Rift – Population Problem? What Population Problem? Factions? What Factions?

It was a quiet weekend in Telara.

While I have only my own server, Shatterbone, on which to base my observations, the weekend before last instant adventure groups at prime time were nearly full raid size affairs.

A Healthy Prime Time Group

This past weekend though, the numbers began to falter.   After a reasonable start, things began to fade. The biggest instant adventure group I saw starting Saturday afternoon had all of six people.  And four of them were the instance group, which joined together.  More common were groups of 2-4 players.

A small group is still manageable.  The requirements for each instant adventure quest gets scaled somewhat based on group size.  Twice though I walked away from groups because the size was too small for the task.

Once it was just my warrior and a rogue, and we could not take down the “one in seven” boss encounter.  Another time there was a zone event in Freemarch and there were just enough people to prolong the whole thing, but not enough to defeat it.  More wipes on the first boss in the event made me walk away again.

Of course, I imagine that the Guild Wars 2 “make our most dedicated fans suffer” pre-launch weekend had something to do with this.  And I also suspect that the impact of GW2 is being magnified somewhat by the fact that, at least here in the US, school is starting up for the fall quarter/semester.  Every district in my valley either started last week or is starting this week.  The universities are warming up as well.

And while the school starting won’t stop anybody from playing their favorite game, it does place time demands on both parents and children such that you might not spend time with your second best MMO.

So Rift is in a bit of a bind.

Sorry, the wall of text was beginning to take over the front page, so I went for a cut.

So Rift has some serious competition launching in the near future… GW2, Pandas, Rohan, and maybe even Torchlight II… while its own expansion plans, as interesting and ambitious as they are, still do not have a date.

When Comes the Storm?

Trion played the commitment card, giving away Storm Legion if players would commit to a year-long subscription to the game.  I have no doubt that will help bolster the subscription numbers, but as we saw with Blizzard’s own pact with Diablo, just because people subscribe for a year for a special mount and “free” software does not mean they will log in and play.  And in the long term, a healthy population of players in the game is what keeps an MMO viable.

So Trion has been putting things in place to help minimize the impact of this drain in hours committed to their game.

Mentoring was introduced just about a month and a half back, allowing players to mix across a broader range of the population.

Auto-mentoring, low level instant adventures came along as well, so not only could players across a range of levels mix, but the game would actively mix them if allowed.  And, as I noted above, this lead to some sizable groups rampaging in Telara.  But Rift clearly needs more to keep populations viable in the face of what might be the Winter of Trion’s discontent.

And so it looks like they will essentially abolish most of the dividing lines between the Guardian and the Defiant factions.

Those lines were already blurred somewhat by the mercenary option for warfronts and the new tricorn Conquest PvP feature, which players discard their Defiant or Guardian affiliation to join one of the three factions vying for control.  While it has its issues, it was clearly a sign of things to come.

While the removal of the faction barriers have been mentioned already, there are now some in-progress patch notes for what will be the Rift 1.10 patch spelling out the details of what we might see when this drops on the live servers.

CROSS-FACTION GAMEPLAY CHANGES – “FACTION AS FICTION”

* Much has changed for Telara since the Ascended first appeared. Ideological differences still exist, but the greater threat to all has required Guardian and Defiant strength combined to defend their land from the dragons. Old disputes have been put aside at times in order to join forces in a much larger, much more necessary fight.

* Guardian and Defiant characters who choose to take on the Planes together may now do so with the below changes to cross-faction game mechanics on PvE shards in 1.10!

* PvP ruleset shards will also gain the cross-faction group changes for dungeons via LFG.

* Guilds can now contain both Guardian and Defiant members.

* Guilds can now accept Guardian OR Defiant guild quests.

* Player-formed and Public Groups may now consist of characters from either faction who are not PvP-flagged.

* Dungeons now support cross-faction groups, and the LFG system now forms groups of mixed faction.

* Instant Adventures now support cross-faction groups and raids.

* If you are part of a cross-faction group queuing for Warfronts, you will be queued as the group leader’s faction. On joining the Warfront, it will automatically mercenary anyone in the group who is not naturally of the leader’s faction.

* Characters can now trade with members of the other faction.

* Mail (and attachments) can now be sent to other-faction characters.

* PvP-flagged characters will not be able to group cross-faction while flagged; they can still group with members of their own faction any time.

* Defiants and Guardians can now marry!

* Public chat channels are now shared between both factions with the exception of the World Defense channel.

* Players from a PvE shard joining cross-shard chat hosted on a PvP shard will still join faction-specific channels.

* Cross-shard tells should now always be allowed between any two characters.

* The Friends list also allows friends of either faction as long as your character is not on a PvP shard.

We are clearly no longer in Azeroth.

I cannot imagine Blizzard ever being able to take such a step.  Despite the unified Horde/Alliance efforts in Burning Crusade and Lich King, which brought us the shared home towns of Shattrath and Dalran, there was still a very solid line.  Lore and tradition will probably keep Horde and Alliance from ever truly joining together.  Certainly Cataclysm brought the dividing line back into sharper relief at times.

But Trion wants to have it all in a single game.  A two faction divide with a unified PvE playerbase that can join either side in battle grounds and divide up into the trinity deemed perfect over the years for siege and conquest style events.  The only thing missing at this point is a unified cross-faction auction house… though for all I know that might already be in the game.

Does an MMO even need the friction of competing factions?  Can we all just group up at random to not get along?

I admit the faction divide in Rift has never really meant that much to me.  But I cannot really tell if that is because it wasn’t a compelling tale or if after all of these years I cannot buy into yet another far too convenient “Us vs. Them” scenario.

There were the evil vs. good races in Toril MUD which were translated wholesale to EverQuest and which became the on again/off again conflict between Freeport and Qeynos in EverQuest II.

There was the orc vs. humans divide of the original Warcraft series that was expanded to rope in the races of Azeroth in WoW, though I have never been convinced that the Tauren belonged with the Horde.  Certainly all the gnomes add to the Alliance is and endless series of short jokes.  Haven’t the foresaken screwed over/been screwed over by just about everybody else in the game by this point?  And what of the pandas, a race so cute they can opt in to either side?  How can pandas be both Horde and Alliance? What kind of God would allow that?

And somewhere along the line it was written down that there had to be two opposing factions despite the fact the success of games with three factions (DAoC) or no real factions at all (UO).  The success of EQ and WoW at work there I suppose.

So the question comes down to, can they have it all?  Can they have, at the same time, three PvP factions, two player factions, and no real factions at all?  Will this work?  Or will this dilute the game?

And can we endure the mental imagery that the inevitable Bahmi/Dwarf wedding will bring?

7 responses to “Rift – Population Problem? What Population Problem? Factions? What Factions?

  1. I would bet on Rift going to a Freemium model similar to LotRO or EQ2 within the next six to nine months. I know they really, really don’t want to but the competition is ferocious and I just don’t see how they can hold the line as a sub-only game.

    As an ex-subscriber and someone still very fond of the game, I would definitely buy the expansion on release if there was a F2P option. With such an option I would feel free to play Rift as and when the mood took me and I had a few free hours.

    I still intend to buy the expansion at some point even if the game remains subscription only, but in that case I will have to wait for a window of opportunity when I can both buy the expansion and also play it consistently for a reasonable period, say at least 2-3 months. I see no sign of such a window opening this year or the early part of next year.

    I think they’re in for a rough ride.

  2. I bounced between Eve and GW2 this weekend – mostly GW2 and bounced on Eve when Jabber rang… then docked asap when it was done and back to GW2.

    GW2 has done a good job of making it “different” – I have beent trying out different classes, as I thought I knew what I wanted to play but now playing longer – I am not sure.

    So will see how long it lasts – I will say though, that a bajillion people were playing this weekend!

  3. I disagree on the impossibility of Alliance/Horde detente in WoW, at least from a lore perspective. If anything, the mutual hatred of everyone but the Humans and Orcs strains credulity more than the Defiant/Guardian split. Heck, some of the current alliances strain credulity from a lore perspective. Blood Elves and Trolls together, what the hell?

    That leaves only the technical, under-the-hood mechanics of such a switch, which if it would help retain subscribers, Blizzard would do in a heartbeat. I doubt the code is so deep that they couldn’t enable cross-faction eveything fairly easily with a patch. It wouldn’t need to affect battlegrounds, since most of them are sub-faction special interests anyway.

    But time and again, when it would have made far more sense to join forces against a common foe, Blizz has gone with continuing the division, splitting players as well as characters. Now, after several games like LOTRO have not had factions, two new games, TSW and GW2, have abolished factions except for explicit PvP regions as well. With Rift implementing the same sort of plan, WoW is more and more in the minority of such games.

  4. I actually agree with Rowan. I have been thinking lately that the Mists expansion is actually a huge setup for dissolving the factions in exactly the manor Rift is doing now.

    The whole trailer for Mists is questioning why are we still fighting and showing us allying together already. We also know that both factions will effectively be uniting to take down Garrosh at the end of the expansion.

    With Vodka and other high end guilds leaving the Alliance for the “superior” horde raiding raceials this would solve some of those problems as well.

  5. @rowan – I agree that the animosity does not always work… I mentioned the Tauren. I could quite easily see them more aligned with the night elves that any of the rest of the Horde. And the forsaken clearly have their own agenda in the Warcraft lore that puts them on their own side first.

    And I agree that the technical hurdle of unifying the environment is probably not trivial, but neither is it hugely complex.

    It is Blizzard itself that won’t let it happen. For all the talk of greed, it would come as a total shock to me if they reconciled Horde and Alliance fully for anything short of saving the company. They have fun with the lore and they will bend it in all sorts of silly directions, but my gut is that the Horde/Alliance conflict is sacrosanct. They play it up too much.

    Every company has their own preferences and world view based on its history and the people who created it. There is a special Blizzard “logic,” that dictates what they will and won’t do. And I feel that the Horde/Alliance split is one of the aspects of their world view from which they will not be able to free themselves.

  6. Personally, I wonder how much GW2 will hurt Rift – I’m guessing ‘not as much as you might expect’. I say this because, in my own experience at least, TSW shook loose a large number of Rift players who were ready to be shaken loose, and very large numbers of *those* have kept moving to GW2. (Poor TSW, it’s such a fantastic game, just released unfinished: Funcom really needed to make their initial mid-June launch date for some extra stickiness). Many many people were also shaken loose by the GW2 BWEs – how many more people are there who could up-and-leave *now* rather than any time in the last six months?

    Riftstatus.net tells me that Shatterbone’s population has been flat for some time now – although the braod brushstrokes that site is forced to use to categorise server load erase pretty much all but the most extreme variation, I have to add.

    re: the faction removal. Personally, I dislike it – bhagpuss characterised Rift’s lore as ‘crass’, and this is just more of the same :( that said, the plans for the shared new island city in Storm Legion hinted last year when they first showed up on the PTS that faction-removal was on the cards.

    re: Rift’s marketing bind. I think many games are stuck in the same place: TSW-GW2-MoP (do people seriously still play WoW?)-LOTRO RoR is a tough three months for any game. Rift’s plan looks to involve lots of marketing push over these months – the soul reveals they’re doing (i’ll get back to those); the *big* marketing push they put into gamescom (compared to last year, anyway); the *very big* marketing push they’re putting into PAX Prime (streaming the entire show via twitch tv; one-off item giveaways, new Storm Legion reveals, big party). They look like they’ve seen these three launch months coming and prepared for it.

    re: Storm Legion launch date. Trion have said they’re doing one sould reveal per month, at the start of each month, leading up to Storm Legion. The first was early August, the second is planned for early September (possibly at PAX, I’m not certain)… that leaves the last in early November. Leaving a few weeks to get maximum marketing value from the publicity (and to keep the marketing message clean) gives us an earliest possible launch date of mid-late November. There’s a big sales weekend in the US around this time, from memory? That’d be a target, but pushing it into December wouldn’t hurt – and launching in November, after the first wave of people have finished TSW/GW2/MoP/RoR is an attractive launch window.

    re: Rift going F2P. oh man, that’s almost enough to make me start my own blog. Shortest answer: in thie phase of what we might call ‘the MMO business model lifecycle’ (I too remember paying hourly for MMOs via dial-up), the subscription model is pure rent-seeking/ rentier behaviour – that is, the use of monopoly and/or dominant position to extract rent (ie, income from dead capital, to channel my inner Marx) from players. Rentier behaviour is only ever available to a few players in a market (CCP in spreadsheet-space games, for example) who dominate or wish to be seen to dominate that market. Bilzzard’s incredibly bad value (rational-economic-behaviour-speaking) annual pass is the most egregious, but the whole ‘pay me 15 currency unite per month for… whatever I want to give you’ is itself the classic example. Because rent-seeking can only be done from a dominant market position, there’s only realyl space for the said dominant market holder and putative challenger to charge rents (putative challenger *must* charge rent though, to be seen as putative challenger) – thus I’ve been concerned for 12 months or more that, with SW:TOR launcing, Rift would be forced to F2P. With SW:TOR going F2P however (and GW2 facing inevitable outrage from its own F2P offerings when they get properly deployed), the way remains open for Rift to remain subscription-based for the time being. How long is that? At least 9 months, I’d wager: the difference between the Rift annual subscription off and the likely price (3 months subscription) of Storm Legion.

    Of course, it’s Trion, and they’re both more agile and bolder than any other MMO producer, so it’s also possible they’ll pull a 180 with Storm Legion’s launch and announce it’s concurrent conversion to F2P. I don’t think so, however (and not only because LOTRO shows the contradictions inherent in a F2P+expansions model, but that’s a comment for another post.. :) ).

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