RIFT: We regained our faith, and we had fun doing it

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For someone with a general dislike of the overuse of dragons in MMOs and RPGs, I’ll take the solace provided in getting to harpoon one multiple times through the heart. Thanks RIFT!

We made art, built workable ballistas, forged big harpoons, and cast magic spells that made people explode on contact. ~ Veist

Last week I finished up Gedlo Badlands — zone two out of five in Starfall Prophecy — and came away from the experience feeling strangely thrilled. Oh, I’m not changing my mind on how I feel about desert zones in the least; Gedlo Badlands is extremely dull to look at and quest through, from a landscape perspective. And my guild heartily agrees that the mob density is stupid high.

But! But. But the writers managed to craft a story that was definitely odd and engaging, one of a tribe of kobolds looking for redemption, fighting against the rise of a dragon, and forging a culture in the midst of a wasteland. There were prophecies galore, a tour of public displays of art, and in the end, an epic showdown.

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The ending caught me off guard, too, as the kobold tribe were all (SPOILER) promoted to ascended status. I couldn’t help but feel proud and happy for these ugly underdogs that they finally were elevated to a higher status.

I actually almost missed it because of very long speeches that I thought I could just tab-out of. Cyrill isn’t that great of a character (particularly in comparison to a certain other king), but at least he shows a bit of creative thinking and a desire to grow as a person and understand other cultures.

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It’s time to move on to zone #3, which is a Very Green Swamp. My companions this time around are Tasuil (who is apparently bored of being a leader in the forest) and Red Eye Girl. Oh, she has a name and a backstory, but I missed both of those and now am saddled with an NPC who I know virtually nothing about.

Here’s the thing that I wish developers would understand. They are saturated in the game all the time and know its lore back and forth, particularly thanks to having design documents and lore bibles lying around. And sometimes I get the feeling they think we pick up on all of this just as easily and deeply as they do. Yet we don’t — or at least, I don’t. If I miss something or don’t remember something, the story is broken for me and I have to muddle through either not caring, or hoping that someone will fill me in later on what’s going on, or have to research it outside of the game.

What I truly wish developers would do is give us some sort of ongoing in-game journal that would summarize what my character has experienced or at least let me reference past conversations. Single player CRPGs are usually great at in-game journals, yet so few MMOs have them. What gives? Do the devs just assume that player-made wikis will compensate? That’s pretty lazy if so. I’d rather get my lore info in-game than out of it.

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Anyway, I had a brief interlude back in the town of Alittu, which I still consider to be a rather beautiful and strangely high-tech hub. This lady up here looked really shifty with her body language. I think she’s about to steal some art.

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The dark tower constantly looms over all, a sober reminder that if Ahnket gets her way, this comet would come roaring down on Telara and force an extinction-level event.

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To the swamp! First stop is a market where the bad faerie folk are selling unicorns and elves and bunnies to the highest bidder, usually for a sacrifice. I’m just trying to get excited about exploring a swamp. Those are often fun biomes, right?

Looking back at the 6 MMOs I played the most in 2016

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Seeing as how this will be my final MMO-related post of this year, I thought it only fitting to look back over 2016 and recall my exploits in MMORPGs. While I did dabble here and there in various titles, such as Firefall, ESO, and Trove, for the most part my year was dominated by six titles — none of them surprising, but all fun and influential in my gaming career.

One of the best things that happened for me in terms of playing MMOs was getting a new computer that could actually run them well. That’s been such a boon.

(1) Final Fantasy XIV

At the beginning of the year, I had made a resolution to find a “home MMO” and settle my butt down to mostly focus on one title. Initially, that became FFXIV, as it was fairly new to me,, had a lot of positive word-of-mouth, and offered a lot of content.

I had a good run in that MMO, I think, although around April I decided that I had run out of steam and was losing the will to play it. That was unfortunate, because I was finally nearing Heavensword content and had found a really great guild, but alas. In retrospect, there was a lot I ended up respecting and liking about the game as well as a lot of irritating issues. I think my biggest gripe is that it never quite clicked with me even though people kept urging me to stick it out because, I quote, “It gets really good later on!” I shouldn’t have to wait more than four months for a game to get really good, and my patience wore out. Maybe I’ll go back some day. I’d like to think so. That Red Mage looks pretty cool…

(2) World of Warcraft

WoW got its hooks back in me early and kept them there, pulling me right back into this old favorite. The first half of the year was spent plowing through Warlords of Draenor, building up my expansion, and prepping my roster of characters for the new expansion. The second half was all Legion, all the time, and it’s been a really good ride so far. Found a terrific guild, got a pair of legendaries, built up my Death Knight to a great place, and still have a good amount of content on which to chew.

(3) RIFT

The announcement of Starfall Prophecy got me back into RIFT, and it’s been a reliably second-tier MMO interest since then. Again, discovering a wonderful guild — perhaps the best I’ve been a part of in MMOs — was a major factor to my stickiness, but having an expansion’s worth of content and a new house to build certainly kept me busy. I have just so much left to do here and no real desire to leave.

(4) The Secret World

Back in February I seriously splurged and bought a Grand Master membership, which I really don’t regret doing. The constant buffs to currency/AP are wonderful, the extra cosmetics and mounts nice, and having a monthly allowance of points is terrific. I did take a long break in the middle of the year due to my disinterest in City of the Sun God, but I finally rallied to complete that and move on to Transylvania. I’m hugely excited to see what might come for this game in 2017!

(5) Star Trek Online

Star Trek Online has been an on-again, off-again journey. I get really excited about it for two or three weeks, then let it go for a month. I did come back for some fun adventures, although getting bogged down in Delta Rising was death to my interest. Recently I’ve jumped past that and gotten excited to go through the more recent episode arcs.

(6) Lord of the Rings Online

Early in the year I spent some time getting through the Battle of Pelennor Fields, after which I took a very long break until just recently. However, over the past month I’ve been logging in every day or two to advance my Captain through Update 19 in anticipation of the Mordor expansion next year. It’s great to be back and I hope I won’t leave any time soon.

Stay tuned next Monday as I post my hopes and aspirations for the new month — and the new year! In the meantime, let me know in the comments what were the most important and influential MMOs to you in 2016!

RIFT: I won’t lie. You’ve seen some messed-up stuff.

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A surprising number of RIFT missions involve the phrase “let’s step into the hallucinogenic water and see what we see.” Thanks for the nightmares, Trion World!

(But seriously, this is my favorite unicorn picture of all time. Just don’t drink the toxic desert water.)

The journey continues for my Rogue through Starfall Prophecy’s Geldo Badlands. I’m not warming up on the landscape, but the story is surprisingly interesting. I guess that the writers were given the challenge to make stock fantasy cannon fodder like goblins and kobolds actually interesting and in-depth. There’s a lot about culture-comparison between this primitive land and Telara, as well as a group of goblins called the “Gaping Chest Wound Clan.” I would be proud to be part of that clan.

Here’s one of their members:

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Doesn’t he remind you of Young Frankenstein’s Igor? With more tusks/antlers?

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The writing and dialogue is sharp, surreal, and often laugh-out-loud funny. Maybe you don’t think of MMOs as actually being funny, but RIFT never quite takes itself as seriously as its contemporaries. I respect that.

Part of the reason why things are looking up is that I did a build adjustment and switched from Ranger/Assassin over to Ranger/Marksman. Much better synergy, plus I’m rocking a pair of legendaries that really help out now. The 61-point legendary in Ranger took me a little bit to realize how good it was — essentially it keeps giving you a full combo bar for 10 seconds, meaning that you can keep spamming finishers for 10 seconds. With that, I can burn down most anything insanely quickly.

I also appreciated this response from Linda Carlson on my last post about the TTK and mob issue: “Just to prove we do pay attention to feedback and make changes where appropriate and possible: Dev put up a change to PTS on Tuesday of last week that would reduce the damage done by NPC’s since they found a bug in the MPC that was giving them too much power. Warning, devspeak: ‘As such, the TTK did not match up to what the sheet dictates.’ This should address one of the major concerns in this article.”

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No story here other than I was very proud of this screenshot. Love the sunlight coming through the wings.

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Our guild held its weekly trivia night on Wednesday about a rather bizarre topic (and no, I’m not going to share). I ended up placing second, winning a maid’s ensemble. Attacking things in pumps and with dual feather dusters is the only way to rock this expansion!

RIFT: The casualty of build-your-own-character MMOs

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Gedlo Badlands continues to abide in RIFT. It’s half encouraging, half a buzzkill to quest through, so my progress has slowed considerably. The boring desert landscape does nothing for me and the mob density is out-of-control in spots. Fortunately, there have been a few weird and interesting quests (the ones to admire — usually with combat — kobold statues littered around the place was pretty out-there), and the chatter from my companions has been quite entertaining and informative.

But let’s go back to the mob density thing, because it actually is a pretty serious issue tied to another problem with this expansion. Mobs are simply too tough to kill quickly and hit you too hard — and I think I know why.

This is reminding me of The Secret World, and the one thing both of these games share in common is the ability to create your own build that isn’t always perfectly balanced. There’s bound to be some builds that are better, some worse, and some that are theory-crafted to be the most ideal for serious players. So if you were a dev, what would you aim for with mob health and power when you created a new expansion? If you make it too easy, the whole thing becomes a challenge-free cakewalk. It’s probably easier to assume that most players are using the theorycrafted optimal builds with an above-average set of gear, and create enemies around that level.

As Hive Leader pointed out, the high time-to-kill (TTK) for most builds is putting the experimental, personal approach to class creation out of business in Starfall Prophecy. With my Rogue, a Tactician build takes just shy of forever to kill anything, the Blademaster has limited success (whereas it used to be a powerhouse), and if I want to get anything done quickly, I need my Ranger going. It’s frustrating to feel like I have to play just one thing to quest, but my other options have far too high of a TTK on mobs to stay interesting.

That’s a shame, because I love being able to create my own builds. But if in the end, there’s only one or two builds that are superior to the rest, is it really a choice any more? It’s just “play with or without extreme aggravation.”

I also kind of wonder if gear carries a fair share of blame here. I have serious doubts that the new planar fragments are doing anything to de-complexify gear; if anything, it’s making me twitch to think that I’m missing something with my outfit and running around with sub-par stats.

My recommendation? Don’t nerf mobs into the ground, but they do need to be tweaked down a bit to allow for more build diversity, especially when it comes to the baseline questing experience. Also, quests really should be doling out more gear upgrades instead of just currency, PA, and XP.

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On a different note, our guildies were oohing and ahhing over the Fae Yule-decorated dimension that one of our officers put together. I think it’s all in preparation for a party, but we couldn’t help getting a sneak peek at it all. I’m absolutely envious.

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There was even a giant waterslide up top. Not a facsimile of a waterslide — one that actually works. You take an elevator up and then sliiiiiide your way down into a pool. It’s pretty awesome.

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I love this lounge area. I kind of want to live in this dimension forever now.

RIFT: The Gecko Badlands is kicking my posterior

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Look at that! One zone down in Starfall Prophecy, a gaming speed record that puts me on par with a diseased tortoise. But hey, progress is progress, especially when it comes with an adolescent dragon being nominated as Forest King or somesuch. Hey, still better than the presidential candidates we had this year, am I right? (what, too soon?)

Scatherran Forest was a really pleasant zone in which to quest. Great music, lush visuals, and a pretty engaging storyline (weasel and unicorn silliness even so). I took my time, did all of the side and carnage quests, and came out of it entertained and level 66.

My one big complaint is that the loot kind of stinks so far. I’d say about 70-80% of quests only reward XP and money, very occasionally breaking form to hand up gear upgrades. That really robs a lot of excitement over quest turn-ins. And I barely got any drops for the zone entire. Heck, I get more daily loot from minions than I do from questing and fighting — and that doesn’t feel right to me.

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This has to be one of the most fru-fru collection of good guys ever in an MMO. I’m kind of cheering them on, especially Sir Bearington. He’s not just your average bear.

I was disappointed to see that Shyla and Tasuil weren’t going to accompany me to the next zone, Gedlo Badands (or as my head insists on calling it, Gecko Badlands). Instead, we get the king who looks like he’s heading out on a heavy metal band tour and one chatty kobold who sounds like a Dwarf.

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I do take a break from questing every now and then to visit my tower house. It’s starting to feel very cozy, especially the entrance. I need a lot more materials for it, but I do have a vision for what it will eventually become.

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Gecko Badlands is like night and day with the green forest that came before it. You all know my feelings on deserts, and so far this one isn’t really anything special. Lots of rocks, lots of tan, lots of sand.

What really surprised me is how hard this area is. Maybe my character still needs better gear, but the other night I must have gotten killed about a dozen times just trying to work on the first series of quests. The mobs are tough, tougher than the forest, and their density and patrols makes it quite easy to get in over my head.

I’m mostly running a Bladedancer/Riftstalker build, but after a lot of frustration in this area, I threw together a Tactician build that — with one specific legendary skill that greatly upped my healing — virtually made me invincible. Slowly and surely I can now burn down pretty much any mob I encounter as long as I don’t mind how long it takes. No danger of dying, not really.

Here’s hoping the loot situation is going to improve. I know that the expansion has caught a lot of flak for being rushed out the door, and frankly, I can kind of see it in some areas. It’s still fun, but it definitely needs work. As long as the quests continue to entertain and I have places to go and conquer, I’ll be satisfied.

RIFT vs. World of Warcraft: Upgraded skills and the RNG factor

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I don’t know if it’s been pointed out, but the other day I realized that both World of Warcraft and RIFT introduced a sort-of similar feature in each of their respective recent expansions. The feature in question is skill upgrades — that is, taking a standard skill and created a much-improved version that is so good it actually alters a player’s build.

Yet how each of these expansions is doing it is miles apart in execution, and I think it bears looking at because it highlights one of the ongoing struggles of game design: RNG versus a known quantity.

World of Warcraft is introducing these upgraded skills through its legendary items. I haven’t been playing WoW that hard over the past half-decade, but to my knowledge this is the first time that legendaries are featured so heavily in an expansion, to the point where it’s expected that a player might accumulate and equip four at once after a while. Legendaries have skill-defining traits attached, such as the one that I got last week that buffs my anti-magic shell. Before, it was a skill I hardly ever used on my Death Knight. Now that it heals me and is far stronger, it’s part of my standard defensive array.

Of course, there’s no assured way to get a legendary in this expansion; it’s all random number generator. You have to engage in certain activities — opening emissary quests, do mythic dungeons, etc. — and then cross your fingers for one. The devs said that they didn’t want a grind, so they chose the all-RNG route which makes players grind these activities over and over anyway. The only change from, say, a token grind is that the end goal isn’t defined and could happen any time (or not).

Plus, there’s the downside of not being able to get the legendary you want or need for your current build, so you could just be attempting to get the right one until the next expansion arrives.

RIFT, on the other hand, simply gives players one legendary skill point per level from 66 through 70. You know they’re coming, you can choose the upgraded skill you want, and that is that. There’s absolutely no chance to it — and no stress either. It’s exciting to ding because I want to see how my builds will change with these new skills. I can’t imagine how frustrating it’d be if these skill points were tacked on to gear and locked behind an RNG wall.

I’m OK with RNG to dole out fun rewards, and even World of Warcraft has made regular looting fun through the RNG titanforge system. Every so often I get a piece of gear that’s just a little bit better than what I had before thanks to this. But it was a dire mistake to gate all legendaries behind RNG.

A much better suggestion and in line with the expansion design as it is would be to have legendary item quest lines, a la class order hall and class quest lines. At the end of each, you get to pick a legendary of your choice and then have the option to start the quest all over again if you wanted to get a second. That would keep it from looking too grindy, keep it fun, and give players choice.

WoW might be the more popular and successful game in most respects, but dang if RIFT doesn’t actually do design better in so many small and important ways.

RIFT: Unicorns barfing rainbows

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There comes a time in every adventurer’s career when an evil corrupted unicorn is barfing all manner of rainbows on him or her, causing a moment of inner crisis. “Is this who I am?” the adventurer ponders. “Is this what I’ve become? A target for a disgruntled Trapper Keeper employee?”

Rainbows take FOREVER to wash out of clothing. I should know: I grew up in the ’80s. Care Bears wouldn’t stop “care staring” at our fashion lines.

I can’t take full blame for my slow pace through Starfall Prophecy so far. Several nights have seen excess lag or even server downtime, and that coupled with a few days of physical exhaustion have left me far in the dust. I’m still in the first zone, still level 65, and still, apparently, getting puked on by jerk unicorns.

Let’s back up a minute and talk about an aspect of RIFT that Starfall Prophecy has made me realize, which is that this MMO that some deride as being a little too clone-y and too bland in the storytelling department has kind of taken a subversive turn over the past couple of years.

It’s not a flat-out weird game that calls attention to its wacky nature, but instead RIFT wraps itself up in very traditional high fantasy trappings that anyone would recognize. And then, just when your eyes start to glaze over with how safe and familiar all this is, RIFT goes to very weird, often dark places with these things. Again, the game isn’t doing jumping jacks to get you to notice this, but if you’re even half-paying attention to the quest text, companion dialogue, and the like, you’ll start to see that there’s an undercurrent of oddity and a kind of unabashed and unashamed dorky humor just about everywhere.

So in the first forest zone, there are these unicorns that are going missing, and when you start to investigate you realize that they’re being abducted for rituals and generally Not Good Things. This is compounded by encounters with the aforementioned Skittles-barfing corrupted unicorns that I totally don’t feel bad killing. It made me think of how many fantasy MMOs tend to veer away from unicorns entirely, as if they’re just a little TOO traditional and ridiculous high fantasy to exist alongside giant spiders, 637 breeds of Elves, and so many dragons that they have to carpool to make it to the raids on time.

Here? You’re thrust into the middle of Unicorn Central, where you have to gain their trust by — yes — hugging and dancing with packs of skittish mares. Nothing strips away my masculinity as quickly as having to type “/hug” to a teen girl’s greatest dream (prior to vampires). Then I had to play hide-and-go seek with unicorn foals, ingest mind-altering mushrooms, and become the savior of the entire unicorn species just to make sure that my face was fully rubbed in all of this glittery nightmare. Yet I almost can’t be too mad at the game because it’s weird and not something I do every day and I’m kind of laughing at it as much as with it. Plus, we’re long past being critical when I’ve spent a quest convincing hedgehogs to go on a pilgrimage to a critter city.

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Also, there’s a dragon. The LAST dragon of Telara, although I didn’t get the memo that the rest are dead. Could Guild Wars 2 and World of Warcraft enjoy this same dragon drought, I wonder? I picture meeting rooms with stymied developers trying to brainstorm the next content patch for their MMO when one snaps up her head and goes, “I know! Let’s add another dragon!” and everyone shouts “hurrah!” and breaks for an early lunch.

I’m starting to get a better idea as to the whole story of this expansion, thanks to some fellow bloggers, the quest text, and conversations that my NPC companions are having. You’ll have to forgive me, as I didn’t actually complete Nightmare Tide and am a little hazy on what let up to all of this.

Apparently, there’s this giant sentient tower called Ahnket who is no nice being and has some sort of huge master plan going on involving warring factions of the life and fire planes. Ahnket is also in control of a comet that’s been smashing through dimensions, picking up parts of each, and is now bearing down on Telara itself. So we as players are going up to the comet to figure all of this out and hopefully stop this mega-machine from doing whatever it’s trying to do.

Last night I first heard someone in the game mention the titular Starfall Prophecy, which I guess has to do with an Ascended (me) and the last dragon. I’d like more details on this, but again, I’m only a very little way into the expansion proper. By jove, the unicorns will be saved and Lisa Frank will summon me to her kingdom to knight me as its protector supreme!