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Free-to-play and back again for Trion Worlds

Five years after Rift abandoned the subscription model, Trion Worlds is revisiting it with a new Prime server to bring back lapsed players

Five years ago, Trion Worlds moved its subscription-based MMO Rift to a free-to-play model. Today, it re-introduced subscriptions as an option with Rift Prime, a "time-locked progression server" entirely separate from the free-to-play version of the game that will let people play through the game from its original state with no loot boxes and an in-game store that offers cosmetic items but no equipment.

Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz recently, Trion Worlds CEO Scott Hartsman explained why the game was going back to its roots.

"In any game that converts from subscription to free-to-play, there's always going to be some number of people who preferred it the way it was before," Hartsman said. "That's in literally every game that's done this. And the games themselves can go on to huge future success in the new model, but there's always that group of people that would love to re-engage if the game only had its previous business model."

Rift Prime may appeal to people who want to re-live the game's early days as much as those who dislike free-to-play mechanics.

Rift Prime may appeal to people who want to re-live the game's early days as much as those who dislike free-to-play mechanics.

That re-engagement is a key part of the plan for Trion Worlds. Hartsman said that like many other MMOs, Rift has had a "stable" player base in recent years that sees most of its fluctuation around new content releases. People come back for the big updates, play through some of the new content then go dormant again. Trion Worlds has been looking at ways to get them to stick around longer and make it more appealing for the user base that lapsed a long time ago.

That raises questions about fragmenting the player base, but Hartsman isn't concerned about that. For one thing, access to the Prime server is essentially a new perk of the Rift Patrons program (an existing component of the free-to-play game that gives players who pay a monthly fee an assortment of perks), so the player base between the two technically overlaps completely. And even though it means potentially having one group of players playing on free-to-play servers while another group focuses solely on the Prime server, Hartsman suspects a significant number of those segmented players simply wouldn't be around otherwise.

"We've seen this in other games from other publishers and one of our own, also," Hartsman said. "If you can do something where everybody starts fresh from scratch, you actually will get a disproportionate, exponential growth around that new activity, and around that new server. You won't see it on the [free-to-play] game, and that's absolutely fair to say, but you will see a disproportionate gain of people who played in the past and aren't playing any more."

Hartsman said it helps that by forcing players to start from scratch, the Prime server will limit the discrepancies between players' power levels. And by only including the original continent of the game at the outset, it forces all the Prime players into closer proximity.

"So much of what goes into making MMOs fun is if you are on par with everybody else at the same time and doing the same stuff. That's where these games shine, especially in our game where so much of the innovation and fun was the big open-world mass events."

As the Prime server ages, new content will be unlocked at an accelerated time frame, with Trion expecting to take at least a year to bring the Prime server up to the speed with the free-to-play game's content updates. After that time, the Prime server will be closed, and players will be able to transfer their characters over to the free-to-play servers at no charge.

"The risk is that 100% of our live service players say 'To hell with this free-to-play thing. I want to go play on Prime.' OK, so how bad is that case, really?"

Hartsman said the plan to roll out a time-locked progression server had been kicked around for a year, but the actual business model they would use for it came about shortly after a high-profile misstep in the company's free-to-play strategy last December. That was when the company rolled out a $100 loot box that gave purchasers one of 42 random premium mounts, a move that drew plenty of anger from its player base.

"I think that one lived for about an hour and a half," Hartsman said of the hastily pulled offering, adding, "At the end of the day, we want to do what our players want us to do. For us it's about keeping people happy. That particular event itself was an unfortunate oversight. Like I said in my apology, I deserve the blame for it. I looked at it. I thought I was seeing something other than what it was. I thought it was a component of a larger pack, and I did not at all realize what I was looking at was the entirety of the pack. When we saw what people thought about it, we said this was not what we thought it was, and definitely not the reaction we want, so that's gotta go."

With that fresh in mind, it made the decision of how to package the Prime server offering much easier.

"I can absolutely tell you it took my decision process, when the team pitched [the Prime business model] to me, down to a matter of about five seconds to a yes instead of hours or days to a yes," Hartsman said. "If we can do things that we know will make players happy, that's exactly what we want to do."

In a best-case scenario, Hartsman said the Prime server brings back long-lapsed players, a portion of the player base runs characters in both versions, and Trion gets to consider what the next time-based service offering would look like. But he acknowledged everything the company does is going to carry some element of risk.

"So what's the risk? The risk is that 100% of our live service players say 'To hell with this free-to-play thing. I want to go play on Prime,'" Hartsman said. "OK, so how bad is that case, really? A bunch go over, they all pay subscription now, and they're happy. So maybe we're doing exactly as well as we are today, and players are happy in the process. That's a risk I can live with."

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