Enter at Your Own Rift: The casual revolution in RIFT

Rift Fae Yule
The Fae Yule world event has arrived in Telara, and there's one part of the event in particular that really captures the holiday feeling. It's not the daily quests but the festive "shinies" that players can harvest around town, like mistletoe and the holiday candle. At first I enjoyed the fun of clicking and getting nice little rewards, but by the third shiny, I was cursing other players who were racing me to the spot and grabbing the goods before I could! Talk about a Black Friday flashback! Twenty minutes later I was in the middle of the most intense, knock-down brawl for shinies that could rival a top-tier PvP Warfront.

You wouldn't think that harvesting little festive oddities could be turned into a hardcore game, but that is exactly what I and a few other players ended up doing. And that got me thinking about Jesper Juul's book A Casual Revolution. In it, he looks at how video games have gone back to their roots and reinvented themselves, leading, for example, to the rise of the Wii. His book focused more on console gaming and didn't address MMOs that much, but in this week's Enter at Your Own Rift, I'd like to look at how his ideas apply to RIFT, particularly with recent changes to the game.

When casual doesn't mean casual

Consider again the "battle of the shinies" -- it's similar to what Juul described in his book. There were plenty of shinies around town for those who were casually passing by, but right at the front gate of Sanctum, it was a slugfest. The holiday candles along the wall were particularly challenging because a player has to jump up on top of the wall before the other guy, and one misstep means an embarrassing plunge into the river below. Juul points out in his book that arcade games of the '80s like Pac-Man were simple and easy to play but were also played at a "hardcore" level. You can look at the Pac-Man screen and figure out how to play in just a few seconds, and you can have a nice fun time with the game for a few minutes at a time. But try to be that player with the pile of quarters on the table who's been at it for three hours. It's easy to learn and hard to master.

Juul went on to discuss how the video game industry has shifted over time and tends to focus on making "serious" games that have a higher barrier to entry. If you were to compare Pac-Man to StarCraft, for example, it would take a lot longer to figure out how to play the latter, and because of that, it's less likely to "pull" someone in. Tetris, Bejeweled, Guitar Hero -- all of these are games that he cites as casual, but not in the "casual vs. hardcore" dichotomy that we think of when we see the word. He means casual in the sense that it provides flexibility and allows players to play how they choose to play for however long they want to play it.

RIFT and the casual revolution

I don't think the team at Trion necessarily designed the shiny collection with Juul's ideas in mind. But I do think you can see the influence of the "casual revolution" in a few of RIFT's other features. Planar invasions definitely provide that flexibility that Juul alludes to; I can jump in and out of a rift at will, and I can choose whether to join up with a raid or to break off and fight alone. Instant adventures also fit the description, and the Chronicles provide an alternative option so that players who don't want to join a raid can still get a glimpse of the endgame storyline.

There's a constant debate among MMO players about "casual" and "hardcore," but those fixed lines of delineation don't really match up with the MMO population overall. Usually, it revolves around the notion of challenge, but at some point, you have to ask: When is it a challenge and when is it simply tedium? When you look at raiding, for example, there's a challenge in the encounter itself, but there's also the challenge of all the necessary levels, gear, consumables, addons, and builds that go into raiding. Much of that isn't really impossible; it's just time-consuming. You almost have to schedule your life around the game, which is what Juul says is the antithesis of the casual revolution.

Rift Ember Isle
I can't jump into a Hammerknell raid at level 10, but I can join others in a zone invasion in Silverwood or even in Stillmoor if I were crazy enough to want to. With instant adventures, I can get right into the action and not have to worry if I don't have the best raid gear or the most optimized build. Of course, a well-organized guild of skilled players will probably do better in, say, zone events than a loose party, and they'll probably walk away with more bang for their buck. What's nice is that everyone has the ability to play the content the way he or she wants.

But there's another piece to the puzzle, and that's the fact that many MMO players aren't just in it for the fun of it -- they want a tangible reward for their efforts. And that's natural. As Raph Koster put it in A Theory of Fun, "players seeking to advance in a game will always try to optimize what they are doing." That's why the rift invasion system has been such a roller coaster ride. Rifts are fun and easy to get into, and when lots of people are participating in them, they're really cool. But if mundane dailies give a better, faster, and easier reward, many players will choose that instead. With the increased importance of gathering inscribed, invasions and zone events seem to have regained some popularity, particularly at the high levels, and since drop rates go up as more participate, it becomes even more attractive. And even my little minigame of racing for the holiday shinies has its rewards -- I got a Spotted Festive Fae Yule Vaiyuu on only my eighth or ninth shiny, and later on I got the rare Satyr Snowman. RIFT has some nice features that could be part of an "MMO Casual Revolution." It's a trend that seems to be appearing in other MMO titles as well, and hopefully it leads to the industry redefining itself -- and giving players more flexibility in choosing how to play (and how long to play) games.

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.

This article was originally published on Massively.