Rift: Planes of Telara: WarCry Interviews Scott Hartsman

Suzie Ford | 5 May 2010 17:42
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1. Please introduce yourself and describe your position on the Rift: Planes of Telara development team.


Happy to. I'm Scott Hartsman, the CCO for Trion Worlds. I'm in charge of the internal studio that's developing Rift: Planes of Telara, and my role on the game is that of Exec Producer.

I work with both our creative and production sides of the Rift team, whose responsibilities are (respectively) the what and the how of everything that goes into Rift, with the overall goal being that we can get everything done on time and at the highest quality possible.

2. Please tell us why the name was changed from Heroes of Telara to Rift: Planes of Telara.

Our universe is one that was created from scratch for this game. Whenever you embark on that huge of an undertaking, the process generally involves a significant amount of iteration. What's working? What isn't? What's compelling? What parts are people going to enjoy the most? What makes for the most cohesive story?

These are questions we ask ourselves practically every day. Some time later, well after the universe has hundreds of stories written down about it, you begin creating content and gameplay systems in the game itself.

It's that point -- where you have playable, enjoyable game content and gameplay systems, set in this universe you created - that's really where the rubber meets the road for your entire backstory. You see how the story blends with both the content and the systems in a very concrete way.

As we were going through this process, the name Rift: Planes of Telara painted a far more accurate and compelling picture of the game we had been creating.

The previous name gave the impression that all of the players were "The Good Guys" in the world, and that isn't the case. Players can be good or evil inside of their factions, and there's plenty of conflict among the players themselves.

The story elements that led to rifts and many planes intersecting Telara existed all along. Bringing them right to the top makes for a much clearer picture of the gameworld that players will be interacting with beginning on day one.

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3. Would you consider Rift a traditional "high fantasy" MMORPG? Please explain.

I tend to think of "traditional high fantasy" meaning purely terrestrial struggles between native beings, and a fairly tight range of art styles - That's definitely not us.

Picture a world that has a number of traditional elements associated with it (to ground the experience in some level of familiarity). Then put it at war with forces from other dimensions. In the process, apply visuals that range from dark horror to a technological influence.

Then, present them all inside a cohesive, compelling narrative that clearly explains how these elements all happen to exist on the same world at the same time.

I think that's given us something that's genuinely unique and compelling, especially when compared to what a lot of people would call "traditional."

4. What is the back story for Rift?

The backstory as a whole - The source for all of the stories of current-day Telara is incredibly deep. In our case, it goes back even before the planet's creation.

The lore begins with descriptions of the origins of gods, their relationships with each other, the source of magic, and evolutions of many races of creatures over thousands of years. All of those origin stories are used to create and inform the current-day setting, and pieces of it are revealed through playing the game - Through the written word in books, to the folk tales that generations of NPC inhabitants of all races have passed down through their own kind.

On top of that, we'll be sharing all kinds of details between now and launch in some ways that we hope are pretty interesting.

The current-day setting is a planet that is under attack from six known extraplanar directions, as well as experiencing a brutal civil war.

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5. What are the two factions in Rift and, since they're both charged with protecting Telara, how do they differ philosophically?

On the one hand, you have the Guardians. They're essentially the avenging angels of a group of gods known as the Vigil. In the relatively recent past, the gods needed an army, and they recruited one in the Guardians. It's no exaggeration to say that they're directly imbued with divine power. As for whether every guardian is in it because of true belief, or for the incredible power that comes from this touch of the divine, is a different matter entirely.

On the other hand, there are the Defiants, the heretics who've gone down a path of their own. Telara's more distant past includes a period in which the Ethian Empire was the most dominant force on the planet - During the height of their power, amazing, world-changing technologies were developed by their Sorcerer-god-kings. For reasons we'll be explaining later, use of this technology, and everything else related those ancient fools who would pretend to be gods, went out of favor in a very sudden and violent fashion. Centuries later, the Defiants have dedicated themselves to rediscovering these old, buried secrets.

6. It is said that Rift begins with the player's death. What exactly does that mean?

Characters in our world are what we call Ascended souls. They're the ones who have that extra spark, which allowed them to be brought back to life. It's also the reason they can't ever really "die" once they've made it back into the world.

Their story begins with their mortal form's death on Telara. As their souls departed, heading toward the planes of the afterlife, they witnessed firsthand the source of the attacks that Telara is under - The dragon-god Regulos.

As to precisely how they make their way back to Telara - That's a subject we hope to be showing off soon. A picture's worth a thousand words, and pictures will do the story justice far better than words can here.

7. There are lots of new MMOs on the market today. What sets Rift apart from the rest?

We've chosen to emphasize: The setting, the characters, the classes, the visual quality, the ranges of unique visuals themselves, a number of gameplay features we'll be talking about more as we have some good visuals to show, and the additional layers of dynamic content and gameplay that our engine was entirely built around providing.

In the end, it comes down to determining where in this massive endeavor to invest time in explicitly creating something unique, vs where we should iterate and make useful improvements to features that people will like.

Even in terms of which places we should evolve and how much, we're trying to make the smartest calls we can. For example, our map (which people use all the time at a part of primary gameplay) received a lot more evolutionary improvement time than, say, in-game mail, where people really just care about some basics.

What we're explicitly not doing is "everything is different for the sake of being different." MMORPGs are mature enough as a genre, and there are enough people who've played a whole lot of games, to where it's not hard to find people who will agree with this statement: Different doesn't always end up better. That's a trap that a lot of development efforts end up falling into, and the overall quality of the experience suffers as a result.

8. Why high definition graphics?

It's time. Traditionally with MMO graphics, you end up with roughly the following:

1) High Detail, 2) Acceptable Performance, 3) Amazing Visuals. Pick two.

We're at a point with PC and display technology where we're starting to see all three become possible.

You can play it on a standard monitor and it looks great, you can play it on a 50"+ HDTV and it still looks phenomenal. If you can do that while not requiring a supercomputer to run it, you've got something really special. That's our goal.

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9. You've said that Rift has 'dynamic content and that the play experience will not be identical every time the game is played'. Can you explain what you meant?

Sure, but it's going to take a little background. :)

The game's backend servers and entire platform architecture is built around the idea that an MMO's world can be made more fun and interesting if it's not the same thing, all the time.

Worlds that never change except through updates, downtimes, and patches are fun, but they're basically static.

The premise is that by integrating new types of dynamic content into an already-rich world, you can create a more interesting experience.

The goal is to create a world where you'll run into changes and elements of "life," if you will, that you might not have otherwise expected.

Some of them are there to provide ambient story on a small scale - For instance, a merchant who packed up moved on elsewhere because no one was shopping with her. Others are there to provide larger-scale story reinforcement, like when an invasion occurs from the Plane of Death that provides combat content and gameplay.

10. What exactly is a rift? How randomly will they appear in Telara?

A rift is an active opening between Telara and one of the planes, where either a planar force is actively invading, or where it was ambushed by players before the invasion was entirely ready.

Players can spot places where invasions are going to occur by looking for what we're calling "tears" (as in, fissures in reality). Places where the air literally appears to twist and warp.

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11. Ten THOUSAND individual animations! Really?

Hahaha - You know, I actually don't know the final number myself. I wouldn't at all be surprised, though, if when you added up every single animation and weapon stance on every player and non-player model, you got a number that was that size or more. :)

12. Will Rift have a PvP component?

Yes. Rift will have both PvE and Factional PvP Ruleset servers, and we're aiming to make sure we can support PvP instances as well.

We've been creating classes and abilities and balancing them while keeping both PvP and PvE in mind. Our designers working on classes and PvP (part of our systems/gameplay mechanics team) have experience having worked across four other MMOs in their collective past.

13. What about mounts?

Yes. More details coming here pretty soon -- We'll be showing a new one at E3 this June!

14. What, at least at this point, are the system specifications?

You do need a graphics card that supports Shader Model 2.0b, and ideally you'd have a dual core system with a healthy amount of RAM.

We're aiming for reasonable system requirements that are comparable to the MMOs that have been released in the last couple years.

I play it at home on my 5 year old PC just fine. (Admittedly, it *was* a really good machine back then.) The engine is made to scale to provide a good experience across a pretty wide range of PCs.

WarCry wishes to thank Mr. Hartsman for his time and effort. What an INCREDIBLE interview! Find out more about Rift: Planes of Telara at the official site.

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