Chasing World of Warcraft in its biggest market, Trion Worlds is announcing today that it will launch its Rift online fantasy role-playing game in China in a partnership with Shanda Games.

In an interview, Trion Worlds chief executive Lars Buttler said that the move is the next logical expansion for Rift, which garnered more than 1 million registered users in its first four months on the market after its debut in March 2011. After five years of development, the launch of Rift was one of the first real challenges to Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft, which has ruled the massively multiplayer online game market since 2004.

WoW generates more than $1 billion a year for parent company Activision Blizzard, which reports its earnings today. But Buttler said that European and U.S. revenues for Rift have topped $100 million.

The China expansion is an attempt to put more pressure on Blizzard, but it is a pretty big undertaking. Buttler said that Shanda was his first choice for launching the game in China, where government rules require foreign online game publishers to partner with a domestic Chinese game company. He said that the exact launch details and pricing haven’t been set yet.

On Feb. 1, Redwood City, Calif.-based Trion also announced that it would offer “Rift Lite,” a version of the game that will allow anyone with a Trion account to experience the first 20 levels for free. The move is similar to one Blizzard Entertainment took in June 2011 with World of Warcraft, which has more than 10 million paying users. Rift currently costs about $30 at retail and $15/month for the subscription plan.

Buttler said that he predicts that 2012 will be a great year for game companies, with a lot of expansion and transformation as online gaming gathers even more momentum.

Buttler declined to disclose the financial terms of the deal, but he said that it is one of the “biggest licensing deals ever in China.” He said the partnership is a broad one that will allow Shanda to launch an exclusive version of Rift that is localized in Chinese. He said that Trion will learn a lot from the deal, and was proud to show that online gaming isn’t just about Asian games moving into the U.S. market. He believes the appeal of games such as Rift, which has a dynamic environment and ever-changing storyline, is universal.

“We are setting the standard,” Buttler said. “This is gaming at the deep end” in contrast to shallow online games on social networks. Alan Tan, chief executive of Shanda Games, promised a “blockbuster launch” for Rift in China.

Trion recently raised $85 million in a strategic round of growth equity financing. Later this year, Trion plans to launch a third-party publishing platform dubbed Red Door. Other Trion Worlds gaming coming soon include End of Nations and Defiance. The company has more than 500 employees.