Enter at Your Own Rift: Looking for groups

Like some of you, I feel that RIFT's Update 1.2 can't get here soon enough. A good content update, in my opinion, has a little something for everyone, and in talking with Trion Worlds last week, I definitely got that feeling from this patch. The team is catering to endgame players with Slivers, build-enthusiasts with a fifth role, rift-runners with new types of dynamic events, and people who aren't content to merely spam my Twitter feed with accomplishments but must now do so from inside Facebook as well.

I'd be lying if I said I'm not planning on spending huge amounts of time assembling dashing and fashionable outfits for my characters once the wardrobe is in the game, too. I'm all about outfits in Lord of the Rings Online, so it's great to see RIFT bring this type of system into the game (unlike some other stubborn studios, which shall remain nameless). Players like to feel powerful while looking incredible, and this outfit system will hopefully allay some of the complaints of similar-looking toons.

Above all this in Update 1.2 towers one of the biggest changes to the game yet: the Looking for Group (LFG) tool. Designed to assemble teams of players to tackle dungeons and group quests, the LFG tool will certainly change how we play RIFT. Will it be a good change or bad? That's the $1,000,000 question, which I will tackle after these brief messages, by which I mean, "after the jump."

World of Warcraft's legacy

Of course, we can't get into a discussion about the LFG tool without mentioning World of Warcraft. In December 2009, Blizzard released Patch 3.3.0, and with it, the Dungeon Finder. The Dungeon Finder was meant to break down barriers that were getting in the way of players running the many 5-man dungeons that littered the game, most notably the difficulty of assembling a group with which to begin.

By largely automating the group assembly process, the Dungeon Finder accomplished the goal of making dungeons the "in thing" to do in the game, and WoW saw a marked increase of dungeon diving as players would chain runs back-to-back.

While popular, the Dungeon Finder had to be tweaked by Blizzard several times to keep the system from being too abused by players. One of the most recent changes is that Blizzard has started incentivizing lesser-played roles (usually tanks) into participating, a move that was called "an outright bribe" by segments of the playerbase.

And given the many systems that Blizzard has taken, invented and refined over the years, other studios have had to examine whether a Dungeon Finder-type system is right for their games and how much the players would expect one. In RIFT's case, it seems that Trion's decided that the system was not only a good match for the game but a necessary one worth implementing as soon as possible.

The nuts and bolts

If you've never fiddled with WoW's Dungeon Finder or a similar system, I'll briefly explain how it works (the rest of the class may move on to the next section). Basically, once you have some time to do a dungeon run, you click to open up a special interface. In it, you select the dungeon you wish to run (or hey, all of them), the level of difficulty, and what role you want to play. For World of Warcraft, the roles were (1) tank, (1) healer and (3) damage-dealers. RIFT is changing this up by also adding a support role into the mix (such as Bard or Archon).

Once you've done that, you click to queue up and the system starts trying to assemble a group. Sometimes this can happen quickly if there are lots of folks wanting to do dungeons, and sometimes it can take a while if there aren't enough willing participants or specific roles are underrepresented in the queue.

As soon as the system has a team assembled, it asks for the go-ahead to start the dungeon for each player, and granting that everyone is ready, it automatically teleports you to the beginning of that instance. When you finish the run, the system typically hands you an extra reward as a thank-you for using it.

It is, in many ways, similar to how we currently queue up for PvP Warfronts, although it's a little more complicated since specific role balance has to be maintained.

The pros

So what will the benefits be of a new Looking for Group tool? The most obvious is that it'll get players in and running dungeons far more frequently than before. I consider this a definite good thing because I'm a big fan of RIFT's dungeon designs. They're interesting, just the right length, visually stimulating, and usually boasting a few tricky boss battles that keep everyone on his toes. I usually never say no when friends want to run one, but sometimes I don't want to wait until enough people in my guild of the same level are in the mood to head into an instance.

To me, LFG is about convenience -- the convenience of my being able to choose what dungeon I want to run when I want to run it while playing the role I want to use. There needs to be some inconvenience in MMOs (otherwise there's no challenge or obstacles I'm struggling to overcome) but not so much that it keeps me from experiencing parts of the game the dev team has poured enormous resources into building. Like Warfronts and rifts, dungeons will now become convenient to access and enjoy, and I'm all for that.

Let's not forget that dungeons are a great source of riches for players. I'm not talking about just the extra XP or vendor trash but also the high-quality gear that drops, the achievements that are attained, and the special rewards at the end. A few good dungeon runs could greatly boost your character's stats and give you an edge in the outside world.

The final positive point to consider is that with an uptick in dungeon running, we'll have more players grouping together than ever before. Why is this a good thing? Because focused grouping (and I don't mean the looser public grouping option) forces players to really learn their roles, tweak their builds, and function as a part of a larger unit. Grouping makes you a better player, period, and helps prepare you for tougher endgame challenges. Too many MMOs make it so easy to solo these days that the transition to endgame content becomes a wall to some who haven't learned how to be a useful part of a functioning group by then.

The cons

Of course, we can learn a lot from WoW's Dungeon Finder, which hasn't been a 100% rosy experience. One of the biggest problems that affected it from the start was that the appeal of running dungeons became so great that players simply stopped going into the open world. Players tend to do what is easiest and most beneficial, and the Dungeon Finder gave them quick access to loads of XP and loot without having to travel anywhere to do it.

This is a fear I've seen expressed for RIFT's LFG tool, and I'll admit that it is a personal concern of mine as well. As fun as the dungeons in the game are, they aren't the cornerstone of the game. RIFT's dynamic content depends on players being out in the world and engaging with the various rifts, invasions and zone-wide events that happen. If too many players get into the habit of chain-running dungeons and nothing else, it could adversely affect the game at large.

Other than restricting players' access to dungeons (putting a cap on the number of dungeons one could run in a day, for example), the only solution here is for Trion to make world PvE just as attractive and beneficial as dungeons, if not more so. In my opinion, rifts should always be one of the best sources of rewards in the game so that players will have a huge incentive to drop everything to go do them. If dungeons offer more in terms of rewards, then rifts will be deserted. It's a balancing act that Trion definitely needs to get right and keep an eye on forever.

Another potential drawback is a clogged system if players don't queue up to be tanks or healers. It's here that I think RIFT has an advantage over WoW, because of the flexibility of the soul system. Every player can have a whole assortment of roles at her disposal instead of just one or two, and as a result, the potential pool of dungeon-runners is far more diverse by default. Listen, I'm not one to tank, but the soul system emboldened me on more than one occasion to step up into that role for a dungeon run when no one else would. And you know what? It wasn't that bad, and I learned a lot in the process. Hopefully multiple roles will get players to break out of their self-imposed limitations to explore a world of new possibilities.

Finally, some folks are upset that the LFG will be server-only at first (instead of cross-server), which is a whole big debate I'll leave for another time.

Ready or not, here it comes

Ultimately, how we feel about the LFG tool won't impact its arrival; it's coming to the game, and that's that. I am definitely hopeful that it'll be a great asset to the community and players by providing a way to group more often, not just for dungeons but for tough world quests that have had players spamming regional chat looking for assistance. I'm pretty amazed how quickly Trion's getting it in the game, and I think this shows just how hard that team is working on bringing us the latest and greatest features that other MMOs are pokey in delivering.

So what do you think? Will the LFG be a boon to the game or kill it completely (or you know, something not as extreme)?

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.