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Scott Hartsman: Atlas Reactor, Lootboxes, Rift and the Changing Economy of Games

William Murphy Posted:
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Scott Hartsman of Trion Worlds is one of gaming’s most open and candid CEO’s. During PAX West 2016, he and I sat down to discuss Trion Worlds’ games, past, present, and future. When I found him, he was sitting at the front desk, handing out codes for free items, talking with fans, and telling people about Atlas Reactor. We found two chairs, and went off the rails into all manner of uncharted discussions.

Specifically, about Atlas Reactor, Scott said that since the announcement of the game veering away from full Free to Play and into a “Buy Once, Play Forever Model” with a free unlimited trial, it’s created a really promising past couple of months in the beta. AR is getting every closer to launch on PC, with numbers of active and paying customers going up every day. When I asked him about the difficulty of getting people to try a game that’s kind of in its own genre with the simultaneous turn-based combat, Scott admitted that it’s been a challenge to sort of teach people how the game works. But that once they get it, once they find a character who clicks, they’re hooked.

It’s worth noting, for those who want to buy into the full version, all the heroes of Atlas Reactor, your $20 today will eventually be a higher price at launch and the “All the Freelancers” you get in this early stage will be all the freelancers later. So the intent is that you won’t have to pay for more freelancers down the line. Your buy-in now guarantees you future freelancers as part of your purchase. How then will Atlas Reactor be monetized after launch?

Loot Boxes in Atlas Reactor.

And here, given my recent article which touched on the matter and the discussion it generated, is where we went off the rails a bit.  In Atlas Reactor, you get a Lootcrate each time you level, and you can buy them. Everything within them is cosmetic. Nothing is altering the actual gameplay. To me, as in Overwatch, this is the ideal presentation of a “gambling box” in online gaming. Elder Scrolls Online’s own “Crown Crates” are similar. They can only be bought on the store, they don’t drop in the world and beg for keys to be bought to unlock them, and they contain stuff that won’t power you over other players in PVE or PVP. Jury is still out in ESO as to whether the stuff you can only get from the Crown Crates is going to upset the balance. Some folks who oppose their addition to that game claim they’d be fine if they could buy all of the contents of the crates on the Crown Store separately.

But here’s the think that Trion’s Scott Hartsman shared with me.  At least when it comes to Trion games, whenever there’s something purely cosmetic on the item stores less than one percent of the game population ever buy that item. The reason we’re seeing so many games add lootcrates is because it’s a type of item that has a much higher rate of purchase, and like it or not those purchases are what’s needed to keep a game without a mandatory subscription going.  It’s an argument you hear all the time against the RNG boxes in games, but frankly they wouldn’t keep being introduced if they were so successfully funding the development and maintenance of the games of which they’re a part.

In short Scott says, “There is a right way and a wrong way to handle RNG boxes, and I think we’ve found the right way in Atlas Reactor.” But the simple truth may be that until some better way comes along for a long-term online game to be supported without a subscription being the go-to, lootcrates and lockboxes may be here to stay. “The job of developers”, said Scott, “is to make sure that the players are not harmed and not ticked off by items we offer.” He went on to say that the money made via systems like these is directly put back into Trion to “…build more awesome sh*t. It’s used to support current games and build new ones. We don’t do profit sharing at Trion. All the profits we make go back into the company to spend on the games we make.”

Rift’s Starfall Prophecy Pricing

Fairly monetizing a game is a tough balance, and Scott admitted to the previous Rift expansion, Nightmare Tide, being monetized wrong. What they thought was ideal, giving people the option to piece-meal buy different parts of the expansion’s content turned out to a.) be more expensive for the player and b.) fragmenting for the player base. It’s precisely why the forthcoming Starfall Prophecy expansion is a simple “pay once, get it all” purchase.

On that same note, I asked Scott whether Rift would be offering a “boost” to level 65 in the expansion, in order for those who buy it to get immediately into the content or to bring an alt up if they so desired. “It’s actually an ongoing discussion,” he said. “Right now we’re leaning on including it in the box price, but we’re also looking at adding it as an optional purchase for people who want to do it more than once.”

Scott went on to talk about how anyone who plays a game, even those who never spend a penny, are important to the community. Free players in Rift keep queues popping for Instant Adventure. In Atlas Reactor, the people who just play the freelancer rotation are keeping the queues popping for the matches so that people can keep playing easily.

In closing Scott had a tough task to share, “There’s an entire ecosystem of customer in every game we make. And we have to find a way to keep them all acceptably happy while also keeping our games paying the salaries of our employees and driving future development.” It’s not an easy quest to be set forth on, and it’s clear that the trends and acceptable practices are always changing.

Scott made a good point to wrap things up, and I’m going to take back my “Stop Complaining” attitude and say it should be “Don’t Just Complain, Discuss”. In Scott’s words, “With everything we do as a developer, and everything you do as a gamer, there should always be a discussion. We should always communicate from our end why things are the way they are. Just as you should always tell us why you’re unhappy with something we choose to do. It’s the only way we can meet in the middle.”


William Murphy

Bill is the former Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.