In a very real sense, RIFT is at a crossroads. It will shortly cease to be the newest big kid on the block, a position it has enjoyed for a majority of 2011. I won't invoke the names of the power hitters on deck, but trust me, many RIFT players are well aware of the competition. Players and guilds are evaluating the game as it is right now and whether or not they'll want to stay when the new hotness is released. My prediction? Some will, some won't. You can quote me on that.
Personally, I think RIFT is in a remarkably good position. It continues to grow in subscribers, according to the company, and it's proven to have staying power a half-year after launch. I'm encouraged when I see friends and fellow players randomly praise the game even though its honeymoon veneer has long since worn off. There's something worth fighting for, here -- but a fight it will have.
Hit the break as I lay out what I think should be RIFT's battle plan for the next 12 months.
RIFT gets a lot of flak for its marketing strategy, which is about as un-subtle as they come. But if you were to put your shoes in the feet of Trion's team and given the task of keeping this game in the public consciousness, you'd be doing everything under the sun just as Trion is. Yes, the company directly pokes at World of Warcraft in its ads, but seeing as how the game is a direct competitor to WoW, it's a smart thing to do -- sort of the approach that underdog Pepsi took when going up against Coke. "We taste better, we're more enjoyed by those who partake, and we're not afraid of telling our competition that it is bottling battery acid."
Marketing veteran Drew McLellan explains how not being number one gives you an advantage: "In today's world of constant change, it's a lot easier to win the hearts and minds of buyers if you're nimble, not bound by layers of corporate and committee decision-making, and you can wear your heart on your sleeve. Market leaders don't actually want to engage in a fight and they hate scrappy little guys who take them off their well prescribed path. That's how you beat them -- you make them play your game."
This could be applied to a lot of products and companies, but it explains why Trion is taking the approach it is. Being passive and fearful of WoW and other competition isn't going to draw in the numbers, but setting its game up as the aggressive dog nipping at the heels of an annoyed giant is going to woo folks who love a good David vs. Goliath vibe.
My hope is that Trion doesn't soften up in the coming year and stop pouring resources into advertising the game. It's cool to see how much press RIFT is getting from TV commercials and ads all over the internet, especially in light of how many MMOs linger in the shadows without the budget to promote their wares.
In my opinion, RIFT's #1 advantage over every other MMO out there is its absolutely insane pace of updates. Major content updates have hit the game every month or two since launch, and we're right now gearing up for the fifth such patch that should arrive later this month. The team knows that this is a huge selling point for gamers who chew through content rapidly and become bored soon after that. Knowing that there's an MMO that guarantees you a hunk of new content every one to two months is a reason to sign up and stay.
It has the added benefit of making the competition look sluggish and unresponsive to player needs, something that's certainly hurt WoW in comparison.
That said, Trion simply cannot falter in this regard. It's got to keep the pace going, and more than that, it has to make sure that the patches are tested better than they are now. Getting a good content update is nice and all, but if it's bug-ridden because it's only been tested for a week and a half, player confidence is lost. Trion needs to commit to more polished patches out of the gate without leaning on the crutches of hotfixes.
3. Fix whatever the heck is going on with PvP
I'm so not a PvP player, so that sphere of the game is outside of my area of interest. That said, even I know that PvPers are probably the most disgruntled crowds in the game, and RIFT has not yet found a way to fix whatever's rubbing this community the wrong way. PvP rifts are an interesting idea and a good start, but the addition of Vengeance and Valour changes have not been well-received (as this 144-page thread and this 51-page one demonstrates), and we've yet to see the PvP zone that's been in the works since before launch.
More than this, I call on Trion to take a cue from other MMOs that have divorced their PvP and PvE skills, and to stop changing PvE abilities just because something's out of whack in PvP. I hated that in WoW and I hate that here. Take the time and program a different set of rules of skills so that they function differently based on their environment.
If you look at it from a wide view, the game as it is right now is a purely defensive action on behalf of players fighting for a world under siege. We may beat down any forces that come through these open rifts, but we're certainly not demoralizing the enemy nor striking back.
Almost every time I've talked with Trion, I've asked when, already, we're going to take the battle to the planes themselves. It's what we've trained for months to do, and trust me, we're ready. The devs haven't come out with specifics, but there are plans in the works for something along these lines -- I just hope that they get it in the game sooner rather than much later.
5. Announce the expansion
Yes, Trion is working on the first expansion in some way, shape or regard, although we know little-to-nothing about it, and the company has made it clear that most of its resources are going toward the live game and the upcoming patches. Even so, nothing shoots the excitement factor through the roof like a game's first expansion. It's the next best thing to announcing the game itself, and the publicity it generates could help Trion regain whatever momentum it is going to lose when fresh blood comes onto the scene. Of course, when the team does announce it, Trion better have something substantial to show the crowds as well.
6. Innovate further
One of the things I praise Trion for is its commitment to throwing conventional MMO rules and traditions if it makes sense. Little things, like being able to server-hop quickly without plunking down a chunk of change and waiting two weeks, are the small innovations that get the team and game noticed. The more it challenges the status quo in legitimate areas, the better Trion comes off -- and the better it is for the competitive nature of the industry. I've always been an advocate of good competition between titles rather than complacency because the player wins when game studios are trying to top each other in quality, service, and price.
There are many other "suggestions" that I could say for RIFT's next year, but these six are by and far the most important. What say you, gentle Ascended? Do you agree, disagree, or have other action items that should have a place in Trion's battle plans?
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.