RIFT: A Passion for Design

We interview Design Director Simon Ffinch about creating content for one of the most frequently updated MMOs.

The people that create games are some of the most passionate I’ve ever met. Take Simon Ffinch for example: RIFT’s Design Director spends much of his time playing the game he’s responsible for, whether it’s testing new content or going undercover in the live game. In a fascinating interview, Ffinch discussed how the MMO has fared since the launch of Storm Legion and what the future holds. 

Ffinch is manager of Trion WorldsRIFT design team, making sure the whole department is producing well and has what it needs. The responsibility stretches through quests, dynamic content, NPCs and everything that we as players interact with. It also comprises game designers and system designers working on things like balancing the Soul System and Planar Attunement.

He also likes to get his hands dirty and make stuff for the game. His speciality: those fiendish puzzles that RIFT has become famous for. As he explained:

 “I do that for two reasons. I do it primarily because I love doing that, and I love delivering things for players like myself. I love puzzles in games like this, so I thought ‘Right I’ll put some in.’ But I also do it so that I get very familiar with the tools that we use and know exactly the trials and tribulations that the designers are going through, and I can speak intelligently with them about problems that they’re having and we get those fixed, and we work with our engineers to smooth out issues. I absolutely know what their day-to-day is like.”

During the interview, Ffinch teased that Dimensions will have something to look forward to, particularly puzzle makers. He also mentioned that the Infinity Gate will open, adding with a grin in his voice, that he’s looking forward to reading the theories that emerge from the players. We also talked about keeping RIFT fresh, and that dreaded MMO content treadmill. 

ZAM: The Storm Legion expansion was released in November. Is it fair to say that the honeymoon period is over?

Ffinch: I would say so, and I would say that we’ve sort of like slid into a comfortable and happy marriage, if that’s the way of the metaphor that you want to continue using. I couldn’t have been happier with the rollout. As you can imagine, we’ve got pretty good at it by now, two years in. We’re pretty smooth at rolling out content. It’s true that Storm Legion was more content than we’ve ever delivered at one time, but it still went really smoothly.

I’ve really enjoyed playing it. I play the game constantly still, even today. I belong to a pretty big guild – they’ve no idea I’m a dev – so I hear very unfiltered feedback. If I hear some criticism, or something like that, I’ll bring it back to the team the next day and we’ll talk about it, and see if there’s something we can do to fix it if we think it’s a fair criticism, or definitely a gripe that we want to deal with.

But the thing that’s the most pleasing of all is just how much positive feedback I hear all the time, about how people think x, y or z is really cool,  or how awesome a time they had doing such-and-such a thing, and obviously running a lot of that content with them, and having a lot of fun myself.

ZAM: Have there been any surprising reactions from players or newcomers?

I wouldn’t say surprising so much. Pleasing definitely, as I mentioned before. I think a lot of people – newbies – that joined the game, and I see a great number of them, particularly our guild has a lot of actual new players that are totally new, not just returning players.  And I think a lot of them are surprised by how full featured and how much there is to do and how polished everything is, and I guess that’s a bit of surprise to some people.

When you release something that was big as Storm Legion, definitely there’s a certain amount of trepidation about how it was going to be received. But it was critically acclaimed by both the press and our players, and that was very nice. If I had to point to something that was surprising maybe, was just how amazingly talented some of our players are, and the stuff they did in dimensions. I knew we’d see some good stuff, but boy I had absolutely no idea what they would manage to do, and it was absolutely truly jaw-dropping what they’d done with some of those.

ZAM: There have been several YouTube videos by proud owners, and your recent Joy of Dimensions competition. Do you have any plans or ideas to expand that feature further?

Absolutely, and not just dimensions. Our list of wishes and wants and things we’d like to do has been from day one, even before we launched, longer than we can possibly do. And we keep adding to it, and choosing the things we want to do the most off the top of that list, and trying to get them in.

With respect to dimensions specifically, yes absolutely, we have a very long list with some very entertaining ideas. And not just giving players more things to put in their dimensions, although of course we’ll be doing that. But as you hinted at – and I don’t really want to talk about it just yet because we’re not quite sure which ones we’re going to choose, but definitely adding different features to dimensions, yes.

ZAM: Are these possibly things like more interesting interactive items, or are we talking even more radical things that you could do in your dimension?

As I mentioned, because we’re still trying to figure out which one of these we’re going to actually tackle and try to get in next, I don’t want to go into too much detail. But I will tell you that they range from the fairly – I hesitate to use the word mundane – but standard ideas, to, as you’ve put it, completely radical, like holy cow, that would be awesome if we could figure out how to do that properly without breaking everything.

So yes, we’ve got some pretty amazing ideas lined up and we’re just now trying to figure out how best to roll those out. But more than just ‘Hey, look at my dimension, isn’t it awesome?’ it’s ‘Hey, come to my dimension, and do this!’ 

ZAM: I don’t know if you’re called a particular title, like Puzzlemeister or something like that, but I know you have a strong desire to generate these really fiendish and devious puzzles. How have they gone down, and what’s the response been with the players?

Just to address the name thing, yes, I get called all sorts of names with that, some of them not so nice! [laughs].  But as I said, I do those because they’re the kind of things that I love to play in games, and so I do know that I’m targeting a fairly small subset of our players with that. And for those hardcore puzzlers, the response has been fantastic. I think they really liked the extra level of complexity and difficulty, and some of the rewards are really cool – one of them rewards a complete dimension, for instance, as well as others giving dimension items, and vanity outfits that people wear with pride because they are pretty difficult to get!

But I have listened to and I do know that there are some of the slightly casual players that enjoyed the way the puzzles were in classic RIFT – a little bit easier to come across and do – and so I am going to be addressing that in an upcoming patch. I’m not just going to be giving it away so that the people that have persevered and done it the hard way, I’m not just suddenly going to let them do it whenever they like, but I am going to give a secondary path for people to figure out how to do the prerequisites that allow you to even attempt the puzzle.

Part of the reason why I did that in the first place was to minimize the number of people that were trying to do the puzzles at the same time – that did cause some frustrations the first time around, and I think that was pretty successful because I know that I personally have done all the puzzles the hard way, so I do know what it is to actually do them the hard way. And I know that when I was doing them that, even though I would come across one or two people doing it at the same time, it wasn’t a mass of people griefing each other, which was what happened the first time around.  

So yep, going to be continuing to tinker with those, and I’ve got lots of ideas for new stuff. It’s just a matter of finding some time where I can sit down and get my hands on the tools again, and put them in.

Next Up: Patch Pacing and Content Treadmills on Page 2 ->

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