So, my wife has been playing Rift. I've been observing, and recently I decided to give it a try. Outside of the usual launch glitches with capacity, here is my take on it.
Firstly, on the surface Rift plays very similarly to any other fantasy MMOG out there. It has all the modern concepts, such as any class being able to solo or spec for a mix of offense and defense, as well as the four classic classes (fighter, mage, rogue, cleric). These classes can have, at any one time, their choice of three different skill or power trees, which you put points in to. This, in turn gives you your activated abilities and modifies your abilities along specific routes. There are two factions, which may PvP against each other. The game has multiple servers, in the usual flavors of PvE, PvERP, PvP, and PvPRP. The visual and audio design is top notch, with good animations and its own art style. The game world is well realized, large, and very pretty. The interface is clear and has pretty colored buttons, if it is a wee bit un-original. All that this does, however, is simply put it in a place where it could, at the very best, be considered a realistic alternative to WoW when your raiding guild is offline or there are no slots open for you.
It is also the first MMOG I have investigated or tried which has the realistic potential to knock WoW out of the top spot.
So? Big freaking deal. I've not said anything that would really make it any better than WoW. How could that even be possible?
Myself and many others who have gotten tired of the MMOG industry have said for years that game developers need to start to evolve their game concepts. They need to move beyond trying to ape whoever is on top, and start developing new and GOOD game play mechanics. Rift has taken this seriously. So seriously, that this mechanic is the game name itself: The titular rifts. You really don't get a feel for these until you get about half way through the first zone (and this is a tiny fraction of the game world). So, if you just tried rift, got an hour or so in, and decided, "Meh, same thing different colors", let me describe it to you, and then tell you what the long term impact of this may be.
What you have are these rifts. They come in six exciting flavors: Air, Earth, Fire, Water, Death, and the ever popular Life. Each one is strongly themed, with specific monsters associated with them. These rifts first show up as a tear, which appears as a glowing rip in the air. Players can open these, causing a full rift. If players do not open them, then these will open on their own. The longer they exist as a tear, the stronger their occupants will be when they open. To close a rift, you have to defeat increasing challenges which come in stages. Rewards are based on participation, and are largely independent of the strength of the rift, which means forcing a rift and closing it sooner is better.
The number of tears that spawn is determined automatically by the number of players in a zone, and there are generally slightly more tears than can be easily closed by the number of players in any given zone. When you go to close a rift, you can automatically join an open public group for that rift. These are raids which are auto-generated, and players can join by just clicking a button. Your rewards are determined by your participation level, which is gauged by damage dealt, damage taken, and damage healed. This should be familiar to anyone who has experienced the open raids in Warhammer Online.
Rifts, if left alone, will spawn incursions, which are groups of monsters. These groups, which have a leader whom must be defeated in order to beat the incursion, head towards a specific target. You can see where they are going by hovering your mouse over them on the map. Upon reaching their destination, they will attack a particular structure at these locations (a focus). If they destroy that structure, they will put up their own structure (called a foothold), and lock out all the quests in that location. It is therefore beneficial for players to defeat these incursions and their footholds. Incursions follow the same open group mechanic as rifts.
On occasion, there are zone wide attacks. These spawn a load of rifts and incursions all at once. Some text will pop up, possibly with some voice acting, which will describe what the overall objective of the incursions is, as well as have in-game threats and encouragements for the player. These large scale invasions definitely move on specific targets, and can be quite hairy. Invasions end after a certain amount of time which is a failure and has ramifications I am honestly unsure about, or with the destruction of a boss after the initial waves are beat back. Everyone in this zone automatically is granted a quest which tracks the total zone wide participation towards defeating these invasions. Players are automatically rewarded for their level of participation in the overall event.
So, what does this mean for MMOG development, and why is this all important?
Okay, what we have here is two very important things. Firstly, the rift/incursion mechanic automatically gets people joining groups. This is very important, as it effectively encourages people to think in terms of groups and raids, and helps strengthen community bonds. A strong community is all-important for the long-term health of an MMOG. It is not innovative in itself, but its wide scale implementation is new.
The second aspect, however, is the real kicker. Having incursions take territory, even if it is just locking out some quests, and requiring players to take that territory back creates something that has been lacking in MMOGs to this point. Instead of being a purely passive playground, the game plays right back with you. The fact that the availability of quests is determinant on whether players control an area also creates the illusion that the player's actions matter. Yeah, you may be a faceless entity among thousands others, in a game which already has over a million subscribers (yeah, people are THAT HUNGRY for new and good game play concepts). However, when you stand shoulder to shoulder with 30 or so people, and hold back wave after wave of enemies bent on claiming the spot of territory on which you stand, you FEEL like you MATTER. THIS is the essential element which has, up to this point, been missing from MMOGs. You get the illusion, however fragile, that you have made a difference, however small, to the makeup of the game world. Sure, rationally you know that other players at other times of the day would just clean up any mess you left. That doesn't matter for you, however, because while YOU were on, YOU made a difference, dammit! Engaging the player on this level in a PvE MMOG has not existed before, and may be just what is needed to make Rift a major powerhouse in the MMOG world.
Now, in full fairness, I've not experienced what Rift offers for "late game". It is probably the same endless forced group content treadmill that just about every other MMOG in the world provides. This rift system exists at all levels of game play, however. In the late game, I could also happily fight off rifts and incursions, spending my time on the front lines in this endless war. While it may be repetitive as well, there is something about holding back the invading hordes, keeping them out of your lands, keeping their damned dirty hands off of your NPCs, that is strangely appealing to me.
The best of all is, taking all of this, watch the intro movie. Watch it closely. No, before the little fantasy people show up. No, before the bird. See that there? "Trion". No EA, no VIVENDI/Blizzard, no Sony, no Atari, no Lucasarts, no "insert giant game company here". It has long been the joke that these large companies are just trying to copy each other, but are not really innovating. The reality is that, in their fear of innovating combined with their assumptions of having to spend ridiculous mountains of cash, they have stagnated. Rift is only about a week old as of this writing, with it leaving the head start period today, and it already has over one million subscribers. That alone should be a significant sign to developers that players have "done the EQ/WoW thing to death", and are ready for something which engages them on a deeper level. Hopefully there are MMOG developing companies working on other recently released or soon to be released titles (Bioware and Cryptic, I'm looking at you two) who learn this lesson, and come up with their own ways of encouraging players to care and emotionally invest in their products.