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Exclusive: Behind The Scenes Of Trion Worlds' Rift

Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine features a postmortem of Trion Worlds' fantasy MMO Rift, written by CCO Scott Hartsman -- highlights of what went right, wrong within.
The latest issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine, available now for subscribers and for digital purchase, includes an exclusive, in-depth postmortem of Trion Worlds' fantasy MMO Rift, written by CCO Scott Hartsman. Rift, which launched officially in March 2011, is a relatively new contender in the subscription-based online space, and aims to capture long-time MMO players while still introducing new features and systems within this well-treaded genre. The game gets its name from its dynamic in-game events, where monsters spontaneously attack the game world and break up the flow of the traditional MMO experience. Trion Worlds used this system, among others, to help differentiate Rift from established titles like World of Warcraft. These excerpts, extracted from the June-July 2011 issue of Game Developer magazine, reveal various "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" highlights from throughout the creation of this hardcore online title. Along the way, Hartsman outlines how the studio managed the game's scope, crafted a new IP, and taught players about the game's titular rift system. Scope: Control It, Or Be Controlled Hoping to avoid feature creep, Trion Worlds carefully managed Rift's scope to keep production on track and to ensure the studio had time to include all of the game's key features. "There’s a price to pay for innovation in a fantasy MMORPG. If you don’t have enough similar elements to others in the space presented in a way that is easily understood by experienced players, your MMO will be viewed as "broken” even if it all works. (What this really means is, 'too inaccessible to attract and retain a sufficient audience.') Unfortunately, that too means you die. Is that the way the world should work? I think a lot of us wish it were a little more forgiving, but that’s what the last few years of MMO releases have reinforced to developers. With that in mind, there is a balance to hit between 'new' and 'what you’re used to.' We landed where we landed intentionally. Our goal was to iterate up while making sure to focus our innovation time on things that made us unique. One of those unique features was our rift system, where tears from the planes could open any time, and players would have to stop what they’re doing and band together and fight back invaders. (In an MMO, that is an incredibly important differentiator: what is fun to do with a full server is frequently an entirely different thing from what is fun while you’re the only person on an internal world.) That leads us up to about a year and a half before launch. We had a pretty good idea of how much we were going to be able to get done in the remaining time. We locked down what would become the final feature set, and made sure to leave time at the end for the inevitable learning of new systems that would only occur to us once we got the game into alpha testing and saw how it played in front of a real audience. We made some painful cuts at that point, instead of waiting for features to be partially developed only to be deferred until later." Creating A New IP Was Harder Than We Thought While a number of recent MMOs use established licenses to help reach out to certain audiences, Rift is base don an entirely new IP, and Trion Worlds occasionally struggled with crafting their brand new universe. "While trying to build a company up from nothing, and building out multiple studios and products in parallel, there was also this little problem of having to create a new IP. I’m not sure if it works the same way in your studios, but at least at ours—and this may shock some of you—not everyone has the same taste in fictional direction. As such, it took far longer than anyone expected to really get everyone on the same page and excited about the world we were making. What would it look like? What would it sound like? Who are the notable characters? What are their motivations? How can we express those? Ad infinitum. When so much is being created and iterated every day, trying to keep a rapidly growing team of people, much less the general public, up to date on the current state of everything is a hell of a challenge, and one that was definitely underestimated. Creating the IP and surfacing the story wasn’t really something that we began getting good at until fairly late in the process, though still early enough to have a successful launch. Most MMORPGs have long PR and marketing cycles -- years in most cases. With Rift, we announced officially in April 2010 and launched in March 2011, which was not a ton of time for the PR/Marketing machine to get all the information about the game out to fans and build a groundswell. But I’m happy to say that we did a pretty good job with that on a limited time budget." Dynamic Content -- Presentation Is Everything While Rift's dynamic content system helps set it apart from other contenders in the MMO space, Trion Worlds' initially struggled to teach players how it all worked. The team's eventual decision not only helped remedy the problem, it also led to the game's final name. "The architecture was set up to handle real-time swapping of assets and gameplay data, as well as handle the inevitable flash mobs that would gather during in-game events. Once the technical challenges were solved, problems of messaging and visibility appeared. Early in the project, players had a hard time distinguishing what was static content and what was dynamic. Any difference in challenge or new/adaptive behavior was viewed as a bug, even when it was explained in real time. The answer, and our eventual name, was in our world’s lore all along! Rifts explained visually and fictionally why some content wasn’t always there, and they were immediately recognizable as something that players would know to treat differently than the previous decade of fantasy MMO gameplay has trained them to behave around 'all game content.' ...By providing this very obvious distinction, players who had previously complained about bugs or hadn't understood content that was unexpected could now understand why it was there, and thus happily throw themselves against a giant colossus with smiles on their faces." Additional Info The full postmortem of Rift explores more of "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" during the course of the game's development, and is now available in the June/July 2011 issue of Game Developer magazine. Also in this issue, Game Developer reveals its picks for the top 30 developers, highlighting big-budget studios like BioWare's Mass Effect Team to indie studios like Team Meat and Zeptolab. In addition, the issue includes a feature laying out the pros and cons of various anti-aliasing techniques, particularly noting the benefits of MLAA. Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months' and a year's subscriptions, alongside access to back issues and PDF downloads of all issues, all for a reduced price. There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of June/July 2011's magazine as a single issue.

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