Our sit-down with Trion World’s Hal Hanlin and Bill Fisher

On 16 March, fellow writer Wei Song and I had the opportunity to have a very casual sit-down with Trion World’s own Design Producer Hal Hanlin and Lead Designer Bill Fisher as we candidly chatted away about all matters pertaining to RIFT and our collective experience with the game and beyond.

Here’s how it all went down. You might want to grab a seat, it’s going to be a long ride.

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Before we move on, you should know that this is really just a VERY loose transcription of our little chit-chat with the Devs. For the interview recording, simply watch the video above OR visit this link.

Calleigh: 2012 is going to be a huge year for gaming and looking ahead, we’re going to see games like Diablo 3, TERA, The Secret World and Guild Wars 2.With all that in mind, what I’m curious to know is how you intend to keep RIFT competitive in the wake of all these block buster titles.

Hal: Well, I think we’re mainly going to keep doing what we’re doing and continue to put out amazing content and gameplay for our players.

Bill: And we’re always out to keep things fresh. I mean, I’m not going to lie: I worry a little about other properties coming out. I think that it’s good to, as our CEO always says, be paranoid. So, we’re going to do everything we can do to make sure that we’re making the best product for our player base and our future player base that there is.

Hal: I also think that, you know, a lot of great games have come out since we’ve been live too. People were asking us about a year ago, “What are you going to do when Skyrim comes out?” and “What are you going to do when SWTOR comes out?”. There’s plenty of room in the marketplace for excellent games. It doesn’t have to be the case where you just get one game, especially when you’re talking about completely different gameplay experiences. I think the fact that we’re as responsive to the community as we are, as willing to bring new gameplay in to an existing game as we are, I think we’re just going to keep growing ’cause we’re adding regions – like we’re coming to South East Asia. We’re doing a lot of things very right and most right of all, we’re listening to our fans.

Calleigh: Which leads me to the general model of RIFT. Basically, you guys release content and sell this image of a “living world” – and that’s a really huge part of RIFT and a really huge part of the other games you create. All of that is also part of, I guess, Red Door?

Hal: Yea, Red Door is an initiative – basically everything that goes into making a world-class connected game, not necessarily an MMO but a “world-class connected game”.

Bill: A service.

Hal: Yea, a service – all of the underlying pieces that a developer may or may not be able to do themselves, Trion has the facilities to be able to do for people.

Calleigh: Alright, I may be wrong here but the initial impression I’m getting of Red Door from what I’ve read is that it runs along the lines of something like Steams or Origins. Is it something like that?

Bill: Not exactly, really. This is really a service for developers to make sure they have a stable platform to get their products out to market.

Hal: Yea, we’re not by any stretch of the imagination trying to compete with Steam – we love Steam. A significant number of our players come from Steam – they’re wonderful, we’re fine with them. This is more for, as Bill said, developers who are experts at making the game they want to make but they may not be experts at billing, the back-end, etc.

Bill: Basically all the service that goes along with it. It’s a lot more when people get into this industry; they don’t realize how much of that other stuff has to happen to run things really, really smoothly.

Hal: Right, they don’t understand how many details – such as the security, such as billing – just all of these things that are headaches for developers and Red Door’s supposed to help them with that.

Calleigh: So in a sense, it’s kind of like an online developer’s starter kit?

Wei Song: Or something more like an infrastructure?

Bill: Yea, it’s more of an infrastructure.

Hal: I would say that it is something that most gamers might see as a splash screen come up but all they’ll understand is that it’s part of the streamlined experience to get into this game. That’s about as much as they’ll get from us but the developers, I think they’re going to love us. So any developers who read this, by all means, contact Trion because…

Bill: The Red Door is open!

Calleigh: Alright, well let’s just talk out of RIFT for a moment. What games are either of you looking forward to this year, aside from RIFT of course.

Bill: I play so much RIFT it’s ridiculous.

Lot’s of laughter here…

Hal: He does, he’s got a crazy amount of hours in this game. Well let’s see, my children are playing Minecraft and I’m trying to think of one that I’m just on the edge on my seat about but honestly, I really just want to play some more RIFT. Nothing right now is on the imminent horizon that has me going, “Oh, I really want to play this thing!” It’s like, I’m missing that I can’t do my dailies right now because I’m away from my computer.

Bill: Yea, but we’re definitely going to try out every product that could be a potential competitor to us and I’ll probably play those fairly hardcore for a couple of weeks to see what they’ve got to offer and check back in.

Wei Song: That’s pretty much what we do, really.

Calleigh: And I really know, as well, how it feels when you’ve got to be somewhere and you’ve also got dailies and raids to do.

Hal: Yea. Well, I guess I’ve thought of one that I’m looking forward to and that’s the next sequel to the Bioshock series. I’m very eager to play because I love the genre, I love the actual series – we love them and they’re not competing with me!

Wei Song: And that’s the most important thing.

Calleigh: You know, for me at least, it’s great to hear that the developers are also able to play games on a very down-to-earth level. What I’d like to know is the extent of your interaction with the community at large within the game and such.

Bill: In-game, they don’t know who I am. That’s very, very important. I have a few friends that I’ve always gamed with for the past 15 to 20 years that know who I am but they keep it very quiet.

Calleigh: But they (the players at large) don’t know you’re like, Batman, or anything.

Bill: No, no they don’t. It’s very much a secret identity thing. And then, you know, I’ll be on Ventrilo with them while they PvP or while they’re doing a raid or something and they’ll complain about something and I’ll hear that and I’ll go check the forums to see if there’s more of that same kind of stuff going on. Then I’ll go into work and say, “Hey, you know what we’re going to do? We’re going to fix ‘this’ because it’s pissing off our players, pissing me off now and pissing off the community at large. Let’s make it better.”

Hal: Yea, and my guild leader, for instance, knows who I am; he does have a little bit of a back channel in so it’s pretty straightforward if he wants to say, “Hey, the user base is upset.” He has a pretty wide footprint to judge but he’s very clear on not spreading the word because I will stop playing with this group if I start getting badgered – I want to hear what they’re talking about. And they’re fun and they’re my friends but I don’t want to feel like I’m working while I’m doing this because this is my game and I will, just like Bill, respond to complaints and I’ll see my guild chat and I’ll think, “You know, I agree with that. Let me see if maybe Scott or Bill can accomodate this piece.” And usually, they’ll be like, “Yea, that’s a brilliant idea. It sounds very, very sane.” And then we’ll go, “Hey, let’s put a milestone to that.” And then we’ll start putting together ideas.

Bill: And just listening to people play the game is one of the most wonderful things because you’ll not only hear the good stuff, but you’ll also hear the bad stuff and you’ll hear it in such a raw, honest format – it’s really amazing to just be able to get that.

Hal: And with chat, people who’re in chat complaining about something don’t realize that they’re getting heard. So for them, they’re just venting and that’s the most honest gut feel you’re going to get. It hurts, yes but sometimes you’ve got to just grow up and do something else while we improve things.

Bill: Standard developer response goes like this, “YOU’RE WRONG!” And then five minutes later, you know, we’ll go, “You’re actually right. You’re absolutely right…”

Hal: That’s right, it is. You have the human knee-jerk reaction but we – the design team in particular – in Trion, as a general rule, are very rough on ourselves. When we give feedback, it’s very blunt and it can be cutting because it’s nowhere as painful as letting something inferior make it out the public and then get scores of berated responses and it’s just not worth it. Bill and I would rather bruise each other with feedback and have an excellent product go out than soft-soap each other and let something unworthy slip through.

Bill: I’m never soft on anybody about stuff. I’m probably too harsh at times and I mean, I have a reputation for it. I actually have to send cute pictures of animals in my e-mails now to set the tone because I can be really, really harsh on stuff. We want the game to be the best that it can be and when we put out something that we don’t think is the best, we’re going to cut it. I’ve been to design meetings with people and told them that if a feature isn’t made better, we’re not putting it in regardless of the work you’ve put into it.

Calleigh: And this is something that permeates through anything that Trion does?

Hal: Yes. We have a lot of different channels where if an artist, a programmer, an audio person or a marketing person plays the game and gives feedback, it matters to us. And because they have access, they can go into this chat and they can grouse about how they hate something so much and that’s cool because I have a person I can talk to and I have resources to throw at it and it’s a great thing. So yea, we are very blunt with each other and sometimes it can scald but it creates a great game.

Wei Song: And I think that’s a really admirable trait.

Hal: It took a long time. It took two years of some rather harsh meetings where people felt like their feathers got ruffled and then all of a sudden, I remember coming back home and thinking, “Wow, that meeting would have gone completely differently a year ago.”

Bill: Yea, it’s never anything personal. It’s all about making the best game.

Calleigh: Basically business is business.

Hal and Bill: Yea.

Bill: And I mean, I love working with the people I work with.

Hal: Yea, we want to keep working with them and the only way to do that is by making an outstanding product.

Wei Song: And if something you put out doesn’t work?

Hal: You’ve got to fix it. I mean, you’ll notice if you look back through the revision history of our game. If things were not working, we’re not proud. We’re proud of the game but we’re not proud of the teeny little nugget of the game that, if it isn’t working, it will get revised or cut. Wardstones are a great example. They weren’t working the way we’d hoped they would and we went, “Well, thank you for playing it and thank you for your feedback guys… Now try this new thing that we’re giving you!”

Bill: The other thing that’s really hard at times is that we can’t always communicate to the player base why we’re keeping something that may not be popular. For example, we added the mercenary system recently which allows for if say you’re a Guardian and there’s not enough Defiants to play against in PvP, it’ll put you on the other side. Some people have really big roleplaying offense to this but the bottom-line is I look at the queue times for Warfronts and where they’re at now, whether at 30 seconds to a minute, where if it was unbalanced at times and it was much, much longer, it was worst play experience. So while the vocal minority may be out there complaining about that, I have to keep that feature in the game. That is a really good feature for the benefit of the game as a whole.

Hal: We do have community people like James Nichols, our community manager; he does a very good job of explaining to people why we’ve made these choices. And they can choose to read the forums or not but if they look, usually, we’ll give a reasonable and compelling answer. OR, we’ll say, “You know, let us look at it and think about it.” Because we’re human beings and we are fans of the game and we don’t assert that we know all or are all. It’s a choice – it takes away from some other piece of development. If we throw all of the designers on ‘this’ piece, this other ‘thing’ that’s already in the pipe that we think you’re going to be just blown away be will get shelved so yes, we make choices.

Calleigh: So there’s always a lot of ideas flowing around a lot of the whole “which would be best” for the players or the business model of the game and at times, people on the development team will be disappointed.

Hal: Yea, as someone on the development team, when you say players, there’s really no such thing. There’s a person that has this tendency today and this other tendency tomorrow; wants to PvP on the third day and he’s going to raid with his buddies on Thursday – each person falls into multiple groups and we try to identify the groups and make sure that if by giving a little to each of them, most people receive a benefit because they’re a part of one group or another. And that’s why we spread the love around. For example, we created weddings for the roleplayers and it’s funny because people either get that or they think we’re insane.

Bill: Yea and I read the PvP forums the day the weddings came out and all it was were complaints of, “Well, they added weddings. Guess they don’t care about PvP.” And that’s not true because we care quite a bit about PvP. A lot of our player base engages in that.

Wei Song: That’s a similar complaint to what happened with 1.2 when you introduced the craftable tiered gear.

Calleigh: Yea and people felt all cheated ’cause you had players ‘buying’ their gear, etc.

Wei Song: And then there was 1.5 and things shifted back to PvP and raiders went all, “What?! No more raid content?!”

Hal: Exactly! And you know, honestly, I look at that and you have that first gut instinct to rage but then when you think about it you’re like, “Thank you! Thank you for loving the game so much that you’re willing to get pissed off if we don’t do something.” And just keep telling us and keep working with us and we’ll make better stuff.

Bill: The amount of feedback we get from our forums is amazing and the amount of feedback with our in-game feedback tools is amazing. We do read that stuff, they don’t just go into the trash can. I’m not going to say that we read every single thread on the forums but I’m there, I mean, you’ll see me posting at 11 o’ clock at night on a Friday when I should be out with my wife or playing that game and I’m just there looking at that stuff.

Hal: And it’s not just Bill, it kind of goes throughout the entire team. We have junior designers who live and breathe in there; animators who’re constantly in the forums sending me great links all the time and are like, “Hey! Did you see this thread? Let’s deal with this issue now!” And because we have all of these people who care passionately about the game, it’s like having spies everywhere.

Calleigh: So from what I’m hearing now, it’s really cool to see you guys have a culture where communication flows back and forth and how you have feelers all over the place and so, you know, everyone has the same mindset of wanting to hear what the players have to say and through that, improve the game.

Hal and Bill: Yea, exactly.

Calleigh: Okay, well early on during the panel, I asked the question, “What’s next for RIFT?” As far as we know, the game will persist for a good while longer but beyond the MMO itself, are there plans to expand RIFT in any other form?

Hal: I can’t go into that but we would love to have people excited about our game and more up to see it in other formats. We’ve already stretched out to some degree. You’ve seen RIFT Mobile, for example, which is simultaneously a fun little mini-game but it’s also a way to communicate with your guild – it spreads the concept of RIFT outside the MMO. We also have the comic books and we have an infinite number of web-logs and that sort of thing. So with RIFT, my ultimate goal is to turn it into a full IP and not just considered as an MMO. But at this point, I don’t have anything to tell you specifically.

Bill: Yes, right now, our job is to focus on making sure that RIFT is the best experience RIFT be.

Calleigh: Alright, well before we cap things off, here’s something a little more candid. Tell us a bit about the funniest things that have happened to you in RIFT. For me, I’ve had a situation where we took five Bards into an instance and we did nothing but Cadence. It was hilarious. We made it through and it was all fine. Things enraged but sure, we just played music all the way.

Hal: My funniest thing was actually Bard related as well. I happen to be leveling up my Bard actually but I told you about the Carnival of the Ascended right, and we have all these mini-games and one of ’em has you hopping up and down on balloons and when you pop a balloon, you get a ticket. And then you take the quest again, you pop a balloon and get a ticket. Well the players figured out that if we’re in a big group, we can all share pops. So we have raids of twenty people hopping up and down in once place on a whole bunch of balloons and cashing in those tickets. And I’m sitting there looking at this, and I’m on a role-playing server, and so they’re hopping up and down, and so is my bard, and I got off and started to play some music for ’em and dancing with ’em. I take credit for the fact that they didn’t wipe on that raid, that was all me.

At this point, Hal and I both had our turns at mimicking a Bard playing a lute. Cadence… cadence…  cadence…

Bill: For me, the funniest stuff is really just stuff that my guild does. It’s just listening to them in Vent and in voice-chat and just being cracked up by all these crazy people. I mean, I was playing the other day with this guy who didn’t know how to work in Windows. And then there’s another lady who’s a Ph.D or something like that and seeing all these different personalities meld together and then come together as a raid force every week as well. And then after that, people are just hanging out in Ventrilo, chatting away making fun of the game, making fun of Trion, of everything.

Calleigh: And making fun of each other.

Bill: Exactly, and making fun of each other. It’s just all the personalities and all the people – that’s what’s funny to me all the time.

By now, the four of us just settled in as a group of gamers, who enjoy or have enjoyed RIFT, simply having a candid conversation. The bunch of us were just laughing and sniggering for the rest of the way through.

Calleigh: And that’s what’s really cool about online gaming experiences ’cause I’ve had a game where I had two healers once, one was a thirteen year old girls singing pop songs off the radio and the other was an eighty year old grandma. And I also want to just thank you guys for putting out a game like that with such great quality and service. I actually left a while back due to guild mismanagement issues but…

Bill: Come back!

Calleigh: Yea, sure! I mean,  we’re totally up for giving what you guys put out in the past few months a shot.

Hal: Yea and I think right now, we’re running a… If you’ve had a character before, you can come back, right now, for free.

Wei Song: Yea, for about a week or some such?

Hal: Yes and have you guys seen Ember Isles?

Calleigh: That area was what we were running around in earlier (during the gameplay demo).

Hal: Yea, it’s amazing. It’s the best arc of the surface worlds and if you f you can just jump in and run around and play some onslaughts, the ones I was talking about before, and you’ll find that it’s a new experience because you start playing with more and more people. And these onslaughts are hair-raising because you have five to ten invasions coming over the hill and you’re working together just sitting out there and just now, the thing that always happens within a few seconds of an onslaught spinning up, your group just grows and all of a sudden it’s a twenty person group and your healers are doing their job and I was a warrior trying to tank and was like, “Please someone, heal me please!” And it works – it all just falls together, it’s amazing.

Bill: It’s actually funny ’cause I’m out there and I was playing a copy of my real character – I didn’t want my name to be out there or anything – and I was out there and I was fighting the invasion and I was like, “Man, why am I playing like I’m playing my real character right now?” I wanted the loot and the experience and everything.

Hal: Yea, I was exactly the same way ’cause I leveled; my character got a new planar achievement and I was all, “YAY!” And then we’re walking away and I looked at Bill and was like, “I got all excited, but I don’t get to keep it!”

Wei Song: Yea we were pretty much feeling the same thing.

Calleigh: We were doing a run of the 2-man River of Souls instance and he got himself a Plaque of Achievement and we were both like…

Wei Song: “OH YEA!” We were just so excited. I was just aggroing everything and I went, “Oh look, well this feels familiar, let’s just do this.”

At this point, we were just about to end our session with the Devs so I (very scrubbily) brought things to quite the abrupt and awkward close.

Calleigh: Well I mean, thank you for your time.

Bill: Thank you!

Hal: Yea, I appreciate you guys coming in.

And that’s a wrap.

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Suffice to say, both Wei Song and I had a blast with Hal and Bill in our short encounter over at E2Max. They were both really down-to-earth and an absolute joy to just chat with as both a pair of developers and gamers. Both Wei Song and I, as former RIFT players ourselves, wish them all the best in their endeavors in SEA.

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