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Few game industry chief executives have been as successful at raising money as Lars Buttler, CEO of Trion Worlds, the publisher of massively multiplayer online games including Rift. The company recently raised $85 million in equity financing, and it has launched a third-party publishing platform for MMOs produced by other companies.
Trion successfully launched its Rift online fantasy game world last year, and it gained a substantial audience. But it didn’t take down World of Warcraft, the leading online role-playing game world with more than 10 million paying users. Still, Trion is moving on with the coming launches of End of Nations, Defiance (a joint project with cable TV channel SyFy), and an expected third-party publication deal with Crytek’s Warface. These games represent some of the biggest bets in gaming today. We caught up with Buttler at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) video game trade show in Los Angeles, Calif. last week. Here’s the edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: So how’s the show going for you?
Lars Buttler: Very good. I think this is by far our biggest show and the biggest excitement. Two years ago, we had one game fully playable: Rift. Last year, we had two games fully playable on the show floor: Rift and End of Nations. This year, we have four, so every year we have doubled, you know? Knock on wood. And they’re all amazing. They’re all awesome games. They’re all original intellectual property. Different genres. Different development models. Different business models. Different partnership models.
GamesBeat: Do you count Crytek’s Warface [pictured right] as one of those? [Crytek and Trion showed the game together at the show but haven’t announced a publishing deal yet].
Buttler: We want to focus on the game. We still haven’t said anything about the structure. But it’s a great partnership, and we’re going to talk about this more later.
Yesterday, we had the actors for Defiance here. We had Grant Bowler, who plays Nolan on Defiance. We had Kevin Murphy here, who’s the showrunner. He was also the showrunner for Desperate Housewives, an Emmy winner. He’s amazing. We had tons of TV crews here yesterday and today. The whole time. It’s super exciting.
The Rift expansion resonates insanely well with the fans. If there was one thing left in Rift that we wanted to address, it’s the size of the world. Because when we launched, we couldn’t catch up with eight years of World of Warcraft. But now we’ve more than tripled the size of the world with stunning content — really amazing.
And End of Nations is now extremely polished. You can play it and check it out. It’s amazing. We can show the metagame now as well — how everything you do changes the global battlefield. It’s basically nothing that anybody else has ever done before. End of Nations is revolutionary. It was even more revolutionary then, but again, original IP, the world’s first triple-A MMORTS [editor’s note: massively multiplayer online real-time strategy game]. Defiance is an MMO shooter — triple-A quality for Xbox, PS3, PC — that alone has never been done before. And then transmedia tie-ins and so on. It resonates incredibly well.
GamesBeat: I played Defiance, and we all jointly attacked the giant shrub or whatever [laughter].
Buttler: Yeah. People are playing it outside on Xbox and PS3 and PC. It’s such an excitement at a show that’s generally more focused on sequel, sequel, sequel of packaged-goods games. To have four, original, premium online games that are different genres all really polished and great — I’m very happy. Exhausted but happy. And so is the entire team, I think. It reflects really well where we are.
GamesBeat: Logically, would you be happiest to make the most money with something like Rift that’s internally produced? As opposed to some of the third-party types of models?
Buttler: I’m incredibly happy with all the different structures. I think they’re all ground-breaking, and I think they can all be really profitable for everybody who’s involved. The SyFy relationship, where they’re a co-development partner and they produce the TV show, where they announce publicly that this will be the biggest thing they’ve ever done, including the marketing spending, in the 20-year history of SyFy — I think that helps everybody. If you want to create amazing new IP, being able to go all-in on the marketing side, on the production values for the game and the show, and then let everybody know about it and cross-promote and so on — I think that’s huge. And so all the different structures we have are really sorting out to be win-win situations.
In the traditional packaged-goods world, you have this master-slave relationship between the publisher and a developer. We don’t believe in this for services. They’re more like marriages. You want to be sure that the teams — on the publishing side, on the development side, everybody — everybody’s part of this, they’re in it for the long run, and they’re excited after six months, after 12 months, after two years, after four years. It is so important to think of a game as a service. If you think packaged goods, you might serve a big launch, and then after three months, everybody is gone. That’s a big problem.
GamesBeat: Were you disappointed that Rift didn’t actually take down World of Warcraft?
Buttler: We said throughout the history of the company, we want to make amazing properties that people really love. We want to revolutionize the genre and innovate in it. We want to build really good businesses that can pile on top of each other. And Rift was a breakthrough to world class. It really put us on the map. It allowed us financially to do so many other things that we’re now doing. So it did everything that we expected it to do. And quite frankly more. And we’re not done yet. I said that we would slowly and certainly just stay at it, stay at it. We’re still better at content updates than anybody else. Our expansion pack will be amazing. We’re not done yet.
GamesBeat: I always thought that Blizzard would, by virtue of mathematics, start to lose people, but they haven’t really lost at that kind of rate that some people thought.
Buttler: I mean, I think the time investment in the game and the friend connection in the game are very strong. I think that’s the key, and they know it, but you never know what happens, right?
We have a very, very loyal audience. It gives us a very good foundation to make the game better and bigger and more exciting all the time. It is profitable. We launched in Korea recently. We’re bringing it to China, to Taiwan. There is a lot of anticipation and excitement in China right now for Rift because it’s so polished, it’s so content-rich already, and with the expansion pack. What we’ll be launching is an even bigger game and more exciting game than we started with here. For me, Rift is 10 out of 10 in terms of what we expected and what it delivered. Maybe more.
GamesBeat: Are you hoping to bring every one of these games into China?
Buttler: I would assume so. It’s such a big market for online games. They’re very sophisticated, and they’re very demanding. Mostly what they’re playing today is a copy of a copy of a copy. And they churn through it really quickly. The Chinese operators and publishers are really looking for great innovation as well. It’s a cutthroat market there. Through partners, Asia is also hugely important for us. So I wouldn’t expect us to be operating our own games in those markets any time soon. But so far those partnerships are great
GamesBeat: How is Red Door proceeding? Are you expecting more of it?
Buttler: I said there will be lots of interesting announcements in the next three or six months. Like we always say, this is not an open platform yet for anyone. We want to do this very carefully and stay at the triple-A quality bar. And then, maybe over time, it’s becoming more open. We’re in discussion with the best of the best. And we will talk more about that.
GamesBeat: That SmartGlass demo that Microsoft did with Game of Thrones and being able to follow on the lap — it seemed to make the transmedia a little easier.
Buttler: I have to check it out. I have to admit I had no chance to even see it. What exactly is it?
GamesBeat: You would be watching a TV show on your screen, and then on your iPad, you could look at a map. The map would show you where the scene was taking place. As it progressed, they changed the location or something. It would jump automatically to the next location, and so you could still see information about the scene, and you could see this map that would be changing over time. That was kind of…I don’t know, it seemed like a neat way to do transmedia…. But it also looks like smartphones and tablets are something that could be interesting to get into.
Buttler: We have always said, we think that all the connected devices, they are direct windows into the world, or they can be windows into parts of the world. Maps and programming guides and auction houses, making you productive while you’re on the go and so on.
For us, you create these beautiful worlds. They’re completely alive. They have big communities. And then you have all these other options to interact with the world through a TV show or through companion apps, through mini-games, anything. That’s the ultimate vision of these living worlds — they’re beautiful, they’re stunning, they’re big communities, and any other way that makes sense, you can connect with it. We never think of making a stand-alone mobile game, for example. That makes no sense for us. Or making a stand-alone Facebook game. Everybody does that. But using all these devices, including even the TV, to be another window, another angle on this experience, that’s really exciting.
GamesBeat: It looks like some big bets are starting to pay off.
Buttler: We have creative products, but we have to stay paranoid [laughter].
But so far, so good. The reception we’re getting here is amazing. We’ve already been nominated for tons of awards. Actually, several outlets nominated all three games. So they’re now competing with each other, which is awesome. It’s a portfolio, right? We’re very excited.
I cannot tell you which one I like more. I love them all. They’re all amazing. We try to push the quality bar for all of them really high. The innovation, the originality, the factor of, wow, this is really something exciting and new. Not again the same thing. If I see a sequel number six, you know, which is not rare here, right…? And some people try to hide it. But it’s still really version eight or 10.
I always think this is worse than movies. Why not make something great and amazing? Of course, I think it has something to do with the problems that the packaged-goods model has in general. And the market is declining, and I think even used markets are declining for the first time. They all go to connected gaming.
GamesBeat: This longer console transition probably helps the PC side and your business?
Buttler: But you’re also seeing the recession.
I think there’s so many factors: the ubiquity of broadband, the explosion of connected devices that can all be gaming devices, PCs getting cheaper and cheaper — there’s so many factors. Most of the world being on PCs anyway as the lead device? And those are the parts of the world that become more important all the time. You have a consumer market in China now, you have a bigger gaming market in Russia. Germany has always been PC. But it’s now, of course, connected PC.
I think there’s so many factors, and I think virtually every one of them says, the future is connected gaming. Games as a service. Not packaged-goods software. And it’s not just packaged-goods software distributed online. It’s really new and exciting experiences, much more social, much more dynamic, live, evolving, big meta-games, and so on. And then even transmedia.
We’re excited that everybody else is now trying to have their own platform after being dependent on somebody else’s. Or evolving their quality bar upward. This is where we tried to be from day one. Super quality on our own platform so we can guarantee great quality and a great experience and scale our business and so on.
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