to resurrect dead NPC’s such as vendors, guards and questgivers? Let players use their vast amounts of Planarite to do so. Why not have some new quests that allow players to rebuild the towns and settlements that should have been destroyed by the invading forces?

Also the Rift interface that pops up annoys me and makes no sense. How can I be getting loot from this magical thing that appears on my screen that has no connection to the game world? Why can’t players loot the destroyed evil wardstone to get their items instead of via this bizarre contrivance?

Many people claim RIFT is polished. I disagree. It only appears to be polished. The rifts themselves are one example where Trion dropped the ball and failed to fully design and implement their signature concept.

We’ve Been Down This Road Before

I believe that RIFT will follow a familiar path that most of us have been down before. It’s like a big funnel that leads to one destination: raiding. Here’s how it goes:

  • Everyone is enthusiastic and happy as they all start out at level 1 in brand new and unexplored virtual world full of dynamic content such as rifts and invasions
  • The community is largely cohesive and united as everyone is excited about the challenges that lay ahead of them
  • Most people will create classes that are self-sufficient (read: easy to solo) and that are specced for fast leveling
  • Everyone will explore the delightful lands of Telara and level their characters as fast as possible via questing to reach the level cap
  • Once they get to level 50 they will find that RIFT is a different MMO altogether
  • Rifts and invasions have become routine and players really start to wonder if Telara is truly dynamic
  • Now they realize need to join a guild to keep advancing their characters
  • Many players will find that their lack of social skills and lack of group class abilities has not adequately prepared them for the world of grouping and raiding
  • The RIFT community will start to show signs of fracture and discontent as it starts to segment into casual/solo gamers, the PVPers and raiders
  • Trion will focus on trying to keep these groups happy but like most MMO companies they will cater primarily to hardcore raiders (Note: I believe they are furiously working on raiding content and placating the hardcore players as we speak as many basic things that were feedbacked and bugged during betas back in 2010 have still been ignored)

Who Will Dominate the RIFT Community?

My biggest concern is the eventual quality of the RIFT community. There are a number possible problems to contend with:

  1. Invasion of WoW tourists — they will bring their low brow, anti-social tendencies with them and quite possible ruin the RIFT community. I noticed in beta event 5 the quality of discourse on general chat channels was starting to erode.
  2. Rage of the Fanboy Bullies – already these types of players (most are already level 50 and bored) are busy cleansing general chat and admonishing anyone that brings up any issues that shows Trion in a less than perfect light. These people are sanctimonious fanatics that are so invested in their new MMO that they are willing to go on a virtual jihad to rid Telara of all unbelievers (even those with constructive criticism).
  3. Solo Friendly and Quest-Centric Gameplay – this is the exact formula that created today’s WoW player. Since RIFT is following it almost note for note it will have the same deleterious effect.
  4. Nice People — Yes they actually do exist! After years of playing WoW I almost forgot that there are good and decent folk playing them. I hope they hang around stay long enough to positively influence Telara.

It is very possible that mature players from other existing communities will also help to mitigate both factors listed above — but don’t hold your breath. The WoW kiddies will need to be put on notice that their behavior will not be tolerated. The intolerant RIFT fanboys  need to stop their bullying of anyone that disagrees with their orthodoxy.

Regarding the RIFT Beta

When I started the first beta I back in early December 2010 I happened to be at Gamestop when I asked them to check for new MMO releases and they told me that RIFT is due to be released March 1, 2011. So it’s very clear that this release date has been cast in stone for a while now making me wonder if the beta event have been nothing more than a publicity stunt and sneak peek for players.

Clearly before beta event one, they knew full well that RIFT was in a polished state and ready to go live (their standards, not mine). Why have a beta test with such a short window to release if major problems can’t be addressed and fixed?

Sadly Trion has not learned the importance of one of few things I agree with Blizzard: release it only when it’s ready.

Listen to the RIFT podcast where the Trion Senior VP of Publishing David Reid talks about how he doesn’t want to disappoint all the usual suspects that have killed thousands of potentially good video games: the marketers, the advertisers, the manufacturers and the retailers. In the RIFT podcast he clearly states that the worst thing you can ever do is change the launch date. I strongly disagree. If a MMO is not ready then it should not be released.

Even if one were to concede his point, why did they feel that RIFT was ready for release early in December before the start of the beta events? Why on earth did they not anticipate that the feedback and opinions of thousands of beta testers might find major flaws that would need to be fixed that would push the release date forward?

Some Rays of Hope

I must confess that this article has been in the making for about two months. It contains many of my observations from previous betas and the current live RIFT world event. I’m happy to say that all is not lost and there is reason for optimism.

One very positive thing that Trion has created with RIFT is that they have demonstrated that MMOs can really shine when they focus on community interaction and cooperation in the real virtual world — not the fake instanced virtual world within a virtual world of other MMOs. In other words, I’ve noticed that RIFT players are happy to bind together to vanquish outdoor RIFT bosses. Killing stuff is fun with lots of other people!

For me, I’ve rediscovered a new found joy in being part of a virtual world that is fraught with some semblance of danger and drama as opposed to the scripted, sanitized and predictable nature of WoW’s Azeroth.

The monthly events also provide a sense of excitement and variety that helps one to suspend their disbelief. One might actually start believing that this is a living and breathing world where time passes and things can change.

Finally, I’m really enjoying the robust leveling curve. Leveling is not easy in Telara and that is as it should be. My level 15 bard would probably be level 50 in WoW.

Conclusion

Probably my biggest misgiving about RIFT is that the developers have created yet another safe MMO world with few consequences. When I play RIFT I feel almost nothing. Gone are the days when I used to feel a sense of danger and terror when venturing out into the wilderness of a virtual world. Gone are the days when you had tight-knit communities were players actually needed each other to survive yet alone advance.

With nothing to lose because of dumbed-down death penalties and easy solo gameplay there is almost no potential for emotional investment or social cooperation. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. As humans we are far more motivated by potential loss than potential gain. Today’s new breed of MMO designers have failed to understand basic human psychology and how to leverage it to create a compelling and visceral virtual world experience. Perhaps they are just afraid to scare away the new MMO demographic made possible by Blizzard.

I believe that RIFT should not have been released when it was. As I mentioned in a previous article, combat animations and audio still need to be added and improved. The character models especially the Defiant ones are ugly and are not AAA+ quality. I feel that this MMO could have easily used another 6-8 months of fundamental work and polish to be considered even a competent WoW clone. Also there are thousand of outstanding bugs and issues that still have not been fixed from the beta testing.

If RIFT fails to live up to the promises and hype it’s because they released the MMO too soon.

What will it take for the corporate suits and Harvard Business school graduates to realize that you can’t release a MMO before it is ready? It is folly to duplicate the same pattern of systemic insanity that the entire video game industry is based on: the unfair and unequal developer publisher relationship that produces bad games destined for the bargain bin. Only Blizzard and a few other select studios who are their own publishers have defied all the odds, learned this lesson and are creating games on their own terms and releasing them only until they are ready.

The problem is that Trion made RIFT to appease the investors that ponied up $50-100 million dollars. I’m sure that the Trion big shots promised investors WoW-like revenue for their investment capital; so the result is that they used WoW as the underlining design for almost everything. Even the Trion devs have admitted in interviews that they would personally liked to have made RIFT more hardcore.

Despite my concerns, at the end of the day I’m hopeful and bullish about RIFT. If Trion plays their cards right and adds in more polish and keeps the MMO fresh and true to their dynamic world vision I predict it will be a niche MMO that will be vastly more successful than comparable MMOs like AION. The MMO industry needs serious alternatives to WoW and right now Trion’s RIFT is it.

-Wolfshead

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