A Frustrating Night With Rift

I played some more Rift last night and found myself in a bit of a pickle. Shortly after reaching level 8, I got myself killed, and respawned in the next quest hub ahead of me in the progression… which was in the process of being overrun by a level 15 Life invasion. The defense was sparse and swiftly overrun, so I got stuck in a cycle of spawn-die, spawn-die, spawn-die. It was very frustrating, and I felt like it soured me on the game.

I see a potentially major balance issue here. Rifts and invasions (more than a simple copy of WAR’s public quests, by the way – there are elements from Tabula Rasa’s base control mechanic involved as well,) are central elements of the game, and they’ll need to be balanced correctly to prevent exactly this kind of frustration. This is where WAR, in its PQs and in some of the RvR content as well, fell apart – balance broke, so the game broke, and Mythic never fixed it except by shutting servers down to try to keep populations afloat.

I did play some more this morning and got through it (after the hub had reverted to PvE control,) and would like to hit the game again tonight, to try and experience the rift/invasion stuff as it’s meant to be. It may be that I’ll have different thoughts on it after that. Otherwise, I’ll have to wait until the next round of beta action to try again.

In other respects, the game impresses me; it’s very much a Frankenstein game, with elements from all over the place blended together. And everything seems to work well, except for this one area where it didn’t seem to, at least last night, but it’s an important one. And it should be pointed out that Rift won’t be releasing for some time yet, so there should be opportunities to address these issues, which may be as easy to fix as adding more respawn points so level 8 players don’t pop into level 15 hubs and get overwhelmed.

Even with that said, though, there’s a trap Rift could fall into – the same one that Warhammer did. WAR was gloriously fun during open beta and headstart, and became an utter shambles in a matter of a couple weeks after launch. That could happen here, too, and Trion will have to walk the fine line between neutering important content and making it actually work correctly. Let’s hope they can do that better than Mythic did.

First Look: Rift: Planes of Telara

I did not participate in the first two closed beta events for Rift: Planes of Telara, beacuse the folks at Trion Worlds are villains and out to get me. However, I was (by mistake no doubt) invited to be a part of the third event, which kicked off at around 1 PM EST yesterday. I put in some time late last night and a bit more this morning… probably about five hours total. Here are my thoughts.

As you have no doubt heard, Rift is not revolutionary. Its two “new” elements, the rifts themselves and the collected soul system, are not tremendously innovative; rift events are a somewhat more dynamic iteration of Public Quests from Warhammer Online, and we’ve seen variant character progression systems in a slew of games. What I will say, though, is that I think Rift is in great shape for where I imagine it is, about midway through closed beta. What’s there and what I’ve seen so far is all pretty polished – more so than Aion was mere days before launch.

The instanced starter area takes you to about level 6, and there’s a different version and story for each faction. I’ve played through them both and thought the Defiant storyline was pretty neat, and the Guardian area was less interesting but well-done. Both areas seem a bit bigger and more elaborate, especially in the area where you spawn in for the first time, than they need to be – I suspect some content was cut from them and the zones not redesigned, but I didn’t consider it a big deal.

Once you finish up the newbie zone, you spawn out in the open world – and the arrangement of opposing zones is pretty neat. Once you’re there, it looks like the whole world is contiguous save for instanced dungeons – one of my goals for this wave of beta is verifying that.

The “souls” character mechanic is only moderately interesting, however, it has a notable side effect: because of the variety of souls initially offered, and because you can swap them in and out in different combinations, there’s a lot of variety of character types floating around, and this is a good thing. Balance is obviously a potential issue here (it’s too early for me to say,) so what we might end up seeing is a much more limited number of optimal configurations in practice – but right now the variety is refreshing.

The look and feel of Rift is highly reminiscent of Warhammer Online, and the updated public quests in the form of rifts adds to this. It’s not just that, though – the graphical style of the game looks similar to me, and the tendency for important notifications like leveling up to pop up over your head is also notable. I liked that look and feel in Warhammer, though, so a decent game striking a broadly similar tone is fine by me.

I played three characters: a Defiant warrior who got to about level 4, a Defiant Rogue (Marksman) who got to level 7, and a Guardian Mage (Pyromancer/Elementalist/Stormcaller) who reached level 6. This last was by far the most fun to play, even though I thought the Defiant starting area/story was cooler. This is notable; the Mage type is a character I should enjoy more often than I do. Often, however, such characters end up being a chore for a long while before becoming fun. In Rift (as in WAR,) the Pyromancer was fun from the get-go. Maybe it’s merely the thrill of setting stuff on fire.

I intend to play some more tonight and probably early tomorrow; I hope to get a bit farther out into the world and maybe even sample some PvP.

Scripted Content and the Pace of Development

Some of the talk surrounding the new LotRO expanions Rise of Isengard is uncharacteristic (for that community) grousing about the interminable wait between now and then – the expansion is not scheduled until fall of next year, about 10-12 months from now. Current endgame players are asking the question of what they’ll do between now and then.

It’s legitimate to want new content, of course. But I wonder why some people have seen the projected date and instantly jumped to the conclusion that there will be no new content between now and then, when Turbine has talked all over the place about stuff that will be showing up in the meantime, including new stuff for free players and new endgame raids and instances, especially when a 12-month period utterly without new released content would be unprecedented in the development history of the game to date.

One sees the same thing elsewhere, but it’s particularly striking in LotRO, one of the hobby’s most regularly updated and expanded games. Never mind that the last expansion was pretty small (it was,) or that the conversion to a new money model ate development resources over the last year that would have otherwise gone into more new content than we actually got.

So, has there been enough new content to keep everyone happy? Of course not. But that’s never going to happen anyway, because some players (often the more vocal) will rush through new stuff intended to be worked through over the course of months in weeks or days. I understand that these folks want new content too, but I submit that the notion that content must be forced out to accommodate the fastest-moving players results from two things: an overdeveloped sense of entitlement on the part of a vocal minority of players, and a reliance on scripted content that by its very nature consumes developer effort and never gets done at a pace that speedy players are happy with.

I like scripted content as much as the next guy, and think that LotRO in particular has some of the best scripted content in the hobby. Overall, though, the trend in development of AAA titles has been on more and more heavily scripted content and less on mechanisms to provide opportunity for emergent gameplay. Indeed, the big-budget titles on the horizon, namely Star Wars; The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2, look to be built entirely around this kind of content and I have little faith that the potential for unscripted play will feature much in either game. Indeed, the preplanned quests and storylines in SWTOR seem so elaborate that I foresee either mass exoduses (exodi?) of players bored by going through the same old stuff, even if there’s a lot of it to start with, or an unbearable drain on resources during post-launch development, as the team struggles to keep up with the pace of players.

This is a bit less clear in the case of Rift: Planes of Telara, which is a game that appears to have a budget an order of magnitude smaller than SWTOR or GW2. Both Rift and GW2 are incorporating some variety of “dynamic events,” which in the latter case look to be entirely scripted in the manner of the Public Quests in Warhammer Online. Rift’s events seem less scripted right now, but that could be marketing spin for all I know.

Like I said, I’m in favor of scripted content but I think that MMO’s need the potential for emergent content too, and this is something that seems in many high-profile titles to be missing. Players unhappy with the pace of scripted content releases should be aware of this issue. If they’re unhappy with that, I’d suggest playing games that rely less upon the pace of development, but unfortunately there are few of them, and only one high-profile title, EVE Online.

Okay, That’s Interesting

The newest video from Rift: Planes of Telara is the most interesting yet. It shows an area of the gameworld as it normally exists, and then again as it appears under the influence of some of the different rifts. I still think the animation and models look blocky and artificial, but this footage is actually pretty neat.

I’m torn on whether or not preset configurations to the world really qualifies as anything more “dynamic” than the similar effects we already see in WoW, Guild Wars and LotRO. It depends on how it actually feels in play, I suppose. So we won’t know for a bit yet.

Meridian Unveiled

The folks at Trion Worlds have released a short trailer featuring Meridian, one of the two factional capitals for Rift: Planes of Telara. Massively also has a rundown.

The trailer illustrates one of the reservations I have about Rift; graphically, it looks good but has a very old-school vibe. I’m almost tempted to say ‘regressive’. The combat animations (not shown in this video,) look flat and static in the traditional style; it doesn’t look like blows connect, and I’m not seeing much reaction from struck enemies. Of course, it’s hard to get a good feel for how a virtual world behaves graphically from even the best static videos, and my impressions may prove to be premature once I actually get into the game and start doing stuff.

I have high hopes for Rift, but I’m trying not to project too much. It’s a game that looks good but neither awesome nor earthshakingly innovative. I’m looking forward to trying it, but I’ll say this: the virtual world aspects of the game had better knock my socks off, because I’m not seeing anything really compelling from the mechanics reveals we’ve seen so far.

The rift idea itself is interesting, on the other hand, and I’d love to see it in action. (Plus it looks cool.) But it’s not quite as new as it might at first appear; organic spawning of enemies was built into Tabula Rasa (mortui uiuos docent,) and the progression structure of these events seems much like WAR’s public quests. I expect an improvement from both, but it’s an incremental advance, and seems less ambitious that what ArenaNet is touting for Guild Wars 2. Then again, I expect the world impact of this kind of thing in GW2 to be largely or entirely instanced, whereas in Rift it looks to be global but temporary.

Again, I’m taking a wait-and-see attitude with this title. Launch is probably something like 6 months away yet, so there’s time for a lot to be revealed before then.

Rift Preview at G4TV

G4TV’s latest MMO Report has some (via Massively,) a look behind the scenes of Rift: Planes of Telara, from Trion Worlds. This is one of the upcoming games I’m keeping an eye on.

There’s no real new information here – dynamic content, ascended souls, flexible class system, release early 2011 – but it’s a useful recap and contains some gameplay footage that I hadn’t seen before. I’m still getting a Vanguard vibe from the look of the thing (and much else,) but the dynamic rifts, as you might expect, impart a WAR vibe as well.

I don’t actually think that Rift will prove to be a huge hit, but it stands an excellent chance of accruing a modest and faithful audience from those whose tastes are driven by nostalgia for the days of EQ and DAoC, and from those who felt betrayed by Vanguard’s failure to live up to its promise. It also might prove to be a pretty good game in its own right.

I’m on the fence about it, myself. The much-touted dynamic content looks (as of right now,) to be similar to but less ambitious than what Guild Wars 2 is trying to do. Of course, it may be that ArenaNet is better at the marketing thing and making the idea sound revolutionary, even though it’s pretty clearly just the next step along the road Warhammer went down with its Public Quests. On the other hand, that fire rift is really sweet-looking.

The Future, Near and Far

There’s enough titles on the horizon to warrant a post hitting the highlights. In no particular order, here’s what I’m looking forward to.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, likely late this year or early next. My initial impression was that we’d see it well before the end of the year, and the timing of the start of the opt-in beta seemed to back me up. Yet the details coming out of that beta reveal that much remians unfinished – too much to take a release now and fill in the gaps later approach. Maybe we’ll see it this year, but I’m starting to think February or so is a better estimate.

In any event, I’ve cooled on it considerably. I’m still interested, and I still think it will make WoW a better game in a number of ways, but I’m no longer stoked about it. Although I’ve certainly got my ear to the ground.

Star Wars: The Old Republic is looking mighty tired from where I’m sitting. It’s still at least a solid year away from release, so there’s hopefully aspects to the game we haven’t seen yet (with starship combat being the big one,) but what I see is a WoW-model game with Mass Effect-style dialogue and cinematics. Which is cool, as far as it goes, but it’s pretty obvious we’re not getting any significant innovations out of this game. That’s disappointing, especially considering how frustratingly close Star Wars Galaxies came to really fulfilling the potential of an MMO.

That doesn’t mean that SWTOR won’t be good or successful or fun. In fact, I’d be quite surprised if it weren’t all three, and I definitely plan to play it myself. However, BioWare appears to be trapping themselves even deeper in the fatigue/expansion cycle than Blizzard has with WoW, because the content is so elaborately constructed, and without some form of emergent gameplay I think the title’s long-term prospects are mediocre. Hopefully BioWare has surprises up its sleeve.

Guild Wars 2 is the title I’m currently most excited about. Enough that I’m fooling with GW1 again, as noted earlier. Of everything on the horizon it appears to embrace a form of emergent gameplay the most, even if it’s in a somewhat truncated and scripted form.

GW essentially takes Warhammer’s public quests and fixes them by doing two things: letting them scale to the number of player involved and making them the primary engine of character advancement. Then it ups the ante by promising tangible (but either temporary or instanced,) changes to the world resulting from the outcome of those encounters. This looks like a recipe for a type of game experience we really haven’t seen before.

GW2 also gets away from the GW not-really-an-MMO both in the game itself and in the marketing – ArenaNet is embracing the label this time around, by eliminating henchmen/heroes and adding a persistent world to adventure in. I’m a bit disappointed that ArenaNet didn’t follow one of its original ideas (batted around in the initial announcements back in 2007,) of having levels but no cap – that’s something I’d have liked to have seen, and I don’t think it’s impossible, even though no developer has done it yet. My best guess on a release date is late 2011.

Rift: Planes of Telara is the earliest of these four titles in its development, at least judging by appearances, and it’s by far the mostly likely to stall significantly before release. On the plus side it looks to have potential; on the minus it positively screams Vanguard all over again. Assuming development doesn’t fall apart what we might get is something that appeals to the old EQ nostalgia crowd, along with whatever post-EQ gamers with similar leanings it can pick up.

I actually think there’s a market for this. Although such a game is unlikely to be a big hit, a title that’s intelligently budgeted, well-designed and has realistic expectations as to how many subscribers it’s likely to get could stick around for a long while as a modestly successful entry in the market. And as CCP’s example shows, it is possible to build from there. Is Trion the next CCP? Or is Rift the next Vanguard?

Final Fantasy XIV, Dark Millennium and The Secret World are games I’ve no interest in currently, although I think the last has some potential and I’ll be keeping one eye on it. I may check out DC Universe Online for the PS3, but the video I’ve seen of it looks terrible, so I hope to all the gods there’s a demo – otherwise I’ll be passing.

Lastly, there’s the game we know the least about, CCP’s World of Darkness Online. I expect to start seeing some real details on this some time in 2011 – all CCP has confirmed so far is that it’s in development, and I expect that EVE’s Incarna is the major holdup, since WoDO will use the same engine. So we’ll likely see details on both within the same general time frame. In any case, though, I wouldn’t expect a release before 2012 at the earliest, which tempers my enthusiasm in the here and now. Nevertheless, CCP is the company that best understands what an MMO is and should be, and WoDO has the most potential of anything currently in the pipeline.