The Rift Conundrum

…wherein I ramble on for a good bit and then sort of run out of steam but talk about tanks and surfing.

Wilhelm’s most recent post on Rift hit a note with me.  What got me was:

…, Rift doesn’t do anything about the things I don’t like about MMOs.

Servers for example.

Or shards, which is the term Trion Worlds has chosen.  But servers, shards, realms, or whatever, here is something that only EverQuest II Extended seems to have come close to solving.

There it was, open beta, and Trion already had a long list of shards, all of which were full, something which seems to indicate that the “I want to play with my friends, but they are on a different shard” issue is going to replay the way it always does.

And, of course, there is the whole level thing, the other great separator that keeps people from playing with their friends.


This is not unique to Rift but perhaps its more acute because, frankly, Rift appears to be such an uncharacteristically strong offering in the genre.

It’s polished.  It’s evolutionary. It’s accretive. And, it appears to do nothing to solve the fundamental conflict that has plagued the entire genre of “persistant progression” games– I’m not even calling them MMORPGs.  If there’s a persistancy element to it, and a progression element to it, playing with your friends may be an issue.

Sure, many games have bolted on mechanisms to attempt to deal with this problem– mentoring, sidekicking, server transfers, etc..  A few have attempted to deal with it at the design level.  Eve is one of the few that come to mind where design consideration given to attempt to bridge that, but even with its skill based progression, which is in actuality time-based, it is difficult to mitigate the gap in progression that will inevitably creep in and impact collaborative efforts.  Guildwars certainly also attempted to do this by altering the progression mechanic with a low level cap.

This, my friends, is a tough nut to crack.

Think about all the ways that games prevent us from playing together.  Levels. Gear progression.  Content unlocks.  Separate Servers.

You’d think that a progression-based game was utterly irreconcilable with with idea that I should be able to play with my friends, regardless of disparities in progression, and still have a meaningful game experience.  Not in a charitable-I’m-helping-pimp-a-guildie sort of “meaningful” but a goddamn-we-all-had-a-great-and-rewarding-time-playing-together sort of way.

Eve seems to allow some of this with its purely skill-based approach, though time-based discrepancies inevitably creep in.  A noob tackler or miner may be able to make a meaningful contribution to fleet ops, but eventually the gap becomes unbridgeable.

Consider a very different game for a moment which I’ve been playing obsessively of late.  World of Tanks.  The matchmaking algorithm does a pretty decent job of creating a balanced match of tanks of different tiers on each team.

A brief example.  I had been progressing up the Soviet tree with aT-26 self propelled gun and pursuing the alternate path toward the fabled T-34 medium tank.  For fun, I decided to start working up the German and US trees as well.  Even though I may be reasonably advanced in the Soviet tree, switching to the US tree meant “starting over” in the lowly T-1 Cunningham.  But the matchmaking algorithm (and the game design) end up creating matches which pit a mix of higher and lower powered tanks against each other.

The “noob” or modestly progressed light tanks are lighter, faster and more maneuverable than the big guns.  Artillery is quite powerful, but slow, immobile and quite vulnerable to enemy fire.  The heavy tanks are slow, powerful and hard to kill.  So as a lowbie, I’m quite capable of applying my scissors to the paper of artillery or by spotting the enemy permitting the paper of artillery to cover the rock of the big tanks.  The result?  “weaker” units are in fact actually niche units in the game design and have a consistent and valuable role to play.

Granted, this is PvP and a “battleground” scenario.  Creating the same opportunity for collaborative play seem to particularly difficult to design.  Frankly its easy to call a match and see who shows up then simply divide the teams evenly based on perceived “progression”, “power” or “ability”.

Its much more difficult to do the same for PvE content.  How DOES one design content for the PvE player that is a challenge for both advanced and more novice players that provide the ever so elusive right amount of challenge to both without being susceptible to the problem of being utterly trivial to a group of highly progressed players or impossible to a group of lowbies?  By comparison, letting everyone play on the same server is trivial.

A while back, there was a discussion going on in the blogosphere about the “challenge” level of encounters and the skill of the player base.  What I came away from that discussion with was the idea that challenge was relative and that creating that challenge in a progression based game (whether that progression was fairly linear or wildly exponential is irrelevant) became increasingly difficult.

Once upon a time, I used to body surf and boogie board with a friend of mine in a spot near Half Moon Bay, California.  Nearby is a place a few people may have heard of:  “Mavericks“.  By all accounts, when the conditions are right, Mavericks is probably one of the toughest spots on the planet to surf.  People die there.  You have to be max level to attempt it and even then there is a gearcheck– you have to be towed into the wave by waverunner.

Raid Content

Mavericks is epic, raid quality, heroic level content.  The folks that surfed there were looking for the same thing I was looking for a few miles up the road on my wee 3 foot near beach break waves.  Give me something that is about X% just beyond my ability where I have a decent chance of success and a greater than zero chance of failure and I’ll run that all day long.  I don’t care if I wipe as long as I have a decent chance of success.

Being able to just catch that wave and then just be able to handle it, and occasionally hot dog it, was the essence of the PvE experience.  Progression just means the wave needs to get bigger and the mountain taller.

Facsimile woosin waves I used to "surf" (I have more hair btw)

But challenge is affirmed only in mastery, and after mastery, additional challenge requires progression and there in lies the rub.  How is the master challenged by the same content as the student?

I don’t have an answer, but the older I get, and the more demands I and my friends have on their time, means that gulf is exceedingly hard to bridge.  Still I refuse to believe that the only choices are to play only with people who have the same skill and/or time budget as you do or to “lower yourself” to playing only games that your time-constrained friends can meaningfully participate in.

As the first gamer generation ages– those that grew up both the PC and PC games– I’m hoping that the grey hairs among us come up with something to solve this fundamental problem.

3 thoughts on “The Rift Conundrum”

  1. If you don’t have separate servers, how are you going to have different rule sets? PvE, PvP, RP, RPPvE, RPPvP, Progression, Language X/Y/Z etc etc.

    Not to mention the ability for players to form different communities by timezone and for servers to develop divergent cultures, local slang, customs and traditions. Moving from one server to another in the same game can be almost as different an experience as changing games.

    I like servers. One game on one server sounds like a limitation, not progress.

  2. Fair point if a game is going to support different rule sets, but personally, I still prefer to address that aspect in design rather than in artificial segmentation of the player base.

    Eve does it with the security rating system. If you want PvP go to nul sec. If you want relative safety, stay in empire space.

    Likewise, I don’t buy the timezone justification either, but that’s more of a personal preference. With a healthy population, its kind of fun to watch the “local” culture morph throughout the day/night.

    I remember back in the early WoW days on what was supposed to be a U.S. east coast server (I’m in California, -3 hours– We picked east coast to avoid log in queues) I’d hop on in the evening around 8 or 9pm just as many of the east coasties were signing off and the culture would subtlely shift to a more west coast vibe and as we’d be wrapping up near midnight the kiwis and aussies would start showing up morphing the culture again.

    But again, my objection is about barriers to social play. Multiple servers wouldn’t be an issue if one could transfer freely and relatively quickly.

    But of course, once you permit that you need to have already addressed many of the practical problems that you’d need to overcome with a unified game universe (other than perhaps the technical problems of handling the load) such as unique character names, whether differences in rule set create “arbitrage” opportunities in terms of progress/game balance, whether the “local” economies become trashed, etc.

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