Over four years since the company first started, Trion Worlds has put $100 million investment to work on three titles, MMORPG Rift: Planes of Telara, MMORTS End of Nations and an action game designed in collaboration with TV channel SyFy for home consoles.
In this interview with GamesIndustry.biz, CEO Lars Buttler outlines why it he thinks it's time for a new cycle of massively multiplayer online games, the challenge of making MMOs mass-market, adaptable business models and the opportunity in piracy.
Q: It's been a while since we last spoke, and over four years since the company first started - what stage are your three games at, and how has the company changed over that development time?
Lars Buttler: We have three games in the making right now, and two of those we have shown as hands-on gameplay at events like Gamescom and we've been getting incredibly positive feedback on them.
We started Trion four and a half years ago with a vision of what videogames should look like when everybody is connected, everybody is online. Videogames have all these great categories - role-playing, strategy, shooters - and these have really high production values. But they are static, the don't evolve, they don't have persistence.
So our idea essentially was in a world where everybody is connected, why shouldn't we have console videogame quality online? Why shouldn't we have every big genre and worlds that are alive, online? Games that evolve and get better every single day. No longer like pre-packaged software but a service and a live world. Obviously that's a huge undertaking. Videogames are very expensive, the traditional technology didn't allow us to build those high-quality live worlds online.
So what we've done since we started four and a half years ago was to build an entire new technology architecture that would allow us to build games that are mostly computed on powerful servers. And the server is no longer dedicated to just a certain zone in the game, but a certain function. We have clusters of servers all with different tasks - world data, player data, AI, physics - all in different server clusters while we leave the rendering local. We've succeeded with this, we've filed over a dozen patents and then we started to build beautiful, high-quality games.
Q: So the first title - due in 2011 - is Rift: Planes of Telara, which you're positioning as a step-up in fantasy MMOs, something that can take on World of Warcraft. That's a big target...
Lars Buttler: Rift: Planes of Telara is developed by our studio in Redmond City, where we are next door to Electronic Arts and we hand picked super development talent from EA, from NCsoft, from Sony, taking the best of the online gaming world and the best of the traditional videogaming world. We think that Rift is the first fully dynamic, massively multi-player role-playing game with incredible quality graphics.
Since World of Warcraft launched nobody has produced a game with high-quality production values and ground-breaking innovation, not just a clone. So many people have made the claim over time that games should be dynamic and come alive, but we do it.
Q: You say you want to make this kind of game truly mass-market - do you mean mass-market in terms of reaching a wider entertainment customer, or appealing to every games consumer?
Lars Buttler: Before World of Warcraft, online games were incredibly niche and new players were killed instantly and lost any appetite to play. Then when these games became more collaborative they grew the market by at least a factor of ten. Then they became richer in terms of gameplay and quality, which again grew the market by at least a factor of ten. Now we're taking it to a new level of quality. You don't have to be hardcore to play Rift.
Q: But looking at footage of Rift it looks intimidating to me as a new player - there's screen furniture, so many icons, text, I don't know what I should be looking at or where to start. That's not mass-market...
Lars Buttler: It's incredibly simple to get in to.
Q: Is that going to be a significant marketing issue for Trion - to prove these games are easy to pick up and play and enjoy?
Lars Buttler: Absolutely. You win or lose this in the first five or ten minutes. If you come into an online world and you don't know immediately what to do, if you had to study this through a tutorial, you're already lost. I have a very short attention span, I never read a manual for anything, I'm a great test case. But at the same time it has to get progressively more and more exciting and complicated so it never gets boring. You should always know what to do, but you should never know how to do it best.
Q: And will you be measuring user data to tweak and improve the game once it's live?
Lars Buttler: The great thing is with the way we build these games we can measure everything. I can watch individuals or larger groups of people and see how long they play, where they get stuck, how fast they move from one thing to the other and then we can relentlessly improve it. We can measure it directly because its all from our servers. What Zynga and these guys have done is basically take casual games and make them truly next-generation, where you can measure it, where you can improve it. We do that to videogames, not just casual games.
Q: Your other title - End of Nations - is an online real-time strategy title. Are you looking at making that more accessible, or is that for the hardcore audience?
Lars Buttler: Most online games are role-playing games, that's why we use the term 'MMORPG'. End of Nations is developed by Petroglyph, former Westwood Studios guys. These are the creators of real-time strategy genre, from Dune II to Command & Conquer. They have one mission in life left: to do to real-time strategy what Blizzard has done to the RPG and create an RTS that you can actually play with all of your friends.
The problem with RTS games at the moment is that you have fun playing the single player game and then you go online and get killed by a 12 year-old. I hate it, I'm not hardcore enough for it. And that's what happened with RPGs before they grew, you get your ass handed to you by a child.
Q: You've been working on these games for four and a half years, so there's a lot to recoup there. What business models are you attaching to these titles?
Lars Buttler: The short answer is 'all of the above'. But it's different territories, different times and different models. So in North America and Europe, if you have a very strict quality bar, subscription is the right model. That's what people expect. If you make it free-to-play with micro-transactions they immediately discount it as lesser quality. Subscriptions only work if you get real videogame quality - super polish, real persistence and a lot of engagement. If people are playing 3-4 hours a day it becomes really cheap.
But there are other territories, like Russia, where subscription would never work no matter how good it is. So for those we go with micro-transactions and over time, maybe a few years from now when the games get a bit old, you can switch. It's not set in stone. Pick a lead model for the market and then add on top of that.
Q: Lord of the Rings Online was subscription and recently went free-to-play. Do you see Trion being in that position, able to completely overhaul the business model if players demand it?
Lars Buttler: Rift is of the highest production values right now, so it makes absolute sense to start it as a subscription game. Now if after the course of five years or so we launch better titles and these become older in the portfolio, then switching to micro-transactions makes absolute sense. The model is not the interesting thing, you optimise the model for the market and the time. It's really about matching correctly.
Q: What's your take on the current state of the MMO market, because it seems brutal if you fail to pick up a audience quickly, it's obviously costly to enter...
Lars Buttler: It's very cyclical. The top games have these long lifecycles. Everquest was out there for six or seven years undisputed, now Warcraft is out there for six or seven years undisputed. You should never try to be a subscription game unless you have better production values and product differentiation than the current incumbent. If you're going to make a clone of what's already out there, well, it doesn't work. And I'm not sure what people are thinking when they do that. If you look at End of Nations, which doesn't even have competition in the market because there is no massively multi-player online real-time strategy game, or the third title that we're doing with the SyFy action game, then it's a totally different playing field. Because you're not competing on a one-to-one basis with World of Warcraft.
Q: What turnaround are you going to have for getting games to market? It's taken over four years and you don't yet have a live product.
Lars Buttler: We think that the minimum to have a really strong business is one tent pole title a year. Many people miss that, they launch a game and then for four or five years, nothing. We have a full pipeline and we're starting next year, and then every six to twelve months we're going to launch another big one.
Q: And the company will presumably scale with that, as it supports multiple live products?
Lars Buttler: Absolutely. We invested a lot of time, a lot of money, we hand-picked the best people, we built new technology, we raised a lot of money.
Q: How much have you spent so far?
Lars Buttler: Well, we only publicly said that we raised over $100 million, so let's stay with that. But you can imagine that if you make these super-quality videogames that are live in a multi-player environment it costs a lot of money. We never want to sacrifice quality, so we pushed for more time, we pushed for more money. We had to in order to get it right.
Q: Compared to other online games and entertainment you're in that high-end category, and one of the most expensive games experiences for a user to commit to - is that a concern with so many cheaper alternatives online?
Lars Buttler: Compared to console games, per minute or per hour we are cheaper. You play these games for so much longer, with so much more intensity than packaged good videogames. When you buy the game you have a full month of play, which is 100 hours or more. You can see that people clearly have a case for social, dynamic experiences in the casual game space, which is a totally different audience, there's almost no overlap in the audience.
Q: Do you believe that? There's no overlap in players dabbling with other, less hardcore game experiences?
Lars Buttler: Yes. If you look at the statistics for things like Zynga, it's 45 year-old women playing. That's the sweet spot. I was at Pogo with Electronic Arts and that was our audience. We were thinking about whether we should advertise on Facebook. Whatever we see in terms of demographics on Facebook it is not our demographics. It's not the male, young, typical videogame audience. If companies have figured out how to take 45 year-old casual games players from Yahoo to Facebook, what about the Command & Conquer player that wants to be social? That's what we're trying to do.
Q: Are you bothering with retail at all for these releases, or just going straight to market as a download service?
Lars Buttler: Yes, just because there are people in the West who still want a box. They go to a store, look at the shiny covers, and it's a signal of premium quality. We want to be open to any venue possible, we don't want to restrict ways in which a customer can buy a game. But retail isn't really core to our business. You can pirate this without being able to copy us. If you copy the client you cannot play the game, because it's entirely server-based in terms of computing. If someone takes a traditional PC game and copies it it's game over, the publisher makes no money. In our case, it's distribution. It's even more people that come to our servers and they have to register. We don't even need to bother with DRM or anything like that, there's no need for it.
Q: Have you got any interest in the console space at all, and if so, what opportunities are there for Trion?
Lars Buttler: Consoles are connected devices. If you have over 50 per cent of consoles connected, it starts getting really interesting. Since the console market in the West today is about five times bigger than the PC market, it's definitely something we don't want to neglect. If you have a server-based game it's so much easier to port, because you don't have to recreate the entire game, you just optimise the client. Just like the business model, you have to be smart what you pick as your lead format. For a role-playing game and RTS game then it's PC. For action games there's a huge console market, and if you tie the game to a TV show, people are already in front of it. So it would be a smart choice to put that on the console in addition to PC.
Q: Would you need to team up with a distribution partner or publisher to take the SyFy game to consoles?
Lars Buttler: We could work with people in order to get the game on retail shelves but that's really the only thing. For everything else, we can do it. We think we know this better than traditional packaged goods publishers.
Lars Buttler is CEO of Trion Worlds. Interview by Matt Martin.