I’ve always found MMOs to be inspiring in a creative sense. Wandering their virtual worlds, soaking up their history and ambience, has conjured many a short story. While my first game is – and always will be – World of Warcraft, my second is Rift. It’s impossible to play more than one MMO to its full extent, (unless you do nothing else in life!), so my forays into Rift aren’t character-progression and raid-focused as they are in WoW. In Rift’s world of Telara, I’m especially drawn to dimension-building, which is a feature where players are given instanced chunks of the game world to build in. This isn’t player housing in the accepted sense but a far broader idea, where we get to play around with the environment – create forests where there were none, with strange exotic flowers in the shadows; make mountains soar from a barren plain; have great waterfalls crashing over cliffs into haunted lakes you conjure below; use existing fantastical buildings or create completely new ones to place in your imagined locations. You can, in effect, create stories, and inevitably this led to me wanting to take things further than simply building new dimensions. I had the idea of a series of linked landscapes that furthered a story I would write. I didn’t want to set this specifically in the world and history of Telara, but would use its lands as a basis for my own tale. The dimensions would have clues for people to find that would lead to the next chapter of the story. I had the idea also of ‘filming’ these dimensions so that people who didn’t play Rift, and weren’t keen to download the client of this free to play game, could still experience the landscapes and the story via a You Tube channel, or something similar.
As Warlords of Draenor is winding down in WoW, and I have more time in the evenings to devote to another game, I decided to get cracking with my Rift idea. And this is when I ran into some quite astonishing revelations concerning Rift. I’ve played the game since its Beta, when I was allowed in to review it for the GamesXtreme web site. From my first steps into Telara, I fell in love with its landscape of sinister fairy tale ambience, its weird NPCs (non-player characters) in their peculiar and original costumes, its often grotesque wildlife, and unsettling fairies with ghastly teeth! It reminded me of the work of Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro when they’re in fairy-tale mode. Rift was not a free to play game to begin with – you bought the game and then paid a monthly subscription, as you do for WoW. But as with many other MMO titles, eventually Rift did go free to play, in that people could play it without subbing – although a ‘patron’ status was still in place, whereby players who elected to pay a sub were given lavish rewards for their loyalty. As the sub was cheap, I continued to pay it, not least because I wanted to support the game and help keep it going. Also, the perks were too attractive to lose. Even during periods of absence from Telara, when things in Azeroth kept me busy, I continued with the modest sub.
All free to play games, or ftp as I’ll now refer to them, need income in order to keep running and to pay for the development of new content – which is continually in demand from players. Typically, this involves a ‘game store’ where players can buy items with real money, via what are known as ‘micro transactions’, which basically means small amounts of money that, because of the quantity of purchases, mount up to create a solid income for the game company. Rift, when it first went ftp, had a very reasonably-priced game store. In fact, in comparison to what Blizzard charged in their own store, (controversial given that WoW isn’t even ftp), it was amazingly cheap. It was also moderate, in that (for example) players didn’t have to ‘rent’ storage space for the mountains of items that tend to build up over time on any character, and which you don’t want to throw away or sell. Other games I’d played involved having to ‘rent’ quite a lot of essential features. And that mounted up to paying far more than Blizzard’s monthly sub fee. I realised pretty quickly that ftp is not free at all, quite the opposite, but at least Trion, Rift’s developers, were fair and gave value for money. Most of what you might want from the game was available simply by playing it. Cosmetic items such as mounts and costume sets were available to buy from the store, for those who valued their time above money, and didn’t have enough hours to ‘grind’ for such things in the game itself. Game-enhancing items also appeared in the store that offered great benefits for players. Well, that was acceptable. I wanted Rift to survive, and as I simply levelled my characters to max in order to explore Telara and build dimensions, I wasn’t interested in buying gear or other items to make me more competitive in such things as raiding or pvp. I bought some cheap costumes to make my characters more aesthetically pleasing and purchased a few mounts for them. I also bought dimension items from the store, when things I wanted weren’t available on the in-game auction house or from vendors in Telara. A few months ago, when I decided to dedicate more time to working on my dimension project, I invested a fair amount of money to keep me going and allow me to buy a few more lavish items than I would when simply tinkering about.
Then I made some unpleasant discoveries and hereby begins the tale. Certain dimension items within the game were always subject to RNG, in that they might be found randomly when fishing, or come from other sources where you couldn’t guarantee getting them unless luck was on your side. That’s a staple of MMOs. It’s part of what keeps people playing them – the hope that one day they’ll get the mount or gear they’ve longed for turning up in the loot of a defeated foe. But a rather sinister aspect of RNG has crept into Rift since I last played it consistently. Random luck, which was never a massive part of dimension building, has transformed into gambling with money.
Any game is stuffed with art assets – the components that make up the fantasy world – and in Rift we use these assets to create our dimensions. Whether it’s a tree, a plant, a rock, a waterfall, an urn, a building, or various blocks with which to build, these are fragments of the game world acquired individually, through purchases, rewards or lucky finds, to do with as you see fit. Over time, more items have been made available to players, and as dimension builders are perennially inventive and creative, they always want more of them to realise their visions. When dimensions were introduced some years ago, Trion put ‘mystery boxes’ in the store for dimension builders. You bought these with real money, opened them, and hoped a selection of good items fell out. Often, they didn’t, and you wasted your cash, but you didn’t need these boxes in order to build – there were so many quality items available through other means. However, as time went on, the majority of new items, and the most beautiful, were hidden in these random boxes – and they were not cheap considering what you got. I bought one or two of the bulk buy offers and didn’t find anything great in them, so resolved not to bother again. I could continue building without them, simply through playing different aspects of the game, or buying items from the auction house where other players put them up for sale – gratifyingly cheap in the early days of it all. If I didn’t have the coolest new items, it was up to my creativity to build something that still looked good with those I could access.
However, players made their dissatisfaction with this system felt on the Rift forums.* Why, they asked, can’t we just spend our money how we please? We don’t expect all items for free, we understand how Trion needs to have income to sustain the game, but we want to be able to choose how we spend our money. I saw threads repeatedly on this subject and agreed with them wholeheartedly. I don’t mind spending on the store, but neither do I want to waste my cash on something that turns out to be rubbish. Trion appeared to respond positively to these complaints and announced they would introduce with their Nightmare Tide expansion, (due out shortly before WoD was released for WoW), a system whereby more top quality items could be obtained from fishing. This would be an alternative route for players who didn’t want, or couldn’t afford, to buy random boxes off the store. Dimension builders were delighted by this news. Fishing is a slow profession, but if you could devote a little time to it now and again in order to fish up something amazing, it wouldn’t be that much of a chore. What players weren’t prepared for was how this was implemented. First off, the system itself was dominated by the most punishing RNG in order to get the components for the fishing pole and lure you needed even to begin seeking loot from fishing. On top of that, even should you be lucky enough to fish up the tools required, (and some still haven’t, even after nearly a year of trying), there was a hefty cost involved in crafting them. And even after that, each lure had a big price tag and could only be used once. Dimension builders discovered that acquiring new items demanded an immense input of time and money that many simply couldn’t afford. And then, to add further misery, the loot table for this new fishing lure was so huge, and included so many low quality items, plus other drops that had nothing to do with dimensions, that most often players ended up with nothing worthwhile for their investment. Initially, the system rewarded a greater amount of rare dimension items, but this was swiftly nerfed to the sad state it’s in today. Because these items are so rare, they hardly ever appear on the auction house, and even if they do the price tag is far beyond many players’ financial reach. Dimensioneers faced a difficult reality: if they didn’t have a great deal of time at their disposal – either for fishing, or grinding for materials and in-game currency – they might simply have to resort with resignation to the most recent random box off the store and hope for the best. But many of the fantastic new items were only available through fishing – they couldn’t be bought in game or the store. The forums once again rumbled volcanically with players’ dissatisfaction.
The recent Plane-Touched Wilds patch introduced a new zone and more temptations for dimensioneers. It was announced that new items could be attained by completing a quest chain and discovering some secret location, where a vendor was located who would sell these new things. Cool, you might think, until you discover the quest chain costs a ton of Telaran currency, (which can be bought for real money through an in-game system), and is also incredibly difficult. Most annoyingly, it involves having to make your character jump to hard-to-reach locations – a skill at which many players (myself included, sadly) simply don’t excel. You might jump a hundred times and still miss your target, until you get so cross you give up. (Jumping puzzles generally are not much liked in MMOs. Blizzard was criticised for including them in WoD.) It all seemed a needless gate to new items that people would have quite happily bought off the store or from a reachable in-game vendor for fair amounts of Telaran currency – perhaps after completing reasonable, even lengthy tasks, for them, or having gained notoriety with a particular faction. But what players didn’t want was a quest chain that made them tear out their hair in frustration and disappointment, or exclude those who weren’t financially well-off, in the game or out of it. Many on the forums reported, ‘oh well, these are just more new dimension items I’ll never get.’
At this point, I was beginning to think it was almost as if Trion was trying to discourage their customers from building dimensions, even though this section of the player base must contribute consistently to the company’s income. Company responses I saw on the forums in response to complaints over PTW – and long before it – were in some cases condescending and dismissive. Others didn’t really shed much light. Nowhere did I see a plain, honest answer or a desire to reassure players their voices were heard, or compromise over suggested improvements, or even give a reason why wishes couldn’t be granted. The only conclusion I could draw from that was: they simply didn’t care. I had the unpleasant feeling that dimensioneers were being treated with contempt and were seen as gullible cash cows that would pay out endlessly to indulge their interest in building. Within my own business, the last thing I’d want is for my customers to think I felt that way about them. Unhappy customers don’t tend to stick around. Yet what I saw – or didn’t see – from Trion made me unable to escape the suspicion that the message behind all this was: “you don’t want to buy random boxes? Fair enough, but we’ll make you pay in hard cash for other ways to gain, and frustrate you painfully along the way. Haven’t got time to fish 24/7? Tough. Can’t afford to buy credits for in game currency? Too bad. Maybe you’ll learn your lesson then, and just keep your mouths shut and buy the boxes.” This is all based on assumption, of course, and I’m not saying my words above reflect accurately Trion’s stance, but the important thing is, this is how I was made to feel, and I wasn’t alone in that. Others I spoke to felt exactly the same. Is this situation, I thought, really something I want to be part of?
Then, most recently, the Autumn Harvest festival manifested in Telara, which would last for three weeks. We learned that the rare fishing items could be found in the AH grab bags that would be available temporarily throughout this festival. Players rejoiced. The bags could be acquired through completing daily quests for AH currency – typically three days to get one bag – or could be bought on the store. But these bags, as with so many of Trion’s offers, contained random contents (three items). And, dear god, was it random. You might get something cool or you might get utter rubbish. Extremely common items, such as music boxes and ‘time of day’, were included in the loot table, allegedly because, even though they are common, their label declares them as ‘rare’ quality. This is like giving grains of sand on a beach a blue name tag and calling them rare. But the torment didn’t end there. Trion also introduced a new dimension key – Tulan – which was a beautiful chunk of real estate that had dimensioneers slavering. Some slavered so much they invested hundreds of pounds or dollars on buying bags in order to acquire this treasured key**. After three hundred pounds or so, some were still buying – and still not getting it. There were huge, meandering threads about all this on the dimension forum. I realised at this point Trion had actually introduced gambling into the game. As one player on the forum put it, the Autumn Harvest simply had a slot machine in the corner and some players were repeatedly feeding it with money, pulling the magic handle in the hope of hitting the jackpot, but more typically going away broke. Some of those who had spent cash argued they could afford it, but how many who couldn’t were gambling regardless? I was aghast players were spending that much cash – it seemed to me immoral and rapacious on Trion’s part. I was moved to write a humorous and lightly sarcastic post on the dimension forum.
Some posters added to my offering with more direct complaints, revealing how fed up and disappointed they were with the way Trion operates, how things had changed for the worse. Other posters responded simply by saying my post gave them a good laugh. One even put their own post in a similar voice to mine. But the Trion Community Manager in charge of that forum didn’t appreciate the humour and closed the thread with a caustic remark, telling me my post was ‘cute, but not very helpful’. A friend of mine was outraged we’d been silenced this way and began a new thread, quoting my post, an action on her part which was clearly regarded as provocative, but in no way was she rude about it. Despite this, her post simply earned her a ban for a couple of days and her thread was deleted.
Discussing the whole situation with friends, I learned what is most likely the reason behind all that’s been happening – namely that Trion earn far more money from random boxes and bags than from people who buy specific items. A fool and their money is soon parted, as the old proverb goes. And while players continue to massage this practice, things will never change. It’s also not helped by the occasional voice among the dissenters on the forums, who will go to any length to curry favour with Trion, passive-aggressively pouring scorn on those who dare to criticise the company. One person in particular posts continually to patronise and undermine anyone who voices their displeasure with the way the game’s heading. But unless customers unite over distasteful business practice, they only have themselves to blame for it. And those who encourage its existence through gambling are even more to blame.
To be fair to the developers, the people who actually work on creating the game, all this financial shenanigans is most likely out of their control. Some of them might even sympathise with the players and find their complaints reasonable. But what can they do? They work for a company that has policies and have to abide by them. I can’t believe people who work on these games, and create such wonderful worlds, don’t have some regard for the players who come to love those worlds and remain loyal to them. That endorsement is the greatest compliment to a creative person, similar to a writer being told that people love their books, or a film maker being commended for their movies. Community Managers, however, who are found on the forums, are a different breed. Some players of MMOs regard these individuals as their friends, because they frequent the forums regularly and respond to posts directly. But these people are not our friends – they are employees of a company that seeks to earn as much money from its customers as possible. As one person said to me, those employees who engage with the players, and with whom said players want to be ‘friends’, are no different from waitresses in bars who sit with men in order to get them to spend money on buying them drinks. A rather crude analogy, but somewhat accurate.
The upshot of all this is that I’m experiencing an ever-sharpening bad taste in my mouth concerning Trion’s practices. If I’d not invested money into my project I’d consider walking away from it, no matter how much I enjoy it. But as it stands, I don’t want to waste what I’ve spent. Trion has had my money; I might as well get its worth. It’s sad that avarice and customers’ weakness conspire to ruin what was once a reasonably-priced and satisfying creative activity within Rift. I once raged against Blizzard, seeing them as greedy and callous, but their practices by comparison are positively benign. Plus, Blizzard have listened to their players, and currently appear to want to please them, to woo back lost customers, to admit to their mistakes. Trion are nowhere near doing this. Blizzard lost millions of players, who were dissatisfied with the way WoW was heading, but Rift has merely a fraction of WoW’s player base. Trion can’t afford to lose customers in droves like that, and I doubt Rift would recover should that happen. All we can hope for is that someone, somewhere within the company wakes up to reality and makes changes, because even if some misguided people are prepared to waste their money, and perhaps even go into debt, in the hope of acquiring some pixels, surely the majority are not. And eventually even the staunchest of supporters will have had enough and move on.
Unless something worse happens, I intend to finish my Rift dimension project and share it with people into my work, and/or into MMOs. I once would have encouraged anyone to take up Rift, and would have poured out my love of its world. Now I can’t. The world is still wonderful, as is the story and history within it but, since the advent of the Nightmare Tide expansion, cold-eyed accountants now appear to be in charge, and they’re not wonderful at all.
*The Rift dimension forum is a polite and restrained area of communication unlike many other forums associated with popular games. Players generally remain civil there.
**I was lucky enough to acquire the Tulan key from the bags I bought with AH currency, but this was indeed lucky.