Ramsay: Why make the transition anyway?
Hartsman: Subscription became vastly more challenging. To this day, Rift still gets thousands of sign-ups every single day, but we saw that subscription was acting as a barrier. We did the vast majority of our business directly from our own platform websites, so we could see the stats the entire way. The abandonment that happened when people would get up to either a page that told them there was a sub or a page where they actually had to commit to the sub was just ridiculous.
Ramsay: In the rest of the industry, the free-to-play model has image and usability problems. How can Trion play a role in solving those problems for the market beyond MMOs?
Hartsman: Oh, love it. I think there are a lot of things we can do. The first thing we can do is when we create our own first-party games that are supposed to be free-to-play from the ground up, we become the example we want the world to follow. We want to be as close to that ideal as we can. I think Trove is the most recent example of that. Trove was actually our first game that was built to launch free-to-play from day one. I think people can dive into that game and see how generous and fun it is, and how optional the purchases are and how they can play all the way through. I think that's the first and most important thing. "Be the change you want to see in the world." Well, that's what we're doing.
With our partner games, we can continue being an advocate for how we want them to present their games when they ship on our platform. With ArcheAge, for instance, we had one of our very big wins with that game prior to launch. The developer, XLGames, has a pretty incredible challenge. They have six different audiences in six different regions across the world, and they need to find the magical way to keep all of them happy, and all of us publishing partners happy, while having a reasonable number of developers working on the game. When they originally handed us the game, they said, "We've got this very China-friendly business model we're going to be switching to, and it's mostly developed, so this will be the business model you'll be getting." To which we said, "Holy shit! Sorry, we have some bad news. That model is absolutely not going to work here in the United States. We understand what you're going for and we know we're not going to get our ideal here, but let's see how close to our ideal we can get."
That continues to be a push-and-pull partnership every day of every week. It's a very healthy, friendly relationship, but they have to advocate on behalf of six regions while we have to advocate very strongly on behalf of our players. Every decision that gets made, by necessity and by the nature of how games ship, has to be a compromise. We have to present what we really want, and they have to be able to get the work done. There are moments when we have huge victories for our players, and there are moments when the realities of shipping games set in and we don't have victories. I'm very happy to say though that over time, as we succeed in pushing for generosity, XLGames is actually pushing the entire global partnership the way Trion is pushing them.
Ramsay: Trove is a massively multiplayer voxel-based Minecraft-esque procedurally generated free-to-play UGC-powered sandbox RPG. Trove sounds like the kind of game that a satirist might make. Is there more to Trove than a list of buzzwords? I ask because, well, reports suggest few can actually get in. [At the time of this interview, Trove was experiencing notable queue issues. —ed.]
Hartsman: [laughs] I think the Steam Top 10 would disagree with the snark there! It's just that there is a large number of people who are in, causing connection issues for others. We had to make more emergency hardware orders. It blew up far beyond what we expected, but we couldn't be happier.
Trove started life as a passion project of two Rift developers. They came to me and the general manager a few years ago and said, "We want to work on something different. We want to make an MMO out of voxels." We went, "What?" They went, "Here's a little single-player prototype we put together over a few weekends." And we realized, "Hey, this is kind of fun. We could maybe do something like that."
If you go back to the original first-person shooters, the first games were Wolfenstein, Doom, and games like that. For a long time, every first-person shooter that came out was called a "Doom clone" because FPS wasn't a genre yet. So, for us, the operating theory was that if you differentiate the gameplay enough, voxels could become a genre. Could we make a game that was unique enough that voxels would just become a mode of expression and don't become the game?
I think the team succeeded really well with Trove. If you look at Minecraft, you very much have a sandbox. If you look at Trove, the entire point is to come at voxels from the opposite angle; you have classes, stats, random loot, dungeons, and all of these things that take place in an MMO but in a world where the worlds are dynamically generated. In my dream of dreams, I would love to take so many of the things we learned in Trove in terms of making destructible temporary worlds, dynamically generated worlds, and dynamic content in those dynamic worlds, and begin to do all of that in different genres at full, modern, expensive resolutions. I think games like that would be amazing.
Ramsay: Trove now sounds like a game jam that was made into a product.
Hartsman: That is an excellent way of putting it.
Ramsay: Do you have any intentions of expanding Glyph's publishing platform to non-MMO games? Or do you want Trion to be just an MMO company?
Hartsman: Very interesting timing on this one. We actually ran an experiment with that very thing last year. We actually signed up independent developers to distribute single-player DRM-free games through our platform. We succeeded with that. It worked just fine, but it's not an area we'll continue focusing on. We absolutely tried it, and I'm thrilled that we tried it. Trying new stuff is important, and getting new sales for developers who otherwise wouldn't have gotten them is pretty cool, too. But we're definitely going to be sticking with our DNA of being an online game company.
We're doing a really cool transition program where we're erring on the side of awesome wherever possible. People get to keep the games they bought. They get to play them forever. They're also getting keys for other services for those games in case they want their games on other services. We're also giving them $100 in free credits for all of our existing games just as a "hey, thank you for being awesome and supporting us." Not a bad deal for someone who may have spent $4.95 on a single-player game.
Ramsay: What's your vision for Glyph now?
Hartsman: Glyph right now is the best place for us to show off our own content and the best place for us to continue partnering with other online game makers. We launched ArcheAge with XLGames, and we recently announced Devilian with Bluehole Ginno. That'll be an exclusive launch on our platform. We're also talking with five or six other developers in and outside the US for our next online game.
Ramsay: You've been lucky enough to see the online game industry from a variety of angles since the beginning, starting with Scepter of Goth, as a designer, producer, engineer, manager, and chief executive. Does that breadth of experience give you a significant advantage over your peers, meaning MBAs and other professional CEOs, who have only finance or legal backgrounds?
Hartsman: I definitely have muscle memory and hands-on experience with solving problems, so I can offer good solutions, but I can also relate to the people who are doing the actual work, which I think is really important. I can relate to a programmer or a designer really well, and sympathize and empathize very deeply with the frustrations, deadlines, and challenges. I can do that to some extent with artists and audio folks, too. In that way, huge advantage. I feel more like "one of us" than a typical MBA would.
But sometimes practical experience can actually hurt you. Your old engineer brain might fire up and you go, "Holy crap, that's impossible. I can't solve that problem. I shouldn't even try." But if you don't know something is impossible, you're more inclined to push for it. If you never had to slog through the hands-on creation of games yourself, those types of people are more likely to ask for the impossible, and sometimes asking for the impossible is a good thing because sometimes you get it.
Ramsay: What if all of your customers ask for the impossible?
Hartsman: [laughs] Well, then it's called making online games!