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Scott Hartsman on the Future of Trion Worlds

Interviews By William Murphy on August 23, 2013

This week I had the pleasure of sitting down and chatting with Scott Hartsman, formerly Chief Creative Officer, now Chief Executive Officer of Trion Worlds. We last spoke with Scott on MMOFTW Live months ago (see embedded video below), shortly after he stepped away from the company in search of new opportunities. Well, now he’s back with Trion and raring to bring the MMO maker and publisher into a new era of prosperity. It’s no secret that Trion’s had a swirl of disappointments in Defiance’s launch and the development delays of End of Nations. But Rift’s F2P conversion has gone decidedly well for the company, and the anticipation of the sandbox MMO ArcheAge (being localized and published in the west by Trion) is riding high. Scott and I chatted about all of these games, why he left and came back, and what he sees as the future of MMOs and Trion’s role in that space.

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Firstly, on the topic of why he ever left in the first place and why he’s come back now (aside from being CEO of anything being an awesome checkmark on the Bucket List), Scott had a pretty poetic answer. In short, he left Trion originally, because he saw an opportunity to spread his wings, try something different and see what the rest of the gaming industry was up to. When the opportunity arose for him to come back as CEO, he leapt at the chance. While he was out meeting with dozens of studios, business people, and exploring the world outside of Trion he found that the industry at large was confirming a theory he’d had for some time: that big budget, megaton AAA gaming isn’t the only model that can work. Smaller projects, things like Cube World (itself designed by a husband and wife) can thrive in the new online market. 

What sort of mentality is Scott bringing with him to the role of CEO? It’s fairly simple: the term “publisher” is loaded with ire; they’re seen as the bad guys and always wanting to “own” whatever product their name is attached to. Scott wants Trion to “change that and have the term mean partnering with developers to get their products out there and into the wild and make them stand on their own.” He knows they have the tools to do this with their platform Red Door, and now it’s time to use that (as they will be with ArcheAge when it launches next year). He believes they can and will succeed as a developer and publisher by facilitating both the big and the small games. “Niche games can work, they can thrive even, and not everything needs to have $100mln behind it to make a name for itself. That’s the puzzle we want to solve, and I’m anxious to prove it can be done. We want to champion both the big guy and the little guy.”

Moving along, we talked a bit about each of Trion’s current games. Defiance is keenly being looked at right now, as the game has continued to improve and grow despite a rocky and underwhelming launch (one that caused the San Diego studio to shut down). On the topic of the closure, Scott was morose: “No one wants anyone to lose their jobs, but the restructuring we did around the company had to be done. We have a lot of people kept on, and it’s honestly going to be better for the development of all of our games to have everyone under one roof.” Scott’s been taking a hard look at Defiance, and in his own words: “The moment to moment fun is there in that one. We need to figure out how to take it beyond that initial hook though”, and with everyone in Redwood now Scott believes iteration, development, and sharing of ideas will simply be a lot faster.  There are far less middlemen in the way with the company in one spot, and he believes that development on all of Trion’s games needs to get back to way things once were with Rift.

When Rift first launched it was known for its brisk pace of additions, patching, and listening to feedback. Scott wants Rift, Defiance, End of Nations, ArcheAge, and everything going forward at Trion to follow this creed.  “We’re going to get back to resolving issues quicker, acting and getting things into the games faster.”

Speaking on End of Nations, Scott said he’s still a little too “New Guy” to make any big statements regarding the MMORTS turned MOBA, but he did say two things: the first is that he can easily tell that EON today is more fun and far more accessible than it used to be. And he hates to put a label of “another MOBA” on the game, because he believes that it’s about whether or not a game is fun and engaging and the new EON has that more than it ever did before.

Development on ArcheAge’s localization continues at a brisk but lengthy pace, with little else to report right now other than the fact that the team’s working hard on getting it ready for us next year. But along those lines I asked Scott what he thought of the current sandbox versus theme park debate raging right now. “I got my start in MUDs,” he said. “Of course I have a huge place in my heart for the more free-form experiences. There are a lot of people out there who really and truly do want to do their own thing in the world and know what to expect from an honest to goodness sandbox experience.  But then there are others who think they want a sandbox, and once they get in there they might suddenly miss that direction a theme park gives them. So I think it’ll be fun to watch how this current race to the sandbox dominance shakes out.

“Part of the problem is getting the stickiness right. You have to bridge the gap between a real and ideal sandbox experience, and the reality of what the experience presents the user. Successful execution in a sandbox MMO is hard. But most importantly, with any MMO, and I think there’s plenty of room for both theme parks and sandboxes, is that they’re fun. You need to nudge people in the direction of why the game’s fun to begin with. You’ll always have to give them some guidance, without beating them over the head with it.”

Finally we came to the big question: are there games being made at Trion we don’t yet know about, or is the company focused more on “partnering” as they have with XLGAMES’ ArcheAge?  To this Scott said, “We’re doing both. Yes, there are new games we’re making internally that we can’t quite talk about yet.  There are also games we’re looking at bringing into our fold as we have with ArcheAge.  And that’s a big part of my job now, is finding these new opportunities and what might fit well within our culture moving forward.”

I asked Scott about the other folks who left Trion around the same time he did. Have any of them come back now that he’s returned to lead the company? Laughing, he replied: “Our first priority is taking care of those who are with us, and those who are moving to Redwood from our closed locations. But we are reaching out to people. There are already some folks coming back, yes. Part of my role is also 'Recruiter in Chief'.  I’ve got to bring in the people who fit and will work towards the goals we all have as a company."

Prying a little more, I asked about the unannounced upcoming projects. When will we learn more about these mystery games? “Frankly, it’s too early to talk about them just yet,” he said. “But we are working on new things. It’s just our focus right now needs to be getting our current stable on track and making them shine.” I then asked if he thought the company’s future games would be al F2P? What’s the “best model” for a company like Trion? To which Scott had a lot to offer:

“The business model matters more than many might think.  Even a really good game can fail if it has the wrong business model to meet its customers’ needs. Whichever one you pick, the product needs to fit the model.  Look at Minecraft: perfect model. Buy it, it’s yours, have fun. The model fits the game and its original development size. But a game like Rift has to be more agile. For a time, the subscription model fit it like a glove. Then what the audience and the team needed changed, and we were able to change with that need. In return, we have what I personally think is the best conversion to F2P I’ve ever seen, and the numbers we’re generating prove we nailed that switch.”

What about the recent subscription announcements for Elder Scrolls, FFXIV, and WildStar? “No matter what choice those teams made,” Scott said, “it always would have been a risky one. These are big, high profile games. But I think we have to trust that those teams know their game, their teams, and have done research on their audiences. And that’s the key really. You have to know what your audience will be on board with and what your team can do. Start with the audience, then think of what fits the product, and then if it fits the team. If these all align, you’re in good shape.”

Finally, with our time almost up, I asked Scott what he learned during his time away from the industry and from Trion. What is he bringing back, and where does he see the games and the company headed in the next year or two?

“What we’re really seeing now,” he said “is we’re going to see more games of many more sizes and shapes. Different scales all around. The future isn’t just $300mln budgets. You’ll see indies, kickstarters, and those big tent-pole projects. The MMO isn’t going anywhere, it’s just changing. Trion’s role, our role going forward, is to not only make our own but to bring in these other folks to partner with us. To find the next indie star and to help them do this business right. The old model of publishing is dead. Our goal is to partner with the best games of all sizes, and to help players get the games they want in the best way possible.  Great games come in many different packages, and we want to help those games see the light of day. Enabling great talent, in-house and outside of Trion. I guess, at the end of the day it comes down to ‘How can we help great games get made?’ We’re the Good Guy Partner, not the evil publisher. And that’s what we’re sticking with.”

Bill Murphy / Bill Murphy is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He’s made fun of Scott’s baldness one too many times, and now fears for his life. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.

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