Enter at Your Own Rift: Creature comforts

Ever since RIFT's beta mushroomed in both population and presence, there's been an exponential increase of folks trying to get a handle on how they feel about the game. It's the same song and dance that you see with any new MMO: People come to it with a need to know whether they like it, whether it's worth their money, whether it should be defended or denounced as rubbish. It's extremely disconcerting when you can't match up your gut feeling with logical reasoning, such as when your gut tells you that you really, really like a game, but you have a hard time putting it into words. It's kind of like the "On paper, it should be a perfect MMO, but in practice, it sucks" effect (and vice-versa).

I've been amused by how many bloggers and commenters have echoed my own thoughts about RIFT when they say something to the effect of, "I know it's a lot like other MMOs and has a lot more of the same, but I'm actually enjoying it" -- as if the fact that RIFT shares commonalities with its contemporaries should be dooming it from the start.

Instead, today we're going to take a peek into why "more of the same" isn't necessarily a bad or even disreputable factor for an MMO, and why RIFT has struck the sweet spot of appeasement with so many of us. Except for you, Angry Commenter. We're not ignoring you, promise -- we're just having fun in our game.

The tortured car metaphor

I've lived near Detroit for over a decade now, and the auto industry pervades almost every aspect of life because of that proximity. People love their cars and trucks here, which is why the North American International Auto Show is one of the highlights of the year for many. Hundreds of thousands of people flock to the convention center for over a week to check out all the upcoming models along with the prototypes, and yet you never hear folks whining that all of these latest and greatest models still have four wheels. That they still go just forward and reverse. That all of the improvements are either cosmetic or incremental innovations with rare leaps forward in design.

That doesn't bother car aficionados in the least or dampen their enthusiasm, because their joy and excitement comes from the mixing of familiar with new ideas and technologies. People are comfortable with the car being designed in a certain way by now, so while you could design a car with a steering column coming down from the roof and have it balance on three wheels, it wouldn't sell well. Change for the sake of change is pointless, but change for the sake of improvement is king.

I'm bringing this tortured car metaphor into the picture to show that it's not the end of the world if MMOs don't change as radically as we sometimes hope, because it may not be for the best anyway. A little over a decade after the first 3-D graphical MMO was introduced, we're already very set in our ways as to how MMOs are laid out and how they function. Sure, there are differences and varieties and new ideas and the occasional odd duck, but being able to jump into a new MMO without having to learn where the steering column is and to just be able to drive while appreciating the fun differences is a bigger boon to a studio's product than many publicly acknowledge.

It's 90% recycled consumer product, 10% fresh materials

If anything, RIFT's major PR hurdle is convincing MMO vets that (1) to play a similar-sounding game can actually be a welcoming experience, and that (2) RIFT has enough new ideas on the table to be worth the players' stay. I'll freely admit, I didn't even give RIFT the time of day before PAX Prime earlier this year -- and I only looked at it then because my boss ordered me to, on the pain of his displeasure (Shawn owns a number of trained rabid chinchillas that he wields as his whims dictate). At a glance, RIFT looked too much like everything else out there: a fantasy MMO (gee, never see those) with a generic-sounding name (which often got mixed in my mind with TERA) that seemed to have an odd tentacle fetish. When I tried it out, I found that it did have a lot in common with many MMOs I've played -- and to my surprise, that was a good thing. Maybe even a great thing.

As much as I love to dive into untried MMOs, I hate having to do huge amounts of homework just to be able to figure out how to interact with the world successfully. Maybe gamers had more patience (and fewer competing options) back in the early days, but we're past that now. If I can jump into the driver's seat of an MMO and have the basic know-how to interact, move and fight within a minute or two, the game has my gratitude. I don't want to have to relearn a ton of unfamiliar shortcut keys and have an imp explain that to make my sword move, I have to swoosh it on screen in a specific pattern. I just want to hack heads off and feel all studly, thank you very much.

From the top of its head to the bottom of its soles, RIFT feels like a comfortable, familiar MMO that I could've been playing for years already even though it has yet to be released. The fact that everything's polished and accessible to anyone who's played an MMO in the past five years may not make it to the box's bullet point features, but it's just as crucial for future success. Lord knows we've all tried plenty of MMOs that have boasted awesome ideas and yet futzed up with the basics of wheel layout and steering columns. If the foundation isn't there, solid and appealing, it doesn't matter how many brilliant gems you stack on top -- it's going to fall over no matter what.

Don't get me wrong -- RIFT has a lot of new and vastly improved ideas that take this above a mere MMO clone, but the team obviously spent a lot of time making sure that its foundation was as solid as could be. I appreciate that.

Rebooting the game

This comfortable familiarity is embraced not only by gamers who just want to get in and play without taking a remedial course in MMO mechanics 101, but also by those worn out by the games with which RIFT shares a common bond.

This sort of seems counter-intuitive, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Say you've been playing a popular fantasy MMO for several years. You've obviously found something (or many things) about that game to love and keep you playing, but the more you play, the less "new" there is. No matter how hard you try to extend your interest with alts, expansions, trying different activities in the game, taking breaks and what have you, there's a diminishing return to the fresh juice that's left. You like the game, but you've also played it to death. In a weird way, if someone offered to erase all your memories of that game to start over with a completely fresh perspective, you might take him up on that offer.

RIFT is that fresh perspective, just in a different (yet comfortably familiar) game. I imagine that some people find themselves attracted to RIFT not because of how visionary it is (or isn't), but because it reminds them so much of what they used to have with that "other" game, back before it was played to death. Sure, their future with RIFT may end in much the same way, but that's a worry for another day, isn't it?

So in a weird way, RIFT can be a wholesale reboot of whatever fantasy MMO you used to play and love, just with a new coat of paint, a few clever innovations, and a lot of fellow enthusiasts beside you sharing your passion. I'm not saying this is how it is for everyone, but it's why some players find themselves attracted to a game when their heads tell them they've already been there and done that.

Maybe we have been there and done that. Doesn't mean it's bad. Doesn't mean we can't get excited for new adventures. After all, we may want to do it again, just in a different world, capisce?

Grab a RIFT beta key -- it's on the house!

Have yet to give RIFT a whirl? Let's change that this week! Each of the following keys can be used 50 times apiece, so let's get 100 more Massively players in the game!
Whether they're keeping the vigil or defying the gods, Karen Bryan and Justin Olivetti save Telara on a weekly basis. Covering all aspects of life in RIFT, from solo play to guild raids, their column is dedicated to backhanding multidimensional tears so hard that they go crying to their mommas. Email Karen and Justin for questions, comments, and adulation.
This article was originally published on Massively.