With the release of Rift right around the corner (March 1, 2011), Trion Worlds is ready to change the gaming world forever.  Filled with phenomenal graphics, smooth game play and an excellent story line, Rift promises to be much more than just another MMO.

Rift’s release date is set for March 1 in North America, and March 4 in Europe.  With such a tight timetable to keep, Hal Hanlin, Trion World’s Design Producer, was very generous to take time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for us.

Keep reading to find out more about this new game that’s going to rock the MMO world!

1.          Please share your background with us.  Where did you go to school?  What other games have you designed?

My degree was in Theatre from the University of Colorado with an emphasis on both stage management and scenic design. Strangely enough, I put the lessons I learned there to work every day for both the designer and producer parts of my job.  Funny how life works. I entered the industry as a system administrator for a video game company in Boulder, Colorado, where I supported two operating MMOs and development of several console games. A couple of years later, the company ran a competition to get design ideas for their next project. I took some time off, lugged my 486 laptop to the local mall, and wrote three proposals. Two of them made it to the top ten out of over a hundred submissions and one was in the top three. Based on that, they offered me a Designer position on Goblin Commander, a console RTS.

 When that was done, I took a position as a Lead Content Designer for Auto Assault. Later, I moved to Austin where I worked for a time on live support on Star Wars Galaxies and then as Senior Multiplayer Designer for Blacksite: Area 51. Along the way I worked on a few games that didn’t ship (that’s life in the games industry). When I learned about what Trion was doing and got to see their technology, I knew I had to be a part of it and I’ve been there since 2008.

2.          How did the decision come about to create Rift? 

The game had been in production for a while when I joined, so I don’t know the Genesis story. But we had this awesome platform which let designers do outrageous things because the servers could scale to support increased NPCs and players in ways no other MMO could match. We also had an amazing amount of lore. What we lacked was a logical way to deliver new and exciting game play and story content to players. Just having things change for no reason was kind of lame. We realized that if the entire core of our game — story, mechanics, classes, and content – was not crafted to support this dynamic technology, the cool new stuff we introduced would feel stapled on. We spent lots of time in R&D, looking for a formula that really tied everything together. A group of devs including Will Cook and Mike Daugherty had this crazy idea for a way to deliver hand-crafted dynamic content in a systematic way. A ton of art, design and tech time later, we had the first rifts and invasions.

 The team launched the server on a Friday and we returned on Monday to find our world taken over by the dynamic content. There were idols and invasions everywhere. We just kind of stared at the map for a long time as the real potential started to show through. After that, we entered a kind of positive feedback loop. Team A would innovate in a way that made what team B was doing work even better. Artists and programmers would turn a ten minute conversation in the hallway into something amazing… I have long believed that “more” is not better; better is better. But during this process we were getting both. 

3.          What was your inspiration for Rift’s design?

We had great high-level guidance from Scott, Russ, and Simon. We had amazing pod leads who cultivated each member of their team to get the best ideas and work out of them. We had stunning art that continually inspired us to push to make the game play cool enough to stand alongside it. All of this was on top of a platform that was stable, flexible and capable of handling pretty much anything designers could throw at it. The concept of tears in the fabric of reality explained the dynamic features in a way that made sense. Alternate realities are an accepted idea in fantasy and science fiction as well as theoretical science. It is easy to understand and expandable to whatever degree the story needs it to be. A plane where things are hideous and based on Death? Sure. A plane where the dominant element is fire? Why not? It also allows us to give players new story lines in the future because we never assert that the planes you fight now are all the planes there are. I am secretly hopeful that somewhere in my future is a Plane of Pie.

4.          What are some of the unique points about the game?

It was never our intention to be different in every way. We wanted to offer an amazingly polished fantasy MMO experience that featured a profoundly flexible class system and a world that has endless dynamic potential.

Our rifts and invasions are examples of that dynamic game play, but not the extent of it. We also unleash massive zone and world-wide events. The only limits to how much new content we give to the players is self-inflicted. As I said, we are not interested in just More. We want Better. So, while we could throw something new at the players every day if we wanted to, doing so would detract from the players’ experience. Instead, we are using the dynamic events to further the story of the game.

Another major differentiator is our desire to let players enjoy the game together instead of pushing them to spread out all the time. We have a platform that is built from the ground up to support massive numbers of players all working together. Unlike MMOs that are built on ancient server tech and base their performance on geographic sections of the world, our game is designed to scale based on function. AI, Physics, visibility… each function is handled by servers that scale up and down as needed. This lets us stage huge, memorable events that let players experience massively social game play.

 To experience that content we offer a peerless class system that lets players adapt to new challenges on the fly.

5.          How did you come up with the different classes?

If you lock a player into a class, you basically require all classes to be kind of bland. If you create a class that simply can’t solo, is useless in PVP, brings nothing to a raid group, or whatever, you get slaughtered by your players, who like the thematic premise of a class but expect it to be good at everything. Instead, we allow the players to mix and match the souls in countless ways. This freed the Mechanics team to create some super-specialized souls, which are really fun to play. We can have a Bard, who is probably not a good first choice for solo questing, but is a rock star for support in a group. We have the Void Knight, who is a little squishy against melee, but devours spell-casters. 

6.          What might have been the inspiration for the classes or balancing them?

The inspiration was almost universally: “Man, I’d love to play something that…” Balance is really a question of making the Callings play correctly, not of trying to do some elaborate calculus between 32 souls. Of course, if there are egregious problems with an ability, we will certainly address that. However, players can build up to four preset combinations of 3 souls from the nine souls available for the Calling. We call these presets “Roles” because you switch between them to fit the needs of a given situation any time they are not in combat.  Players have the option to completely change tactics if one Role was not getting the job done. 

7.          What challenges have you run into during game development?

The toughest thing was making the dynamic content feel integrated with our game. We spent a huge amount of time in R&D, braiding the static and dynamic content so that they complement each other and tell a cohesive story. If we had not done that, if we had just applied some random events to the world, it would not have made sense. We had to throw away a lot of “okay” content to craft something excellent. Getting a world to really come alive with dynamic content means spending the time to do it well and not just duct taping two different games together. Being honest with ourselves and not taking short cuts took time and work, but it was worth it.

8.          What kind of philosophy or principles are you following as you enter the online gaming world?

I’m not sure exactly what you mean. Yes this is Trion’s first shipped game, but the combined experience level of the employees is amazing. In most game companies, a couple of shipped games gets you a Senior position. In our company, that level of experience basically gets you an interview. And that expectation of excellence really underlines the mindset throughout the company. Good is not good enough; it is awesome or it gets redone. We are getting raves for how much polish we bring to MMO gaming; that is not accidental. We are aggressive in our goals, brutally honest in our internal criticism, and willing to do whatever it takes to get better. 

9.          Aside from one-on-one combat between players and mobs, what other activities will there be?  Will PvP be emphasized? 

We have a huge amount of group and raid content planned for ship and even more on the near horizon. As I said before, our platform gives us an unparalleled ability to introduce new content to players. The leadership of the company requires that we approach the game as a service, not just a boxed product. As for PVP, we have some amazing Warfronts as well as souls and gear specifically tailored to enhance your PVP abilities. Several months 

10.       What do you think makes Rift appealing to those already playing a MMO?  And how about to those who are new to gaming?

We describe Rift as “your next MMO.” We have identified the elements that players have come to expect from a full featured MMORPG and have applied considerable polish. Moreover, the game is built from the ground up to feature a dynamic gameplay experience with our rifts, invasions, zone events, and world events. In addition, we have given players a ton of flexibility in how they play their character with our soul system. With the same character you can approach challenges in completely different ways. If your dungeon group is about to take on a boss and you need more DPS, change Roles. If the next encounter is a swarm of enemies, change over to a crowd-control Role… MMO players will find our game familiar enough to fall into, yet fresh and exciting enough to keep them coming back.

 But new players can learn our game quickly as well. The new player areas are designed to walk an inexperienced player through what they need to know, while being short and exciting enough that experienced players can blaze through, receive the important story elements, and then progress into Telara.

11.       Can players expect to see raids with end game bosses and loot?  And, would you be willing to disclose anything about the loot (weapons and armor) players may see in the game?

Absolutely! Beyond that, even, we have main-world raid-rifts and zone events that let players combat raid-style encounters regardless of their level. We offer public grouping, so if you see a group beating on something scary, you can join them without breaking stride and help out. Even if you decide not to group, your individual contribution to the events is what you are rewarded for. End-game is very important, of course, and there’s a lot to do when you reach level-cap, but why should players have to wait so long to see the cool stuff?

12.       How do you plan on handling complaints of camping or ganking between players?

To start with, our PVP is consensual. On PVE servers, you can flag yourself for PVP and then can attack any player from the other faction who is also flagged. Alternatively, you can roll a character on a PVP server and everyone on the other faction is a target. Our death system is not overly punishing, so if you are dying over and over, it’s not the end of the world. However, if you are being genuinely abused, we have an evolving customer service toolset to deal with that.

13.       Will Rift be undergoing regular maintenance from time to time for patching?

We have taken steps to minimize the impact of patches; for one thing, we patch one time to get current, not an endless series of patches from the last paid expansion point. Moreover, because of our server structure, many of our fixes can be applied without a patch. Finally, and most importantly from the player perspective, once the client knows what a goblin or other entity looks and sounds like, we designers can reuse that asset in infinite ways in our dynamic content without any patches at all. So if we decide to have 500 goblins attack Silverwood someday, we can.

 We are viewing our job from launch forward as a service, not a product. Unlike any MMO, we are designed to roll out new content on a regular basis, not just patch to patch, and we intend to do so.

14.       What are the minimum system requirements for play?

Best information on that is here: http://forums.riftgame.com/showthread.php?7166-Rift-System-Specs&highlight=minimum+spec

 15.       Will there be a common buying/selling area where players can barter their craftable items and non-equipped loot?

Of course! We have a full-featured Auction House, chat system and mail system.

16.       Will players have access to major cities (capitols) where things like mail services, trainers and such can be found?

Each faction has a major city where you can do all of that, but we also have mail, trainers, crafting stations and so forth distributed through the world.

17.       What are you most proud of in terms of Rift?

We made bold statements, sane decisions, and promises that we kept and will continue to keep.