On Friday a good question was raised regarding Rift: what does WoW 2004 mean, and why does Rift have it over themepark MMO X?
Part of this is, of course, highly subjective. What I feel is a plus for Rift you might feel is a negative. What I find novel or interesting you might see as a glaring issue. This is, after all, my take on Rift and how I see its spot in the genre.
I think there is some confusion when I write that Rift is 2004 WoW, because some assume that means Rift plays like a 2004 MMO, and it does not. It plays like a 2011 MMO, it’s just not 2011 WoW in all the right ways. Rift has a lot of the 2011-ish changes that are an overall plus, like public grouping, AoE-looting, mobs dropping quest items 100% of the time (and letting multiple group members loot the item off a corpse, which is huge for those ‘collect 10 items’ quests when you do them with others), and many other current-day improvements over an MMO from 2004.
Most importantly, it has all of the ‘basics’ of an MMO down. It might sound silly that almost 15 years in we are still pointing to having the basics down as a major plus, but that says more about the genre as a whole than it does about Rift. Yet no matter how innovative you are, how impressive feature X might be, having the basics down cold is very important in a themepark, because it allows your players to actually focus on whatever you are trying to sell to stand out rather than having them distracted because your UI has issues, your animations feel ‘off’, you have item-looting lag, or countless other ‘little’ things that have really soured past MMOs. I’m seeing this aspect of Rift under-reported because it’s not something that jumps out at you right away, but in many ways this is why WoW was so successful at launch as well. Because the basics worked, people were able to focus on the innovative-at-the-time breadcrumb quests, the well-designed early zones, and some of the better early instances. Deadmines would not have been as memorable in 2004 if the core of WoW was not as solid.
Rift also feels ‘next-gen’ here in terms of some of its more important systems. In 2004, a talent tree was a solid innovation that brought depth to a class. In 2011, the soul system is a solid evolution (balance aspects aside, as I’ve not seen enough of things to really judge things), and makes the old way seem, well, old. Same goes for rifts vs PQs. When WAR came out, PQs were indeed something very new and interesting. But version 1.0 of PQs had some terrible flaws; the two main ones being loot distribution and population balance/interest. Rift, with PQs 2.0, takes steps to fix those two issues. For loot, rather than handing out one purple bag that everyone wants (that, even if you get #1 in a PQ you might not get if no purple bag was offered), rifts hand out currency that can be cashed in for whatever item you want at the time. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but it IS a step forward.
More than loot however, population and interest is what really doomed PQs in WAR. Rift seeks to solve this issue, and from my experience so far, and looking ahead based on that experience, I think they will succeed. Were PQs were static in both rewards and locations, rifts are more dynamic. They draw more attention to themselves, and are more likely to grab player interest as a result. On a themepark level, they have more impact than WAR’s PQs, and bring some action and ‘life’ to the area you are in. They also blend with questing far better, as they can open along your way or right at your quest spawn, and while you can still try and avoid them, it’s more noticeable and ‘in your face’ than the designated areas in WAR.
I also always view a themepark as something to explore and learn about, and the more you have left to uncover, the better. In a way, this is the fatal flaw of a themepark to me, because the discovery and ‘newness’ phase is limited, and once it ends what’s left is sub-par compared to a sandbox MMO. A sandbox evolves not just because the code changes, but because the players of the world change as well. That just does not happen as much in a themepark, because so much (if not all) of the content is you against the code. So with all of the above, Rift also has all the newness that comes with a new game. We don’t have cookie-cutter builds yet, we don’t have youtube videos of every raid boss, and we don’t have a ‘right way’ to do X. How long that lasts will depends not just on the work Trion has already done, but how they go about things post-launch. Hopefully the pace they set during beta is at least partially sustainable, and hopefully whatever ‘end-game’ they have is not flawed like MMOs from 2009-10.
Rift feels like 2004 WoW not because it’s a giant leap forward for the MMO genre, but because like WoW at launch, it feels like the right mix of ideas from the last few years, all combined to create something greater than its parts. In 2004 WoW did not set the MMO genre ablaze with feature X or Y, it just kept everyone logging back in day after day because it felt so solid. Rift to me has that same feel. New enough to be interesting, similar enough to be comfortable, and polished in all the right areas to be just fun and enjoyable. It’s a subtle mix, but it’s one that ‘average’ MMO fans eat up.