Enter at Your Own Rift: Getting a head start

Dateline: Thursday, February 24th, 12:55 p.m. EST. After having rushed home from work (huzzah for a half-day), I was frantically putting the kids to bed for an afternoon nap and patching up my RIFT client. Twitter was abuzz with gamers sitting at the starting gate and revving their mice. It was here. After seven betas, it was here, and we would be the first in the door.

12:59 p.m. EST. Began checking the server status list, trying to will the dull grey names to light up as they signified activity.

1:00 p.m. EST. Scott Hartsman posts a short message on Twitter: "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to RIFT."

Right on cue, the servers came up, and what felt like the entire population of Oregon tried to cram into the game all at once. By 1:01 p.m., when I logged in, my chosen server of Faeblight was already full and had 461 people in the queue. I was 462. It would be another 45 minutes until I was able to play the game proper.

Queue Queue

So with RIFT's head-start and official launch out of the way, what's the number one topic on everyone's lips? It's hard to say, because it's a tie between "WHEE! This is fuuuun!" and "Oh em gee, what's up with these horrendous queue times?"

Depending on which of the 29 original servers you and your guild chose, the wait to log in could be instantaneous, measured in minutes, or drawn out for many, many hours. I'll admit it: It was bad. Later on Thursday, I had to start my logging in process a full three hours before I knew I was going to be able to play, just because of the queues.

It wasn't just the crush of people but the fact that the initial few days in the game represented an abnormality in normal play -- nobody wanted to log out and give up his spot. I'd be lying if I said I didn't attempt to hire a local teenager to sit at my computer during the day, occasionally tapping on the keyboard so my character didn't get booted due to being /AFK.

The forums, naturally, erupted in the kinds of verbal tirades that we're used to seeing on the evening news, with folks spinning the situation from "This means the game is ultra-popular; that's great!" to "This means Trion's failed; I'm leaving!" It's more fun if you sung the comments in a high-pitched dramatic voice, perhaps with friends as part of a pantomime theater thing.

For its part, Trion Worlds didn't hesitate to bring more servers online -- I think the first one was announced about 15 or 20 minutes into the head-start. This continued all week through launch, as we now have a mind-boggling 99 or so realms from which to choose. But of course new servers weren't the solution for people unwilling to migrate to them, which meant that the queues continued for the better part of the week in some places.

I think the only thing Trion could've done better in this regard was to have more servers announced for the head start, and to have given us more than a two-day advance notice of the server names so that the guilds could spread out a bit.

Personally, I agree with Abigale when she said, "Unfortunately, queues are part of launching an MMO. No one can predict how that is going to go. You make an educated guess and then you adjust as fast as you can." It really is a part of launches, and whether you throw a hissy fit or just accept it, it is how it is.

Turtle power!

Once people got in and reserved their names, life in RIFT began for real. During that first day in the head-start, I couldn't shake the feeling of how much better this was than the very first beta event last December. The game ran a smooth and solid as I could ever ask for, quest mobs were usually up, and rifts and invasions kept life spicy.

It was disturbing because -- and I think I'm not the only one who felt this way -- I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Other than the queues, I knew there had to be some major day one problem lurking out there. Maybe the game wasn't really as good as I ascertained from beta. Maybe Trion broke something with a recent patch. Maybe the servers would crash under the strain. Maybe (and this was the darkest possible scenario) my two-headed turtle mount wouldn't be waiting for me in my mailbox.

Nope, the turtle was there, the servers stable, gameplay more or less on par with MMOs that have been out for years, and everything as addicting as I could ask. The shoe didn't, and has yet to, drop for me. For a lack of a better way to put it, RIFT brought its all on the first day, and I just don't think we were prepared for that. It's kind of sad that we're so used to being let down that it's become the norm.

Now, your mileage may very on whether RIFT is all that it's cracked up to be, but I've just been grooving in it all. Finally having a character I know isn't going to be wiped means that I'm able to form an attachment to my little Dwarf Rogue and spend time building her up. While some folks have been rushing to the endgame -- I think we saw level 50s by day two -- I don't feel the pressing need to level. There's so much to do all at once that we have the luxury of options: rifts, invasions, crafting, questing, PvP, dungeon runs, artifact collecting, achievement... achieving, and being turned into a squirrel because squirrels rock so very hard.

Being together, alone, together

First of all, "together" is one of those words that gets really bizarre if you look at it too long. Second, one of the reasons that Shawn wanted both Karen and me to write this column is that we have different playstyles: Karen's much more of a group-oriented player, while I'm more inclined to solo. However, I'm starting to wonder whether this is as much of a difference when it comes to RIFT.

Lars Buttler said that RIFT "is the most social game in the history of gaming." That's a pretty audacious statement, and while I can't totally agree, I can see what he's saying. One of the Holy Grails of MMO design is somehow coming up with game features and tools that encourage players to socialize and group more, particularly in a post-World of Warcraft solo-friendly field. RIFT's approach to cracking this problem is two-fold: by providing dynamic content that you'll naturally want to be a part of, and then making it as easy, natural and attractive as possible to group during these events.

Rifts and invasions are compelling content because it's hard to ignore them at times -- especially when a group of angry demons is using the head of your quest-giver as a football. I'm constantly being pulled off the main questing path to participate in these, not just because the rewards are decent (they are) but because becoming part of a group of participants is made simple by the game itself.

I kind of liken rift events to pick-up games of basketball: You just jump in, become part of the team, and do a basic role without worrying about finesse. (Dungeons and raids are where the teams get more professional and organized, which is great if that's what you're seeking.) It's low-stress, it gives everyone a sense of camaraderie, and it helps train tanks, healers, buffers and DPSers in how to use their skills in a group context without a lot of pressure to get it right or wipe. This is why RIFT is much more social for me than I'd anticipated.

The head-start was over in a flash, and we're now into the post-release honeymoon period of the game. Sure, problems will come up in the future, but it's been a long time since I've felt this energized about a new MMO, and I intend to enjoy it without souring the experience with gloomy predictions.

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.