Rift and the End of the Happy Time

The first thing I did when I leaned Rift was going free to play was cancel my subscription.


This was not a rage quit over the business model.  While I have reservations about F2P because of where the quest for monetization seems to eventually lead, I also see, as a player, some upside to the model as well.

The upside for an MMO going free to play is… or generally has been… a surge in players.  Servers, once desolate, are renewed with the very life’s blood of the game as new and returning players crowd into the game.  The world seems alive again.  You no longer have whole zones to yourself.  Queues for battlegrounds and such become tolerable.  Heck, if things are going really well, people might have to wait to log on.

I call this “The Happy Time.”

Every MMO that transitions from a monthly subscription model to a free to play model goes through it.

This is the time of the joyous press releases and the “everything is just grand” interviews.  Player numbers are up, revenues are up, and everything is going so remarkably well.

And then the glow fades.

The people who showed up to kick the tires or see what had happened since they left the game begin to fade away.  If the cash shop was stocked with one-shot purchases, like hot bars or bag slots, and vanity items, the ongoing grind to create and sell players on the next item begins in earnest.  And things begin to settle into reality.  The party is over and the need to make payroll and pay the the electric bill every month looms just a little larger in the gray morning.

The population isn’t likely to drop all the way back to the level it was just before the transition to free.  But the percentage of your population giving you money every month is likely to sink.  The point of free is to boost the population so that the economics of the cash shop work in the game’s favor.  And if you cannot manage that… well… things do not look good for the long term.

The happy time is over for Rift.  The warmth of summer has faded and a cold, dark winter looms.  Server merges have been announced.  The US server count will be dropping from 6 to 3 servers, while in the EU the number will drop from 8 to 4.  And, if I read the press release right, the only reason the number is as high as 4 is because Trion cannot currently support multiple languages in the interface on a single server.  But they are working on that, so you can expect the EU server count to drop further shortly after they get that working.

(Addendum: Per Scott Hartsman in the comments, and the shard status page, the total server count is actually more than that. The US count will go from 10 to 7 servers while the EU count will go from 12 to 8 servers with the planned consolidation.)

Game Director Bill “Professor Farnsworth” Fisher  has presented this in a “Good news everyone!” style announcement under the banner “Shard Unification!”

But this is not good news at all for Rift.  With the game already shut down in Korea and in the process of closing down in China, finding that the US/EU servers, which were running at capacity back in June, now need to be merged to sustain a viable population mix is a serious blow.

Of course, Trion Worlds is in the midst of other issues.  Scott Hartsman, who left as Rift’s executive producer back in January returned as CEO in August and quickly had to make some hard choices.  The Trion offices in San Diego and in the UK were shut down and the staff laid off.  Their game Defiance, which is tied in with the TV show, seems to be on shaky ground, while their MOBA title, End of Nations, remains in development after issues of its own.

So where does Rift stand today?  Once the plucky upstart that, under the “We’re not in Azeroth anymore” banner, was going to be all the things that World of Warcraft was and more while being more flexible and responsive and just better.

No, not Azeroth!

No, not Azeroth!

Rift seems to have lost its way.  The ambitious Storm Legion expansion seemed to get a lackluster response.  I know I had trouble getting into it.  The big transition to the new business model meant the live game faced some neglect.  And now that the big bet on free to play hasn’t paid off as handsomely as one might have hoped, we are left hanging, wondering what will happen next.

I wonder how Trion will move forward.  Will there even be an independent company named Trion in a year?  Or will investors sell the company to another publisher… EA is just up the road and not only has Trion done some work with SOE, but that is also Scott Hartsman’s old home… or merge the company in with some other investment.  Time Warner is one of Trion’s investors, and they also own Turbine.

As for why I cancelled my Rift subscription… well… the free to play plan as presented offered me no real incentive to do otherwise.  The was nothing that comes with being a “patron,” as subscribers are now called, that I felt I really needed.  The deal was, quite possibly, too generous.

Subscribers are called "Patrons" now

Your patron benefits

Meanwhile, the cash shop… which we discovered was linked in with all NPC vendors, so is completely unavoidable… has very little that interests me.

Welcome to every store in the game

Welcome to every store in the game

I haven’t spent many of the 20,027 units of Lucky Charms currency I was given as a veteran reward/pump priming exercise at the free to play transition.

I do not know where Rift will be in a year, but I have cannot imagine it will be sitting where it is today.

Where do you see Rift in a year?

28 thoughts on “Rift and the End of the Happy Time

  1. HarbingerZero

    Trion itself will be fine. There are lots of people anxiously awaiting the coming of ArcheAge, which is, in many respects, “Rift on steroids with RvR combat and insane crafting opportunities.”

    I’m also out of Rift myself at the moment, but only because out regular play group is suspended for the time being, and Rift has generally been better as a group game rather than a solo one.

    I think one thing that would benefit them greatly is to make the same question consolidation sweep they did in the tutorial/introduction for the game itself. I’m at the point where I’m overwhelmed at any given quest hub by the sheer number of things I’m supposed to accomplish before receiving wave two and three of things from the same quest hub. And its clear that the XP curve has been changed from it, because we’ve left areas sorely uncompleted because we had very much outleveled the content. Somebody needs to tighten things down in the game experience – that would be my only real complaint.


  2. bhagpuss

    Ironically, Mrs Bhagpuss has spent more in Rift F2P’s cash shop than in every other cash shop in every other game she’s played added together. Why? Housing items. She literally ignores the entire rest of the game which she finds as dull as I do these days (although we liked it well enough for a good while back in the day), but she likes the housing tools and options.

    Once EQLandmark appears I would guess that’ll be the end of that.

    As for ArchAge, we’ll see. They need to get it out in a window that doesn’t clash with TESO, Wildstar or EQNext, all of which surely have far more traction in the Western market. That doesn’t leave a lot of room.


  3. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @HZ – Mentally I always jump to ArchLord when somebody mentions ArcheAge.

    But seeing that they are both Asian MMOs which made/are making the hazardous trip to the US market, I suppose my subconscious is attempting to remind me that the path from Asia is littered with low volume niche titles that never broke out as mass market successes because the design paradigms for the two markets have proven less than compatible.

    So color me skeptical if you are suggesting another assault from the east is going to change Trion’s fortunes.

    @Bhagpuss – The state of my own dimension reflects my enthusiasm for housing for the sake of housing. It just isn’t my thing.


  4. The Guilty Party

    Truly, if there’s anything that’s been proven over the past decade, it’s that a bunch of gamers anxiously awaiting a particular title guarantees success for that title.

    … Right?


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  6. Doone W.

    You’ve inspired me to write a follow-up article on Rift. I remember being somewhat excited about the game. I played it in late beta and decided I wasn’t going to stick with it. It just wasn’t different enough from Azeroth. And that’s kinda what I want to talk about in my response. I’ll be sure to ping you.


  7. Mekhios

    It is interesting to note that WoW is having similar issues. The happy ninja panda time has finished and the huge influx of people that resulted from that have left. All WoW has to keep it going is a massive incumbent player base that continues to pay their monthly fee out of habit.

    As for Rift great game and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But I have moved on to other games. There are only so many hours in the day.


  8. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Mekhios – Similar issues? I must have missed where Blizzard was laying people off and closing their offices outside of Anaheim.

    “All WoW has to keep it going is a massive incumbent player base that continues to pay their monthly fee out of habit.”

    I think you can say that about any monthly subscription based MMO that isn’t expanding, right?

    But if you’re trying to make the case for “WoW is dying,” then I have to point out that Blizzard has at least an order of magnitude more subscribers, all of whom are paying, so that at least as of the last quarterly report the game remains enviably profitable.

    I don’t mean to be too snarky, but basically all WoW has going for it is what every one of their competitors wants.


  9. Asmiroth

    Perhaps it’s just simpler to say that the global MMO trend is down for subscriptions. F2P has imaginary metrics made of hyperbole and buckets of steam, so it’s hard to find any solace there.

    I figure Rift stays around until Wildstar/TESO. From there, the market is anyone’s guess.


  10. Green Armadillo

    The only scenario in which Rift closes in the next year is the scenario where the entire studio goes out of business. As you note, even in that case the logical decision would be to sell off the title and its current subscribers/revenue to some other operator – EA, Perfect World, etc.


  11. Rieth Mhide

    I played RIFT for about a year at start
    I had great times in a pvp-guild, playing as a cleric decked out head to toe in pvp gear we had great times in open world pvp fighting other similar guilds, often 30 on 30 or even bigger numbers
    lots of fun was to be had
    unfortunately this has all died down and after a while the re were no guildmates to fight with and no opponents either, no groups roaming those fields at all any more
    part of me is saddened by this, however there was that mystical SOMETHING missing from RIFT
    i couldn’t name anything that the game did wrong, nothing gamebreaking in any case, its easy on the eye, combat was enjoyable, the world huge…just …nothing to set it apart from any number of similar games
    still wouldn’t call this server-merge the beginning of the end
    I play AoC which has less servers than RIFT but those are healthy, full fo life, so they (RIFT) might be able to keep it going in the “small titles league”
    Defiance is very similar to RIFT by the way, .very well done but ultimately just shallow, nothing to make me want to go back after the initial novelty has worn off


  12. deoba

    I read this news with some sadness being a Rift player since launch (as well as yet another inevitable name change – I am a curse to servers when merges take place…). Rift has been my MMO of choice for some time, and was very well setup for my regular 3 person group (I am not saying an MMO should cater for this setup, it is just what I can do/choose to do, and Rift did it very well). I have played many others – and committed to a few DAoC and EQ2 being the main ones. I have never felt an involved in an MMO as DAoC, but that could be ‘first love’ syndrome!

    The F2P model will enable me to keep my characters active, but I feel that our trio will soon be looking for the ‘next thing’ (so please keep up with the comments on the MMOs on the horizon!). EQNext is currently slated for that role, but when is another matter. Whatever happens, Trion have provided me with a thoroughly enjoyable game for some time, and I hope that the ‘difficulties’ aren’t a sign of worse times for Rift, the company or especially the employees.

    Perhaps I’ll make another attempt at Eve – I seem to try every year to scale that cliff, and get further each year before I fall off.


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  14. seanas

    wow, that’s news to me. Both me and my wife have stopped playing Rift totally now – she made it to the end of the Frozen Tempest 20-person raid with her guild; I left long before that for WoT.

    I’m surprised at the news of the server merge, but then again, not really. The hidden kicker to the F2P deal, the one that really killed it for my wife, is the huge increase in grind necessary to get highest-level reputation in the new zone; only made worse with the 2.4 expansion. Really: people talk about not needing anything from the shop, but once you start running dailies for your rep, you NEED xp bonus vials to stop gouging your own eyes out at the slow pace. You can use your ‘subscriber rewards’, but the paid option reduces the pain far faster – and *that* point, where the speed hump was approaching Great Wall-size, is the point where she said ‘stuff this, I’m off to FFXIV’.

    Why the server news surprises me is that Trion – Bill ‘Daglar’ Fisher in particular – have always been ruthlessly utilitarian in their design decisions: lore getting in the way of people playing? axe lore. queues unbalanced by faction? get rid of factions (for all intents and purposes). Open world PvP causing player friction? Open World Pvp gets functionally removed. Little features that a small number like that most dislike? Little feature goes bye-bye.

    I’va always assumed that this ruthless logic ended at the boundaries of the game, but that merger announcement (and: the unsentimental sacking of so many staff back in August) makes me think that you’re likely right , Wilhelm: if the numbers for Rift look too fatal at some point, I think it will get shuttered. Defiance will continue (and get investment) as long as the TV show continues; Warface shows publishing potential; End of Nations is unlikely (IMO) to ever see a release date, and ArchAge has it’s own problems in Korea…

    Hartsmann came back to Trion saying ‘AAA MMO houses are no longer sustainable in this day and age, Blizzard’s happy accident excepted: the inevitable logic of that is the end of Trion as an AAA MMO producer. ouch.


  15. Scott Hartsman

    Hi! I think we should possibly have been a little clearer in that post — The server names listed in the post aren’t all of the servers, just the few that are being touched. The final server count you have is off by a bit. It’s either 15 or 16 for US/EU.

    As far as I know, Rift is still the most sustained success in an F2P transition by numbers, and the team’s success there is a large part of the reason I came back to Trion.

    (And – Yep, you’re still in my reader from back in the day. While we can agree to disagree about future potential, I do hope all’s well. :)


  16. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Scott Hartsman – But why is it always *my* server that is going away?

    Yeah, looking at that announcement, I came away with the impression that those were all the servers so that the total was essentially being cut in half. I will note the actual server count in the post as an addendum.

    As for the future, my time dealing with ISO9001 processes has ingrained the need to go back and review everything I write at a later date. I’ll be happy to report good news when it happens. I’ve been wrong so often in life that isn’t a big thing.


  17. HarbingerZero

    @Wilhelm – I understand the skepticism, but I’m buying in. I think Jake developed AA with an eye towards what the west wanted as much as what the east wanted. And I have a hunch that Trion picked a winner.

    @Scott – Glad you are back on board at Trion and still reading blogs! It was three years ago this week I got an email from you about my own blog post. It means a lot to all of us who play that you take the time read what we have to say.


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  19. johnnliu

    Was it Mark Jacobs (while working on Warhammer Online) that pissed in the pool everyone is still swimming in by making a comment that MMOs need to be judged by whether they are merging or expanding servers?

    I really feel that comment completely poisoned the technical issues of running MMO servers. You had to be able to expand to absorb the influx of players around exciting events, and yet be able to collapse back into the more reasonable numbers when there are less players around to do activities with.

    Funnily, he pissed in it while he was still in the same model, and the same was said of his own MMO when they started merging servers.

    Older server architecture essentially had a server that could accommodate several thousand players, and beyond that you had to spawn new shards.

    It’s pretty much the case now that you had to design a server architectures (Neverwinter) now just have spin-off overflow servers instances. Essentially shards are completely unnamed, and cross-shard is the norm activity. BTW, Rift has cross-shard, any MMO just automatically catch bad news when they mention “close servers”.

    You don’t hear about Neverwinter or Guildwars 2 “shutting down” servers since it’s pretty much just spawning more or less instances to meet player demands. Instancing server has its own problems — events may be happening in one server and others are unable to join in to participate as the server is full (this was a problem on Neverwinter), so the queuing, server capacity, etc… technical problems hasn’t gone away, just buried under different terminology and escapes game journalism’s gloom and doom reporting.

    I suggest Rift should aim for the same model under Shard Unification. Introduce Surnames for player accounts so they can be unique across servers. Then start removing the concept of “home servers”, may be only keeping the tags “pvp, pve, oceanic and role-play” for new players to find other players of similar goals.

    Get rid of any other server distinction. Get out of this stupid smelly pool and go to the next one where reporters/gamers don’t talk about.


  20. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Johnnliu – Mark Jacobs said at one point that if they were not adding servers to WAR after launch, that would be a sign that the game was in trouble. It was one of the comments that came back to haunt him.

    Now, to be fair to Mark, when he said that there was ample history to support his view. UO, EQ, WoW and, presumably, DAoC all ramped up over time. EVE is still ramping up a decade later.

    Now, there were a few bigger games that peaked at launch and dropped off… EQ2 and LOTRO had done so by that point, but it wasn’t such an obvious trend as it is now.

    So, for Mark, success meant a ramp up over time. Things have clearly changed.

    I am all for a shardless environment. I am happy that Neverwinter is going to move in that direction now that the early rush is over. As a gamer I dislike being put into separate shards. A single universe is one of the great aspects of EVE Online.

    But I want that for the sake of the game and the community. You seem to be more interested in hiding data so people won’t say something negative about a game you might like. I am not sure that hiding stats and being afraid that the press might find out your user levels is necessarily the best motivation.


  21. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    Day late, dollar short, etc,

    Wilhelm Arcturus wrote:
    Similar issues? I must have missed where Blizzard was laying people off and closing their offices outside of Anaheim.

    Blizzard has done it’s own layoffs in the past: http://massively.joystiq.com/2012/02/29/blizzard-announces-layoffs-of-600-employees-worldwide/

    Maybe not since Panderia launched, but it’s not like Blizzard (and by extension the subscription business model) never runs into troubles.


  22. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Brian – And they closed their offices outside of Anaheim when exactly?

    Mekhios was trying to draw a parallel between Trion and Blizzard, painting them as being in the same situations. They are not.

    “…but it’s not like Blizzard (and by extension the subscription business model) never runs into troubles.”

    There are troubles and troubles. Blizzard’s balance sheet hasn’t been in any real trouble in recent memory.

    As for subscription business model never running into trouble, I am kind of hazy on what you are driving at there. Isn’t the point here that all of these games are jumping on the F2P model because they were in trouble on the subscription model? Do you imagine that I am contesting that fact?

    I am actually poking at the flip side of that, which is that F2P isn’t a magic, get out of financial problems card, which is what some seem to want us to believe. There is always that initial announcement about how revenues are up up up… compared to the low ebb of the subscription model… but that clams up not too far down the road.


  23. Mekhios

    The scale of reductions at Blizzard is actually far larger than other companies. But they are lucky because they have a greater buffer to soak up the reductions.


  24. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    @Wilhelm Arcturus Well, it’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison about closing studios, since Blizzard is part of a larger company, Activision. Any sins on Blizzard’s part can be hidden (or, to be fair, exacerbated) by what goes on with Activision. The fact that Blizzard itself had to shed 600 people 6 months before the launch of an expansion is a pretty big deal even if they didn’t shutter any other specific studios like Trion chose to.

    As for free-to-play, you’re right: it’s not a financial “get out of free” card. But, in general most of the games that have gone free-to-play have seen a huge spike in revenue. Turbine reported a 300% increase in revenue in DDO, at least, and said that there was a similar increase in LotRO. But, sometimes even that sort of bump isn’t enough.


  25. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Brian – Yes, I have seen the reports of a big boost in income for a number of games that switched from monthly subscription to F2P. DDO, LOTRO, DCUO, EQ2, SWTOR, etc. all announced as such.

    But I am curious if that is a long term trend. The initial months are good. But since we never hear anything again until a game goes under (CoH, LEGO Universe) the skeptic in me wonders if that initial boost isn’t a valley-to-peak comparison as the game goes from low ebb on the subscription model to a high point as people return to see what is new with the F2P option. I don’t think I am pulling that “Happy Time” idea completely out of my ass.

    And, as a side point, I am also curious as to how much of the ongoing revenue remains that of subscription versus cash shop. Games that are, or at least started, very heavy on the push-you-to-subscribe model with limitations, like EQ2 and SWTOR, struck me as being more of a restricted benefits but unlimited time trial as opposed to being substantially free to play.

    I have a long list of other questions in life that I do not expect I will ever get an answer to as well. That list grows all the time.


  26. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    @Wilhelm Arcturus Well, not having seen any internal numbers, I’d say that it really depends on how the company manages the game. My personal anecdote is that I tried DDO originally because others were playing it and it was free-to-play, so it was a very low barrier to entry. But, it converted me into a paying player; I’m not a subscribing player, I’ve still spent a few hundred dollars on buying points and expansions.

    You can say the same thing about subscription games and launches/expansions. A launch or an expansion brings a flurry of interest, but that dies down until something else happens. Do you think subscriptions have an “end of the happy time” period as well? Because, by what you’re talking about, they do. Until the next expansion comes out, or course, and they see a bump. Free-to-play games could have a similar trajectory, where you think about the transition as the “launch” of the game, etc.

    As for your question, again, I haven’t seen the details of any transition. It seems DDO is still going strong, and LotRO keeps getting content expansions. SWtOR got a reprieve from a grim fate. Personally, I do prefer games where it’s an actual option to just buy cash shop stuff rather than feeling like you “have to” subscribe; DDO does this very well, IMHO, but there are obviously other games where this doesn’t feel like the case. And those games seem to do fine as well. I think there is no one “right answer” for how to do free-to-play, and it really depends on the game.


  27. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Brian – Yes, clearly every game has what I might call a “happy time,” subscription MMOs included. But it is a little different, and for subscription MMOs it has evolved over time. EverQuest grew for several years. It took WoW years to hit “more than 12 million” players in the post-Cataclysm peak. EVE Online is still in the “happy time” a decade later as far as I can tell.

    But here is the thing. If I trotted out the two year old “WoW has 12 million subscribers” number, it would be a literal race to get in the first comment to correct me and point out that the number was last reported as 7.7 million subscribers. Trying to defend the subscription model with the 12 million number would be laughable.

    But it seems perfectly okay to point at a statement from January 2011 about LOTRO tripling revenues and draw from that, and some similarly out of date reports like those around DDO and DCUO, that F2P is more lucrative than the subscription model now and forever. Massively linked back to that LOTRO statement in a “F2P makes money” post just this week. You yourself trotted out that 300% increase in a comment just up the chain.

    It isn’t that I want to argue about the benefits of F2P. I have enumerated them before and agree that many of them are good for games while rejecting some arguments against the idea, such as the whole “uncommitted freeloaders” thread that went through the EQ2 forums at the F2P conversion. I even expressed astonishment that, in the post-SWTOR world, that TESO and WildStar are both opting in for a monthly subscription model.

    But, in the long term, is the money better, or at least break even, relative to the monthly subscription model? I suspect that it is. Not that LOTRO could go back to that model at this point, but things seemed relatively grim pre-F2P for them for a variety of reasons. I just get annoyed when I read that F2P is a revenue gold mine based off of a data point nearly four years gone. Is the cash shop really raking in enough money? Where do VIP subscriptions fit into the scheme? And does the game keep getting expansions because the revenues are good, or because expansions are themselves a key part of the revenue stream so Turbine needs to have one every year the way Activision needs to have a Call of Duty title every year?

    As I said, I have long since gotten used to not getting answers in life. It hasn’t done anything to dampen my need to ask questions though.


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