Enter at Your Own Rift: Are rifts in danger of collapsing?

Like many of you, I've been exploring RIFT's Waves of Madness event over the past couple of weeks -- and enjoying it, too. You can really see how Trion Worlds has taken some of the lessons learned from River of Souls and improved its second world event. There just seems like more to do, much more in terms of atmosphere (I love the dripping ceilings in Sanctum), I'm not feeling as rushed, and the event story is coming through loud and clear.

One of the interesting things I've noticed is that the event's daily quests have subtly shifted our focus from single-player activities to group ones. In phase one, it was all about boring solo quests: find hidden invaders, collect eggs, defeat a few underwater baddies. But just when we started to get used to (and bored from) the routine, the successive phases have moved us toward the game's dynamic content. Namely, rifts, rifts and more rifts.

I think this is brilliant, because we're now given a solid reason why we should participate in rifts above the mere rewards. I've been worried that Trion's letting its focus on dynamic content slip as it's been rushing to get other game features and endgame raids out the door, and RIFT without people playing rifts would be sadly ironic.

Today we're going to look at just how much RIFT depends on its titular feature, and what Trion should be doing to ensure that it doesn't become another nice yet abandoned idea.

The WAR connection

Way, way back in the salad days of 2008, I was a massive Warhammer Online fan. I couldn't help it -- I just became fascinated with everything about the game leading up to its launch. Among its many new (or revitalized) features was the concept of public quests. At this point, our editor Bree will be shouting from across the country, "Ultima Online did it first!" but pay her no mind. For all intents and purposes, public quests were a brand-new idea for the modern MMO generation, and many thought that WAR's success would be greatly influenced by them.

Although scripted, public quests felt dynamic -- they changed, they could progress with or without you, and your involvement could make a real difference whether your side won or lost. They got you into groups with minimal fuss, and going through them felt a ton more fun than most solo quests.

Great idea, yes, but flawed implementation (those six words could be WAR's motto, in my opinion). There were too many of them, for starters, and when the population thinned out in areas, you simply couldn't participate in them. Another issue was that most of them felt too similar and had to be repeated too many times to get the rewards you wanted.

Happily, the notion of public questing endured in the industry, and plenty of other titles picked up the ball and ran with it. Along with Guild Wars 2, RIFT represents what some are calling "Public Questing 2.0" -- a much more intuitive, involved type of dynamic group quests that could scale, move, and even change the landscape.

Rifting 'till I could rift no more

Along with the flexible soul system, RIFT's dynamic content was the biggest selling point for Trion's first MMO. It didn't merely have to be solid, it had to overwhelm, impress, and -- most importantly -- keep us coming back for more. So how'd it do?

Initially, it was everything the company promised and then some. Rifts, invasions and zone-wide events could appear just about anywhere and any time, and the first couple weeks in the game was a heady mix of anticipation and rapid course adjustment as we explored and quested. Players always made a beeline to rifts when they opened, and there was a fun (if light) sense of comradery as you closed them. The rewards were... OK, I guess? For some reason, getting planerite and other tokens never felt as substantial as gear in the pocket, even if they could be traded in for the same thing.

But as with every honeymoon, sooner or later it had to end. The shiny newness has worn off the game, and rifts have become just another facet of the PvE experience instead of the main attraction. Now, I can only speak from personal observations, but lately it seems as though nobody is rushing toward rifts (unless they're trying to do zone-wide or world event objectives), and I've had to abandon quite a few when nobody came along to help me. I'm uber, but not that uber, you understand.

Even more disturbing was the fact that rewards from participating in dynamic content is, honestly, sub-par compared to what you get out of dungeons, raids and PvP. Even normal, boring, been-there-FedEx'd-that questing has become attractive in comparison because at least you're guaranteed rewards along the way to gear up your character.

So what gives? Is RIFT's dynamic content experiencing the same rapid decline as WAR's public quests -- and for the same reason? Part of me wants to say "yes," and part "no." But what I can say for certain is that there's a danger growing in the game for players to ignore and circumnavigate rifts when they pop up, simply because it's not worth their time.

Problems sealed!

Let's look at a few of the key issues that Trion needs to address (and quickly). The first is that MMO players, as a whole, do not do activities for fun's sake if a better reward for equal effort lies elsewhere. If you have two dungeons at the same level, one a complete blast with crappy drops and one a dull slog teeming with fat loots, the crowd is going to go for the second one ten times out of ten. The rewards for participating in rifts, etc. need to be so good that they pander to our desire to get rich, fat and happy. Right now they are not, and this should be changed. I'd love to see a lot more in terms of wearable gear drop from rifts and a much wider selection at planar vendors than what's out there.

The second issue is that players are pretty capable in seeing through the charade to the underlying mechanics. The whole concept of rifts is that Telara is in danger, the world is in a constant state of being invaded, and we're the only ones who can push these elemental forces back to their planes. The problem is that we know there's no immediate -- or even long-term -- danger associated with them. Sure, invasion forces can stomp all over questing hubs and stop you momentarily from talking to your friendly neighborhood NPCs, but even if you do nothing, eventually it will be reset.

Capital cities are never taken by the enemy. Demons never set up permanent shop until forcibly evicted. My game session, by and large, is not changed whether there's a rampage going on or if all is peaceful. Sure, I can decide to participate (and often do), but there's no sense of urgency or immediacy behind it. I'd say that Trion has a good foundation in place but needs to go further with the concept -- much further.

Finally, RIFT has to avoid the pitfall that WAR fell into, which was the extreme repetition of identical setups. The Trion team's boasted that we've only seen them scratch the surface of what they can do with dynamic events, so I'm challenging them to stop scratching and dig in deep. We can only do so many little guys-bigger guys-boss fight rounds before it feels like we're stuck on repeat. We should want to do rifts to see what could happen next during them, and have the developers pleasantly surprise us.

A for effort, B for execution

This all may sound like I loathe RIFT's dynamic content and am in the middle of a harsh falling-out with the game, but that is categorically untrue. I just want the game to reach its full potential, and if a few hard words can provide critical feedback, then that's what needs to be said.

I love the concept, I'm still giddy when I look out over a field and see a half-dozen rifts dominate the landscape, and I don't mind abandoning my set course to jump into the unpredictability of dynamic content if an opportunity presents itself to do so.

In fact, Waves of Madness has shown me that when the game gives us good incentive to gather together and hack these monstrosities out of the sky, it's as much fun as anything else you'll find in MMOs. I just want to feel like this all the time, not only during huge events.

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.