Hal Hanlin Talks 'Rift'

Rift, the new PC MMO, launched on March 1 in the United States and days later in Europe and Australia. The game debuts on a crest of positive buzz garnered through a slew of well-received beta events. But launching a successful online game is as much about follow-through as it is about first impressions. Trion Worlds design producer Hal Hanlin talks about his company’s philosophies on keeping customers happy, leveraging technologies and, of course, making great games.

By Gus Mastrapa

Rift, the new PC MMO, launched on March 1 in the United States and days later in Europe and Australia. The game debuts on a crest of positive buzz garnered through a slew of well-received beta events. But launching a successful online game is as much about follow-through as it is about first impressions. I spoke to Trion Worlds design producer Hal Hanlin about his company’s philosophies on keeping customers happy, leveraging technologies and, of course, making great games.

G.M.: You’re in the midst of an MMO launch. How’s it going? Did your beta testing prepare you for every circumstance?

Hal Hanlin: This has been the smoothest MMO launch I have ever heard of. We had eight practice runs, with the seven beta events plus the head start, so we were pretty confident. But this exceeded even my highest hopes. G.M.: How did your team’s prior experience -- previous games and gigs -- benefit the production of this game?

H.H.: If you have played a major MMO in the last 12 years, multiple people from this team were probably on it. We built this team with the expectation that we would rather not hire anyone than hire someone who was not an expert at what they do. That expectation shows through in the final product.

Each person on this team shared their experiences, both the positive ones and the negative ones, to help guide us through the process of building a rock-solid MMORPG. We made sane decisions about what we were and were not willing to have as our differentiators, and then we polished each feature to a high gloss.

That took a lot of time and a lot of commitment. We had to ask ourselves hard questions constantly, and one hallmark of our world-class team is that we knew when we had to let something die. So many precious ideas that made it to the 80-percent mark were simply shelved because, as cool as they were on their own, they detracted from the rest of the game. Experience lets you make good -- and tough -- decisions. G.M.: Your rift mechanic is a major differentiator in the MMO market. How did it come to be a key part of your game and your marketing message?

H.H.: A couple of years ago, we had a ton of lore and story. We had a stable, powerful and inherently flexible platform. We were able to introduce pretty much anything into the world whenever we wanted to, but the connective tissue was missing. There was little way for players to anticipate, plan for, or get excited about these events or to understand what they needed to do while they were happening.

A couple of our designers had this idea to introduce dynamic new content as rifts. They got together with some artists and programmers, got them excited about their idea and put together a prototype. What resulted was interesting enough that we spent several months on R&D to bring together the look and the gameplay. They were really cool, but they felt like add-ons, which at that point is what they were. To turn this into a core feature of our game was going to be expensive and time consuming, and it required the loss of a lot of work. Moments like this, though, are where the dev team and management define greatness. We realized that we needed to make this core and develop the quests, environments and everything else in tandem, not a separate effort. I have said before that we have thrown out more content than some games have shipped with. This was one example of that willingness to sacrifice good in pursuit of excellence. We rebuilt the quest lines, the ambient populations, the new user areas … everything to fully incorporate the dynamic nature of our game. That’s why I smile a little when I hear existing games hint that they are introducing dynamic-ish gameplay. I know how hard we had to work to get those parts to work together.

G.M.: You’ve put a lot of effort into making your game visually appealing and to take advantage of gaming PCs. Tell us about some of the new tech you’ve created for Rift.

H.H.: We have a ton of technical time invested in that, of course, but my personal favorite elements are the shaders that the technical artists create. We have some guys who hear a conversation, disappear into their office for an hour or so, and then I see a submit note that reads like: “Added ‘Outdoor’ handling for non-worldspace objects. The dust/snow etc. is calculated in worldspace, so it accumulates on the model regardless of how you place it.”

Then he sends a screenshot of these various bulwarks places in snow, on grassy areas and in the desert, and it blows my mind. Our art director, Darren Pattenden, is uncompromising and leads from the front. If he is telling one of his artists how he wants something, he can quickly demonstrate. Everyone knows his drive for excellence, so when he has given direction, it’s amazing to see how the artists apply their own genius to his ideas. G.M.: Common wisdom suggests that it’s difficult to launch an MMO with a subscription model. How is that perception right or wrong?

H.H.: Launching an MMO is tough, full stop. The subscription model is an assessment of value. We have assembled the most technologically and visually advanced MMOG in history, while retaining enough MMO standards that players from most other AAA games can quickly make the shift.

Once they get into Telara, fight some rifts, stave off massive, hundreds-of-enemies-charging-in-from-all-sides zone invasions and do it alongside hundreds of other players, subscription stops being a conversation. It’s about value. We are the only major MMORPG that was designed from the ground up to be dynamic and changing. Players will see Telara change over time because we think of our games as services. We have proven through the beta events that we are capable and willing to make major changes to the game when they are deeply desired and needed. G.M.: MMOs are both services and games. What is Trion’s approach to managing community and providing customer service?

H.H.: I would argue that most MMOs are, in fact, not really services because they are virtually incapable of adapting to the needs of their players. They may change slowly, through the course of multiyear developments, but they are not really serving their customers.

I infer this from the reaction that we got from the hundreds of thousands of beta players. When they cried out for something in one beta and then, two weeks later, got it, they were floored. A developer was actually A) willing to listen, B) willing to change, and C) capable of making major changes on a tiny timeline! That’s service. Because this seemed so completely novel and unprecedented, it seems that we are already doing things others are not. That willingness to listen and continually make the game better is our idea of customer service. G.M.: Once the launch dust settles, it’ll be time to start creating new content for your players. What is Trion’s plan?

H.H.: As hinted at previously, we have an amazingly aggressive plan for continual content. We intend to take full advantage of our servers’ inherent flexibility and keep the players on their toes. Moreover, we understand that a strong end-game is not an option; it is a necessity. We will be taking care of the level-cappers too.

Screencaps courtesy of http://www.riftgame.com.

Gus Mastrapa is a freelance writer from Apple Valley, Calif., with nearly 10 years of experience in the games industry. His work has appeared in Wired, Edge, Variety and countless online publications.