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RIFT Interview with TRION’s Hal Hanlin

We recently had the chance to talk to TRION’s Design Producer Hal Hanlin about everything RIFT following the first four Beta test sessions which have proved to be highly successful. We wanted to find out a little more about how things are progressing and touched on topics such as the RIFT design, dynamic content, experience gain and much more.
First of all congratulations on what many are describing as the most polished and stable beta test for an MMO in many years. How exactly are TRION managing to pull this off?
Thank you! Yes, it’s been an amazing ride, really. Each Beta we have managed to react to a huge amount of feedback from the forum and turn that into new content, improved systems, and an overall better game. We started strong with Beta 1 and have only gotten better from there. The main reason we can be this responsive is the stability and flexibility of our servers. It’s not uncommon for MMO Betas to spend as much time off as on. In our case, our tech is so solid that we can turn our full attention to observing the players, poring over the forum, tweaking values real-time, and learning exactly what results in the best play experience.
We’ve been thoroughly enjoying our adventures in Telara and much of this has been down to the background story and also the game’s art style. What has been the major influences on the game’s art style?
Darren Pattenden (Art Director) has made it clear for years now that each area must feel unique. Sometimes they have drawn inspiration from real-world settings such as the Scottish highlands or the sandstone valleys of the American west. In other cases, the designers and artists dreamed up scenes that are truly fantastic, like the death-infused forests of old Mathosia. In each case, careful research and concept work drove the visuals. The result is a game world that is truly stunning.
The game has a pretty strong foundation when it comes to lore but just how much of it has been laid down on paper at this stage and are we in for some surprises as the world of RIFT progresses?
Story drives the entire game and led to the innovation of the rift/invasion game-play. That, in turn, filled in additional information, which drove the story further. We started with literally thousands of pages of reference, bestiaries, and back-story, but we allow the game world to evolve as we discover new elements.
In a game based on a flexible platform and on dynamic game-play, it does not make sense to force it to be completely static. We know the history. We know the present. We know where the story is going, but we also give ourselves permission to alter the specific details of that journey based on the natural evolution of the game.
What was the inspiration behind the look of the RIFTs in the game because they are pretty stunning when you watch one from start to finish.
We spent months in daily R&D mini-sprints where we brainstormed, prototyped, critiqued, revised and optimized every aspect of the look, sound, UI and game-play of rifts. We approached each plane individually and then compared them against one another until we reached a stunning quality bar. We knew we had reached our goal when the arguments became about which one was best and each had a group of fans.
The five zones that are currently open are already jam-packed with content but what have you got up your sleeves with regards to new content come release? How many if the zones do you plan on opening up in the remaining two Beta tests?
Um… more! We want to get the benefits of Beta testing for as much of our content as is sane, but we want to give ourselves the room to react to that feedback. There will be more zones. There will be more Warfronts. There will be more dungeons. And of course there will be many, many more rifts, invasions and events.
As the game is based around a monthly subscription model, are you planning on any micro-transactions at all with regards to vanity items or content?
Not at this time, as far as I know.
Are you planning on rolling out test servers prior to major future updates?
We have gotten the level of polish that we were able to reach due in large part to our active and… vocal Alpha community. I don’t see us deviating from what works.
How exactly are the invasions controlled in the world? There is always a massive spike in activity toward the end of each test. Are we likely to see major invasions only happen during planned events, and if that is the case, how often will these events take place?
A huge goal for the Betas is finding the high-water mark for planar content. Too many invasions/events/bosses and the experience becomes monotonous. We have some great core content that people want to enjoy as well. Still, they’re too much fun to be stingy about letting players experience them! Beta has helped us refine the launching mechanism for these and to set up the systems to be tweakable should the need arise. So, some of our events will be planned, yes, but we have many different complexity and difficulty levels of our events.
Many of the RIFTs spawn exactly in the same spot periodically, is this going to be randomised further in the future to make the game feel less predictable?
We toyed with making the locations completely random, but fighting a rift on a cliff-side is just not fun. We do have some established locations for rifts, but during events the possible locations increase dramatically. The goal is to make sure that players have access to the content, but also to make sure that there is the edge of fear. Just because a rift has not opened somewhere before does not mean it never will.
Looking ahead, and I know this may seem a little premature, but have you got other races lined up for future updates?
I can’t go into any details, of course, but we are MMO fans as well as being developers and we all want to do the things that make our game even better.
You inventory can get pretty full quickly with quest items, are you considering adding a special quest only item bag or are you relying on players to manage their inventory better? I know I have had to chuck away a lot of stuff when out questing if there’s not been a vendor around.
How much bag space is consumed by the various things you encounter in our game is something I have heard discussed a lot by the Systems team. There are lots of options available to us to help players get a handle on their inventory and the quest bags idea is certainly one that they will consider. Scott has got the team firmly in the mindset of “We will do whatever is best for the game.”
Regarding experience gain, it seems pretty fast. Has experience been accelerated for the Beta test or can we expect it to stay the same or be reduced once retail launches?
XP and progression speeds are funny. Some people race to the end and then start doing the wide range of other things the game offers. Others (like me) seem bewildered by the rush and spend days sampling everything. We are looking carefully at levelling speed, of course, but that is not the full metric of a game’s content. There are many dials we can turn to change the levelling speed, but once again, we will look at that one element in balance with everything else in the game.
There was some criticism on the game’s performance during the first couple of test but by Beta 4 frame rates had increased between 6-10 FPS. Are you still working on improving the framerates or is that part of the process now complete?
Constantly. That is another benefit of working on such a stable platform, we can have the super-talented people paying attention to performance issues.
We have our own guild up and running now and it has been excellent fun playing with other members of the community but are you going to add other ways of identifying guild mates other than just the title under the name? Just how far are you going to take the customisation with the look of guilds?
As you know, we’re very responsive to the desires of the community. When there is a deep need, we work to address it. If further customization beyond the ability to dye equipment to create a uniform look, Guild Perks, and Guild levelling, we will certainly explore that.
Looking ahead as players max out on levels, are you going to be focusing on PvP in the long-term, or perhaps continue with more dungeons or enhance the Rifts further. What are we looking at as far as the end-game is concerned?
Scott has made it clear that we are not trying to force people to play one or the other. We want to let people play the parts of our game that they are most excited about. Our forward-looking plans include a large amount of content for both PVP and PVE players.
With future expansion updates, and we hope there will be based on what we have seen of Telara so far, will more skills be added to the Souls to compensate for increased levels or will you be adding new souls to the four existing classes?
Our system is very flexible, so we should be able to adapt where the game-improvement is greatest. Personally, I get more excited by the concept of more souls, because a new soul ripples through the gameplay of the entire calling.
An interesting conversation coincidentally was happening behind me while I wrote that last paragraph. Let me just say that we are not limiting our options
During our run of Fae two weeks ago we managed to run through it pretty quickly on our second run. Have you thought about adding unpredictable elements to the dungeons. Perhaps randomly spawn a Rift inside a dungeon just to really make it a challenge and add that element of unpredictability to the game.
Adding new twists is very easy on our platform, and I know that Berenger (Lead of the Instance team) has talked about. A significant part of the scheduling I am doing, looking toward the next couple of years, includes making sure there is time to continually enhance our live game, in Instances, in the open world, and in the Rift/Invasion system.
Finally, with the retail launch being just over a month away, how is the mood in the TRION camp? Are you sleeping under desks yet?
Hah! Sleep? Actually, I’m kidding. We’re trying not to work people to death. A game is only as good as the people making it, and if we grind people down to nothing to get to launch, they won’t have anything left to address the white-water ride that is an MMO’s first month. That said, some people are putting in intense hours, because they want to make this game shine.
Thanks to Hal for taking the time out to chat and keep your eyes peeled on RIFT: IncGamers for more from TRION in the coming weeks.

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