While the masses might have left Rift behind, the game is still going strong - and it has a couple of very valuable lessons it can teach other MMOs. These are vital lessons for other MMO developers to take on board; else Rift's brilliant innovations and design might never be as influential as it should.
Static is boring
Except for pure player run worlds, MMOs tend to be static. Rift added a dynamic layer on top of this which created the illusion of a world in constant motion. Rifts open up and spew out monsters, invading forces move across the lands and attack villages... Tabula Rasa used a similar mechanic, but took it further and allowed the enemy to actually control outposts. It’s a fine line to walk between being a fun and being obnoxious though - you always run the risk of making people annoyed if the wandering monsters get in the way. It’s hard to know if Trion made the right decision by nerfing invasions back in beta, but the way things constantly happen all across Telara at any given moment is something other MMO developers should take a long hard look at.
Raids aren’t everything...
Raiding. Love it or hate it, it’s been a staple of fantasy MMOs since the days of Everquest. While Rift has its fair share of raids, you’re not forced into them as soon as you hit level cap. There’s plenty of things to do outside of the raid dungeons, and Trion were smart enough to make hard versions of all their instances - giving players some extra time before they burn out on them. There’s also a master mode for the people who want some extra challenge. MMO devs would do well to always design their encounters to be scalable from the start so that they don’t end up gathering dust while the playerbase is busy elsewhere.
...but savour the ones you have
We can play the blame-game and look for the moment in time when raiding was made accessible for a bigger audience all we like, but let’s not beat that poor horse more. Instead, let's look at the side effects - variety in the playerbase started to disappear. While we can argue about hardcore versus casual gameplay until the end of days, I think we can all agree on that seeing everyone wearing the exact same gear is boring. Rift has savoured the raids it have, slowly making them more accessible with time but not making them negligible straight from release. If you are one of the players disappointed by how easy it was to finally kill Deathwing, Rift might offer you the challenge you’re looking for.
Adapt, and adapt quickly
The MMO audience is fickle. We get used to features in one game and get cranky when we don’t find them in the next. You simply can’t release a game without certain features in today’s climate and expect to get away with it. Trion has been very good at reacting to the innovations of others - from small things like being able to craft with materials that’s in your bank instead of your bags to big ideas like the upcoming, three faction Conquest mode. Good artists copy, after all - and by doing your own thing with it, you don’t really need to steal to become great.
There is no Jesus feature
EVE Online has learned this lesson the hard way, and it looks as if Blizzard is learning it too in Mists of Pandaria. It’s a simple principle, really - there isn’t one single feature that will save your game, or make it soar. It’s a complex weave of many different systems that in the end will make your MMO successful. Star Wars: The Old Republic is a perfect example of a game that stared itself blind on its “fourth pillar” of fully voiced story, while endgame suffered terribly as a result. If all you do is throw more of the same at your players and watch them gulf it up or tear it to shreds in a matter of days, throwing even more of the same at them won’t help.
Trion do not always follow these lessons themselves, but they have a game which should be an inspiration for budding MMO developers out there. Since Rift rests on a MMO foundation many of us seems to be getting quite tired of, it might be one of the last big theme park MMOs. (Come on, indulge me - we can all use some dramatics from time to time.) Let’s hope that the next generation of online worlds at least takes some inspiration from it.