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Scott Hartsman on All Things Trion

Morgan Ramsay Posted:
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Scott Hartsman started in online games as a game designer at Interplay in 1986 where he worked on Scepter of Goth, one of the earliest multi-user dungeons. Since then, he has held a variety of creative, technical, and management positions at online game companies, including perhaps most recognizably as senior producer at Sony Online Entertainment where he launched 13 titles in the EverQuest franchise.

In 2009, Hartsman accepted a position at Trion Worlds as chief creative officer and general manager of the Redwood City studio. To players, he was best known as the executive producer of Rift, and oversaw the launch of that game in 2011 and the development of live content. In January 2013, Hartsman left Trion Worlds to start a new company, but by August 2013, he had rejoined the publisher as CEO.

Under Hartsman's leadership, Trion Worlds has successfully transitioned from a packaged goods company to developing and publishing strictly digital and free-to-play games. Today, Trion Worlds operates a growing catalog of first-party and third-party MMOs, including Rift, Defiance, and Trove, as well as ArcheAge from XLGames and the recently announced Devilian from Bluehole Ginno.

Ramsay: You were the chief creative officer and general manager of the Redwood City studio when you left Trion in January 2013. Why did you leave?

Hartsman: Oh, man. I think the biggest reason was that I am a guy who likes working at companies where we can be very nimble, where we're always behaving like a startup. Everybody has a common goal, everybody has the same way of thinking about how to get there, and there's lots of healthy debate. I like a very fast paced environment where there are always lots of great ideas flying around and there is a lot of excitement about how to pick the best ones.

Trion hit an inflection point a year earlier when we ended up with a large number of teams distributed all over the place. The way we were working made it very hard to maintain that kind of environment. So, I went, "I love you guys. I wish you the best. You're all very smart people. But I'm going back to work in startup land for a little while." I really missed being part of a very closely knit team charging toward the same goal, not knowing if you're going to make it. Trion was becoming a little too much like a big publisher for me.

Ramsay: Leaving Trion wasn't about the direction of the company?

Hartsman: It wasn't the direction of the company. It was the shape of the company. There were four offices on two continents, which made for a very distributed studio. The company was working on two other games outside of what I was working on. And I had a new, exciting thing I wanted to go build.

Ramsay: But then seven months later, you were brought back into the fold.

Hartsman: I know. It was funny. In my time away, I had assembled a team for our own games. I was actively pursuing funding, and I was still friendly with Trion's investors. One was even investing in my thing. They called me up and said, "I know you're putting this thing together, but instead of doing that, would you ever in a million years consider going back to Trion?"

I said, "Quite honestly, no. I'm so far into this thing we're trying to get started up, and I'm really looking forward to it." And then I thought about it a little more. There were some people I really liked and I could think of about 150 people who'd be really great to work with again. And then the funding for my startup came together on the same day that the offer from Trion came back.

I had a choice to make, and it was a very, very difficult choice. What pushed me over the edge were the people. I'm a very people-driven person. If I came back to Trion, I'd get to work with larger numbers of the great people I really loved working with than I would on my own. I ended up changing my mind in a week, and I have not regretted that for not one day since.

Ramsay: And yet the news of your appointment coincided with the closure of the San Diego and Guildford studios. You helmed this process. Why were those studios shuttered?

Hartsman: The company was making far less money than it was spending. I'm a big believer in third grade math: you need to be making more money than you're spending. The path that the company was on had no changes been made would have resulted in a Trion that had zero employees. It was a lousy thing to have to do, but if there had been any other option, we wouldn't have done it. We were able to rebuild more lean and more successfully from there.

Ramsay: On that day, you wrote on your Facebook page that "this model of game making is so fundamentally broken." What were you referencing?

Hartsman: That's a great question. You still see some companies do this today. They make their financial plans as if their game will be a massive success, they spend disproportionately batshit crazy amounts of money to hit that goal, and then they go, "Did it work?" When the game is a massive success, everything is fine, but in any other case, a whole lot of awesome people lose their jobs, and it's always studios that end up taking it in the shorts. That is the model to me that is hugely broken. That's how the game industry gets a really bad name, and how the game industry chases away amazing talent who would love to have stayed in games if only the industry was a saner, more stable place to work.

When I came back to Trion, I changed the way we did all of our financials, all of our forecasting, all of our planning, and basically everything on the business side. I never thought I'd actually be passionate about this topic by the way. Remember: you're talking to a kid who, at 12 years old, wanted a persistent Dungeons & Dragons game running on the Internet 24/7. That's been my big lifetime motivator, so for me to be passionate about finance is bizarre to me.

Ramsay: Are the problems with that model inherent to packaged goods?

Hartsman: I'm no expert in current state of packaged goods. We very intentionally exited that business. Two years ago, that business was incredibly unhealthy for everybody involved, except for a couple of key players. Just the physical goods alone for a AAA box run with special editions, distribution, storage, and all of that for a game projected to hit the top five or top three could cost $25 million dollars. I'm sure that figure has only gone up since then. But with the Internet, you can get files without worrying about boxes, stores, trucks, logistics, and just all of these nightmare things that don't add any value.

Ramsay: You've since transitioned two of your subscription games to free-to-play away from packaged goods. When did you start talking about transitioning Rift and Defiance?

Hartsman: Those two things weren't necessarily related because you can still sell packaged goods for a free-to-play game; they just become bonus packs. But with Rift, we started talking about how we should make the transition when I was still here. The team leads had their vision of free, fair, and fun, and turned that into a plan and execution that worked incredibly well. We don't want to be in the "make the hurting stop" business, so you'll notice that in the games we control, we don't do that. With Defiance, the transition started shortly after I came back.

I have had many objections to free-to-play in the past. I absolutely had tons of them. But the models I object to are the ones that are all about making the hurting stop. In the years prior, free-to-play had been far more negative. It had been very scammy. I'm sure you remember the Facebook game days when there was a lot of opportunism and consumers weren't treated well. The old term was "the pinch," which was not what people were expecting.

When we optimize our games, we know that if we went harder on the microtransactions, we'd make more money. I guarantee you we'd make more money, but that's money we're not trying to make. We've modeled our entire business around the idea that only 7% to 20% of our players will ever give us a penny. What we're going for is fair, sustainable, and fun. Healthy free-to-play is when people are right there with you and have solid expectations that are in line with what they're about to run into. That's what we want in our ideal world.

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Morgan Ramsay

Morgan Ramsay, bestselling author of Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play and Online Game Pioneers at Work, has interviewed more than 50 leaders in entertainment, technology, and sports, such as EA founder Trip Hawkins, Gaikai CEO David Perry, and NFL punter Chris Kluwe. Follow him on Twitter (@MorganRamsay) or visit his website at theramsayinterviews.com.