Trion prepares to host third-party games on its online gaming platform

Game maker Trion Worlds, which successfully launched its first major online role-playing fantasy game, Rift, back in March, is now unveiling a game platform to publish games created by other companies.

While Trion will continue making massively multiplayer online games such as its upcoming End of Nations and Defiance titles, the platform, called Project Red Door, is a way for the Redwood City, Calif.-based company to make a lot more money than it otherwise would, said Lars Buttler, chief executive of Trion, in an interview. The two-pronged initiative will have a consumer platform on the web and a publishing platform for game makers.

If it can start publishing third-party games in the first part of 2012, Trion could become a much bigger player in the lucrative online game market. The new strategy shows that Trion is making one of the biggest bets that a startup has ever made in the video game industry.

“We’re doing this because we see this massive shift in entertainment, which is transforming traditional content into connected services,” Buttler said. “The future of interactive entertainment is incredibly connected. Our job is to transform games into living worlds.”

Buttler said that the company raised more than $100 million and hired more than 500 employees since 2006 so that it could launch premium quality MMOs. But at the same time, it built a publishing platform that other companies can use. From a business view, the move makes sense because it allows Trion to amortize its technology investments over a much broader base of games. It also reduces Trion’s dependence on its own internally produced games.

“Our own games are just the tip of the iceberg,” Buttler said. “The true business significance of our company lies in the Trion platform.”

Red Door will roll out in the spring of 2012. Buttler said that Trion is talking with other game developers and publishers so that it can line up games that are “living worlds,” or MMOs that take heavy investment. It’s almost as if Trion is launching its own console, hoping to attract a lot of game companies to support it with their own games. Those who adopt Red Door could save years in development time, Buttler said.

For consumers, Trion will deliver a single, trusted destination site for connected games with rich social features. Players will be able to discover and download content and enjoy a suite of flexible account services, Buttler said.

Trion has game studios in Redwood City; San Diego; Austin, Texas; and London. On top of that, it has tapped Petroglyph Studios in Las Vegas to make End of Nations, which will be published as a free-to-play title, where users play for free and pay real money for virtual goods.

The company’s investors include Time Warner, Comcast, Bertelsmann, Rustic Canyon Ventures, Trinity Ventures and DCM. Buttler cited recent PricewaterhouseCoopers stats that show online games are growing at 21.3 percent a year, compared to console games that are growing much more slowly. Buttler said Trion can take advantage of the latest trends in providing dynamic services — where a game can be updated on the fly in response to user feedback — as well as modern monetization, analytics, and business intelligence tools.

Buttler hopes to make Trion’s site into a hub that consumers can trust as a brand that represents quality. Buttler says he doesn’t think of the Red Door platform as a social network for MMO players. Rather, it’s a destination for “games as a service,” more like Microsoft’s Xbox Live online game platform for the Xbox 360 game console.

“This is a huge evolutionary step in the history of our company,” Buttler said. “Our platform is built and we are opening it up.”

The risk for Trion is that it could be disrupted as well. While it focuses on the “deep end of gaming,” casual game makers such as Zynga are attracting huge audiences at the “shallow end.” Zynga can give away its games for free and charge for virtual items, undercutting the prices of subscription games such as Trion’s Rift. But Buttler said Trion remains flexible enough to test new business models as well to see what resonates with players. The beauty of subscription revenues, he said, is that the revenue doesn’t dry up after just a few months, in contrast to console games. And, compared to social games, the average revenue per users (ARPU) is far bigger.

Buttler said that Rift, Trion’s first game launched earlier this year, has been a great success. The game scored 84 out of 100 on Metacritic, a review aggregator. Trion continues to update the game on a regular basis. The game sold more than 1 million copies in under four months, and the average gamer plays for four hours a day. So far, players have spent 1 trillion minutes in the game and completed 1 billion quests. Players have tweeted more than 1.5 million times from within the game. Within six months, Trion has launched five major updates.

“We consider this to be the most successful MMO launch in the West,” Buttler said. “We have grown faster than World of Warcraft (the market leader) did in its early days. Rift has proven the technology and given us a revenue stream we can count on.”

Much of that success is due to the Trion platform, the underlying technology that uses a distributed computing architecture. The servers were designed to work in a dynamic fashion. If the game needs more functional tasks, particularly in a certain part of the world, Trion can simply add more servers to handle tasks such as physics or artificial intelligence of player data. That way, the game can support a huge influx of players into one part of the world, as can happen when Trion stages an invasion of the world. When the world changes, Trion simply changes its servers. There is no reason to patch a gamer’s own machine.

Anyone who adopts the Trion platform can use those same kinds of features and live services in their own games. Next year, Trion will launch End of Nations, a real-time strategy game, and Defiance, a first-person shooter game co-developed with the SyFy Channel. After that, Trion hasn’t said what else it will do.

Trion’s Red Door will be an end-to-end publishing platform that can be customized for each partner.

“The only thing you need is a talented game team,” Buttler said.