Rift: Putting the "Multiplayer" in MMO!

Hal Hanlin discusses what sets Rift apart from the competition

Rift has been out for more than a year now, and continues to be one of the most successful subscription-based MMOs on the market. Their designers claim this to be because the game offers a true multiplayer environment, rather than just a “single player game with other people around.” As the first part of a frequent discussion with the game’s designers, ZAM had a chance to chat this week with Design Producer Hal Hanlin.

ZAM: First of all, what do you have in mind when it’s said that most MMORPGs are “single player games with other people around?”

I’m guilty of being one of those people who plays an MMO like it is a very populated solo game. But then when I play our game, we have a lot of innate features that take away the barriers that come between me and getting into a group. In most MMOs I have to contact somebody or ask to join a team; they’re going to inspect me, tell me that my gear is crap, and then they’ll refuse to bring me along. But in Rift, from the very beginning when you see another player you can click on their portrait and join up unless they’ve explicitly selected to not be available for public grouping. So you have an opportunity to prove that you’re a decent player before they judge you for having two greens in your slots. Or take later on in the game; when I’m running past a rift, there’s a button at the top of the screen that lets me join a party and share in the kills and loot with no pressure.

ZAM: What do you feel are the biggest obstacles to making an MMO truly multiplayer?

I do believe it has a lot to do with being ‘the new kid on the playground.’ Either you are a super experienced player and don’t want to join with someone who’s a failure and grabbing agro from fourteen different enemies at once; or you’re that guy who’s afraid you’re going to accidentally hit an AoE and make everyone hate you. And just the idea of that happening removes any consideration of even asking for an invite! That’s the standard problem in most MMOs; I click on somebody, whisper them, ask if they’re on a specific quest or if they mind me tagging along to kill a quest mob… and then get rebuffed, or end up talking to somebody who’s emotionally, ahem, ‘not quite your equal.’ And the fear of rejection is daunting. More than anything else, Rift makes it so you don’t need to ask that first question. People are there: join them. Have fun!

ZAM: You mentioned portrait-clicking and Rift auto-grouping before as greats ways to break down the barriers between players; but if you could choose one feature that really sets Rift apart, what would it be?

Instant Adventure, hands down. It, more than anything else, provides cooperative gameplay. You’re instantly in a group of up to 20 players, storming across the countryside. You feel genuinely bad-ass because there’s hardly anything your group can’t take care of and you just eviscerate enemies. It feels great! And then you realize you’ve been playing with these other people, and after a few times you start to recognize the names of other players. After greeting them a few times, all of a sudden you have a bunch of new friends, maybe you join their guild or they join yours. Instant Adventure is awesome itself, but it’s also a great icebreaker. What’s more exciting than face-punching a boss with a group of 19 other people and no pressure?

ZAM: Many games have guilds or similar concepts to encourage cohesion. How do guilds in Rift differ, and how do they encourage players to join and stay active?

Well, we’re actually in the process of making it easier to find a guild that suits your needs right now, but I can’t go into a lot of detail because I don’t want to promise anything that might not make the final cut; but we also have done something else that’s really solidified the position of players like me, for example, in my guild. I’m not a super active guilder; I’ll usually only see four or five players during the couple of hours I can play per night. But we have the mobile app, which keeps me connected to my guild as much as I want to be. I have it on my iPad and iPod, and if I’m at work, I can check guildchat and quickly weigh in. Or if I’m playing an alt on a different server, I can still stay connected with my main’s guild and multitask.

ZAM: Let’s talk about raids and raid rifts. A lot of the issues found in regular grouping (such as needing a leader, needing to know strategies, allocating time, weeding out “weaker” players) are even worse in raids. How does Rift address those concerns?

Daily raid rifts have gotten rid of a lot of those concerns, because you can join autogroups and describe what your build specs do. I’ve actually had less trouble getting into daily raid rifts than I have getting into a 5-man group to do a quest! End-game grouping for these raid rifts is pretty non-threatening compared to a 20-person one-time-per-week raid run.

ZAM: How do you feel rifts and zone events have helped lower the barriers to meeting new players and having fun? Is there space for improvement (for example, in turning temporary companions into stronger friendships or guild mates)?

Especially during a zone event, you’ll usually get to know people as you play. It’s not just one rift your group will kill together, but a dozen or more as you run across the entire zone. When you’re doing a zone event, you feel more connected to other people; you might watch the counter increment down as you kill an invasion; but then you see it drop several more times as other players all around the zone do the same. I actually feel like we’re working together! It’s like ‘Wow, this isn’t just a solo game! I’m actually making a difference with other people!’ Then you use the join button and go kill a huge boss together for some great loot!

ZAM: If I’ve seen one criticism in multiplayer zone events, it would usually be “the fights ends up as huge fights with no strategy; run to target A, kill enemies, run to target B, kill enemies, etc.” How do you walk that fine line between “easy enough to not constantly lose” and “difficult enough to keep players excited”?

Well, one thing that our system does is it scales depending on how many people are there. You’ll very rarely find a zone event where you don’t have the manpower to win. And obviously we don’t have all the answers from day one; we listen to the audience and pay attention to metrics. We’re tweaking our encounters constantly to see if there’s an adjustment we can make to give that extra increase in performance. As time progresses we add new rifts and zone events into the game, but of course it’s an imperfect process because day-to-day you’ll have a different mix of people. One day you might have 400 and have a rarer, more difficult event start; but the next you only have 100 and you’ll have an easier, more common event. And there’s no perfect level to aim for, so we’ve just been adding new features that seem like they’d be fun. Instant Adventure, for example, interacts with rifts and zone events now, which wasn’t the case at first. It’s just a very natural process to be running around doing an IA and then having it become part of the zone event.

ZAM: While there isn’t a single-player mode in the game, some players simply enjoy logging in and doing some quests by themselves (or collecting artifacts, like me). How does Rift help them feel like still being part of the community and not undervalued compared to those who spend hours every week raiding?

Well, it’s funny you mention the artifact collecting. Simon, the development director for design and the namesake of the Dead Simon collection of artifacts, is an artifact hound. It’s one of his key points… and he always has money. I, however, do not. And so, he would go out and could buy better gear than I ever found with my herp-derp method of random quests and dungeons. I’ve got greens, blues, and purples; I’m a very unexciting spectrum of colors (laughs). Simon had an edge because he has so much platinum; in fact, when I hit 50 on my first character, he just gave me 100 for my mount because it was no big deal. The fact that he can advance by selling artifacts, and that other people have similar play styles and goals that might not focus on grouping or raiding but instead playing the auction house, just shows that there are plenty of ways to grow and equip your character in Rift.

To wrap it up, we’re doing our best to work with the community to drive more interpersonal things like our Valentine’s event which interacted directly with the audience. We’re just fiddling around with ways to really put the “Multiplayer” in “Massively Multiplayer Online” (MMO). And I think it’s working, because we keep hearing: ‘Rift is the game I play to have fun. When I go home, this is what I launch and play to relax.’ And we keep looking for things to add; for example, some people keep saying ‘I want fishing!’ Well, that’s coming! We want Rift to really provide a ton of non-stab activities to do with your friends.

Paul "LockeColeMA" Cleveland, Staff Writer

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Rift-tastic
# Mar 29 2012 at 1:20 AM Rating: Excellent
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Exactly why I love this game. I have friends that played Rift with me when it started and left but I still played and got flak for it. Later they join SWTOR and said I was stupid for not coming along, but they stopped playing a month and a half later. I told them about Rift Lite and said its free you have nothing to lose but time. They picked it up and later told me "WOW! Its way better and they changed so much that I have to re-learn how to play" I just smiled and said "told you"
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