Rift has put Trion Worlds on the map. Words such as "feature-complete" and "polished" were bandied round when the game launched in early March, with Eurogamer awarding the game 8/10. Better still, Rift sets a tantalising precedent for the two other MMOs Trion Worlds has in development (with all three, plus the studio's tech department, sharing an investment pot of $100 million).
But it hasn't all been plain sailing. Malicious bots scour Rift daily for loop-holes, and recently a hacker had to alert Trion Worlds to a security breach. Gold farmers have invaded Rift, too.
What's more, work on Rift has only just begun - as with any other MMO, the launch is just the start. Can Trion direct Rift's evolution with enough finesse? Eurogamer cornered executive producer Scott Hartsman to find out.
Eurogamer: You went aggressively for World of Warcraft with Rift's advertising, telling viewers, "You're not in Azeroth now." Do you run the risk of suffering from direct comparison with WOW?
Scott Hartsman: I think so. But at the same time I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing. The goal was to get people's attention and make them laugh, make them chuckle. It really succeeded there.
Eurogamer: Do you think Rift is a better game than World of Warcraft?
Scott Hartsman: It's definitely a different game to World of Warcraft! Personally? Yes I do. I am a big fan of the general sense of 'I don't know what's coming next' -I don't know when some big invasion is going to hit, I don't know when some big horrific call to action is going to occur.
It adds something to an MMO that is genuinely missing: this sense of global, worldwide community of people who need to band together at random.
Eurogamer: How many people are playing Rift?
Scott Hartsman: Lots and lots and lots. We haven't announced any numbers yet but you can tell from the number of servers we've had to launch that clearly the number is far greater than we expected.
We were expecting to go out the door with 40 servers and we would have considered that a win. But then, when the game went on sale, the number of people went up. We reacted as well as we could - we opened a couple-dozen more servers to the point where we had 99 by launch day.
And things are still humming along and some still have queues and others don't. We now seem to have matched the amount of capacity that we needed.
Eurogamer: How many people does a Rift server hold?
Scott Hartsman: We'll call it competitive with other MMOs - it's in the multiple-thousands of players, as everybody would expect.
Eurogamer: Around 5000 people?
Scott Hartsman: We're not going to get into specifics.
Eurogamer: Does Rift have more than one million players?
Scott Hartsman: We definitely have more than one million accounts - a milestone we hit just before launch. And that number has been going up since then.
Eurogamer: What percentage of that number do you expect to leave when the free month's subscription runs out?
Scott Hartsman: That's actually really interesting; we don't know yet. Any prediction we make would be wrong, because there's no data [to base it on].
Putting a stake in the ground with no real data and then being disappointed or pleased one way or the other isn't really the way to succeed.
Eurogamer: Would Rift have been more popular as a free-to-play game?
Scott Hartsman: There would clearly be more people playing it, obviously. Would we be making more money overall? I don't think so.
One of the things F2P games do is make the XP grind really harsh, and you can advance all the way to the top level but you're buying power-ups to advance at a fun rate.
One of the reasons we felt so confident having a relatively non-grindy, painless progression to level 50 was because we knew we had a healthy end-game waiting; there's a whole bunch of stuff that opens up to you once you turn level 50.
And there's still more to do. I don't know that an MMO has launched in the last - jeez, 10 years? Five years? - that had both the fun rise to the top as well as stuff to do at the end game.
We'd rather everyone had the fun experience. We provide them a good service and make our money on them deciding to continue supporting us by coming back month after month.
Eurogamer: The existing Rift raid content was beaten very quickly - was that a shock?
Scott Hartsman: No, absolutely not a shock. When a game goes live, people bring their A-game in a way that didn't exist in beta. As one example of this: we have one of our guys who overheard that one of the players was taking air-force pilot drugs to be able to advance incredibly quickly.
Obviously we don't advocate that; we would hope nobody ever does that - but at the end of the day, people are going to go through some crazy things to try to be first.
Eurogamer: The new raid, River of Souls - will it take much longer to beat?
Scott Hartsman: I don't know about much longer, but to be blunt, much longer isn't always really the point. The point for us is to introduce people to the fact that we have the ability to keep shipping new and interesting content to play, whether they're high-end rifts, invasions or raid zones.
As long as people truly believe that there's more coming and it will continue to be fun, our bet is that they'll stick around.
Hypothetically, let's say [River of Souls] gets beaten the second day it comes out: OK, as long as people enjoy continuing to play it - remember people don't play a raid zone once, they play generally a lot of times - the bet is, as long as they know more is coming, they'll gladly hang around for the next bit.
Eurogamer: Do they know that more is coming - when is the next batch arriving?
Scott Hartsman: We actually haven't announced dates yet. We are in internal testing on the next patch.
"I actually like the fact that people have invented stuff that, bluntly, we hadn't thought of."
Eurogamer: Will the next patch bring a high-level rift event?
Scott Hartsman: I don't know the content specifics down to the detail. We've focused on system enhancements. We've had Guild Bank in development for a little bit, which is one of the things we will hopefully push out for that [next] update. And then narrowing down which other updates in development are going to be in their finished state in time for that update.
Eurogamer: Aside from Guild Banks, what are the other big systems you're working on?
Scott Hartsman: We've been working on a lot. The two I don't mind telling people we're working on are Guild Bank and a better looking-for-group auto-assembly option. Those are two things that people find fun and they help put more of the massive into MMO.
Eurogamer: When will there be new armour sets?
Scott Hartsman: If you look at the sheer volume of armour we shipped, it's incredibly competitive if not better than most MMOs that have ever launched. Full armour sets - there are 13 distinct sets for each archetype right up the level range. I've done games in the past that shipped four, or two.
A lot of that [accusations of repetition] speaks to people being very used to playing a game that has been around for seven years and has that kind of development. If you look at just the base sets, we're more competitive than anything that's launched in the last 10 years.
More are always in progress, and there will definitely be more over time.
Eurogamer: Can you talk about some of those more secretive features you're working on for the Rift?
Scott Hartsman: One of the things I'm really looking forward to doing - not in this update but in future updates - is figuring out and getting new types of those zone-wide events out there. It's a matter of what other building blocks we add to the system so we can create the next set of zone-wide events to advance the story even further.
We've gotten further down the discussion and we've got things in prototype, but we don't have the next round to the point where we're willing to say what we're doing yet. We know there will be more; it's just, what shape does more take? It depends on how well it play-tests internally.
Eurogamer: With patches comes the hotly contested area of class balance. What's causing class imbalance in Rift at the moment?
Scott Hartsman: It depends on where you look. In general things are pretty good. We don't have anybody who's an order of magnitude off where they're supposed to be, as has happened in basically every game in the history of MMOs.
The extended alpha and extended beta is what we've got to thank for that. That said, you do have to make changes once you see what's happening for real. Some of these things plain got overlooked by us in beta.
We've got a particularly troublesome ability on Saboteurs that's causing them to do better damage in the game than anybody else. We've got a couple of tweaks to make to Warriors who are currently able to take an ability and be a ranged class in plate armour.
But that's the thing; part of the coolness of the system is that they invented that play-style themselves. We like the idea that players invented that style.
So what we're working on is instead of taking a fun toy away from them, we figured out how to give them the ability to play that way if they choose by adding stuff so it's now happening in a more balanced way.
I like the fact people have invented stuff that, bluntly, we hadn't thought of.
Eurogamer: The Saboteurs are going to be brought in line - that damage wasn't intended?
Scott Hartsman: No - yeah. In practice what it's doing is adding far more charges to their target than the ability was supposed to add.
Eurogamer: You said if people called for open world PVP (RVR), you'd think about adding it. They have, so will you?
Scott Hartsman: We have Ancient Wardstones in the game right now, which are a baby version of a land-control game, in the sense of whoever owns them gets content and if you get all of them you get a special encounter. But those aren't messaged well and we're doing some updates to the UI to make sure they're clearer and play more clearly. So that's for the short-term.
In the long-term, we've mostly talked about what could we do to support more overland, shared PVP, because that's generally the sort of thing you need world space for. And world space is something that takes months to build.
I don't want to get into too much on that other than yes, we're absolutely paying attention. I don't want to say absolutely because it's not something that can be expected in the immediate future. These things take time to build.
Eurogamer: Some Rift players are worried their super-PCs are performing sluggishly compared to lower-spec systems. Will you fix this?
Scott Hartsman: We're taking those one system at a time. In general, performance has been far better than we would have expected. For a deferred rendered with as many assets as ours has, the fact that we have people who are able to get 60-plus frames a second is astounding to me.
Eurogamer: Is a big, proper expansion for Rift a consideration further down the line?
Scott Hartsman: It's absolutely a consideration. Every story in an MMO needs a climax, and then you need to move onto what's the next book in the series. If you look at where we are right now with Rift 1, we've got a story laid out, we've got the chapters laid out, and we're aligning our updates to when we want to tell the next chapter in the story.
And at some point after that it is realistic that it will be time to launch into a new story, both to get new people into the game as well as to get people rallied around the idea of seeing what comes next.