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PAX East 2011: Massively interviews RIFT's Scott Hartsman, page two

Karen Bryan

Massively: With EverQuest and World of Warcraft, the populations grew steadily over time. But with practically every other AAA MMO released, the populations seemed to peak at launch and then go down, sometimes dramatically. What are your thoughts on player retention, and how will RIFT be able to keep its playerbase three to six months after launch?

Scott Hartsman: There are two main things you can do to impact that. The first thing is the overall quality of the game at the time of launch. One of the big things that's a retention killer is disappointed players -- when they log into your game and either it's not stable or it's not finished or it's not fun, or they get to a point and there's suddenly no more content. Disappointed players are a big one, and we tried to mitigate that by shipping a complete game.

Step two is, once you have a complete game, what do you do with it? Are you busy chasing server stability or are you able to actually react to stuff people care about? Are you able to add things that keep people entertained? Going out strong from the gate is important, and then it's all about what you do from there.

Being able to keep a full development team on a game, instead of having them shunted off to go work on another project with another company, is another big part of it. Our team size is actually expanding a little bit. The teams working on other games at Trion are fully independent teams, so we're not cannibalizing. It's not like we said, "Oh we shipped, time to take all these other people and put them on End of Nations." We're just very fortunate to be in a position where we have investors who also agree that it's the correct strategy. So we have the backing to do what exactly what we think is right and what will make us succeed. It's one of those things where doing the right thing also happens to be the right business decision, and I love when that happens.

On the Massively Speaking podcast, you said something that stuck out for me -- "You reinforce the behavior that you want by the gameplay that you provide." In what ways does RIFT accomplish that? And is it different than in other AAA MMOs?

Completely. You're running around Freemarch or Silverwood, you see these rifts open, and you get this big gigantic button that says "join public group." We wanted to reinforce the idea of being social and playing in large events with other players. Lots of players stopped playing that way over the years, not because they don't like other players, but because they don't want the hassle.

I'm really happy with this incredibly low-friction grouping system that we've got in RIFT. Initially it was all about the zone events, colossus events, rift events, etc. We didn't even realize that it could be used as a great way for people to share quests. And everyone is happy because no one loses. We want to reinforce the concept of making friends, grouping for stuff, and getting to play how you want to play.

Next, it didn't take us long to add the ability to merge public groups, which is really handy. And one of the next things that we're adding is the abiilty to unmerge public groups. If you two are paired together, and you want to go join up with a different one and then return to your old group, you'll have the ability to do that.

Sunday at PAX East, Julian Murdoch hosted a panel talking about how 2010 was the year of F2P. RIFT stuck with a monthly sub based/cash shop free plan. Why go against the trend? Do you feel like you're leaving money on the table by not going with F2P or RMTs?

That's interesting. The reason we are what we are is because the particular genre for Trion's first game is fantasy, and it's a fantasy MMO, and more importantly, it's a triple-A fantasy MMO, complete with all the features that make it competitive. And there's a certain sensibility around what those games should be. You have a lot of achievement-based players that have a certain sense of fairness. And I think that since we were launching into such an established genre, we wanted to make people respect us for the ways we were being different. But we wanted to be different in the game that we were making, with the events and the rest of it, not in the way we chose to charge people. We wanted to go with something that we knew large numbers of people were comfortable with.

As for whether or not we're leaving money on the table, we might well be, but again, I think that if you make a good enough game and you try to take a run at being really successful with it, it turns out you're probably not leaving money on the table, because you're focusing on entirely different things. We get to focus on making good content; we don't have to focus on what the optimal store flow is for people to buy more and so on and so on. A lot of it comes on the focus. Over time, could I maybe see doing some cosmetics? Maybe, but it's not even something we're talking about at this point. We're not interested in making the game something where you're paying for power or anything like that.

Touching on another trend -- you were very influential in turning around EverQuest II, and then after a successful launch of Rise of Kunark, you left to start up Ohai and give social gaming a try. You came back to AAA MMO territory, though, despite the fact that several major MMO names have headed there, including Gordon Walton of Bioware most recently. What made you decide to return?

A couple of things made me leave [social gaming]. First things first, I like making games that I enjoy. At the time, it seemed like most of what was out there and most of what people were interested in playing was games that were built around essentially an Amway mechanic, which is all about recruiting your friends and getting more people to play this game.

The other thing is the ecology that had been built up around these games, and monetizing at the time was built on offers. And some of those are slightly shady. At the time, just from my perspective, if you want to succeed in that area, you had to play on that level or you wouldn't be competitive. After doing that for a while, I realized I would rather make a good game that people saw value in and pay money for, where the value proposition is much more obvious.

And then, what Trion was up to really appealed to me. They had great technology and a slate that was ready to be rounded out, so it was a natural fit.

We've heard that you're hard at work on the first major post-launch path -- what is at the top of your priority list for RIFT now that it's launched?

We've been very focused on nothing but live reaction, reacting to the world that now we are a live game and trying to shift into that mode. We got the 1.01 patch out pretty quickly, so we're continuing focusing on that. At the same time we have the 1.1 launch update, which is the larger new content/new systems type of update.

How's Port Scion (the level 50 PvP zone)?

It's a little speedy! It's a little bit faster than it was in beta, and so we're making some tweaks to take the speed down to a reasonable level. Other than that, it's functioning! We've got a couple of tweaks to make to it but no panics around it yet.

Any updates on a dungeon finder? How close are you to getting it put in game?

It goes down to that low-friction/no-friction thing. People want to be in groups with other players, and we know this. But they don't want it to be a big pain. We are holding back until we get something good done. We are working internally and we'll launch it when it's ready.

Initially our LFG will be single server, and we can always add cross-server if we need to. I'd like to go along with the players who favor single-server, as long as it still remains usable. Since it's easier and faster to do a single server one anyway, it's one of those cases where it's the right thing to do, so we're trying to make an LFG that does more than just take you to dungeons and make it more about getting into groups.

This is one I'm sure you get a lot -- any news about addons?

Nothing concrete yet. It's still something we'd like to do, but it's a balance of how do you do it the right way without screwing people. We have smart people thinking about it, and I think one of the first great opportunities are things based around buff and buff displays, since so many people have so many different needs. There's no way a default UI could meet all of them. I think it's also something that people will realize can be a positive thing.

How about plans for a guild bank?

Yes it's on the list! It's not on the top of the list yet; we still have to get through our launch growing pains, and again, security is paramount now. There are lots of things that are waiting after we get all that stuff nailed down.

Have you considered adding integrated voice chat?

Not right off the bat. A good integrated voice chat will take an engineer a good two or three months to do. In this particular genre, so many people have vent servers and other servers anyway.

The ancient wardstone system is fun but not easy to figure out. Are there plans to improve it at all?

We know that the call-outs and the displays need some love. Basically, many of the things related to explaining the system are not currently being communicated well. We'd like to get the existing stuff fleshed out first and then see about tuning from there. I think it will help with the desire for more RvR, since that's basically what it is.

Can you talk at all about Trion's new SyFy project?

The great thing about having three titles in development is that you can pretty much tell the order that they're going to get talked about. SyFy is the earliest game in development right now. It is its own IP, but it's still in development. It's internally playable, but we're not ready to start making noise about it.

Is there anything else that you want to mention about RIFT?

Other than the fact that we were literally blown away by how many people kept showing up when we thought we were done adding servers. We hope it continues. We thank everybody for getting their friends to play, and they should keep going out and getting more. We'd like to be able to keep doing exactly what we're doing, which is having an entire company behind you saying, "Yes, focus on your live game." That's amazing!

Thanks for chatting with us, Scott!

Massively's on the ground in Boston during the weekend of March 11-13, bringing you all the best news from PAX East 2011. Whether you're dying to know more about SWTOR or Guild Wars 2 or any MMO in between, you can bet we'll have it covered!

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