It’s a problem.  A problem I’m sure a lot of reviewers have faced.  Talking about Rift without leaning heavily on references to World of WarCraft.  It’s hard.  I mean really HARD. I don’t think I can.  Actually, I don’t want to.

The fact is that Rift is a very deliberate, and hopeful usurper of all things World of WarCraft.  Does Trion think they’ll steal all 11 or so Million WoW subscribers over to their side?  I think that’s a silly idea, but they are looking to poach a fair amount, and seem to be succeeding.  MMO subscriptions are largely dependent on inertia.  You start. If you gain sufficient momentum, you keep going.  If there’s little to no friction, you just keep going some more.  Before you know it, you’ve sunk months of real time and money into your characters.  You’ve killed Internet dragons for Internet riches, and after all you’ve accomplished… can you really walk away?

Such has been the success of the big MMOs like EverQuest, and WoW.  Everything the player has gained becomes a barrier to exit.  Even as newer, shinier, more ambitious games surface within the genre.  Blizzard has seen the little speedbumps before.  Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan, and Warhammer.  Games that take choice bits from their cash cow, garnered some interest, but ultimately lose the players back to them.  If you play WoW heavily, you’ve seen it in your guild.  You may have even done it yourself.  Anecdotally, however, I’ve found that most people come back to Azeroth after a month or two, once the next shiny raid dungeon, or expansion comes out.

So how has Trion tried to fight off the post-free month exodus?  In several ways:

1. They’ve pretty much taken everything that works in WoW, and put it in Rift.  

It’s true.  Blizzard’s now streamlined quest leveling is almost lifted verbatim, and placed into Rift.  The play mechanics have some differences, but fundamentally, they’re very close.  There are some nice innovations on Trion’s part, but they’re sticking to a tried and true formula that they know.  The controls and interface are mechanically nearly identical.  The difference?  Rift’s is much more customizable without going outside of the stock game, and installing addons.

Have I mentioned that Trion has several prominent ex-Blizzard employees?  Well who doesn’t these days?  Blizzard expats have their fingers in lots of high profile projects.  Torchlight?  Developed by Blizzard alums.  The hotly anticipated FireFall– due out later this year?  The developer, Red5, is lousy with former Blizzard staff.

What does Rift have in common with those two projects?  They borrow heavily from Blizzard games.  They do.  So don’t go shaking your fist at Trion for copying a Blizzard game.  They’re not the first, and they’re in good company.

So suffice to say that Rift is indeed World of WarCraft with new graphics engine, story, art assets, spell names, and talent system.  Are you scandalized?  Too bad.  It works really well.  Why?

2. Trion has kept the good ideas, and slaughtered the sacred cows.

You know how many specs you can switch between in Rift?  5.  Do you know how much they cost to unlock?  Not that much.  When can you unlock them?  Level 13.  With the multiple roles and specs available within the four main classes, and the low cost to switch between them, it’s very reasonable for one player to try every class, spec, and profession by only leveling 4 characters.  Not 10.  4.  No waiting until level 40 to have another spec to play with.  No grinding a ton of money, or pulling from your main, to unlock it, either.

Trion went after something Blizzard has been very stubborn about.  Even having two talent specs to switch between on a character didn’t come until WoW’s second expansion, and it wasn’t given easily.  This was only after many months of complaints from players spending a fair chunk of gold to change specs for different activities.  Blizzard’s reason to hold off so long?  They had a very strong feeling about it.

Rift launched with four unlockable spec slots per character.  They patched in a fifth.  Why?  Why not?

Who likes walking everywhere?  Nobody.  Level 40 required to have a mount?  Level 20?  Nope.  Try level 6.  How long is level 1-6?  After you’ve done it once, maybe half an hour.  Why so early?  Well why not?

Who likes vanity slots?  Who likes armor dyes?  Almost everybody?  Good News!  They’re in Rift!  Why aren’t they in WoW?  The short answer is the same as before.  Blizzard has a very strong feeling about it.  They think that their armor sets took lots of hard work, and they’ll be darned if someone likes a previous set, or a different color, better.  I’m sure the Rift artists spent lots of time on their armor textures.  They’re a higher resolution, after all.  So why allow players to wear some common crafted piece of armor for looks, and dye it bright pink, when they’ve got a shiny epic one in their actual equipment slot?  Well why not?

It’s clear Trion’s taking a different approach to their players than Blizzard has.  Did I mention their next patch will have free server transfers?  Blizzard charges $25 to do that.  Why?  They say it’s a lot of work.  Is it a lot of work, Trion?

3. Trion has kept their updates coming quick and fast.  They don’t act as a silent, plodding monolith.  They have made their decisions, and implementation more transparent.

They make adjustments to spells, controls, and more technical things at least weekly.  Major point patches are announced, and live within a month’s time, so far.  Two content patches have gone live, since their launch in February.  Within these patches there have already been talent reviews, raid dungeons, world events, the Dungeon Group Finder, and the already mentioned vanity slots, and fifth available spec.  Problems are not gathered, fixed, and saved for a distant patch, while players are left to deal with them.  Those fixes are implemented with the sense of urgency you might expect from someone you pay a monthly subscription to.  I kinda wish these guys ran my local power and cable companies.

In conclusion, the differences in going from World of WarCraft to Rift have been much more impressive than the similarities.  The similarities are there, they’re proven, and they’re plenty of fun.  It’s the philosophy that Trion has put into the primary, and continued development of Rift that really impresses me, and makes me think they’ve got a shot at significant success in the long term.  The desire to please their customers is clear in their actions.

By John Bean – 06/04/11

Screenshots for Rift 101: Things That Make You Go WoW