The awards ceremony
Before we get into things, I wanted to toss out a quick observation of the GDC Online Awards ceremony. Each time RIFT's name was announced as a nominee, there was "polite" applause, but it wasn't what you'd call rousing or lively. I should add, though, that the same was true when other traditional MMO titles were announced, like World of Warcraft and EverQuest. In fact, the only time I did hear loud applause was for Wizard101, but rumor had it that its team attended en masse, so that might have skewed things.
What did the industry in attendance cheer for? Two games in particular jumped out at me: Shadow Cities and Minecraft. It's hard to draw conclusions, but it's possible that the industry is as eager as the planners to see titles that push the envelope and take risks.
Three panels at GDC stuck out for me: Georg Zoeller on SWTOR; Ubisoft Blue Byte's Head of Production, Christopher Schmitz, and Head of Live Operation, Benedikt Grindel, on how The Settlers Online went free-to-play; and Scott Hartsman on RIFT. While all three were about different games and each covered a different topic, they all stressed the importance of making sure that the tech is solid enough to support the creative ideas and features of the game.
In particular, Hartsman's talk centered around the nuts and bolts of building the game, and it's clear that the industry is a far cry from the early days of MUD1. The interviewer asked him a couple of times about the "creative" part of his title, but Hartsman explained that it's irrelevant if you don't have the technology in place to handle the potential problems and demands that come after launch. The emphasis on daily builds and the focus on treating beta as the live game is definitely a reason why players have seen so many patches and updates in the first six months. And Trion's confidence in its tools and technology is evident in the announcement of Red Door publishing.
My big takeaway from the talk came when he discussed the plans that the team had begun on post-launch features and content. There's almost a catch-22 when it comes to post-launch content and features. Often, you'll hear players complain when they hear that a game had completed content that ended up being cut from launch and then released later as downloadable content, but at the same time, there's a pretty high bar when it comes to expectations on the pace of patches and updates. The question is, how far ahead were the team's plans for the game, and can it stay ahead of the curve? Players so far aren't crying "no mas" when it comes to the steady release of updates, but will the team reach that point?
RIFT was one of the big winners at the awards ceremony, and interestingly enough, the other one was Minecraft. Each led the pack with two awards, and yet the similarities seem to end there. But when it comes to pricing plans, there's an interesting juxtaposition: Minecraft offers unlimited play after a nominal upfront charge, and RIFT has the traditional monthly subscription. Yet for its next title, Mojang announced that it will not use the same model and is instead going with what Creator Markus Persson termed "as expensive as you want it to be." Have Minecraft and RIFT ended up leaving money on the table by going with the payment plans they chose?
By choosing a more monetized plan for Scrolls, Mojang seems to be indicating that it might not have made as much as it could have on Minecraft. But what about RIFT and the subscription model? Will it eventually cave in and join the free-to-play party? I think the bigger question is, isn't it pretty much there already? If you go back and look through RIFT's promotions, it's hard to find a period of time when there's not either a free weekend, free game time, or a fire sale. A quick check of my inbox revealed no less than half a dozen sales on RIFT boxes and/or game time, and another half a dozen "free" promotions, ranging from free weekends to "friends play for free" to free game time for past and current subscribers. (And I just got another one as I'm typing this!) Trion's marketing department is definitely earning its keep, but it means that RIFT players are almost like airline passengers -- no two people are paying the same price. On top of that, the digital upgrades that came out recently are arguably the first sign of microtransactions in the game. (And judging by the number of spider mounts running around Telara, I'd say it seems to be working.)
Lastly, I'd like to switch gears and say hats off to the RIFT team and fans for raising $34,000 during the Extra Life charity event, making them the top grossing team overall. In total, over 1.1 million was raised, and participants actually broke the ticker on the Extra Life site by surpassing expectations. For Massively, Beau Hindman stocked up on his energy drinks and took part as well. Gaming often gets criticized, but any time there's a charity event like this, there always seems to be an overwhelming show of support from the community, and that deserves applause.
Whether she's keeping the vigil or defying the gods, Karen Bryan saves Telara on a biweekly basis. Covering all aspects of life in RIFT, from solo play to guild raids, the column is dedicated to backhanding multidimensional tears so hard that they go crying to their mommas. Email Karen for questions, comments, and adulation.