Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Fun With MMOs: Rift Revisited

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth
--Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Back in late 2010, WoW released Cataclysm. There was a lot of initial enthusiasm for the expac and the number of subs to WoW swelled to their highest point at that time of 12 million. However, by March 2011 the number had fallen back to 11.4 million and some of the playerbase had become restless. There were the usual gripes of "nothing to do" on reaching max level as well as the "instances are too hard" refrain, but there were also complaints from some traditionalists who missed the talent trees and a lot of quirks that Blizzard had eliminated in their desire to make WoW fresh and exciting.

Into that atmosphere came the software company Trion Worlds with their new MMO Rift.
This is one of five copies around the house, courtesy of Gen Con 2011's
goodie bag. Yes, even the youngest mini-Red got a goodie bag, which
inclued a mini-deck for Magic: the Gathering,  a.k.a. a free sample of crack.

Rift was released in March 2011*, and Trion made a big pitch to woo WoW fans dissatisfied with the current state of Cataclysm. Using a technique that Wildstar would follow a few years later, Trion gave out a lot of beta tester keys to entice WoW fans prior to release. And I was one of those who gave Rift a tryout.

What I found was a game that appealed to the WoW player who missed the talent trees, the "dumbing down" of zones** and an overall lack of difficulty in WoW. Rift's graphics were superior and the toons more customizable, further enticing people with WoW's sameness.

But in the end, I stayed with WoW. I could only afford one subscription, and Rift's subscription model meant it was either WoW or Rift, and I chose WoW and the guild Souldat and I were in over what I felt had the potential to be a superior game.

That year, Rift continued to tempt me with e-mails as well as having a major presence in the goody bag distributed to Gen Con attendees. I resisted the siren call, instead preferring the tried and true.*** Even when Rift went fully F2P in 2013, I held off from playing the game. By then I had 3-4 regular MMOs I played, and one more just seemed a bit much. Besides, I looked at the cover for Rift's first expansion, Storm Legion, and said "WTF??!!!"

WTF indeed. I had no idea that we were playing
a mashup of Beach Blanket Bingo and a fantasy RPG.
From Amazon.com.

But four years later, things have changed a bit in my MMO landscape, and I'm willing to try Rift once more.


Part I: Presentation and Background

Telara, the world of Rift, is a land blessed by wonderful plant life and agriculture, rich natural resources, and beautiful cities, but the price of such abundance is that Telara sits at the intersection of six other planes. The planes --the classical four elements as well as Life and Death-- constantly bombard Telara with tears in the fabric between the planes. These tears, called rifts, create invasions throughout Telara by creatures from these six planes.

Each of the six planes is ruled by the equivalent of a god in the form of a dragon --shades of WoW with the Dragon Aspects--  and they all want to gain control over Telara itself. The great fear, however, is that the Dragon God of Death, Regulos, finds a way back to Telara from when he was banished after the end of the Blood Storm Wars.
Yeah, like that's gonna work.
From nogamenotalk.com.

If the rifts themselves weren't bad enough, there's also the Dragon Cults that try to let their own respective Dragon God into Telara. Think of them as the equivalent of Twilight's Hammer and the Cult of the Damned from WoW, and you've got the idea.

While on the surface Telara appears to be a generic fantasy-esque world with the standard two faction MMO --for PvP purposes-- separated by race, the factions themselves are different in that they are separated by how they approach the problem of the rifts themselves: Religion vs. Science.

On one side you have the Guardians, who are the representatives of the gods of Telara, collectively known as The Vigil, who believe that The Vigil through their Ascended (more on that in a sec) will collectively preserve the Ward and keep Regulos from re-entering Telara. On the other side you have the Defiant, who believe the gods' solution to the problem of Regulos is more or less a band-aid and instead turn to magic infused technology --Magitek-- for solutions. The two factions don't see eye to eye, mainly because the Guardians believe Dragon Cults dominate the Defiants, and the Defiants feel persecuted by what they perceive as the fanaticism of the Guardians. Just like in real life, you have two factions talking past each other rather than attempting to reach an agreement somewhere in the middle.

Into this world step the players.


Part II: Character Creation

The players are created to be heroes in Rift. This isn't a matter of starting humble and becoming a hero as in WoW, LOTRO, or SWTOR, but that you are chosen for the role you assume. You previously died and were brought back, but with more than one soul inhabiting your body****.

There's a standard mix of races and classes, but like Wildstar there's a human nation for each faction to work with (two for the Defiant). Your character feels like a WoW-esque standard MMO character, and if you're familiar with LOTRO or how WoW and SWTOR used to be with talent trees and development, you'll pick up the game in no time.

As for character customization options, there's more than what WoW had you work with, but roughly comparable to SWTOR. You can tweak the face, the hair, tattoos/markings, makeup, and body color, but body color is fairly limited based on the race you choose. Unlike, say, a Human Imperial (SWTOR) who has a wide range of skin tone and facial appearances to choose from, an Eth (Defiant human faction) hails from the southern deserts and therefore has a skin tone ranging from fairly tanned to a medium brown. Likewise, the Mathosians (Guardian human faction) is originally from a more northern climate and has skin tone ranging from very tan to fairly pale.***** I was fairly disappointed that they don't have a full control over the facial options, so if you wanted to play someone who looked more Asian or African in Rift, that would prove very difficult to do. While I can easily say that the options are better than what you find in WoW, that's a pretty low bar to jump over.
There's some modifications there, but not at the
level of, say, Mass Effect.

One thing that Rift does do fairly well is that there are three buttons to let you know what your toon will look like in some generic low level, mid level, and high level gear. Why other MMOs never thought of that before Rift was beyond me.

The clothing options presented during character creation do tend to show a bit more skin, but it's still in the ballpark for some of WoW's designs.

Basically, the characters look like they mean business, and nothing is so out of place that it detracts from that impression.

One last note: if you take one look at a talent trees and kind of throw up your hands at the list of options presented to a player, you can select from "pre-built" roles that will automatically fill in the talent trees/souls automatically as you level. It's a very clever way of getting a new player up and running without trying to go visit a website such as Elitist Jerks to try to figure out what the optimal build should be for what you want to do.

THIS. This is a great idea. It even saves
you having to get on, say, Elitist
Jerks to find out what the new hotness is.
Thank goodness for the pre-built roles, because otherwise I'd have spent an extra hour or two tinkering around with things. But continuing my surprising aversion to dwarves, I stuck with a High Elf and an Eth (Defiant Human faction). After the creation process, here we are:
One Guardian, ready for action.

And not to be outdone, the Defiant entry.


Part III: Welcome to Telara

(To make this spoiler free, I'll try to be as vague as possible.)

The starter zone for each faction are different locations, but also different times.

Yes, times.

The Guardian starter zone is during an attempt by Regulos' minions to once again let their Dragon-god enter the world, and your character has been resurrected by The Vigil as an Ascended to stop them. The zone is a town plus a battlefield, which ends in the location where you and a few other Ascended have a final boss fight against Regulos' chief flunky. The action is fast paced, you don't have a lot of side quests to detract from learning both the story and the game, and the zone introduces you to the Defiant as an enemy faction at almost the same level as Regulos and company.
Welcome, o mighty Ascended. I can tell it
is you due to your halo. Also, I am the
obligatory hot angel type who slays the unrighteous.

On the other hand, the Defiant starter zone begins at the end of the world.

To make the emotional connection with the plight of the Defiant, you are presented with the final battle in an almost certain Regulos victory. The Guardians' persecution of the Defiants meant that the Defiants' machines to protect Telara were smashed, and the Dragon Cults subsequently destroyed the Ward, allowing Regulos to enter Telara once more. Regulos then defeated the Guardians and is about to crush the Defiant.

The Defiants' only hope is to manufacture their own Ascended, which you are their first successful attempt. You then have to fight your way to the location where the Defiant had built a time machine in a desperate attempt to send you back to stop this bleak future from unfolding.
"Quick, to the time machine!"
"I was expecting a Delorean."
Comparing the two, the Defiants' opening is definitely the more emotional one. The "warrior from a doomed future" trope is fairly well known --for Fire Emblem fans, think Lucina-- but done to great effect here. While the Guardian intro zone presents an almost preordained victory for the faction and gives the player a confidence in the outcome --you're the Ascended of the gods, you've got this-- the Defiant intro gives you a lingering feeling of dread that no matter what you do Regulos will still win in the end.


Part IV: Exploring Telara

(Again, I'll be vague as possible about the story.)

With the intro zone over, you enter into a low level zone that's designed to get you to L20 out of the original cap of L50. If you want to think about this zone as the equivalent of Eversong Forest + Ghostlands or Teldrassil + Darkshore from WoW, you get the idea. I deliberately mentioned these zones because the pre-Cataclysm story for both has a similar feel to the first low level zone in Rift. You could also make the argument that Ered Luin in LOTRO and Republic Taris (SWTOR) are also in the ballpark, but you can tell that the Rift developers were definitely taking a cue from WoW.

There's a main storyline weaving its way through the zone, accompanied by the traditional side quests, and there are also quests to introduce you to crafting/gathering skills#. Toward the end of the low level zone story you have the option to drop in on each faction's capital city, but at the end of the zone it becomes mandatory in order to progress to the next zone.

Pretty standard stuff so far.

But those rifts, they make life interesting in Telara. Even in the low level zones.
Staring a Death Rift in the face. Not a pleasant thing.
You can dodge them as much as you like, but if you park your toon outside of a town or other safe haven you're going to eventually have one of these three pop up nearby: a rift, an invasion (a pack of 4-5 wandering monsters that spawn from the rift and wander around the zone), or a foothold (when an invasion sets up camp in an area). These don't even include the occasional wandering elite that pops in as a zone wide event. So yeah, rifts amp up the intensity a bit.

Additionally, your toon has special abilities that use charges that can only be gained by sealing rifts. So one way or another you're going to have to deal with a rift.

While you can solo a rift, when I played as a Rogue on both factions that was a bit dicey when you were exactly at the same level as the rift itself. It's much better when two or more people in a zone gang up and create a public group to take on a rift. Thankfully, this is a simple process, and all you have to do is just show up to a rift and join the group.##

Still, rift activity can be so rapid that you can easily spend almost all of your time in a zone just sealing rifts. I was just in Stonefield, a zone just above the low level zone on the Defiant side, and I had to dodge several opened rifts that spawned right next to each other. There was just me around at the time, and all of these rifts were either at my level or higher so I had to simply avoid them.

Completionists beware: you'll never be free of rifts in a zone. They spawn too quickly.


Part V: Perceptions of Telara

When I first started Guild Wars 2, one of the first things that I noticed was that the starter village NPCs were all dressed up in what I'd call their best clothing. If you've ever seen Très Riches Heures, you know that I mean:

The Month of June. From Wikipedia.

The real peasants of Middle Ages Europe wouldn't wear their finery out in the field, but it made for great art. GW2 has similar behavior among the NPCs, where they look like they're ready to go to a dance or a wedding rather than be doing normal everyday work.

Rift doesn't do this.

Rift isn't gritty by any stretch, but the NPCs look like they are dressed for the activity they are performing (more or less). The miners are wearing disheveled, prospector-esque clothes, the students are in regular peasant type clothes, and even the fishermen look like they belong on a pier with rod and reel.
Let's play Spot the Mage.
And yes, I can get behind this.

Now, whether the uniform makes sense for other reasons, that a different matter:
I suppose you could argue that they are wearing
a traditional uniform, but it's still a bit
of a surprise.
And as you can see, the WoW-esque parallels remain, given the male and female armor sets of the guards:

Or for a better look:

Still, it's not very obnoxious compared to other MMOs out there. And even within Rift, there are counter examples:

There's also a lot of equal representation throughout both factions in terms of leadership, quest givers, and quest chain NPCs.

This couldn't get any more generic
fantasy if you'd hung a "Fantasyland"
sign over the throne.

And on the Defiant side, they're
huddled in a corner, plotting.

Rift puts all sorts of people in front of the camera leading the action, so it feels normal to see (for example) two female Telari Elves out in the field on the trail of a traitor in the Defiant power structure. You see them, of course, but you note their personalities and their banter more than noticing that they are two women.###
The assassin really really REALLY wants
to stab things. LOT of things.


Part VI: Miscellaneous Items

In a nod to MMO players who do get married (or are already married) in real life, Rift has a specified Marriage Counselor for each faction. It's not a very big thing, but for some reason when I saw the NPCs in Meridian and Sanctum, I smiled. If you want to read up on the details involved (circa 2012), here's a link to an article on Engaget about Rift's wedding ceremony.

Judging by what I've seen so far, I can see that the original Rift zones were likely too small for a large population of players. It seems I'm leveling very fast, and I can't foresee that slowing down anytime soon. If that's the case, I can see why Storm Legion was said to have tripled the size of the game world. By comparison, the original zones for WoW and SWTOR were gigantic, and LOTRO not too far behind.

For all the talk --especially on Gen Chat-- about how Rift is dead, it is much more active than Age of Conan. There are about 7 North American and 6 European shards (their term for servers), and although shards are typically clustered together in a manner similar to WoW's clustering, Rift is still more active than AoC which has only two servers (one PvE and one PvP). I'd say that Rift is in the same ballpark as LOTRO in terms of player activity, although LOTRO's lower level zones are much bigger by comparison. I get the impression that SWTOR's player base is more active than Rift's is, but that's not backed up by any hard numbers. It's just a general feeling.

My exploration of Rift did include one person accusing me of being a bot, and another person randomly giving me 2 platinum coins just because. I thought at first the gift giver had accidentally clicked on my toon when doing something else (it happens), but when he finally asked me to stop running I realized he really did mean to give me some money. So if you're that person who gave my Elf Rogue two platinum coins a week ago, sorry about that. I honestly thought that you'd hit the wrong button and didn't realize it.


Part VII: Final Thoughts

I look at Rift as a survivor in the MMO landscape. Rift didn't have a lot to depend on when it started, as it didn't have a big intellectual property attached to it (Star Wars, Middle-earth, Conan, Warcraft, Warhammer, etc.). Rift also had the misfortune of being released a few months after WoW's Cataclysm release, so all the hype about Cataclysm drowned out most of the build up for Rift. The game weathered that first chaotic year where players came in and checked out the "new hotness", got to max level, complained there was nothing to do, and left. And just as Rift's wave was dying, SWTOR's hype machine was kicking into high gear.

Still, Rift has a lot to offer.

Rift has that constant intensity of the rifts themselves. They are always there, in your face, demanding to be conquered. You may think that you're safe and you've got the game figured out, and suddenly an invasion just plows into you from behind.

Stepping back from the gameplay itself, consider the following: Rift's cash shop options aren't as generous as LOTRO's but aren't quite as restrictive as SWTOR's, the graphics are better than WoW, and Rift has a compelling story all by itself with a novel concept of faction differences.

Rift also does well with representation and an overall lack of cringeworthy material. The NPCs look like they belong in Telara and aren't there just for eye candy. The dialog among the NPCs isn't ridiculous. The PCs run and walk and fight and stand like you'd expect normal people to behave when it's all business, and the PC's don't look like they're preening or strutting or are on a catwalk.

The main drawback to Rift is that the leveling seems very fast in the low level zones, but your toon doesn't outlevel zones that much either unless you want to spend a lot of time fighting rifts. The paywall is a bit of a drawback, but if you can handle SWTOR you can handle Rift.

Would I continue to play Rift? Yes, because I really want to see what happens to the overall story. I recognize that the WoW-esque nature of putting some quest endings behind dungeons/instances will be present, but I'm still curious enough to follow through. And, just as importantly, there's nothing that jars me out of my sense of immersion while playing the game. I'm sure that the lighting in-game has something to do with it, because it's very easy to not notice that some NPCs have on skimpy outfits because unless you're in broad daylight the lighting blends the colors together.

Rift isn't dead yet, as it has a new expac coming out in early August.

That alone gives me some hope for Rift, because it feels comfortable hanging around Telara.

*For a point of reference, TERA was released in January 2011, but wasn't released in the US until May 2012. Yes, TERA really is six years old. Oh, and I'm well aware that Rift was in development long before 2011, but their marketing was dead set on going after the WoW fan who just wanted more of Wrath of the Lich King rather than a complete Cataclysm.

**Remember when wandering elites made it dangerous to hang around Azeroth, parked and AFK, while you went to get a drink? A lot of those vanished in Cataclysm. The zone designs changed as well to eliminate the so-called Scarlet Monastery problem: having high level enemies in a low level zone.

***If anyone ever tells you that a superior game will win out in the MMO field, don't believe them. WoW is still not the "best" MMO from a software design standpoint, but what it excels at is the connection between friends/guildmates that have been built up for over a decade. The pull of friendship is the primary driver of WoW's MMO dominance, and other companies would do well to remember that.

****Clever way of explaining the talent trees if you ask me.

*****While you can purchase extra packs to allow for more dark and pale skinned options, for the most part a human toon will end up looking like a European, Near Easterner, or an Indian. And like I said in the previous post, I'm looking at options that allow a player to create a toon that looks like them, not what fits in the game world. Do the options fit in the game world? Yes. Are the options limited? Yes.

#Which does include fishing, for you fishing fanatics.

##There is potentially an option to spawn NPCs to help you take on a rift, but I've not tried it yet.

###It goes without saying that the example that I provided passed the Bechdel Test quite easily.


  1. Is this the longest post you've ever made on Parallel Context? It's gotta be up there!

    As someone who's never played RIFT herself but has been exposed to plenty of blog posts about it, this is actually the most detailed explanation of the game's background I remember seeing. I think it's telling that people generally aren't too keen on talking about that part of the game...

    Have to disagree with your assessment of the game's population though, at least if Steam Charts are any indication of an MMO's relative size when compared to others: They have RIFT slightly below Wildstar, while LOTRO has about double the amount of players.

    The number of servers is deceiving because the game allows you to freely jump between them at the press of a button (I've seen a video about this) so everyone tends to gather on a single actually active server unless they are specifically seeking out solitude.

    1. Sorry, that should have been slightly above Wildstar - got the lines mixed up at a glance. In a similar ballpark in any case.

    2. The "Two Sides to a Coin" series is likely much longer, but I also didn't use a lot of screenshots in that series either. What I wanted to do was examine what I felt would be potentially ridiculous aspects of the game that would break immersion, and visual evidence would be important.

      I think that Steam numbers are deceptive in this case, as Rift (like LOTRO or other MMOs) has a significant player base that doesn't use Steam to connect. And to be honest, with the clustering Rift uses I saw toons from several different shards when running around the zones. I also realize that the toons I'm seeing in the main capital and low level zones is going to be different than people hanging around wherever the high end toons congregate --think Dalaran in Wrath versus Org/Stormwind-- but there were more people in the low level zones than I originally expected. The rifts do tend to attract people from around the zone, so people who just quest and avoid the rifts do seem to be more of the exception. It is hard to avoid the rifts, but given my prior experience in the Beta of high level (major) rifts opening up in a low level zone, I placed a priority of avoiding the rifts until I was certain I could get a feel on what the level of the creatures were. (The map lets you hover over a rift to give you the level, which is a godsend.)

      One item I found interesting was reading the Gen Chat, because the people who complained that Rift was dead were also complaining that the toons they created in the Beta (or shortly after launch) were no longer around. I was surprised that people would complain that toons created 5 years ago and not touched since were cleaned up somewhere along the line. I'll freely admit that I was surprised that my original Trion account from the Beta was still active, but I've not seen an e-mail from Rift in years, so I figured it was gone long ago.

    3. And about your mention as to the lack of discussion about the background to Rift, I really don't know why people don't talk about the Rift story. Maybe people just look at Rift as an excuse to PvP and raid, but I think the backstory is much more compelling and much less discombobulated than WoW's is. Maybe that's the SF/F fan in me, but I can see the planar invasion backstory as a good jumping point for a book series.

      Now that I think about it, you could make an argument about aspects of the Buffy-verse fitting into Rift's universe quite nicely.

    4. I do think your description of the story makes it sound quite interesting and less generic than I've been led to believe!

      I'm aware that many MMO players don't use Steam to play their game of choice, but I see no reason to assume that the percentage of those who use it should vary wildly between games, so the relative size comparison should still hold.

      I just don't see RIFT as a survivor but rather as an example of how you can have a great start in the MMO space and still ruin things over time. At launch, Trion was the golden child and everyone talked about how great the game was... I remember the drama about a WoW blogger putting up a "RIFT-free zone" sign on her blog because she got tired of people gushing about it everywhere! Then the hype died down but Trion remained a champion of the subscription model, wowing to never fall so low as to go free to play. Then they did, but they were going to be different from everyone else and avoid annoying restrictions and pay to win! Then they sold raid gear in their store... it's just been one giant downward spiral, in terms of PR at least!

    5. Well, I'm not sure. It depends on whether the playerbase feels that using Steam is worth it. On AoC, I hear people badmouthing the Steam implementation all the time, but I really consider that more a function of being annoyed because the newer goodies have been angling toward the Steam downloaders than the people who have been around longer. It's been a while since I logged into STO, but I recall similar gripes about when they wanted people to download ArcGames to use as a launcher.

      I do recall the P2W crap that Trion got, but I have to think that Trion's belief in announcing they'd never go F2P was their real downfall. It was their hubris in thinking they could out-WoW WoW. Blizz has their sub model because of their sheer size, and even in the era of declining subs and the WoW cash shop they can get away with this. Trion could not, because they didn't have the size or volume to keep it going. And really, the only sub --that is strictly a sub and nothing else-- in MMO space is WoW.

      I personally never bought into the hype about Trion being a model of doing it right, because we didn't have the sub numbers that showed a steady player base. MMO players are very prickly --just pick any drama and I'll call it a tempest in a teapot-- and tend to have devs that listen to the loudest voices in the room rather than make decisions that are best for the game (see: Wildstar). Their decision to sell raid gear was not smart from mainly a perception POV, but it also doesn't impact the original game very much. I felt that the F2P environment in Rift is pretty much what I'd expect for somewhere in the middle of the cash shop zone. But I'd also point out that Trion is doing well enough to keep releasing new expacs, which is something that AoC and to a lesser extent, Wildstar aren't doing.*

      Nevertheless, an MMO reaching a six year anniversary is no small feat. The fact that Rift is able to hang in there in spite of everything against it --no established hot property, bad or no press, overall decline in MMOs as a genre, rise of MOBAs-- speaks to the quality of the original product.

      *Wildstar is releasing new raids, but that's about it as far as new content is concerned. No new zones, stories, or other major content. They're basically doing "Double XP Weekends" and whatnot at this point.

    6. Shin, you have brought up some great points, and whether or not an MMO's history (or the dev house's history) should factor into my MMO reviews is something I should examine for another post.

    7. I'm happy to give you more ideas for things to blog about! XD

      Comparing AoC's output with anything is a bit unfair, considering that Funcom has officially put the game in maintenance mode.

      But I can't help but wonder if this might not have been RIFT's last expansion too. Its reception seemed to be really bad, mostly due to things like bugs and missing/delayed content. Syp's was about the most positive impression I read of it, and even he had given up by the second zone iirc.