Trion Worlds at PAX South 2017: The Past, Present, and Future of ArcheAge and Atlas Reactor
It's been a rough past few months for Trion Worlds. How rough? So rough that another gaming news website needs a “Mess Roundup” page to try and keep up with all the problems and negative news surrounding one of its titles.
Then there was Atlas Reactor, which was free-to-play, then buy-to-play, then buy-to-play with a subpar free-to-play option, and then finally fully free-to-play. It's right back where it started, but all the flip-flopping has drained customer confidence in the title and made people less willing than ever to give it a shot.
It was under this backdrop that Trion Worlds exhibited at PAX South for the first time in the show's history, proudly displaying its wares to the gaming public at San Antonio this past weekend. While Rift, Trove, Defiance, and Devilian keep chugging along, ArcheAge and Atlas Reactor seem to be the most prominent in the minds of gamers these days. These were the two titles I focused on covering and hearing from the people behind their execution.
ArcheAge: Revelation's Revolution
The first thing I did was grab a hold of ArcheAge Producer Merv Lee Kwai to talk about his game, most notably the recent Revelation update, which added three new servers for players to get a fresh start on the game. “We're really pleased with the public response to them [the fresh start servers]. They are the largest ArcheAge servers in all regions, including Korea. We're just happy with the amount of players that showed up and are very appreciative of that.”
If you're (rightly) skeptical of a company rep telling you everything is grreat, don't worry; publicly available numbers seem to back Kwai up. While ArcheAge is available on both Steam and Trion's Glyph launcher, Steam Charts and Steam Spy (see “CCU (Daily)” chart) both agree with the narrative that the game has flourished since Revelation and experienced little dropoff in the time since its release.
“We were overwhelmed,” Kwai said, noting that the game saw five times as many players as anticipated. “With the new fresh start servers, we stripped down the monetization. There were specific pain points that people talked about over the last two years of ArcheAge. We listened to that feedback and adjusted the marketplace … It was our goal to try and get back to where were then [around alpha and launch].”
If you missed out, don't fret; Kwai told me that fresh start servers are “absolutely” something the company will do again, probably in the space of a year or a little longer, to coincide with a major content release.
As for the nearer future, ArcheAge players can will soon have more big monsters and underwear. How's that for a pairing? “This February, we'll be releasing the second part of the 3.0 update. That includes the Thunderwing Titan, a very large world boss north of Diamond Shores. It's a very large-scale, open-world boss, similar to the Red Dragon and Leviathan, and will take upwards of 200 players to kill.” Kwai then told me about the underwear upgrade system that would also be coming to the game with the February update. I failed to avoid merging the two features in my mind and pictured a colossal titan in lacy lingerie.
A little further down the line is the 3.5 update, which was just released in Korea in January. It'll be ArcheAge's next major update, bringing a new trading system as well as a new crafting tier and new grade for items.
That was the easy part of the interview, the part every developer loves: gushing about his product. But, this being ArcheAge, I had to bring up the other side of things and what Trion is doing to combat ArcheAge's negative perception. Kwai acknowledged that Trion can't just keep shoving marketing down people's throats and hoping it will work. He thought that the most important thing the company could do was to create “advocates of the brand.” “I can tell you all day that we've addressed certain problems, but there's nothing more powerful than your peer telling you that.”
Part of the game's perception issue is due to the community, which – as you might expect from a game that features open-world PvP – can get toxic at times. Community Manager Celestrata announced an initiative last May to combat this kind of behavior, and I asked Kwai how things were coming on that front. “It's rough, because we support the game from the perspective that we allow players to do the things they want to do, and part of that is speech. But it just detracts from people's gameplay when it's overly toxic or just inappropriate. So I would say that before, our tolerance level of that language on a scale of one to 10 was like a three, and we've just lowered our tolerance for that. We address it more aggressively.”
Beyond the social or monetary issues, ArcheAge has seen more than its share of tech problems, including the near-disastrous rollout of the North American fresh start servers for Revelation. “ArcheAge has those tech problems because it dreams a lot bigger in scope than a lot of other MMOs,” Kwai said. “We try and do very risky things, like pulling RTS-style gameplay into the game, doing it in a real space with 500 players in real time. We love that sort of thing about the game and we think it's part of its identity. We're willing to take those risks.”
Atlas Reactor: Alternating, Currently
Speaking of risks … Atlas Reactor is a different type of game from nearly anything else out there, and, in just a few months, it's already gone through more monetization models than most games do in years. After finishing up with Kwai, I talked with Senior Systems Designer Jeff Hamilton about Atlas Reactor's back-and-forth and other topics related to Trion's unique title.
“We started free-to-play in alpha,” he told me. “The reason we went to a box-pricing model in the first place was because we found that people were already buying Founder's Packs at a pretty high rate. We also found that they had a feeling that the game would be fair forever. So we thought that doing a straight-up buy-to-play model in the same vein as Rocket League or Overwatch was something that appealed to consumers a lot. And I think to some extent, that was true.”
As has been discovered many times before in gaming, however, the cries of a few didn't represent the market as a whole, and the company switched and switched again, first to straight buy-to-play and then to B2P with a limited F2P option, which didn't meet players' expectations.
“We got a lot of feedback from players coming into the game who were seeing it for the first time after launch and saying, 'This isn't the League of Legends model' or 'This isn't the Smite model.'” Trion pivoted by producing a model that let you buy individual freelancers while still retaining the value for those who fully bought into the game. “It's a new type of game, it really is genre-defining, which is scary for players who don't know necessarily if that's what they want. So they don't want to buy in at $30 immediately. They want to play for free and make sure that they like it. And then, if they like it, 'Here's my money.'” That seemed obvious from the start, but sometimes decisions can take you down some strange paths.
With the tough question out of the way, I thought I'd ask Hamilton about Atlas Reactor's origins and why the team decided on a game in this vein. Hamilton got into a lot of gory details about the game's early days: a MOBA-style map with minions, 3v3 matches instead of 4v4, and 14(!) phases instead of the current three. But the greatest fundamental shift was in going from non-simultaneous turns to simultaneous ones. “We found that the fun of the game is the battle of wits of trying to figure out what an opponent is trying to do and choosing what you're going to do accordingly … One day, our executive producer, Peter Ju, turned over and looked to our lead designer and said, 'What if everyone went at the same time?' And it was this sort of 'chaos moment.'”
For the future, Hamilton estimates that it would be “months, not weeks” between new maps coming to the game, with new game modes coming at a “fairly good clip.” One of those new modes is Extraction, a capture-the-flag kind of mode that came out in December. Unlike a typical CTF mode, in Atlas Reactor's version you hold onto the prize for a while, avoiding damage, and make it to the extraction zone when the “powers that be” deem you worthy of their aid. “We have new game modes coming every three weeks for the foreseeable future. We have seasons, and chapters within those seasons. We're in chapter one of season two right now, and every chapter will have a new game mode.” New freelancers will be on a three- to six-week release schedule.
Trion Worlds is a company of contradictions. On the one hand, it's got some truly spectacular games in its library, but controversy – some of the company's own making and some not – seem to dog it at every turn. I keep wanting to get back into its games, especially Atlas Reactor, which I was excited for when it was first announced, but it's hard to trust again. I suspect ArcheAge players feel the same way about Kwai's statements about how the fresh start servers “fixed” things. At least the company is aware of its missteps and is taking measures to address them, but it's going to be up to the players to decide how effective those measures are.