Monday, February 29, 2016

RIFT Behind the Scenes: Senior Systems Designer Jesse “Orren” Decker






The Systems Team on RIFT is responsible for creating and balancing souls and abilities, but their work extends much farther than that. This week, Community Manager Eric “Ocho” Cleaver sat down with Senior Systems Designer Jesse “Orren” Decker to talk about game systems, player economies and understanding the pace of change in game.


Ocho: What’s your position on the RIFT Team, and what sort of things do you work on?
I’m a Senior Systems Designer. We’re known affectionately around the office as “Vladd’s Monkeys.” At Trion, systems designers touch everything from class abilities, to items, to dimension lockboxes. The in-game economy is a big focus for all of us right now.

Ocho: Did you go to school for game design?
Orren: Nope. I got degrees in Biochemistry and English, but I was always going to be a scientist. Luckily (for both me and science), I got an undergraduate fellowship during, my senior year and realized that pure research was one or two points too far down the introvert scale for me to do forever.

Ocho: How did you transition to working in the games industry?
Orren: I am a lifetime gamer, with a long-seated love of Dungeons & Dragons, Magic, and pretty much all computer games. I graduated not really knowing what I was going to do. Right about then, Wizards of the Coast became a big deal and also happened to get a new office pretty much adjacent to my back yard. I couldn’t believe that they had bought my other favorite game company, TSR, and because of how such deals work out, they also had many entry level positions to fill. Applying was a no-brainer and I was lucky enough to work there for the next 13 years.

Ocho: What attracted you to apply at Trion to work on RIFT?
Orren: Trion has a really great culture. I frequently describe it (and I mean this as high praise) as a bullshit-free environment. Case in point; the executive producer and game director who together run RIFT, both frequently build actual cool things that the players interact with and use in game. This means they are a part of making this game. Now, of course they have many other duties and can’t (shouldn’t) do a full load of design work, but the fact that they do some of that kind of work every day is extremely rare in the game industry and extremely awesome.

Ocho: Could you explain a bit about the scope of the Systems Team, and what projects you are currently working on?
Orren: We’re always working on multiple things. Long term we’re giving some thought to how we can keep PvP fresh. For example, we’ve talked about focusing on a tighter group of Warfronts for a month or two and rotating through the full list of Warfronts as a way to create mini-seasons. The content team is building a new raid zone and there are several things the system team does to support that, including of course building all the awesome loot that comes with. If I had to pin it down to one broad topic, I’d say that player economies are getting the most attention from us right now.

Ocho: Can you give some examples of the player economies you affect?
Orren: For example, every time a new tier of raid content comes out, the amount of time it takes to catch up to the cutting edge gets longer. We do things to mitigate this, of course, but we also want to make sure there’s a steady influx of people moving into raiding and progressing up the tiers. So we do a lot of thinking and a fair bit of math to look at how long it takes a fresh 65 to get ready for the current tier of raiding. That’s just one example; there are many other kinds of player economies that we look at and they are all under the microscope right now. They also have to be adjusted very slowly because they are all linked to one another; small changes can have big impacts on player resources and fun.

Ocho: How do these changes relate to PvP?
Orren: Well, PvP gear is important to players and important to us. It’s a tricky gear path since it’s completely open to the solo player willing to put in the hours. That means it has to have different costs around it and take a different amount of time to acquire.

Ocho: What’s the timeline look like for implementing changes to existing systems?
Orren: It’s very tough to explain timelines sometimes. For a bug like “this ability isn’t doing any damage,” that we can repro and fix right away, there’s a good chance we’ll get the fix in the next scheduled patch. In those cases we hear about the bug, fix it instantly, and the players get the fix a week later. So, because of testing, verifying stability of the build, and the need to stick to a predictable publishing schedule, something that is an “instant” fix for a designer still takes a week to get to the audience.

Now imagine if there’s some nuance to the issue, or if the repro case isn’t clear. That can easily make the time-to-player for an important change take a month or more. I’d say for a big change that has ramifications for other systems, you’re looking at two months to really push something out. And that’s with a lot of things going right and a lot of effort being applied. From the player’s perspective, two months is forever. This is a really tough part of the game industry and it’s tough on both designers and fans.

Ocho: Thanks, that’s very informative. Do you have anything you’d like to ask/share with the players before we go?
Orren: I love getting feedback from fans. I think that’s true for every game designer. Because of the time-to-fix issue that I described, it’s really important that we choose the right things to fix – a large volume of player input helps a lot. So my question is, what cool things would you like to see added to RIFT? What efforts from the system team can make your gaming hours more fun?

Ocho: Thanks Orren!

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