RIFT MMO Beta Impressions and How to Fix What’s Wrong

Now that Trion Worlds has lifted the NDA and I have a few hours of spare time during the Christmas holidays, I’d like to share some of my impressions of the current state of the RIFT MMO.

So far I have participated in both beta events which were held this December. I’m going to talk about the good things and the bad things and what Trion can do to fix them in order to avoid potential pitfalls ahead.

In an effort to keep this article at a reasonable length I’m only going to deal with a few issues. The following observations assume the reader is familiar with RIFT so I will avoid needless explanations of how features work.

Art Direction

The world of Telara is beautiful and pleasing to the eye. The world as imagined by the concept artists and rendered by the artists is outstanding and perfect for the high fantasy genre of RIFT.

The art team has done an amazing job designing the terrain, buildings and the NPC characters. This is a good thing because today’s AAA+ MMOs absolutely require exceptional graphics in order to stand a chance to compete with the 800 pound gorilla in the room. It’s also pretty obvious that much of that purported 50 million in development costs was spent on artwork and I believe it was well spent.

Starting Zones

Both the Defiant and Guardians have exciting and gripping introduction zones. They are extremely well-polished and immerse the new player to RIFT directly into the story. The player really gets the feeling they have been interjected into a very serious conflict.

Personally I would have liked to see creatures become “kill on sight” much faster. It seems hard to believe that undead knights would be killing horrified citizens but ignoring players. I would like to see the second wave enemy NPCs at least flagged kill on sight but perhaps with a shorter agro radius but more dangerous nonetheless.

Introduction Zones Replayability Concerns

The big downside to having multiple races use the same starting zone (this reminds me of Aion’s one size fits all factions newbie zones) is that this will hurt long-term replayability in that the player will be bored having to repeat the same content over if they want to create another character.

What is missing here are mechanics that help bond the player to his race such as an exclusive racial starting zone which are found in established MMOs like the original EverQuest, WoW and Lord of the Rings Online.

Perhaps Trion could introduce enclaves for each race along with some quests and cutscenes so that “ascended” players can learn more about their past and bond more with their avatars.

Some Environmental Fatigue

One of the minor problems with the Guardian area named Silverwood that despite being a perfectly recreated elven forest (see the image below), is that I found that the heavily wooded area was somewhat claustrophobic and I experience mild environmental fatigue after being their for a while. I noticed that in a few areas Trion changed up the ambiance and atmosphere of the sky and ground which helped break up the monotony but I felt they could utilize this technique a bit more.

On a positive note, the many “rifts” (more on rifts later) helped to break up the environmental staleness.

Enemy NPCs

Top marks go to the Trion for exposing players to a large number of graphically diverse enemy humanoid NPCs. With this much NPC variety this really feels like a well-polished fantasy MMO.

The one huge problem with the NPCs is that there are barely any beasts or creatures — at least in the Guardian zones so far. I think I counted two creature species in Silverwood and even they were confined to a few small areas. This makes is almost impossible for the butcher profession (think skinners in WoW) to raise their skills.

The Defiant zone of Freemarch had some boars and wolves but you got the feeling that for some strange reason Trion seems to be very biased toward humanoid NPCs.

Where are the Children?

I’m a big fan of using natural or organic realism to help build a sense of immersion in a virtual world. Richard Bartle remarked in a recent GDC presentation that in the absence of a reason not to take something from reality you should stick to reality as it helps give the player a frame of reference and is potentially less distracting. Having children NPCs is one of these elements from reality that I believe is missing from RIFT.

RIFT has quite a few aged NPCs which is great and really lends an enhanced aura of believability to their MMO but the lack of children visible in the towns and cities is a bit strange. Again I hearken back to what Blizzard has done with WoW in that many of their cities and towns have children running around.

The absence of children NPCs is a sign there is a lack of polish. Often it is the small and seemingly innocuous details that give a virtual world its charm and enchantment.

More Environmental World Issues

Another issue for me, at least in Silverwood forest was there were no human, elf or dwarf settlements outside of the towns that a wandering traveler would happen upon. No farmers, no hunters, no woodsmen. Where does the food come from in this world?

It seems that friendly NPCs are only to be found in or very near to the quest hubs disguised as towns and cities. It was my experience that there was very little rewards for those of us that like to explore what lays off the beaten track. This bodes ill for replayability and seems to be a carbon copy of the WoW’s design philosophy.

When you fail to include cause and effect assets like this in your MMO you marginalize the depth and richness of your world and this has the effect of reducing the immersion felt by the player.

Another element that I didn’t once find were any treasure chests in the outside world and in any of the caves I found. For me, since the days of Dungeons & Dragons the treasure chest has been one of the venerable staples of the RPG genre. I hope that treasure chests will make an appearance in Telara at some point.

How the Combat Is Boring Problem is Related to Audio and Sound Effects

One of the biggest complaints that many people made on the official RIFT beta forums was that the combat was boring. I do agree with this assessment to a certain degree and I have an idea as to what the real problem may be: a lack of credible and exciting combat sound effects.

When a monster is hacking you to pieces you naturally expect your avatar to make sounds. I could not hear any character sound effects such as grunts, groans, screams, death sounds, or battle cheers. Dead silence.

During combat the sounds were somewhat unexciting and lacked flair as I heard the same sound effects used for melee combat and spell combat recycled over and over again.

In many video game projects that I personally worked on audio sound effects and music were one of the last things that got added. I sure hope this is the case here because this MMO needs them badly to help make combat seem more visceral. Without them combat is very boring and tedious. Adding good sound effects is also cost effective and one way that Trion could really get a lot of bang for their buck.

Soul System

In RIFT you can eventually have access to talent trees from different class archetypes. For example a paladin can learn the soul of a marksman and then start spending soul points to gain range abilities.

The problem with this system is that I found the soul system to be quite frustrating as you never had enough soul points to purchase meaningful abilities. You were far better off just continuing to spend your soul points in your original character’s soul in order to purchase the more potent abilities higher up the tree.

Scott Hartsman has said that they plan on addressing the lack of soul points and they also plan to offer all souls as a choice to beginning characters which I believe is the right thing to do.

Another problem that I encountered is that currently there is no way to trade in your existing souls if you don’t like them or don’t like your second soul. I can see this problem affecting newbie MMO players and quite possibly causing them to grow frustrated and quit once they realize they’ve been saddled with souls that are too similar or just don’t work that well together.

A Bland Crafting System for Dummies

The crafting system is unambitious, simplistic and nothing more than a carbon copy of WoW. No skill is required as you just assemble your ingredients, find the right crafting station and then press a button to make your recipe. As it stands, crafting is hardly a “next-gen” MMO feature and desperately needs to have some semblance of skill involved.

I expect a lot more from Scott Hartsman who supervised EverQuest2 and it’s more advanced MMO crafting system.

Linear Quest Directed Gameplay

Another issue where RIFT completely fails to be a next-gen MMO is the linear quest system borrowed from WoW. It’s dreadfully predictable.

Trion has really fumbled the ball here. Instead of being courageous and creating a MMO that has a unique take on questing they have opted to copy WoW and the result just another predictable and mindless MMO experience with on rails gameplay and the typical quest hubs. Even worse you have only to look to the map to find where to go to complete your quest. These aren’t true quests at all rather they are paint by numbers Simon Says tasks aimed to appeal to children.

Along with combat many of the RIFT beta complaints on the forums also hated the boring and poorly written quests that seem to be of the caliber of WoW circa 2004.

Questing is quickly suffocating the MMO genre right now as most people have stopped reading quest text and are grinding them for experience, gold, items and reputation. Take away all of the rewards and incentives and I ask you: would players even bother to quest in MMOs?

Rifts

Yet all is not lost. I have long been an enthusiastic supporter of the idea of having dynamic events that create a sense of immediacy, danger and chaos in a MMO. Rifts are Trion’s answer to the current state of stale MMO game design that we see courtesy of Blizzard.

Rifts along with the soul system are one of the major “hooks” of this so-called next gen MMO. Rifts are basically random scripted invasions. The idea is that players are supposed to go to the rift to put down the invasion. If they fail then the enemy NPCs turn up the heat and start to invade nearby towns.

One problem with rifts is that they are all elite NPCs (at least during the initial stages) and if not enough people answer the call that is broadcast on chat channels and with audio cues they can do little except watch as the enemy forces build up. There should be some way for single players to single pull enemies. There should also be enhanced powers given to single players to use if not many other players are nearby to assist in countering the rift.

Another issue is that too often due to big numbers of players it’s hard to get tag a mob and get a kill. All players who enter the vicinity of a rift should be offered the chance to join a temporary public raid.

I found that there was too much unintelligible junk look that was being offered by this rift graphic on my screen. This mechanic is immersion breaking and not very intuitive. There should be some kind of item on the ground after a rift is defeated that everyone can loot. Think of that communal lootable pumpkin on the ground after the Headless Horseman is defeated in WoW.

I love the fact that if players fail to heed the call of an incoming rift that the invaders will start to invade a nearby town. I saw some pretty amazing battles in the major town of Silverwood.

A Potentially Big Problem with Rifts

My big concern with rifts is what will happen once players tire of them? Personally, I’d like to see towns completely obliterated by the invaders until such a time as the players oust them. The big problem is that since Trion has opted to copy the WoW quest advancement system you’ll never see this happen and that’s a shame. MMO developers are too afraid to anger or inconvenience subscribers that have grown accustomed to the ease and security of the Blizzard quest system.

One solution would be to scrape the quest system altogether but that’s probably not going to happen. I think a better solution would be to completely remove experience from the current quest system and make quests truly optional.

Players should be incentivized to have to drop what they are doing and immediately run to either fight a spawning rift and an incoming invading rift. I would like to see some kind of reputation system or separate experience system tied directly into rift player participation.

Another idea would be to link rift participation with additional soul points that might be similar to the Alternate Advancement System in EQ. This might address the current problem of not having enough talent points to make souls actually useful.

Yet another idea is to have a special rift advancement system that gives players who spend the time to defeat and apprehend rifts and invasions (not all invasions are by other worldly rift creatures) is to reward players with special “rift mastery” stats that make them better at fighting rift creatures.

A Lack of Dungeons

I don’t have much to say about dungeons because I didn’t have enough time to reach level 20 and actually enter both instanced dungeons (one for each side).  Having players wait till level 20 to experience grouping is not good — they really need to create an introductory dungeon experience for players for around level 10-12.

The lack of any outside non-instanced dungeons was disappointing. I think I found maybe one or two small caves while I played in both beta events. Dungeons are a big part of MMOs and the legacy of RPGs and it’s unbelievable that they forgot to include them in otherwise very interesting and varied outdoor world.

Concluding Thoughts

Trion has claimed that RIFT is next-gen but with the exception of rifts themselves and the soul system it’s all standard MMO fare. This is even more reason why Trion really needs to polish both of these features and make them utterly incredibly unique experiences for players bored of the same diet of Blizzard style MMO gameplay. Quite honestly, there has to be serious consequences for failure to defeat a rift; if not then rifts risk becoming somewhat of a useless white elephant. (I recall the dwarf city of Thurgadin in Velious after a failed ring event back in the original EverQuest as an example of serious consequences for failure.)

One final complaint is because the mobs are too easy to kill solo there was never any reason to group or talk to any of my fellow players. This is a real shame as Trion has opted to duplicate the WoW system of easy soloing and adding all of the grouping and raiding at the level cap. But with this formula how does one ever get to meet new friends or enjoy the challenges of grouping to vanquished common enemies before level 50?

Sometimes MMO developers have to be like good parents and stand their ground as you can’t always give children what they want and the same goes for players. Since players will always choose the path of least resistance soloing should be tolerated but not encouraged. It would be nice to see a MMO company that actually believes that MMOs should be a shared cooperative social experience.

As a person with limited amount of time to play MMOs I categorize myself as hardcore casual in that I want to experience a challenge — not a free ride — even with my limited play schedule. I also don’t need to be inundated with false flattery about what a “hero” I am in a MMO. I want to work for my accomplishments. Please don’t feed me a diet of bogus “achievements” either. (Sadly, Trion copied the flaccid WoW achievement system lock stock and barrel for WoW.)

Trion can fix RIFT but it will take some serious work and just more overall polish and refinement. Some final mentions are in order in this regard. Better audio needs to be added for player combat and emotes. Better quests need to be written and there has to be more points of interest in the wilderness such as homes, settlements, caves and outdoor dungeons added. Combat needs a serious injection of fun and probably some more time spent on animations. And for goodness sakes, please fix the male dwarf walk animations as they currently look like C-3P0 from Star Wars.

The third RIFT beta event starts on December 28th. Hopefully some things will be addressed and I genuinely wish Trion all the best with this MMO. I will continue to beta test it in the hope that it can be a real alternative for MMO players that are tired of sophomoric MMOs like WoW.

-Wolfshead

Latest Comments

  1. Yetian December 27, 2010
  2. Copra December 27, 2010
  3. Longasc December 27, 2010
  4. MacDeath December 28, 2010
  5. Anakh December 28, 2010
  6. Void December 29, 2010
  7. Sthenno December 30, 2010
  8. Bhagpuss January 2, 2011
  9. Syl January 3, 2011
  10. Ross January 5, 2011
  11. Pingback: Brief Thoughts on RIFT | pix'led life January 8, 2011
  12. Dimliwitti February 5, 2011

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.