2011 Video Game of the Year Nominee: RIFT | Giant Fire Breathing Robot

2011 Video Game of the Year Nominee: RIFT

Character property of Trion Worlds, art by DarthVid @ GFBRobot.com

First, the TL;DR Version:

1. WoW owned the MMORPG space, uncontested, for five years until RIFT kicked them in the knee.

2. RIFT takes everything that worked in the previous decade of MMO gaming and then perfects it.

-Talent trees, punked.

-Interface perfected.

-Leveling at its most organic.

3. RIFT pioneers new concepts that will define the genre for the rest of this generation.

-Dynamic content with persistent game-world effects.

-Non-restrictive class systems that allow true player freedom of choice.

-Brings story back to the forefront of the MMORPG genre.

-Automatic generation of drop-in/out groups for world events.

-Instanced content that scales to all group sizes.

4. RIFT straddles the divide of MMO generations.

– It will last as the marker for that moment which makes it clearly the most important game this year.

 

The Real Damn Long, Grab Some Coffee Version:

Davey and Goliath

As you probably know, WoW has owned the MMO play-space with unquestioning dominance ever since it closed its first year with five million subscribers. Since then, we’ve seen power-house studios throw themselves at the fortress gates only to shatter and fold months after launch. We’ve seen several extremely rich licenses such as Star Wars, Conan, and Lord of the Rings attempt to shoulder their way in by dint of fan-base mass…and fail. Admittedly, LOTRO is still kicking as a F2P and Star Wars is about to get its second big chance at taking down the champ, but it’s the subscription model that WoW has in a stranglehold. Within the industry, it’s almost a forgone conclusion that anyone who wants to make an MMO needs to find another profit model because WoW can’t be touched.

Out of nowhere, Trion, a moderately-sized studio with no titles to its name, decided to put out a 100% original IP under ye olde subscriber-based model and managed to sell a million units in the first month. Completely by coincidence, Blizzard announced a loss of nearly 600,000 subscribers in the same month. Totally unconnected. Totally. Yeah.

Of course, the important question is how these upstarts managed to bloody the undisputed MMO heavy-weight champion. And why this should matter to you, our voting public.

 

MMO version 1.99999

I should probably start off by clarifying that RIFT looks and plays much like any and every MMO you’ve tried in the past five years. Their entire design model could be best described as “if it ain’t broke…” with power bars along the bottom, race class/combos, opposing factions, sequential questing, open worlds, and so forth. On first pass, you’ll wonder why I’m so caught up in this game. There are definite places in which Trion rewrote the playbook and did brand new things, but it takes a bit for the genius to show through.

What first strikes you, as you’re meandering along a path you’ve probably walked 100 times before, is that while RIFT has all the things you’re used to they’re all just…better. Powers sequence together more cleanly, quests constantly push you forward to new portions of a zone, keeping it fresh, and character customization manages to be extremely detailed without turning into your art homework. The game feels like–and is–a distillation of lessons from everything done over the last decade of MMO development. Everything that doesn’t work was tossed and everything else was streamlined, enhanced, and perfected. It is a game that encompasses and defines everything that came before so much so that I don’t think any game after this can rely on the tropes without having to outright copy RIFT. I mean, hell, the absolute best example of this is their talent tree system.

Prime example, one of the 60+ Cleric soul combos.

Now, when I say talent tree, I mean “holy friggin talent tree, Batman.” These guys do not screw around. An ongoing development issue within WoW has been efforts by the devs to avoid “cookie-cutter” builds that are the only “right” way to spec a given class. Additionally, WoW and several other games have struggled with defining player experiences without restricting the ability to let players experience the game their way. In a single, highly complex, stroke, Trion has pushed talent points to a level no math nerd can ever touch while instituting the ability to mix, match, and switch between hundreds of possible soul combinations and exponentially larger numbers of specific builds.

Every point you spend in a given tree unlocks the abilities in the roots. More mathy points at the top means more “Push Button for Awesome” at the bottom. It’s both uncrackable and yet engaging for the math and nonmath-oriented in the audience. In addition, YOU pick your three souls from the starting pool of ten and can then unlock further souls for PvP, raiding, and so on. The possibilities get ridiculous, and yet when I was building my characters, I just spent points in the abilities I liked using and ignored the math. I never felt weak or like I was “doing it wrong,” and I always felt like I was playing my characters MY way. In response, WoW is doing away with talents almost entirely and every other new title isn’t even bringing the idea to the table. In short, once Trion perfected it nobody else was willing to even try.

It’s this, this ability to simply nail it after a decade’s worth of a hundred companies’ failed attempts, to create this watershed moment where an industry looking for the response to WoW is forced to finally see the only successful direction is to move beyond what’s come before, that makes this game a defining game of 2011. And defining is where it would stay if they hadn’t then decided to up the ante by throwing in a few things nobody else had thought of yet.

Raising the Bar and Setting the Standard

Consequences. Games used to have consequences. You’d screw up, the dog would laugh at you, you’d throw your light gun at the TV, and the game would go back to the loading screen. And when WoW showed up on the MMO scene, their big contribution was the removal of consequences.

Sort of.

They eased the blow of death, they allowed you to change your mind about your spec, and so on. They removed a lot of the SUCK that had infiltrated the existing MMO market. The thing is, they weren’t successful just because they got rid of consequences, they were successful because they got rid of consequences that weren’t FUN. The easiest way to walk away from an MMO is force yourself to face the fact that nothing ever changes. Nothing you do or have invested yourself in persists on the landscape of the game. That one guy is always standing there waiting for you to tell him where his wife’s body is, and you can fail 1,000 centaur attacks but there will always be a quest giver sitting there for you to try again. Now, there’s something to be said for not punishing people but there’s a bigger point to be made for motivating people. In-game gold and cool pants only go so far. Trion decided to change that with…wait for it…rifts.

Rifts are elementally allied “storms” that open up at random in the middle of zones, on top of quest hubs, and elsewhere. A bunch of enemies associated with that element will telephone in, kill the local NPCs and the wildlife and they don’t go away unless somebody kills them and closes the rift. In larger zone events, called Invasions, rifts will constantly spawn enemies that head for the nearest quest hubs and start slaughtering your friendly local item vendors and other NPCs.

There are a bunch of rewards for closing a rift: in-game unique items and currency, uncommon goods that normally require mad farming, and lots of XP. But on top of these positive reinforcements, you have the revolutionary idea that there should be some negative reinforcement as well. If an invasion force is able to overwhelm the defenders of your local town and destroy its core crystal…they get the town; it becomes the property of that faction or is populated by monsters from now on. Say you had four or five quests to turn in there or needed to use the teleport crystals? No dice. The only way to get your NPCs back is to kill the occupiers, destroy their crystal, and then defend it until the old town is restored. It’s a simple mechanic, but it suddenly brings a level of urgency to the invasions and rifts that just does NOT exist anywhere else in MMOs.

Now these invasions could easily be overwhelming/impossible. In another game, you’d need to find people willing to work on the task with you, arrange invites, and make sure everyone was in the same group for communication. In RIFT, anyone that’s near the rift event gets a pop-up, “Join the Raid/Group.” If you say yes, you get automatically added into a running group with shared tagging, full communication, and all the normal benefits of grouping. When the event’s over, you just click out of the group and you’re back to your life. It’s a simple idea and yet…not something you’ve seen before. (I’m aware CoH instituted it right around the same time.)

Speaking of groups, the other place you normally need a group is in a dungeon. RIFT’s LFG system is similar to WoW’s current one, and, since both work, it’s hardly news. What is news is that you actually give a crap about the dungeon. A big part of why you care about the dungeon is the same reason you’ll find yourself caring about everything else you’re doing. Every single zone has underlying stories, and not just quick three quests, get the answer and never think about it stories.

These stories are key threads in the overall drama of Telara that you will find yourself driving along and witnessing as you go. The dungeons aren’t just tacked on loot farms, they’re generally where the biggest story events occur, with bosses that need to die for a specific reason rather than just being in your way. Each fight builds the story until the meeting with the zone’s big baddy at the end, which can lead to bigger stories later on or just actual resolution of the fight so far. It’s a level of investment in plot and story that I haven’t seen outside of full raids in other games and is done more clearly and more engagingly for being handled by the more intimate group.

And speaking of how much I hate groups…heh. Some of you might have started twitching when you found out that you can only access key stories through instances, which most likely mean PUGs. Well, RIFT has you covered there as well, albeit not until recently. They’ve instituted a scaling system where three, two, or even ONE player can run an entire instance themselves and get all the story goodies with all that messy socializing.

 

MMO version 2.xxxxx…

RIFT is primarily the perfection of what came before, and for that it deserves recognition as one of the games of the year. But it is in the ways that RIFT has gone above and beyond that mold that it pushes to being Game of the Year. You can look at the upcoming slate of MMOs (next week’s SW:TOR, ferinstance), as well the upcoming WoW expansion, and you will see, over and over again, replication and extension of the ideas Trion has pioneered with this title.

Talent trees are dead because they perfected it. Heavy story lines are acted out, so there’s less reading and more experiencing. They’ve removed or reduced classes as a defined role, so players can switch classes/specs on the fly and gameplay is defined by the way it’s being played rather than what you chose to inhabit. There is dynamic content with in-game results that persist and affect the world around you. They added solo-instanced versions of group content so even the less social of us can still enjoy the richness. The list goes on, and I think the dominance will only become more obvious over time. In short, RIFT is the watershed; it is the transition of the genre as it perfects everything that came before and defines everything that comes after. All of this makes it a title that will be one day be looked at as the point at which the next generation of MMOs began, and for that it truly deserves your vote for GotY.

 

All images via Trion.

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