As I said yesterday, I abandoned doing the big rift events, and focused on leveling my character.  I killed 10 of those and 5 of that, and used this thing on that thing and fought the monster that popped out.  I died a couple of times, and leveled three or four times.  If you’ve ever been to Azeroth, you’ve seen what I’ve saw Sunday morning.

I wound up going to a city that was confusing to navigate, and got a bunch of quests, one of which was for another soul.  One of them was to pick up five pieces of paper that were strewn about the city.  Another was to talk to three people in the city.  Unfortunately it was a labyrinth, the map was confusing, and I found that I really didn’t care to do it.

There were PvP quests, and I’ve done those before, but in WAR it felt like that was what the game was about.  In Rift the story seems to be that the two sides are fighting because they can’t agree on how to fight the real enemy.  It seems like a stupid (if very human) reason to fight, so I had nothing invested in PvP (WoW feels much the same to me).  I was tired of killing monsters for random reasons and clicking on glowy things for NPCs. I was tired of that over a year ago when I quit WoW.

Rift’s advertising says “You’re not in Azeroth anymore.”  No, it’s not. It’s Azeroth’s clone.  The design document for Rift feels like “go play WoW and make the interface like that.” There are talent trees, called up by the same key as in WoW. The spells and combat feel the same, the quest are the same.  It’s another generic fantasy world.  So there’s no races called “orc” and “elf”: both sides in Rift can be sexy looking or ugly, although there’s that disturbing dark/light dichotomy that’s foolish.

The central conceit I got out of the newbie areas was a war between religious fundamentalists and scientific rebels.  Since the gods without a doubt exist, that’s intersting — and it’s dropped for the middle-level grinding.  That is just like everything you ever did in Azeroth, minus the public events.  They try to bring you into the lore, some of it is interesting, but it doesn’t feel tied into the central conceit of the game, so just feels disjointed.

And ultimately the problem with the game is this: it’s $45 plus a $15/mo subscription.  Guild Wars 2 which offers many of the same alternatives to WoW that Rift seems to has no subscription. Other games don’t sell their box at all. Even as I played the Rift Beta, I was thinking “In six months this game is going to be $7, just like Star Trek Online, or free like Champions.”  And the thing is, at least those games weren’t complete rips on WoW.

Let’s be honest: Rift is a beautiful game, it works well, I only had a couple of odd issues and one happened during a stress test of the server. It’s well polished, and fits right in its genre perfectly.  Thousands of excellent art and developer hours went into this game: and it shows.

It’s really too bad they decided to make a game just like WoW.  Because you don’t beat WoW by being WoW.

This is a bit of a spoiler for the newbie areas of Rift.  It’s also the strongest argument I can give for playing the game, so I feel justified.

Throughout the Defiant tutorial/newbie zone, you’re trying to fix the time machine that will send you back to before everything became unsalvageable.  It’s the best they can do, so when you’re ready you go up the promontory where the time machine sits, and talk to the person there who knows what is going on.  As he powers up the machine, a rift forms over it, and things start pouring out of it.

Or perhaps you climb the promontory to see one of your fellow defiants already there, fighting the things pouring out of the rift. A button flashes on your UI to “Join Public Group”  you do, and then you are in a group with that person, fighting.  You can fight and help without them, the quest is forced on you, and placed at the top of your tracker, so you always know what is going on.  At this point it’s the only thing on your list anyway.

You fight, and eventually one of the NPCs that was helping you fights the big bad of the game, Regulos, while you slip backward in time, to avert this future from ever happening.  It’s kind of epic and fun, and whoever happens on it can help, and they do.  I ran three characters through the Defiant starting zone, and once I started it and twice I helped.  One of those times I had to run it twice, because I didn’t quite have the flags properly set — it’s a beta, I’m sure they’ll make that clearer.

Eventually, you’re dumped into a wider area, where you see the twisting clouds with tentacles falling down that marks the existence of a rift.  You get a power that lets you go into one of them, and start the public/rift event which is associated with it.  I never did this, because there always seemed to be an event going on while I was in the area.

I did my first one on Thursday.  There were at least 50 people in the area, all of them working on different facets of the event — fighting invasions, protecting wardstones, and closing rifts. Taking part gets you some special currency “Planarite” which is used for quest turn-ins and purchasing specialty equipment — I never got enough to buy anything, so I can’t say what it is.  I know I could have gotten it, though.  Particularly during the beta and probably easily early in the game.

It’s easy to join a public group, and with so many people it became a raid (basically: a group of groups) and we all shared in what was going on, it seemed. Admittedly with so many people it was hard to tell what was going on.  The final boss wasn’t too complicated, as there was only one of him, but some of the skirmishes had 10-15 enemies, all of them moving around.  I was playing my warrior so it was hard to stay by whatever I was fighting.  Ranged DPS might have been easier.

I woke up really early Sunday morning — because I do, but also because I realized it would be quieter then, and I’d get to see something.  See,the problem with public events is that they’re great when an area is populated, but in general the only populated areas on a  mature MMO are the newbie area, and the top level areas.  The stuff in the middle (and by now I was getting into ‘middle’ territory) becomes a vast wasteland.  WAR had a real problem with that, not the least because WoW’s Lich King expansion siphoned off all their players, and made some of their public events impossible for solo players or small groups.

On Sunday there weren’t that many people in the zone, and the area I was trying to turn in regular quests was swarmed with elite monsters. I died twice just trying to see if I could find a healer.  I fought some, but it was beyond anything I could handle.  Now, someone started this quest, and they were probably off fighting it (they eventually won it) but they weren’t near me, and I was being overrun.  This seems like a bad plan to me.  Certainly there was no way I could solo or small group this (there were, in fact 3-4 other people around me in the same boat, dying with regularity).

Dying is just money, and not that much of it, really.  It’s the same in WoW (represented by broken equipment, Rift uses a different mechanism). It beats losing experience, like EQ did, but it’s annoying when random events invade places that are essentially ‘safe’.  And I get the feeling Rift is going to have a problem with this, once the server matures.  Guild Wars 2 has said they have a solution for that, I guess we’ll see when it comes out.  (GW2 has the advantage of not charging a monthly fee, but more about that tomorrow.)

The nice thing about public events are that they break up the monotony of killing 7 monsters, or picking up 7 things from the ground.  Believe me when I say I had a surfeit of those kinds of quests.  But they need to scale to the zone population, and be accessible to whomever is there. That may be true in Rift — maybe there were lots of high-level folks nearby, and not at my location.  On the other hand, though, this would be  great way to grief other players, starting events and then doing nothing until they’re lost.

Either way, I was ultimately left unsatisfied by these things, and concentrated on getting through the grist mill quests so that I could see something different.

The results of that, and my final thoughts about RIFT tomorrow.

So, there’s been some debate about what is a skill-based system, partially around Rift and it’s supposed skill-based system.  There’s no doubt that Ultima Online uses skills, everything you can do is based around a skill you have, and those go up and down based on use.  Contrast this with say, World of Warcraft which is a strongly class-based system.  In the latter, talent trees open up different ways of playing your character, meaning you can have a healing druid or a tank druid.  Most games have roles you can play, and your class determines how you play that role, and there’s no easy switching around in a class-based game, and much flexibility in a skill-based one (as flexible as it is to manipulate your skill levels, anyway).

Rift falls between these two, although it’s much closer to the WoW model than the UO one.  You pick one of four callings — Warrior, Mage, Cleric, or Rogue — when you create your character, and then three “souls” as you go through the newbie area.  There are several 6-9 or so per calling, and each soul has two that ‘work well together’.  Each of these becomes one of your talent trees.  As you spend points on talents, it unlocks abilities that you can use in combat.  Later, once you’re in your teens you can unlock another soul, and the implication is that you can unlock all the ones for your calling, eventually.

For my first character, my Mage Zhenette, I picked the Elementalist soul, partly because it sounded like ranged DPS, and it had a pet which helps when you solo.  It worked well with the Fire and Stormcaller souls, which I also picked up in due course.  What I wound up with by the time I was done with the newbie zone was a Mage just like in WoW.  I even had the same complement of spells, although they had different names.  Yes, I went with something that I was comfortable with, but the fact that I got the same exact result as I would in WoW was telling, and consistent with my experience with Rift.

I made a character of each calling.  Most followed this pattern.  The warrior felt the most different, so I spent most of my time playing her. It was the only character which felt like it had a different take on the MMO than WoW (the Rogue, Cleric and Mage callings all seemed to play like their WoW counterparts).  Even so, it wasn’t that different, and it wasn’t “skill based”.  Once I was locked into my talent trees, that’s the way it was, and it just wasn’t that different.

I did play her until I got the quest (at level 14) to get a new soul, although I admit I never did that quest, for other reasons.  I also bought  a “role” to see what it was, and it seemed to be a separate talent tree, which would allow me to rebuild my character with a new set of three talent trees.  I didn’t try that, instead focusing on moving forward, but it seemed a bit unique.  Although, I have heard from my WoW-playing friends that they can now have two different talent point spends so they can easily toggle back and forth between them.  This feels similar.

Tomorrow I’ll talk a bit about the one other thing that seemed to differentiate Rift from WoW, something I saw in WAR, and which I understand is in Guild Wars 2, as well: public quests and events.

So, I mostly ignored RIFT because of the Pen and Paper game of similar name.  I was told through Twitter that it wasn’t the same, then that it used a “skill based” system that made it different enough from the other Fantasy MMOs out there, that I decided to sign up for the beta, a complicated enough process that I insulted the game team in my reasons, and forgot about it until they invited me for a beta event.

Everybody has their favorite kind of character to make, and my is a dark-skinned, white-haired Mage, who I usually name “Zhenette”. I had one on WoW, have one in DDO, something similar in Guild Wars, and so on.  She’s not the only kind of character that I play, but I like playing ranged magic DPS, and whatever that is, usually gets a character like that, as much as I can make it.  I even have on in Dragon Age, so there.

I also usually play on the more civilized/order side. Yeah, Alliance on WoW.  I played Order/Light on WAR, although I made characters on the other side, to see what it was like.  So I gravitated towards Guardians in RIFTs, but you know what? I couldn’t make Zhenette on that side. The darkest character I could make had a slight tan.   The first thought through my mind was “They didn’t go there, did they?”

And when I went over to the Defiant side, all the characters and races there are dark, by default, and I realized they had.  I also saw that the Defiant used machines, and Zhenette is often also a mining/engineering type, I settled on them.  I’m glad I did, because their opening story is much more evocative than the Guardians.

The over-story goes something like this: the world was created as a nexus to all the other worlds, which was intended as a blessing from the gods.  Things went well until the dragons showed up and tried to take over.  The gods sealed the rifts, and things were doing okay, but people forgot about it, and then something happened which unsealed the rifts, and things got bad.  I’m not certain precisely what happened, and in fact the opposing sides have different views about what it is that happened, each blaming the other.

The gods then made the Ascendent, special people designed to fight back and fix the problem.  These are what we call “Player Characters” for the most part.  In the Guardian story line, an angel raises you from the dead, and sends you out to fight. In the Defiant starting area, however, you’re far in the future, and the Defiant have finally figured out how to make Ascendents themselves, raised you and through the tutorial area, ship you back into time to when things got started so you can stop it. The Guardian starting area is much more vanilla, with a siege on the city your in, starting just after things went to heck.

So while I don’t like that they’ve racially divided the two sides light/dark, I like that the conflict is one of Religion vs Science. Trust in the Gods to save you, or save yourself, because you can’t trust the gods.  Which means I probably won’t be playing my Guardian Characters during the open beta, because I’m pretty sure I’m firmly in their camp.

I’m setting these posts to start after the open beta is over, and writing them as I go, so my impressions may change.  In the next part, I’ll be talking about how their “Skill based” system stacks up, and how successful it feels to me, with the understanding I’m not deep into it yet at all.

Earlier this week, I finally joined the IGDA.  Some of that was to support my friend Corvus’ bid for for the board. But I wouldn’t have done it at all if I didn’t want to make and write about games.  Games intrigue me because I’m about half writer and half programmer.  Yeah, that means there’s a lot of game-stuff I’m not good at (art and music, for example) but I want to tell stories, and help other people tell stories.  And I’ve been programming computers of one kind of another since I was a teenager, back in the Dark Ages.

My first computer game was written at computer camp over two weeks, when the instructor realized there were two of us who already knew everything she was going to teach, so we sat down at our Apple ][s and typed in a multiple guess adventure game.  I was in middle school, and ironically, responsible for the art assets (I made a fire breathing dragon in lo-res graphics! and animated the fire!)  I’ve worked on a lot of half-projects,  my most recent experiments are with HTML5 Canvas, both raw and with Akihabara.

Anyway, I’ve mostly worked with free tools, they’re what I can afford. Indie’s can’t afford a lot of fancy stuff, and I’m not even an indie.  I’m just a hobbyist.  But there are some cool tools out there. There’s the Impact game engine — not that I’m sure how it stacks up against Akihabara, which is free.

And that sort of encapsulates my problem: I’ve got a bit of money, about $100 to spend, and I’d like to get something to help me make games.  That’s kind of a broad category but only having $100 sort of limits it.  I work in Windows (xp and 7) and can work with Linux tools pretty easily as well,  would prefer my output to go to as wide an audience as possible.  Web platforms: HTML5 and Flash are preferred, but ease of use and flexibility of the tool are a bigger issue.

What’s out there that I could put this money towards? What would you use or license?  Would you save the money, and get something slightly more expensive later?