(Trion Worlds is currently taking applications for the upcoming Rift: Planes of Telara beta. Sign up on the official website.)
During our visit to Trion Worlds to play its debut MMO, Rift: Planes of Telara, Eurogamer sat down with the magnificently mutton-chopped Hal Hanlin, design producer for Rift, to discuss endgame content, working with a hand-picked industry team and the opportunities for introducing change to a persistent online world.
Eurogamer: Hello, Hal. Could you give us a bit of background on your career in games?
Hal Hanlin: Sure! In 1997 I was kind of at a loss for what to do with my life. My wife asked me what I did not realise then was a pivotal question: "If money was no object, what would you do all day?" I was snarky and said I'd play video games.
A little over a year later, I got a position as system administrator at a video games company in Boulder. After a couple of years, they ran a game design submission challenge to determine their next product. I took a week off of work, took my little 486 laptop to the mall, sat in the food court and wrote three designs. Of over 100 submissions, two of mine rated pretty high and one was a finalist. Based on that, they offered me a position as a designer and I have never looked back.
Eurogamer: And what drew you to Trion in particular?
Hal Hanlin: I came to Trion because they had the three things it takes to make awesome games.
One, world-class talent. When I saw who I would be working with, I was amazed. There is so much talent and experience here that it's a genuine honour to work in this office. In most game companies, two or three shipped games gets you a senior position. In my experience at Trion, that's the minimum bar to get an interview.
Two, world-class technology. The Trion platform is profoundly powerful and the toolset that has evolved to build our game is stunning.
Three, world-class money. Let's face it, great games are usually not cheap to make. Trion has the backing to do what they promised to do.
All of that added up to a no-brainer.
Eurogamer: With the industry pedigree brought into Trion, there's the potential for egos to clash. How have you all handled that?
Hal Hanlin: Something that happens a lot in the industry is that when you make a couple of games, you grow an ego. You start using sentences that start with: "I have X years in games and I..."
What is hilarious at Trion is when someone new comes in and tries that. The meeting stops for a moment, and generally one of the members points out that the rest of the room has at least that many years and sometimes even created entire genres. Once that is clear, we can get back to work and egos are put on the shelf.
Something that cannot be ignored is that Trion designers take and give brutal feedback every single day. They don't tap-dance around a problem. Comments are generally concise, clear and accompanied by the all-important: "I would suggest..."
Almost everyone here has been the target of web criticism of a game they made. They know that the harshest designer commentary pales in the face of what can happen when games go live, so they say what needs saying. Almost everyone here has some amazingly healthy armour now.
Eurogamer: You mentioned this morning that you expect players will want to bring 20 friends to the world. Has Trion targeted a specific number of subscribers for profitability?
Hal Hanlin: Sorry, that's a question for someone in a suit. I completely trust the people at all levels of this company – not a common thing – and I do my part. Others obsess over server loads, profitability and their specialities. I obsess over the details of design and making sure that everyone has what they need to make a game you want to bring your 20 closest friends to play.
Eurogamer: The unique feature of the game, of course, is the rift system. What proportion of levelling do you imagine coming from rift fights versus questing?
Hal Hanlin: The question isn't how much do you have to rift in order to level cap. You can level cap just playing quests if that's what you want to do.
You have an opportunity to improve your gear, get a lot of consumable items, obtain things called focuses and then the essences which further increase your character's equipment. But you are not required to.
Scott Hartsman [chief creative officer] has a mandate that when you come into the game there are a wide variety of things that you can do. We're not trying to spoon-feed you – the idea is to come in and say, "Wow, I want to level up my crafting or I really want to come on some dungeon runs with my friends." So he's made sure there are multiple paths when you want to play the game.