RIFT beta powow with Scott Hartsman

This is, by any measure, a busy week for RIFT. Fresh off the second beta event, Trion Worlds has dropped the NDA for the game and announced a third beta to take place over the holidays. As the process speeds exponentially faster toward launch, Scott Hartsman and his team have a white-knuckled grip on RIFT for all the bumps, shimmies, dips and hills that such a high-profile title offers.

Even with a heaping amount of work on its plate, the team has been willing to share its passion for RIFT with the press and community. During this slight lull between betas two and three, Hartsman sat down with us over the phone to jaw about lessons learned from the beta, why Trion has dropped the NDA, how RIFT's already made history, and when we might be seeing this game on the shelves.

Hit the jump and let's do this thing. As Hartsman is fond of saying about the game, "S**t just got real."

Design changes from beta one to beta two

For a closed beta, RIFT is running on an impressive 15 servers, divided between the U.S. and Europe. As the team monitored the server load and performance carefully, it was also processing a lot of feedback from the players about every subject under the virtual sun. In fact, Scott told us that even before the first beta was finished, members of the team were hard at work on features and improvements for beta two. One was an engineer who saw the demand for skill queuing in the game and worked up a "soft queue" system over the space of a weekend to be included in the next version.

In Hartsman's opinion, beta one was just dipping toes in the water -- the second beta was all about jumping into the deep end. There were a ton of optimizations, soul system improvements, bug fixes and other features that led to a small book-sized patch. However, the single largest change from beta one to beta two was the unveiling of mass zone events.

Zone events? What are those?


Without warning, High Elf Prince Hylas Aelfwar threw plans into motion that called forth the beings from the Plane of Life to take over Silverwood Forest. Dozens of rifts crackled into life at once and invasions poured out across the zone. Over 500 players found their hands full as they rushed to defend two key objectives -- the Guardian stronghold of Sanctum and Quicksilver College -- before Hylas' forces won.

For players disillusioned with rifts as small-fry public quest affairs (particularly in beta one), this massive zone-wide event came as a huge shock. Suddenly, semi-peaceful questing grounds became a battlefront, and a dynamic story moved into its place. Hartsman said that several players saw the multiple lines of invasions and chaotic warfare and determined that GMs were manually piloting the mobs. On the contrary, while the team kicked the event off, this sort of huge-scale event is specifically what the game was designed to pull off without human hand-holding.

You see the graphic up above? We asked Scott whether that was a time-lapsed map of the event. He paused and then told us that no, it was a screenshot of a single moment of the invasion, with each of those lines representing the thrust of the invasions from the swirls of the Life rifts.

Zone events like the Silverwood one have a story behind them and can take place at any time without warning. They also come with win/lose conditions -- in this case, defending the two key objectives of the invasion. If players were successful in the defense, the game would create helpful NPCs to push back the invasion alongside the players (reinforcements!). Because the game can scale both the number of mobs and the strength of these monsters, it can adjust to the current population of the area in question. More players mean bigger waves of tougher mobs. While Hartsman couldn't say for sure, he felt that this event from beta two might have been one of the largest of its type in MMO history.

Because these huge events are so complex and wide-ranging, the game helps players find their place in the battle by broadcasting regional messages with graphics to announce the development of the event, as well as clearly marking the hotspots and flow of battle on the maps. Players can also hover over areas on the map to see what fight is best suited to their level.

Rifts -- from Trion's perspective

Hartsman wanted to stress that rifts are not the end-all, be-all of the dynamic content. On the contrary, he views them as mere building blocks that kick off much grander events. While rifts shouldn't last forever, the team doesn't always want them to go down in a blink of an eye (which happened sometimes in the beta events as a herd of players would zerg rifts as soon as they opened). Instead, the effects of rifts -- invasions, footholds and so on -- should and will have a longer-lasting effect on the zones.

As players level up, they'll finally take the fight to the elements themselves, jumping into the rifts and battling the baddies on their own turf.

Beta one characters vs. beta two characters

Unless it's absolutely necessary, the team plans to leave the characters be for now. This means that players returning to the game for beta three should be able to pick back up their established characters and see a bit more of the 1-20 experience.

Of course, there will be a total wipe prior to launch (just in case you were wondering).

What the NDA drop means for RIFT's launch

While Hartsman declined to pinpoint any date or launch window, he did say that the NDA drop indicates one important factor: that Trion is comfortable and confident about the centerpiece of its game and that it wants to talk about the game in the open. The team is reluctant to ever show or talk about features that might not make it to launch, so the fact that the NDA dropped indicates that the devs are pretty darn secure in WYSIWYG -- what you see is what you'll get. Hartsman said that they've proved they can back up their words with actions on a large scale, which is why the NDA is no longer needed.

The very first dungeons

The team has planned about 10 or so five-man dungeons that span the leveling track, with the first pair of dungeons hitting around level 17. Guardians have the Realm of the Fae, while the Defiants have the Iron Tomb. It is possible for Guardians to trek into the Iron Tomb and vice-versa, but getting there may be tricky!

One of the team's hopes for beta three is that, now that many players have leveled up their characters, they'll spend more time play-testing the dungeons. Even the lowbie dungeons have interesting boss fights and mechanics, and Hartsman said that there are endgame "expert" versions of these instances that will expand both the story and the territory of the earlier versions.

We asked about LFG tools for these dungeons. Hartsman said that the team wants to do them, but it can't announce anything until or unless there's a finished system in place.

The deal with collections and artifacts


As you level up, you may notice that you're accumulating various artifacts that can be placed in your collections screen. The game actually walks you through a short tutorial on collections once you've reached your faction's home city, tasking you with picking up a few artifacts to complete a set.

Once a collection is completed, the game will hand the player a random reward pack. These packs may contain useful consumables, a bit of coin, or rare gear. Strategy comes in once you realize that many artifacts can be placed in different collections, and bigger collections may offer better rewards when finished.

Forum feedback

As Hartsman put it, "Happy people play the game; angry people play the forums." Even so, Hartsman said that he and his team recognize that all players have valid opinions when they express themselves on the forum, because the game is making them feel a certain way. The trick is to figure out how to filter this information and choose the correct response.

During the first beta, the team noticed that players were overwhelmingly positive about the soul system yet angry that they didn't get more of an opportunity to dabble in more souls in their calling. As a result, Trion has made a number of changes for the third beta to give more options than ever for players who want to experiment and tweak their builds.

Performance issues, lag, and framerate drops

Hartsman wanted to reassure players that this is simply part of the process of fine-tuning the game. There are many issues and conflicts to work through, from DirectX versions to updated graphics drivers that actually made the game's performance worse than earlier drivers.

The team's already made a number of improvements, including utilizing multiple-core processors more fully and reducing the strain on the system from auras. Anti-aliasing is also in the cards, too.

"Optimization is something we take very, very seriously,"
Hartsman said, noting that this is an ongoing task that will go right up to launch.

It may be the holidays for many, but for the Trion Worlds team, this is go time -- a mix of fun, play and crunch. The team members may be gambling on a big-budget launch, but they're also stacking the deck in their favor as much as possible.

Many thanks to Scott for chatting with us!
This article was originally published on Massively.