RIFT’s Scott Hartsman Talks Transfers, Events, and the Future (INTERVIEW)
Late last week, we got a chance to sit down for a chat with Scott Hartsman, the Executive Producer of RIFT. Interviewing Scott is a very interesting time, as he is demonstrably passionate about what he does. There’s no question that he’s excited about RIFT and where it’s going. As Trion Worlds gears up for E3, we stole a few minutes to ask some questions about exactly where RIFT is going, as well as to chat about where it’s been, and what they’ve learned so far.
GameFront: Let’s start out by talking about The River of Souls event. You had a pretty good event that didn’t end as well as you’d hoped. What sort of response did you get from your players?
Scott Hartsman: One of the things I think we’re becoming at least a little bit known for is our willingness to try crazy stuff, even when it flies in the face of what everybody knows to be true. When we first came up with the idea of invasions and zone takeovers and this world where people can literally lose access to quest content because it’s a living world that’s under attack, the amount of naysaying, even internally, was pretty large, with comments like “Oh my god, that’s a terrible idea, blah, blah blah.” It was a brave experiment, and we tried it. Lo and behold, hey, it was actually really fun and working. We kept it, and it became a signature part of the game.
I think of our events the same way. Our first take was “We’re going to try a big crazy thing and see if it works. We’re gonna have some parts that do work and some parts that don’t work.” I think as long as we learn important lessons and adapt for the future, at least in our experience, our users seem to be pretty happy when we’re up front about stuff like that.
It was a big, explosive thing to try. It was two or three weeks of lead-up events, which were the dailies and the rifts and the zone events, which were fun and great, and everyone enjoyed them. Towards the end, WOW did it get bumpy on a few servers. It turns out that putting an entire server population into the same zone is no problem, but when you put them all on the same 10 foot by 10 foot area of ground, hey, problem.
So, we’re not going to do that again. I think the fact that we pretty much came out with our take on it a day later and said “Here’s what we learned, here’s what we’re going to do, here’s what we’re not going to do again. Thanks for sticking with it.” I think the response was generally really positive. I think as more time passes, what people remember is that it got a little janky towards the end, but those first three weeks were really fun. Now, there are some new, cool events that are part of the normal event rotation forever. So hey, this was actually kind of neat overall.
We took things we learned from that, and had the team that’s working on the events that are coming out for 1.3 right there as well, making sure to take away all the important lessons. Strategically, they’re making sure our future events take away everything important that we learned.
All in all, it was a net positive experience. Man, the end was bumpy, but I like to think we did all right at making good, and I like to think that everyone appreciated it.
GF: One thing that has set Trion apart from other MMO companies is how they deal with their community. When a player asks why you’re doing something, they don’t get a form letter for an answer, they get Scott Hartsman himself explaining things to them, and going back forth in conversations. How did that philosophy come about?
SH: A lot of us play the game, for starters. A lot of us have extensive backgrounds in working with games on a lot of different levels. My first job working in an online game was like a million years ago, and the games were smaller, but back then the people who were doing game design were the same people who were talking to you on the forums, answering petitions, and handling billing. Programmers and designers were answering petitions. A lot of us who were in the business back then are here because we enjoy interacting with customers. We didn’t get into this business to build a world and be like “WE ARE THE GODS!”
To us it’s like putting on a play or a show. It’s a shared entertainment experience, and part of what makes it cool is that you can interact with everybody. I think that’s kind of a philosophy that’s really dominant around here. Our Community Director puts on training classes for people who want to post on forums. Just tips and tricks on not pissing people off and that sort of thing. The first one she did, she announced to the team, expecting to get 5-10 developers. She had 60 developers respond, and had to break the class up into sessions.
We have people that are so excited about working on games that have live players to talk, it just carries through. It’s something that we actively seek to foster among our dev team. We don’t want to hide behind a big wall, and we don’t want everything to come through a formal mouthpiece. I’d rather have us all out conversing with people and occasionally making a mistake here or there on the assumption that because we are talking to people more means that overall, things are going to be better.
We are always going to be outnumbered. It’s always going to look like the dev team isn’t talking, but that’s because there are a lot more of you than there are of us. I do like to think that we are one of the more conversational teams, and it’s something that we are actively trying to keep going.
GF: It seems that players are devouring content you’re providing at a breakneck pace. Do you guys see that and think “Wow, we need to pick up the pace on these updates a little bit.” How do you respond to that seeing players tear through content?
SH: That’s kind of the difference between having real numbers versus what you might perceive from outside. If you’re looking at it from the outside, it may look like “Holy crap, people have burned through everything, fire, fire!” But actually, on the inside, it’s a really small number of people. At the time Alsbeth’s instance release, the guild Addiction beat it on the first or second day. But we have many, many, many thousands of guilds, and only one of them beat it. That’s OK.
I think the big thing we are very consciously balancing for is balancing for the largest mass of people and where they are in the progression, as opposed to trying to balance for stuff that is going to keep the hardest of the hardest of the hardcore grinding for weeks. Bluntly, if we make content where that’s going to be the case, the majority of even the raiding audience is never going to see that content. That methodology was great when I was working on Everquest 1, not so much these days.
That’s been the general thought on pacing. The general thought on keeping ahead of the curve has always been about that all the content we do put out there is over a certain level of quality.
Everything will of course have little tweaky stuff that we’re always fixing, but we’d rather go out with more interesting, better quality stuff. The assumption is that even if people do ‘finish’ it, if it was good and they enjoyed it, they’ll come back when you add more. I would rather risk boring, say, the top 1/10th of 1% of players and having them then come back later, as opposed to having a game that had 100 things to do that were all either mediocre or broken.
It’s always been ‘Aim for quality, don’t overreach, and then keep it coming at the pace you can keep it coming.’ We had actually planned out our content rollout schedule for live quite some time ago. We started working on that even before launch. That’s why Alsbeth’s instance was ready to go when it was, and why the 1.2, 1.3 and 1.4 stuff is going to come out when it does. That’s the pace we had planned all along. These things are launch quality, and then we’re trying to keep quality coming. If you’re at the level you can go do it, go do it today. If not, then you have something to look forward to, and that way everyone kind of wins.