Trion's Lars Buttler

The online publisher's CEO talks server-based gaming and how to tie a persistent world to a TV series

Last year a new publisher burst onto the scene with news that it raised, over time, over USD 100 million in funding to create online titles, including one that would link up with a Sci-Fi Channel TV series. Exciting stuff indeed, but with World of Warcraft dominating the scene and other MMOs struggling to make a dent, the news that the company's first announced title - Heroes of Telara - would be an MMORPG was a little confusing.

However, there's more to HOT than a simple WoW clone, and here Trion's CEO, Lars Buttler, explains why - plus he talks about dynamic titles, the importance of broadband, and just how a persistent online world can fit in with a live-action TV series.

Q: Heroes of Telara, your first game, is a fantasy-themed MMORPG. Why are you starting out the gate with that genre?

Lars Buttler: We're a publisher and developer for server-based games, games as a service - triple-A quality videogames that are simulated on powerful servers. We felt that server-based gaming can bring very substantial innovation to various different game categories. And we felt very strongly that the RPG category could be improved significantly and that you can really innovate in that category.

So we brought together the technologies and the tools, the talent and the funding, as you know, and built Heroes of Telara, or HOT, as we sometimes call it for short, as a next-generation MMORPG. And what you can do with server-based gaming really translates into great gameplay innovation in the RPG genre. Server-based gaming allows you to simulate the entire game, all the different processes of a game, server-side. And because that's the case, you can have live videogames.

You can have fully dynamic worlds that can be changed by the developer and the user all the time. You can also have massively social worlds, with many, many people coming together and doing things.

Now that translates into incredibly fun innovation in the RPG genre. Because if you have a dynamic game world now, you can throw unexpected, challenging, epic events in people's faces, and you can see how they react, what their decisions are. And those decisions directly have an impact on the world.

So we're no longer talking about a standard MMORPG for example, where every quest, every event is already mapped out and known, and where your actions only really matter to yourself, or maybe to your guild. We are talking about a game now where we can literally call upon you to become a hero, because if you think of what makes a person a hero, it's not doing something that is already well known, or do the same thing every day, or do things that don't matter to anybody but yourself. Heroes are people that do things that are unexpected, that are challenging. They have to make really tough choices, and those choices affect their world.

Now this is exactly what you will find in Heroes of Telara, where we challenge you to become a hero, to make tough choices, to face unexpected challenges and events every time. And we never have a game that is the same. There are small events, there are big events, there is even emergent behaviour in the game that changes the game world. A lot of it is not even known to us, it's like the ghost in the machine. The game is almost alive, and that allows you to create heroes.

Q: You've said in the past - to us, actually - that you're not competing directly with World of Warcraft. And yet, Heroes of Telara is a fantasy-themed MMO. Are you basing that statement entirely on the differences between a server-side and client-side game?

Lars Buttler: Great question. So, number one, Trion is a publisher and developer of a multitude of different games. Here at E3, we are actually showcasing the first big title, Heroes of Telara, a fully dynamic, massively social MMORPG. We also already announced that we are building a fully dynamic, massively-social action RPG in cooperation with the Sci-Fi Channel. And we also announced that we are working on a fully dynamic alive MMORTS with Petroglyph, with former Westwood [developers], almost the creator of the RTS category.

So the idea is not just to make one MMORPG, it is to create server-based games and take the innovation that server-based gaming allows you to different powerful, fun gaming categories. That is very different from making one game and so on. But although the first game, Heroes of Telara, is in a similar category like World of Warcraft or others, it's very different in terms of the experience that you will get.

And we felt that it was kind of almost irrelevant to go after WoW and try to do the same that people have done for ten years. The architecture of the gameplay of MMORPGs has not changed for about ten years. And WoW has really taken this to the best polish and quality. HOT is a new generation. It is very innovative in terms of gameplay, it uses very different technologies and tools, and so we don't feel it goes after a certain traditional MMORPG, it is actually a different category; it is a server-based game. Traditional MMORPGs are still client-computed.

Q: When you speak of the differences between a client and server-based MMO, it seems very impressive on the backend, but how is it different for consumers?

Lars Buttler: That is really the key question. We did not build the technology for the sake of the technology - that's always really weak. We started with: "Wouldn't it be amazing if in an MMORPG you could really create heroes?" You could really have massively social events, you could really change the world based on player behaviour. You could really give people incredible choice, a sub-class with whom they want to play at any moment in time.

And all those things needed new technologies and tools. Just like Pixar and others have built technologies and tools in order to allow for greater, better, more fun experiences. Many companies that I've seen in the past failed when they wanted to do something innovative when they used old technologies. They just used what they had at hand. And they couldn't really push the envelope. We have the end goal in mind of really building a different, more innovative, more exciting, fully dynamic, massively social game category, the category of server-based games, and that's why we built the technology.

And of course we announced the Trion Platform first because we had to build it first, and it's now applicable for all different kinds of games. But the exciting thing about E3 this year is that we show the first in a series of a portfolio of exciting new videogames, and that is Heroes of Telara.

Q: So give me a kind of "for example," almost repeating the previous question. How would consumers directly see the benefit of a server-based MMO that they wouldn't see in a client-based game?

Lars Buttler: I think that the most dramatic is the notion of facing different and completely unexpected challenges every time you log on. That is not the case in any traditional videogame today. You log on and the world has changed. You log on and you get big events. Those events can be scheduled - it could be tomorrow night at 11 and you could bring all your friends. And it could be massively social. Those events could be completely unexpected. You can just run into them, and then you have to make tough decisions. Those decisions are what character class, what sub-class, how you want to address it, who do you want to play with, who do you want to recruit for this challenge? And so everything is about the unexpected, the tough choice, and the impact on the world and the community.

Q: What is the business model for Heroes of Telara? Is it a subscription-based game?

Lars Buttler: We're not talking about it at this point. We want to really focus on gameplay and get people really excited about it. So at E3 we're not really talking about the detailed business model of Heroes of Telara.

Our platform allows for a whole variety of business models, from subscriptions to micro-transactions, item sales and advertising. It's a full, built-out technology platform for server-based gaming, but it also includes backend and billing and customer service and everything. So we have a lot of flexibility. Different games have different business models depending on the quality bar, the live content and so on. So we have flexibility, there is also a lot of choice we will give people, but that's really all we can say at this moment.

Q: Are you entertaining all of the standard business models, or have you eliminated any?

Lars Buttler: No, we definitely will entertain all of those, and I would assume over time we have games that have lead business models in all those different categories. And there might still be combinations possible. And again, in our games you can have a tremendous freedom of self expression and choice. And we will also give at least some degree of choice in the business model.

Q: As far as I'm aware, you've now raised USD 100 million in capital?

Lars Buttler: If you just add the two latest rounds that we announced, that would be the amount. We've raised somewhat more than that, but that's what we've talked about.

Q: So you're not prepared to discuss how much more than that you've raised?

Lars Buttler: No, because we never announced it, and there's all different combinations of funding. It's not all equity funding, and so on. I think the only important point, we didn't actually put this number out to say hey, look how great we are. We wanted, and we continue to want, to attract the best and the brightest. And we wanted to make it very clear that at Trion we have triple-A technology, triple-A talent, and we also have triple-A funding. And those are really the key ingredients you need if you want to do something great.

Q: You strike me as a company that announces things a bit early. I don't know if that's a fair statement to make.

Lars Buttler: I would say that we talked about the technology and the funding, but we have never given a lot of detail about the games. Typically, people do it the other way around. They talk about their game from day one, then they really struggle to keep that excitement alive. Two or three weeks after we talked about this game for the first time, we're showing it as a first look at E3.

So, the rest of the announcements were always made to attract talent, to attract investors, and also to get Trion into people's minds. We are a new publisher, and we have to compete with the giants, the titans of the industry. And in a way, it's good if people at least know that we exist and know of us. So that is kind of the foundation on which you can then announce games, and that's what we're doing now.

Q: It is a lot of money, 100 million... I think that goes without saying. What is sort of a rough estimate of when your investors are going to start seeing some of it coming back?

Lars Buttler: We're not talking about launch dates at E3, but obviously we're showing the game now, and we will talk about this in due course. We have a publishing plan and will execute on it.

Q: You mentioned the Sci-Fi Channel tie-in earlier, so I assume that's still going?

Lars Buttler: Yes, absolutely.

Q: How is it coming along?

Lars Buttler: We're extremely excited about it. We are in the midst of development. Sci-Fi has signed up the writers and the production company, they're all working together very closely. The game is made by our triple-A studio in San Diego, very experienced people from Sony Online and Blizzard and so on, NCsoft. And they're making from my perspective a triple-A MMORPG.

And Sci-Fi is working on a television show that is based on the very same fictional universe - and the game and the show will launch together and evolve together. And because the game world is so dynamic and can change, the story arch of the TV show can become the history backdrop of the game world. You can watch the show, and then jump in and do all the exciting things you see on TV. You can interact with the TV characters, you can talk to them, they can become your mentors. They can be like celebrities in the real world.

So this is something that nobody has ever even attempted before, a full cross-platform experience of interactivity and linearity. And it's going very, very strong, and there will be lots of announcements to come about that game. E3 obviously for us is about Heroes of Telara, but we continue to be working with a lot of excitement on all the others.

Q: Forgive me for paraphrasing, but I believe I read that viewers-slash-players of this game and show combination could have their in-game battles "filmed" and incorporated into the show? Can you explain what this means?

Lars Buttler: There will be a lot of interaction and back and forth between the game and the show. Obviously as the show evolves, the game evolves, and that is immediate. As people explore the game world, they do things, and they express themselves obviously. The game world is much larger than what you can do on a TV show, and people are on 24/7. It's a live world. Since the entire world is server-based, we essentially know what people do. We know what they like, what they dislike, where they go to. Not only because they tell us, but because the entire world is a database.

That doesn't mean we play Big Brother and measure what [an individual] does. But as an aggregate, we know what people like and what they do. And we can constantly report this back to the makers of the show. We can say, hey, people staged a giant battle here, or they did this, or they did that. And then the makers of the television show can react to it. Obviously they need more lead time, they can't react as quickly as we do in the game world, on the fly. But between seasons, if there is a battle that people have staged that is popular, they can then decide to integrate it into the show.

So for them in a way this is a giant consumer study, and it gives them information that they would never have on television alone.

Q: You talked about the long turnaround time, it sounds like it's a full-scale show? It's not animated using the game assets?

Lars Buttler: No. It's a full show, live action actors and everything.

Q: The concern that springs to my mind when I hear this is that I don't feel like there is much of a dynamic between the show and the game immediately. It seems like the show is kind of a historical retrospective of what happened in the game several months ago.

Lars Buttler: The show is a typical television show. It tells a story, the story evolves, the world evolves. And typically a game could not really be tied to a show, because once a game was developed, the TV show has already moved on. It's changing. Our games can be modified and changed constantly. They are live. So as the show evolves and big things happen in the show, they immediately influence the game world.

Obviously the other way around is more difficult because a TV show has more lead time. Traditionally the TV show was more dynamic than the game. We have flipped it so dramatically that now the game is more dynamic than the TV show. That's why I'm saying between seasons, and based on what people do in the game, the developers of the TV show can decide based on what people show them in the game of what they like and dislike.

Q: So the game players wouldn't necessarily change the storyline in an immediate way - it's more that you aggregate the data for later use?

Lars Buttler: Yeah. You don't want to replay or pre-play the TV show. In particular if you have five lead characters in the TV show, you have hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people playing a massively-multiplayer game. So they are not actually playing those five characters, they are playing in the world. And those five characters are like celebrities, right? They're like Obama and other people in our world. They influence the world, they make an impact on the world. You can meet them, you can talk to them maybe, they can be your mentors. But you wouldn't necessarily be them, but there can be a tremendous level of interaction.

So you can actually watch elements of the TV show in the game almost as a newscast. You go to a spaceport and you see those characters like a newscast there, and you can interact with them. In the future, celebrities would be holographic, they could be on giant screens, you could be interacting with them. We can do all those things.

Q: Obviously there is a lot of cross-promotional marketing potential where if they're playing the game, you can advertise the show and vice-versa. Is there more than that that I'm not seeing?

Lars Buttler: We believe that you can play the game even if you never watch television. You can watch the show even if you never play. But the goal is to broaden the audience and have viewers be enticed to enter this world and explore it much more, and get gamers enticed to watch the show.

So number one, we focused on broadening the audience, and give people an exciting form of cross-platform entertainment that they have never seen before. In this world where everybody has seen everything, that's a good thing, right? People talked about interactive television for so long and that is typically a linear experience with some interactivity wrapped around. Here, you can watch the show and then fire up your PC or console and jump into this world and play.

On the business side, of course the advertisers are tremendously excited about the opportunity to reach audiences in the linear format and the interactive format. But our number one motivation is not, with all due respect, to please the advertisers. It's really about giving the gamers a great new experience, and also the TV audience. And the demographic overlap between people who watch shows on the Sci-Fi Channel and gamers that play action-RPGs is actually pretty big.

Q: So the Trion Platform, hardware-wise, is designed to interact with PlayStation 3 and PC?

Lars Buttler: For us, the platform now is the server architecture. What is traditionally called platform, the PC or the PS3 or 360 or so on, is really now an input, output and access device. We still use PCs, we still use PS3s, 360s and so on, particularly for rendering and input and output. We never thought it makes much sense to reinvent the console for the PC. People have PCs at home, they have consoles at home.

We wanted to really innovate in gameplay and how you make great games and experiences. So we are a PC publisher, PS3 publisher, 360 developer already. And the idea is really that once your games live on powerful servers, any device that's connected can be an access device into this live game world.

Q: What you've just said to me is bringing images of OnLive into my head. Have you looked at that? What do you think of it, as someone whose products are server-based?

Lars Buttler: We are not a conduit for other people's games as a new distribution mechanism. We are also not building a new type of console. We are taking broadband so seriously that we think it is not just a new distribution mechanism, but it can change the way that games are made, played, paid for.

And so if you take traditional packaged good software games and you put them on the server, and you render from the server, that's a little bit like NBC or ABC on cable. You have a new channel, but you take old content. It's new distribution for old content. If you take the cable analogy, people then eventually figured out, wait a minute, you have to change the way that you make content, and that people pay for it. So you can broadcast 24 hours music, or sports, or news. You can charge for it. So everything from HBO to MTV, CNN, is original programming.

We want to make original programming for broadband, and we feel that having a powerful server architecture allows you to do it. We create games that are live, that are fully dynamic, that are massively social, that are loaded with gameplay innovation, because broadband really asks for that. Broadband as a medium allows you to do things with your friends, it allows you to measure things and build on that, to give them more of what they like and take away the things they don't like.

That's really what Trion is all about, making games that leverage the full power of server-based gaming and broadband. And also, by the way, because we really want to be mass market from day one, utilize the devices that people already have. They are PCs, they are Xboxes, they are PS3s. We don't want to compete with HP or Microsoft or Sony on the device front. We really want to invest all of our time and money into great new content.

Lars Buttler is CEO of Trion World Network. Interview by Frank Cifaldi.

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