As extra-planar invasion-themed MMO Rift passes the one year mark, I caught up with Executive Producer Scott Hartsman to dive deep on one of Rift's more unique aspects: its dynamic world.
In our chat, Hartsman explains how Rift was initially conceived as a completely dynamic, unpredictable MMO, and why Trion had to step back from that ambition in the face of underwhelming playtests. What's happening underneath the hood when a rift opens, spilling forth a planar invasion force? How has Trion turned Rift into an "entertainment on demand" experience with its instant action feature, without detracting from the unpredictability and sense of discovery that Rift's dynamic content makes possible?
Even if you're not a Rift player, Hartsman gives provides a great perspective on the process behind building a different kind of MMO, and how that leads to unforeseen consequences like a cataclysmic battle in the least exciting place in Telara.
PC Gamer: How did your conception of Rift evolve over the course of development?
Scott Hartsman, Rift Executive Producer: We wanted things in the world that would naturally bring people together. Because we know that no matter how great the content we created, players are the stickiest thing in a game. So they started out as ways to get people engaged with challenging content and kind of knock them out of their comfort zone of playing traditional theme-park content.
One of the big turning points for us was, before launch, we did this big video called "Invasions" and it showed just this massive zone going crazy with fire invaders taking over an entire zone of the game. And we all looked at the video and went, "Okay, we need to make that happen in the game. If we can make that happen in the game, we will have something that nobody else has.
And the technology base that we're working with was built around the idea of dynamic content and events. This might be a little too in the weeds, but every creature that is walking around Rift, whether they're dynamic or static, every static NPC is actually an event that just happens to be "on" all the time. So every piece of content in our game, the engine views as an event. It's just a matter of: what is it doing when it's alive? And how does it show up? And how does it scale?
PCG: Every creature is an event? Could you decode that a little?
Hartsman: Okay, so the traditional way of doing fantasy MMO content is you have a static spawner that spawns an NPC, and that NPC is also a static thing. Making them do anything interesting involves scripting, or special programming, or is some kind of challenge. Which is why you tend to not see this type of content in older generation games. It's just a big pain in the ass to make.
With our system, it was build from the ground-up with the concept of: what if everything could change all the time? What if everything was transitory? And actually, some of the first internal iterations of the content in this engine was 100 percent dynamic, 100 percent of the time. While it was fun in short spurts, it kind of didn't really have that feel of, "I am in this dependable MMO world, where I have these touch points of things I'm familiar with and things I've grown attached to." For us, it was more about realizing we needed to add in a static layer to actually give the game some context.
PCG: See, an ever-changing world sounds amazing to me. What was the frustration with that?
Hartsman: A lot of it came down to a lack of clarity. People need to feel like they have a place in the world in order to feel like it's a world they want to keep coming back to. And when everything is changing all the time, you don't have any anchor points. It's really difficult to communicate story and so on. And so it was more about making sure there was always this solid fictional grounding for what was going on the world, which is when the concept of Guardians and Defiants as the two major factions developed, and then the concept of the planar invaders followed in after that.
PCG: So how did you mix those elements together to solve those problems?
Hartsman: We started to think of them as two different layers, and that was really the key. There is a layer of what is perceived as static content in the world. The city of Meridia, the city of Sanctum, the exclamation mark farms for content and so on. And once people had that there, they felt that, "Okay, this is now a world that begins to make sense to me. I can begin to navigate this world."
And then when we began to create the dynamic layer on top of that. It was splitting it up into two different layers and having them interact interestingly with each other. You know, invaders will go after and set up footholds in static content layer elements. The dynamic AI has its own goals, it knows what it wants to do, it knows where it wants to go build up bases, and that layer doesn't really care whether it's fighting players or other NPCs in the world. Because players are entities that have faction relationships just like NPCs are, so that really, the dynamic layer is at war with everything.
PCG: So how wild do you let that get? Let's say the invaders come and the players, for whatever reason, are just like, "Screw it," How crazy does it get if you let that go unchecked?
Hartsman: If you were to take a server that was completely empty, for example, subtract away all the players and just let the dynamic layer do its own thing? It would take over most of the adventuring places in the world. And that was actually one of the big fun experiences we had when we first launched the game.
When we did the wipe just before the start, the servers had been up and running for a good 48 hours before we let players in there. And so the first thing the players had to do in Rift was retake Tellara zone by zone, because everything was taken over by the dynamic layer.
There's a scene in a zone called Silverwood that's called Marsh House and Marsh House is this otherwise very - there's really nothing special about it! It's just this corner where you end up in Silverwood at Level 8, and there was this incredible epic battle for Marsh House that literally raged on for like three or four hours before the players finally got it taken back, because the AI kept throwing enemies at them. So there were a couple hundred players and a couple hundred NPCs on the one server that I was sitting on, and yeah, the epic battle for Marsh House was like the last place in the universe we expected anything interesting to ever occur at all. Seriously! It's a hut at a fork in a road! It's completely not where we were expecting the big battle for Silverwood to take place. And once the players got that, they got their forward respawn point, they established a beachhead, and then they started to spread throughout the zone.
It was this epic memorable thing. And that lesson really stuck with us, and we've kind of taken that to heart as we go forward and develop new layers and new types of dynamic content engagement, whether it's the Onslaughts, where they're all about this building and defensive gameplay for level 50s. And we're doing even crazier stuff in the future.
PCG: How do you keep these elements from becoming old-hat for experienced players?
Hartsman: For us, our big challenge is that people wanted more of those types of experience on their own schedules. The great thing is that they're unpredictable, but the downside is that if you're logging on, you've only got a half hour, if they're unpredictiable you might not get to play the fun. And so that's really what led us to the Onslaught-style development, where the system began to understand, or we taught it, that as players join up these instant advantures and get grouped together, the system will queue up different adventures for them that are appropriate for the number of players in their group. So when we first released the instant adventures, one of the first ones I got in was a give man raid. You know, it was kind of sedate. Fun, but it was more like a popcorn adventure.
Then as more people started going in, we suddenly had to defend a town in Stillmore, was the adventure we were given, and the invaders kept flooding in from all sides, and it really did have that same kind of vibe that we liked from when we first launched the game. So like I said, our big challenge has been how did you created that dynamic excitement while still making it available to someone who might only have 15 minutes to play? That's really where our focus has been these days.
People love grouping in general. What people don't like, though, is they don't want to be the person to initiate and assemble a group, and they also don't want to Be That Guy and feel guilty about dropping out if they have to go. So instant adventure was our way of giving people the fun of grouping while removing those two barriers.
PCG: So how does it work?
Hartsman: When you click on Instant Adventure, you can be given an adventure as a solo person until more people show up, and you just progress that way. And you never have to worry about dropping out because the adventures people are given are going to be suited for the number of people that happen to be there.
It was the fun of grouping without the guilt of grouping and without the pain in the ass of grouping.
PCG: It must be tough to balance for these unpredictable groupings.
Hartsman: One of the techniques we use is we don't do anything that is fully machine-generated. Everything is created by designers and is balanced by designers and the scaling is authored by designers.
While it is machine assisted, it is not 100 percent procedurally generated, because doing anything fully procedurally generated would make things even more difficult. I mean, the assignment these designers and engineers have is pretty insane. When we tell them, "You've got this dynamic content. By the way, it needs to be fun if there's five people there or seven hundred people there," because both are very regular cases with our content.
PCG: Anything on the whiteboard that you can tell us about?
Hartsman: One of the prototypes that has been being worked on for the last few months, we haven't really talked about it much at all, is - "What does the next generation of dynamic world-based PvP look like?" We've got the crossyard PvP prototype that we've been working on. And those are really the two big things that we hope to have more info on in the coming months.
PCG: So what are you looking at doing in your second year?
Hartsman: The big stuff for us is what's next. We know this system, we love this system, our players love this system. What we're really focused on is how can we jump ahead even farther. And that's really what this year is about for us.