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Trion sees server-based future

Thirty million dollars in investment from Time Warner and NBC/Universal, among others. Hires that include former EA, NCSoft, and SOE personnel. A technology agreement with HP. Three US studios. Not bad for a start-up company that has yet to announce a product.

In conjunction with recent news that Trion World Networks had established a San Diego studio with former SOE exec Nicholas Beliaeff at the helm, spoke to CEO Dr. Lars Buttler about the company's goals. So, you are opening a third studio in San Diego...

Buttler: I'm actually sitting in our San Diego studio right now. It's a beautiful day, and I'm here with about a dozen of the most talented people in the games space, so it's a great feeling.

We now have three studios. One is in Silicon Valley (Redwood City), the second is in Austin, Texas, and the third is now here in San Diego.

How long has the Austin studio been open now?

The Austin studio opened almost from day one. I don't know if you've followed the Trion story, but we started with some really strong people from Electronic Arts and some very strong people from NCSoft.

Robert "Jay" Lee, who runs our Austin studio, used to be the lead architect of NCSoft down there, and we have a large number of very strong people in our Austin office.

And with the San Diego studio, you've recruited several people from SOE. Can you explain the reasoning behind these three locations?

We fundamentally believe, as does everybody who understands the entertainment space, that great talent makes great entertainment, both from a content and from a technology perspective.

The key locations in the US for server-based game development are Austin, because of all the online and server development talent you have there which is tremendous, Silicon Valley, because you have AAA videogame development talent and also a lot of technology and Web 2.0 talent pools, and then San Diego, or Southern California in general, has both--they have tremendous online game and tremendous videogame talent.

Those are, in our mind, the ideal locations in the US for building the next-generation developer and publisher that is focused on server-based games and connected entertainment.

Isn't it unusual, to have three key locations and the funding you recently received, before you've even announced any projects? Do you think you'll be able to live up to such high expectations?

I think, to some degree, we already have lived up to a lot of expectations.

You know, you have to look at what we have built so far. Everybody today talks about server-based games and connected entertainment as the next giant frontier and the next big thing that is coming. And because that is the case, there is tremendous investment interest.

Everybody from venture capital, to big entertainment and media companies, to hedge funds, to private equity companies... Even the portals and the technology companies. Everybody is looking for ways to invest in server-based games, and "play" in this next big thing that is happening.

But mostly, they can only invest in one of the developers. Little studios and teams that work maybe on one title. That is not optimal from an investment perspective. Not at all.

What you need to invest in is a portfolio, really a publisher that develops titles, that publishes titles, that co-develops titles. So, you need to have somebody that has groundbreaking technology platforms and tools.

Earlier in the year we announced our great partnership with HP, and we announced that we had developed what we call the Trion platform, which is really a next-generation, fully dynamic, multi-device platform for server-based games.

Even if you have a portfolio of titles that you build, even if you have all the tools and the platform, you also have to be able to reach your consumers. So you also have to have a publishing organisation, or what we call a network, a publishing network. That's another thing we have built. We have tremendous people, and we have announced a number of them. Peter Matiss, Won Seok Chung, Erin Turner, Peter Huang from Electronic Arts... So, we have built that tool.

And then finally, you need amazing talent. Because, as you know, in the game space that makes all the difference. So you need people that are extremely proven in design, art, even management of larger teams, and with our San Diego studio in place now, if you look at the Trion team across the board, it is literally now the "who's who" of AAA game development.

The last piece is that you want to have access to amazing content IP, marketing and distribution partners, and we now have three of the world's top five entertainment and media companies as investors--we have Time Warner, NBC/Universal, and Bertelsmann, which is Europe's biggest entertainment and media company. We have HP as a strategic partner--the world's biggest technology company.

So, although we have never announced a product as of today, we have built an amazing organisation with amazing talent and also a second-to-none support network. A technology platform for server-based games, a publishing network for server-based games, the studios with the "who's who" of server-based game development, all those content and distribution partners...that in itself is, I think, something no start-up has ever been able to pull off.

When you talk about server-based games, as a publisher and developer, are you therefore looking only at digital distribution rather than traditional retail channels?

That's a good question. In the connected era, when all devices are connected... Not just PCs, but also consoles, cell phones, in the future even television sets... There are tremendous opportunities in content design and development, but there are also tremendous opportunities in publishing and distribution.

We look at the entire range of distribution capabilities from retail to online to social... All those things you can do in the connected world. So, we are not only targeting online distribution. We believe that customers should have any way they want to get to our games and entertainment titles. The publishing network we are building includes all those distribution capabilities.

You included consoles in the definition of the connected era. Have you had any discussions with console manufacturers, such as Sony and Microsoft, who would need to approve your games and content for their platforms?

When I say server-based games, I really mean that's the big frontier for electronic games period, no matter what device.

Today you are mainly restricted to what the client can handle. If you have a sophisticated server architecture, that limitation goes away. We are not focused on PC alone. We are clearly focused on any connected device that can tap, via broadband, into a sophisticated server architecture.

So, logically, that means there are a lot of collaborators in the field, which includes console manufacturers, broadband providers, carriers, technology companies, and of course, content IP owners. We talk to all of those, because they are all part of moving entertainment into the connected era.

Can you talk specifically about any agreements you might have reached with those collaborators?

We have not made any announcements yet. We are being very careful and strategic about our announcements, as you can probably tell.

We also don't want to come out with small things. So when we make announcements, we focus on some really relevant news.

The reason I am asking is that, unlike the PC market, with gaming consoles you need permission from the manufacturers to get content on their platforms, so I was wondering if any announcements were forthcoming.

We definitely talked to all the people we need to be successful, and we also find the space to be supportive of new ideas and great concepts. At the end of the day, everybody is looking for great content in the server-based world. That's when everybody wins.

Despite the fact that we have not made any announcements around product, most of the time we actually spend building great product.

Do you have any time frame, then, as to when you expect to release your first product or announce your first product(s)?

Unfortunately, both my marketing and PR team have told me strictly to shy away from talking about any unannounced product [laughs]. That's simply to keep our powder dry for when we do come out with news. So, I cannot comment on that right now, but you will hear from us soon.

This new studio announcement is big on multiple fronts. Having a studio in San Diego and attracting... These guys are absolutely outstanding. If you look at their track record, what they have done and what products they have participated in lead roles, I think it is a major deal.

I also think it is a major deal because you do not find start-ups that aim to be publishers and can back it up with technology platforms, publishing networks, tremendous talent, three studios, and the world's best content IP owners in the boat.

Dr. Lars Buttler is CEO of Trion World Networks. Interview by Mark Androvich.

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