Monday, December 13, 2010

The Leaning Towers of Telara

Imagine that someone came to you looking for some money to build a giant stone tower, only they propose to build a tower that leans rather than extending straight upright.  Though this project might turn out well, the possibility that it might tip over is an obvious concern with the design, and you would want to see how the designer proposes to address this. 

As I've learned a bit more about the upcoming Rifts: Planes of Telara game, primarily through The Rift Podcast, I'm seeing a pair of leaning towers occupying some prime real estate in the game's design. 

Class Choice Versus Balance
Rift is offering a flexible class system - characters are locked into one of four callings (archetypes), but they customize their actual role within that archetype by picking three of eight available souls and dividing advancement points amongst the three as desired.  This sounds like a lot of fun on paper, and players who have tested the system at preview events have come away impressed. 

The potential concern is that someone needs to decide how difficult to make the actual game.  Do they balance things assuming the best possible DPS, healing, and tanking, leaving everyone who doesn't look up and adopt a cookie cutter build out in the cold?  When players show up with a full group of completely unpredictable characters, does a tough encounter suddenly become trivial because some obscure combination of abilities leaves the boss helpless? 

Though the issue is not necessarily insurmountable, most other MMO's struggle to balance as many as a dozen classes.  Unless the point is that players are supposed to swap into a different optimized role for every fight, it's going to be interesting to see how Trion handles this.

Dynamic Content Overload
The game's other heavily touted system is its dynamic content.  The namesake rifts open up around the world, allowing NPC's from the elemental planes to attack Telara.  If players fail to close the rifts in time, NPC invasion forces will spawn and march on towns (or even each other).  Again, players' first impressions of the system in limited preview events have been very positive due to the sheer novelty of the mechanic.

The concern here is what happens a month or two into the game's release, as everyone has shown up at least once to find their questgivers dead and had to repel an invasion to get their towns back.  (In some ways, it almost reminds me of Warhammer, with the non-instanced RVR replaced with NPC's who will conveniently show up in beatable numbers and can be counted on not to abandon their conquests because it is more profitable to allow the other side to retake each keep so that you can re-re-capture it.) 

Will midlevel players log in a few months down the line to find their towns demolished by armies of elementals, after the majority of the population has moved past that level range to the cap, with limited interest (or patience) in returning to bail out their new comrades?  As we saw with WoW's notorious zombie invasion, players will eventually give up on saving towns from attacks that will continue indefinitely no matter what players do. 

Toppling in 30 days?
These issues can be addressed given enough time.  The thing that concerns me is that both of these topics are things that will not be apparent in the first hour or day or even week of the game's release.  Endgame class imbalances and invasion fatigue will kick in only after players have had the chance to actually get that far into the game, which won't happen at a press event or a low level beta weekend session.  (For the same reason, it won't show up in press reviews, or even the opinions of real players during the first week of launch.) 

The true test comes at the 30 day mark when subscription fees come due.  If players are blindsided by these issues (or others) and leave en masse, the sharp negative turn in word of mouth can be more damaging than the actual in-game issues (which, in my view, we saw with Warhammer).  The longer the game goes without permitting sustained high level testing in an open, non-NDA environment, the greater the chances that the leaning towers will topple before they can be reinforced. 


hound said...

As usual, you bring up some interesting points. Both of which sound like shades of Tabula Rasa.

In Tabula Rasa you began with one, locked-in class and could branch out into ever more specialized roles as your character leveled. Rifts seems to have given that mechanic a facelift and more complexity.

I think they will do ok with this, however. WoW has proven that balance is an ongoing issue, but temporary fixes can happen quickly if the game is properly supported.

The dynamic of NPC town invasion is one that Blizzard may not have been able to implement well, but Tabula Rasa did a good job of it. In that game, the invasions occurred with timers attached to them. Allied forces would eventually spawn in and take back the bases. I saw reports of only 2-3 players putting forth an effort and still got the bases back.

So, really, it just depends on how hard Trion makes the game and how quickly they can fix any problems.

Klepsacovic said...

"does a tough encounter suddenly become trivial because some obscure combination of abilities leaves the boss helpless?"
Is this really such an awful thing? Of course it would be bad if it were a regular occurrence, but a boss here and there should not be a game-breaker, as long as the boss in question is not impossible (or close to) without said obscure combination.

In other words, now and then we find that X makes Y easy, but Y is not so hard that we will waste all our time to get X just to beat Y. So is it really worth worrying about X, especially when fixing X may cause future problems with A-X?

spinksville said...

The class choice issue is something that really stood out for me on reading the website.

I think I'm just tired of always having to think "but will it be wanted in a group" when I look at cool sounding classes or combinations.

Bronte said...

This whole "how will they balance the world" arguments rings true for me. The rifts ope up, according to the developers, anywhere. Once you are done leveling in the lower zones, you move on, allowing the lower zones to be completely overrun by the hordes of elementals pouring in through unchecked rifts. So will the game somehow force you to go back and fix the towns, or just ignore them.

The WoW example here is critical, because while the zombie invasion initially seemed cool, the fact that it went on indefinitely no matter what you did broke the illusion's back.

I have similar thoughts about Guild Wars 2. they too claim dynamic world events and that if the quest text says Orcs are attacking a village. You will actually see Orcs coming in to attack a village...

Starseeker said...

You do bring up some interesting points. Trion has said a few things on rifts in older zones. The system they have designed can be scaled up to accommodate more folks, or scaled down once the population passes. So the quantity of rifts opening in lower level zones after the initial rush can be scaled back to accommodate the current populations of that zone.
I imagine they will not let an entire zone be over run to the point where low level characters cannot interact with quest hubs.

Longasc said...

They are experimenting with scaling and ways to automate the number and severity of Rifts and Invasions.
The Beta is a tweaking phase, unfortunately people are not allowed to talk about it.

I want to add a slight tangent to your thought:

How cool are the Rifts actually? Let's assume they work as intended, whatever that will be.
They are a name giving element that supposedly shall add some spice to gameplay, they are also sources of planar items that you can use to improve your gear.

But are they really an interesting game mechanic? Town Invasions, Rifts... it all sounds so nice and dandy in theory. Like Britain getting raided by Vikings in the Dark Ages. In the end I wonder if things will not end up being a constant nuisance rather than random bursts of excitement.