So what does this mean for RIFT? Let's consider that question in this week's Enter at your own Rift.
Layoffs are never a cause for celebration, and timing them right before the holidays makes them even worse. I recall visiting the studio back during beta and meeting with an enthusiastic and focused team. And after seeing update after update with an expansion thrown in, I think there's no doubt that some very talented people were let go. Contrary to speculation, this wasn't just a few QA testers laid off after the expansion was shipped out. It's too bad that team members were laid off, and hopefully they can catch a job with another studio.
Expansion to blame?
One obvious conclusion is that developers were laid off because Storm Legion didn't meet expectations. If you look at the timing, the expansion has been out for a few months now, and this would be about the time that the company could determine whether it was a financial success or not. Perhaps it didn't meet sales predictions and that was what caused the layoffs.
But we also have to look at the big picture; End of Nations is also a part of that. We know that the title has been struggling to make it to the finish line, and it would be extremely costly to scrap it at this point. Trion might not have been able to maintain the staff at RIFT and also finish production of End of Nations, and as a result, maybe it had to make the tough decision to lay off part of the RIFT staff in order to get End of Nations out of the gate.
Production slow down?
The real question is how the layoffs will affect the pace and scope of the updates. RIFT delivered an enormous amount of new content and game improvements over the past year and a half, and it's hard to believe that it can continue that after losing a chunk of the team. However, we do know that it had mapped out its plans beyond the expansion, and it's possible that a lot of the groundwork is already in place for those updates. So we might not really feel the effects of the layoffs for some time still.
The other immediate question is whether the game will go free-to-play, as have so many other AAA MMOs, some of which also ran into hard times. We've heard Trion CCO and RIFT Executive Producer Scott Hartsman repeatedly say that RIFT wasn't built with a free-to-play model in mind and that it's firmly entrenched as a subscription MMO, but it wouldn't be impossible to implement it.
I'm not privy to any inside information, but I do think that RIFT can, and should, continue with a subscription-based plan. Recent MMOs that transitioned to free-to-play often go with a model of free-to-play as more of a free trial in order to nudge players to sign on if they like what they see. RIFT essentially does that right now with RIFT Lite, free weekends, and promotional events, so in a sense, it's already free-to-play.
But a recent post over at Terra Nova fits well with the discussion of RIFT possibly going free-to-play. In the article, author Edward Castronova posits that SWTOR struggled and went free-to-play because it didn't develop a world, just a game. He went on to say that MMOs in general have paid so much attention to the game side of things that they've neglected the experience of the virtual world itself, the place space where there is downtime and you can "just be." He points to EVE and argues that it successfully creates a world in which you can quasi-live.
I look at RIFT, and I do see a world there, particularly with the new zones of the expansion. It might not be quite as immersive as EVE's, but I do find it easy to dive in, explore, go off the path, and "just be." With the addition of dimensions, there's even more opportunity for players to quasi-live in RIFT. For that reason, I do think that the game can make it through the unfortunate layoffs and remain a subscription-based game.
What we do know is that layoffs in the MMO industry seem to be something that's becoming more and more common, yet it doesn't necessarily mean that it's the beginning of the end. My other favorite game, EverQuest II, experienced a tough round of layoffs about a year ago as part of a larger staff cut across the board at SOE. The team weathered the storm, though, and EverQuest II has since sped up the pace of game updates and new content. And SOE not only went on to launch PlanetSide 2 but also picked up a few new titles to add to the stable of games, not to mention it is continuing production on EQ Next. Trion seems to be in a similar situation as SOE was a year ago, and hopefully once it launches End of Nations and Defiance, we'll see the RIFT team beefed up once again.
Meanwhile, I hope for the best for those laid off. I appreciate the work they put into the game that I enjoy so much.
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.