Enter at Your Own Rift: Talking 1.3 with Hal Hanlin

Today we're on the verge of RIFT's third major update's going live. It's a doozy of a patch, too, with a little something for everyone: a raid for endgame players, guild banks for... well, guilds, character transfers for the antsy, and RIFT's second world event for one and all.

With Patch 1.3, Trion Worlds puts its money where its mouth is by continuing with its streak of sizable, regular updates. It's a critical patch for some, as it seeks to answer the growing call for more endgame content while an increasing number of players hit 50. Fans of RIFT will most likely welcome the spread of the patch, but detractors will undoubtedly criticize why X was done instead of Y (and don't even get into Z; that letter is nothing but trouble). And above the noise, Trion sails on with apparent confidence and dedication.

Even though we got to speak with Trion at E3, I got the opportunity for another pre-1.3 interview with Design Producer Hal Hanlin (which, by the way, is a superhero fake identity if I ever heard one). In this no-holds-barred discussion, we covered the selling points of 1.3, the accusation that RIFT is "dying," and the philosophy behind Trion's rapid stream of content.

Keeping the content faucet running

After I got Hanlin on the phone, the very first question that popped out of my mouth was "how tough is it to get these releases out as fast as you're doing them, and how do you do it and stay sane?" It's a question that Trion's getting a lot these days, for good reason. The game launched on March 1st, with content patches arriving almost monthly thereafter: March 31st, May 10th, and now June 22nd.

Hanlin, who supervises a team of 31 designers (including six who were hired recently), said that it definitely keeps them hopping -- but they aren't over their heads by a long shot. "This is the most professional group of people I've ever worked with. We are all hands on deck most of the time to make sure we hit our deadlines," he said.

It turns out that this group of designers is broken into six teams, each working on an upcoming aspect of the live game. By operating in parallel, Trion can divide and conquer its future content while maintaining this breakneck pace. For example, one team was working on River of Souls (the first world event) while the second team was simultaneously crafting Hammerknell.

Hanlin said that Scott Hartsman is well aware of how new MMOs are often praised for coming out with quick updates during the first few months but then criticized for greatly slowing down afterward. He assured me that the pace the team has set is sustainable and that it's OK to expect the same from the future.

Hammerknell: A tough nut to crack

Hammerknell came up next in our conversation. This 20-person raid has required a heap of work on Trion's end, including long hours testing it with several raid guilds. To keep guilds from learning all the fights before the launch, Trion ensured that each testing guild only saw one or two fights out of the 10 in the instance.

This raid is easily the most difficult part of the game to date, and Hanlin says that you'd be foolish to enter without a team fully decked out in T1 gear. But he said that even more important than the gear is players' skill at working together as a finely tuned team. Hammerknell is designed to be a tough nut to crack in many ways and will require players to split up at times to accomplish tasks while coordinating with the other team.

A common perception I've heard is that Trion is struggling to provide enough endgame content to meet the growing needs of players. Hanlin denied that the studio takes the position of a race; he thinks the team's proven that it can deliver the endgame that Trion's been promising.

Waves of Madness

Learning from the lessons of its first world event, Trion promises that Waves of Madness will be not only larger in scope but less frustrating overall. Waves of Madness is a multi-phase event that will take place over several weeks, with each phase transitioning after an undisclosed period of time. No longer will players have to log in at a certain time in order to see vital parts of the story, either; the team's designed the event so that you can go back and trigger story scenes to catch up on what's happening.

During the event, players will have plenty to do with several additional daily quests that will appear in their respective capital cities. Some quests will be specific to one phase, while others will span across several. Hanlin said it's possible that you might have up to eight daily quests running at the same time, depending on which part of the event is running. There will also be a new type of token that can be earned and spent on special items, and dedicated players might find themselves the lucky recipient of limited-time drops, like a Murdantix mount.

Guild banks and character transfers

Most everyone I know is excited about guild banks, free character transfers, or both. The guild banks promise to hold a hefty amount of storage when fully purchased: Each one of the bank's five tabs holds 105 items that can be shared among members.

The bank will be integrated with the guild management interface, as GMs can set permissions for item and gold withdrawals according to rank.

In regard to character transfers, Hanlin once again confirmed that you will be able to pick up your bags and move to any server of your choice, at least initially. He said that, conspiracy theory on server loads aside, "The goal is to let people go where they want to have the most fun." Of course, the studio retains the rights to put the brakes on transfers if things get way too unbalanced with the population, as a server with no players on it (or all just on one side) is no fun for anyone there.

Speaking of population, I couldn't help but relay the accusation that RIFT's population is not growing but dwindling (or "dying," depending on your proximity to a cyberprophet of doom). Hanlin laughed and said, "I can assure you -- no, we're not. Uh-uh. We are continuing to uptrend our number of subscribers."

In fact, he revealed that one of the most-cited sources of this accusation -- the population indicators on the server list -- has changed simply because the company has severely beefed up the capacity of its server hardware to accommodate more players. So what rated as a "high" population before might be downgraded to "medium" today. He said that this upgrade was done in preparation for even more player trials coming in the future.

Rounding out 1.3

Patch 1.3 is more than just the raid, world event, guild bank and character transfers. Hanlin says that players are going to enjoy hunting down the new red sliver collections, especially since they unlock a whole new set of fun rewards. "Some of the rewards are pranky and fun," he said. "Some are weapons that look like a shovel, or camouflage that makes you look like a crate or shrub. There's even one that lets you put out a fake collections thing in the world."

Players on PvP servers are going to like the new world PvP daily quests. These can be picked up in the cities like regular dailies and will send players to specific regions for skirmishes. By giving players incentive to head to one area, these quests will create a higher concentration of combatants and thereby up the fun quotient.

RIFT will also see the introduction of bind to account items that you can share between your characters. Some of these will be helpful heirloom items while others will be simply cosmetic. You'll get these from a variety of expected sources, including quest rewards, mob drops and rift rewards.

Assorted grab bag of inquisitional goodies

Our conversation wasn't limited to patch 1.3, as I peppered Hanlin with a few unrelated questions that have been niggling my brain:
  • Are there plans to expand the LFG system to cross-servers? While the team talks about it on a regular basis, no decision has been made. Trion's worried that making this change would destroy the developing socialization on individual servers through instance runs.
  • How difficult is RIFT to balance? Hanlin said that it's actually easier than other MMOs he's worked on since the team approaches balance by saying it has four classes with a bunch of abilities. One of the changes for 1.3 is that the Warrior calling, as a whole, will see an increase in DPS output.
  • How does he recommend teaching people about combining souls instead of viewing character class as "just one soul?" Hanlin said that after a number of events and conventions, he's worked out a perfect system. He helps the player recreate a familiar class from another MMO -- say, a Hunter from World of Warcraft -- then shows her how this setup can be changed in a variety of ways. Once that concept "clicks" with the player, he knows she gets it.
Nevermind 1.3... what's in 1.4?

I was apologetic when I asked this question because I'm the type of player who's always curious about the next big thing. Hanlin said that was OK -- he is too. While he couldn't get into specifics about upcoming patches, he assured me that there is a lot more coming: "We have a huge amount of content in the pipe, and we've released more content since launch than some people charge for an expansion pack."

One of the things he wanted to stress is that Trion is fully aware that there are many different subsets of RIFT players, so the team is working to create content for all of them. Consequently, while 1.3 is a Big Deal for raiders, there's content in the works for PvPers, roleplayers, casual endgamers, and so on.

Hanlin said that it was a balancing act between implementing his team's ideas and player wishes, since Trion wants to cover both equally. The team doesn't want to rush anything, either, which is why it's held back features from patches (such as the addon system) until they're fully complete.

I also asked whether what we can see on the map is the whole world or there are other continents out there. He demurred, simply saying, "We have six different content pods working on different stuff." Take that for what you will.

According to Hanlin, Trion is hitting its stride and not looking to slow down any time soon. The company is aware of upcoming MMOs, but he's not worried: "I wish them good luck. I doubt that any of the people coming onto the scene can keep up with our pace of content."

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.