Five evenings ago, I was riding my collector's edition turtle across Scarwood Reach when I came across two players, a lumbering non-hostile robot, and the Rift public content UI. I'd never seen this UI appear without something to kill right next to it, so I stopped to read the text. I had just figured out that it was an NPC escort quest when the window closed up and the loot icon flashed on top of my screen. The robot had reached his destination, and my presence for the final seconds had flagged me as a participant.
I had just accidentally completed a quest for a four-digit chunk of exp and a blue sourceshard. I don't think I've logged into my main character since.
Victory Through Attendence
In hindsight, reflecting on this one incident brings into focus something that I've been trying to put into words for over a week now. The problem with Rift's cooperative public content system is not merely that you get tired of seeing the same events destroy your quest hub yet again (though that does start to happen). The problem is that in many cases I'm left feeling like victory or defeat would have happened regardless of my participation, and I just happened to be along for the ride and the loot.
Now that I'm running with a dedicated healing spec, I can state objectively that this impression shouldn't be true - there have been several encounters where, judging from the amount of damage the tank was taking and the amount I personally was healing them for, the group would probably have wiped without my actions. Then again, in that case they would have respawned and eventually more people would have shown up to heal the team to victory. Moreover, even when it is actually true that my presence decided the encounter, it does not feel that way when I'm one of two dozen players spamming away at a mass of players and mobs. When I'm solo or in a smaller group, I can tell how well (or poorly) I did, but in a massive public raid my contribution disappears into a sea of numbers.
The bigger issue is that the public content is my reason to play the game (or possibly not as of next week). Yes, there is solo content, it is reasonably polished, and the soul system lets me all-but re-roll on every trip to my class trainer without having to start over at level 1. Yes, there is group content, though I haven't been able to do much of it because of time constraints. Yes, there's PVP, which I should probably try at some point. But the thing that Rift does that none of the numerous other games I could be playing instead does not is public content.
Rift is still easily the best MMO launch in the last four years, and it will almost certainly be the fourth MMO that I cap a character in. As of right now, though, my outlook on Rift is that I should probably give Trion a few more months to iterate.