Trion Worlds spent years building its platform for massively multiplayer online (MMO) games. It built a modern and innovative infrastructure capable of handling dynamic events, such as appearance of gigantic enemy that all players could attack at once.

But the company went through its own financial struggles, and then emerged with a new strategy and a new chief executive. Scott Hartsman, the executive producer of Trion’s first online game, Rift, left the company briefly and then returned in 2013 to take over as CEO. His internal teams are still working on titles such as Rift, Defiance, and Trove.

But Trion has also made progress attracting third-party developers who are making MMOs that will use Trion’s platform, such as the ArcheAge title that debuted last year. And today, Trion Worlds is announcing today a new free-to-play MMO title Devilian from South Korea’s Ginno Games. We talked to Hartsman about how he is balancing new intellectual property, internally developed games, and outside titles as well.

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.


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Above: Devilian

Image Credit: Trion Worlds

GamesBeat: Investment in new IP, that’s interesting. Not too many folks are making such big bets, especially with MMOs.

Scott Hartsman: A lot of it comes down to the way MMOs have evolved. The general idea of people wanting to play with other people online is still the biggest type of gameplay that exists. It’s only gotten bigger, especially in free-to-play. When you look at the general market of where attention is going in gaming, online is growing. Free-to-play is growing. These are all growing on PC in particular. That’s why we still believe it’s the biggest, best bet around.

Not only are we partnering with more people on their IP, but we still have even more unannounced internal things that we’ll be talking about later. This is still a huge long-term bet for us. As the last year or two have shown, it’s only been growing. It’s been a very good bet.

GamesBeat: For something like Devilian, how does the model work? Are you funding them and working with them over a period of years?

Hartsman: Yes. This is a developer-publisher relationship. They are the developer. They own the IP. We are the partner that helps bring it to a new audience. They continue providing the game. We do things like the localization, the operations, the community management, the storefront management, the microtransaction business model design, the client-facing front end, and the server backend. When we say “publisher” it’s more like what you would call “partner.” We’re the exclusive partner for our territory of 38 countries.

When we did well with ArcheAge last year, more people started reaching out to us. “Hey, you guys did this really well. Can we work together?” We’ve been evaluating a couple of different games every month. The thing that made us pick Devilian was just the quality of the game, the fun. We evaluate a lot of games. Some of them, the fun or the quality isn’t there. But it was also our conversations with the developers. They have the same vision as far as where we think triple-A online on PC should be going.

GamesBeat: What was the origin of Trove?

Hartsman: This is what I love about being an independent company. Trove started out as two guys who had been working on Rift. They had been working on Rift for a lot of years, and they asked if they could go start a passion project. It took them about six weeks, and they put this prototype together. We said, “There’s something there.” The idea of putting a real RPG, with RPG mechanics, into a voxel engine and seeing what results. As they came up with user-generated content to do items and mounts and all kinds of things — They’re over 3,000 pieces of user content in the game now. I’m really glad we’ve done that.

It’s one of the advantages of being our size and being independent. We can do some big bets, and we can do games that start out as a small passion project. Not everything we do has to be a billion-dollar home run for us to call it a win. For us it’s, “What does fun look like? How do we get fun in front of customers?” That’s all we care about.

GamesBeat: How many people are you at right now?

Hartsman: We’re just over 300. We’re in Redwood City and Austin.

Scott Hartsman, CEO of Trion Worlds, at the company's headquarters in Redwood City, Calif.

Above: Scott Hartsman, CEO of Trion Worlds, at the company’s headquarters in Redwood City, Calif.

Image Credit: Trion Worlds

GamesBeat: Has that been stable for a while? I know you used to have more.

Hartsman: It’s been growing over the last 14 months. The balance that you always want to strike — the goal for us is to run a healthy, stable, sane growing business. That’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve grown by maybe 50 people over the last year and a half.

When you look across the games industry, you see lots of peaks and valleys. I don’t think that’s good for the people who work in the games industry. It’s bad for human beings to never know if their job is stable, and it’s bad for companies to keep shedding their best talent. It’s bad for the industry because it makes the industry look like a place where people shouldn’t be working. Part of our goal over the last 18 months has been growing responsibly and becoming a place where, once people work here and they’re doing well, they can say, “I have a great job. I work with great people. I know the company’s looking out for me.”

GamesBeat: Any postmortem thoughts on Defiance?

Hartsman: Defiance was run out of our San Diego studio at the time. The thing that struck me was — the challenges they ran into were, they had a fixed date to hit because of the TV show. As soon as you have to sync dates with anything, you tend to then only have two other things that can give. You have scope and quality. The game itself did the actual gunplay better than anything I’ve seen in an online game. The place they tripped up was the sheer amount of scope they had to hit in a given amount of time.

There were elements of brilliance in there. The current team has refocused on the things that made Defiance really good and they’re pushing hard on those. The joy of shooting and collecting lots of guns and shooting stuff and the moment to moment fun of combat has always been solid. The current team has run with that.

GamesBeat: The kind of games you’re going after, are a lot of them examples of this east-to-west migration?

Hartsman: We actually have been talking to people in the U.S. for outside games. We’ve been taking our message as far and wide as possible. We’ve talked to a couple of companies in the U.S.

It’s still a costly affair to run your own MMO, even in the era of cloud computing. A lot of these systems, they’re not quite scaled. Cloud has scaled fantastically for asynchronous services like web services and synchronous services that are less intense. But the economics don’t quite make sense for hardcore server-based games. We’re taking that message to people here in the states, people in Korea, people in Canada. We’re talking to three or four companies in Europe. We’ve been talking to pretty much everybody.


Above: Devilian

Image Credit: Trion Worlds

GamesBeat: How do you spec the technology up a tier against some of the other ideas people are coming up with for cloud-related things?

Hartsman: The thing that we’ve learned the most about this — way back when people were first talking to me about Trion, they had a great tech for server-based AI and server-based gaming services. The thing that evolved over time was people realizing that we need to make sure all the tech we make is able to let people express fun. That was always the big challenge. The individual things that create fun in one genre to the next are very different.

A handful of companies have sprung up lately in cloud-based gaming services. I’m sure they have lovely tech. But the thing they’re all going to run into is making sure that their tech is enabling people to create fun, not getting in the way of creating fun. That was a big transition for us, prior to launching Rift. Trion had great server tech, but it was getting in the way of creating fun in different game genres. There was the balancing act of, okay, what should be common? What shouldn’t be common? What’s the domain of the game and what isn’t? I’ve been happy with where that balance has been for the last few years.

GamesBeat: You get the sense that there’s still some revolution to come in the cloud gaming world. There are startups like Improbable and Shinra Technologies. How do you look at some of those and whether your own technology is going to start evolving?

Hartsman: The mission is a little different. When you look at an Improbable — when I first saw what they were up to, I thought it was really cool. A lot of what they were describing outwardly was very similar to the Trion distributed backend that we currently run in our own games.

The places that we’re different, we pivoted very strongly into being a company that’s more focused on the games themselves than on tech. I can see a company like Improbable — this is just a guess — going off into trying to get as many developers signed up on their tech as possible. For us, we’re more focused on the games. The tech is just a means of delivering great games for us. We are definitely not looking to be the hardcore tech and get it out to as many developers as possible. We’re looking for games we can bring onto our platform if we have tools that can help make the creation of those games easier.

GamesBeat: Internally, have you talked about how many games you’ll be making at any given time?

Hartsman: There’s been a lot going on. One of the things we’ve been working out is exactly that, the right number of games for us to be working on at a given time for the amount of people we have and the bandwidth we have to do a triple-A job on all of them. That’s a constant push/pull for us.

Right now we have four games out, plus adding Devilian. We’ll have more games to announce next year, more games to announce in the future. The trick is to be sure we’re able to grow smartly so we can service all those games. It comes down to, what is the right amount of effort required to do any individual game at quality? Can we sanely grow to support that new capacity? I can see this scaling all the way up to a dozen games, two dozen games, three dozen games over time. But we want to scale up responsibly and scale up in a way that’s going to create successes.

GamesBeat: Those four games, that’s Rift, Defiance, ArcheAge, and Trove?

Hartsman: Yeah, those are the four so far.

GamesBeat: Do you have a launch window for Devilian?

Hartsman: We’re aiming for this year. Even though it’s pre-alpha, it’s shockingly playable right now in our English version.

GamesBeat: Did you have any opinions on E3 at all this year, about the competition or anything else?

Hartsman: The thing that struck me is, if you looked around — even though there are more of the traditional boxed game-makers making more online features, you probably didn’t see quite as many online games there.

It was the best E3 I’ve seen in a long time. I was excited as a player about all the games. I played a crapload of games. The thing that you see over time, though, is that those of us doing purely online businesses – we don’t do retail, we’re intentionally all online — a lot of the time our strategy is more around going to customer events and making sure we connect with consumers.

We weren’t officially at E3. We were there for meetings, but we didn’t have a formal presence because for any given amount of money we spend, we’d rather — we did PAX East. We’re doing PAX Prime. We’re doing Gamescom. We’d rather spend our time connecting with customers directly.


Above: A screenshot from the Grim Awakening content in MMORPG Rift

Image Credit: Trion Worlds

GamesBeat: They had the 5,000 gamers. But they’re still not quite….

Hartsman: So many of these things are popping up that you could spend your entire career doing nothing but going to consumer shows. You’d be busy all year round.

GamesBeat: The MOBA craze is still showing its influence. Halo 5 looks very MOBA-like in some ways. The shooter-MOBA goal is out there for a lot of folks.

Hartsman: Yeah. I saw Battleborn, saw Gigantic, saw Overwatch. There’s a lot of great gameplay in all three of those games. I’m looking forward to seeing how people react to them for real. I’ll personally play the hell out of all of them. But the classic MOBAs, obviously, you’ve seen how dangerous that market can be. There have been games that have shut down that were perfectly fine games. It’s just that the audience playing those MOBAs is happy to play the games they’re currently playing. They don’t want to move at all.

GamesBeat: Yeah, like the Warner Bros. and DC title, Infinite Crisis (which shut down).

Hartsman: Dawngate as well. I enjoyed Dawngate a lot.

GamesBeat: Is there any influence that you can take from MOBAs?

Hartsman: Session time is our big one. In the games we make, the amount of time that people want to play in a given session is increasingly important. You can include Hearthstone in this, too, because Hearthstone also uses an even more compressed session time for its genre. That’s been something we’ve internalized as we’ve gone into future development — games that we have in development, games we’re prototyping.

Your casual players will gladly come online and they expect to have a significant amount of fun in an atomic game unit of five to 30 minutes. Your hardcore users will just do that 10 to 20 times in a day. The big thing that’s shown is, hardcore gamers are absolutely open to five, 10, 15, 20-minute gameplay. That’s great. To me that’s a device that lets us expand the audience.


Above: Defiance

Image Credit: SyFy

GamesBeat: It seems like that puts the emphasis on that core loop of fun, whatever people call that.

Hartsman: Exactly right. You’re familiar with EverQuest from back in the day, of course. They just opened up a progression server to give you the old 1999 EverQuest experience. It’s interesting to me to see that. It’s the biggest server they have right now. There’s still an audience that wants the four-hour, five-hour, 12-hour session, as well as audiences that want five or 10 or 20 minutes.

When I think about how audiences get broken up, a lot of time I think of it in a breakdown of how much time they have to commit. How much time do they feel they have free before they’re willing to come into your game? The shorter that time is, the greater the number that will be. But there’s still attraction all up and down that curve.

GamesBeat: What do you think about brands right now, compared to new IP? You don’t have that many outside of Defiance.

Hartsman: On the one hand, I appreciate the built-in audience of a potentially recognizable brand. On the other hand, one of the biggest, most attractive attributes of working on online games is the speed at which you can iterate and the independence that requires. You tend to need to be very independent to work at that speed. There’s a spectrum of attractiveness across both of those things.

I’d love to be making Huge Recognizable Game Online, but at the same time I can’t turn that on a dime in the way I can with a Rift, a Trove, a Defiance, or our next game. It’s just different. There are many different things to like about games, and about making them.

GamesBeat: Do you feel like Daybreak is your most direct competition?

Hartsman: No, not at this point. If I had to say “direct” — Nexon still brings in MMOs. There’s Old Republic, but EA doesn’t really do outside MMOs. For us, going forward, we see ourselves both as a creator and a publishing partner. Nexon does that. I don’t know anybody else. Are there even any other people here in the states doing both creation and publishing? A lot of the time you end up with pure publishers. We’re trying to be both. We’re trying to be primarily creators who are also helping other people bring their games online. I genuinely don’t think there’s an identical direct competitor right now.

GamesBeat: If you were to define the new Trion, what would you say?

Hartsman: The original Trion vision was about technology, technology, technology. Over time that morphed into one that was about games and customers, games and customers, games and customers. Then that expanded into games and customers with our games as well as partnered games. That’s where we are right now. It has to be about the games. It can’t ever be all about the tech, because customers can’t care about the tech. Customers care about games. They care about fun.

That’s been my background. I started out as a writer for games, back when they were text MUDs. For me it’s always been about, what is the end user experience like? How can we work with more people who have the same vision we do for what awesome is? How can we constantly be improving over time?

It’s been quite a transition to get there, but we just had our biggest year ever last year. I’m happy to say that it looks like — when we’re prioritizing the things we should be prioritizing, we tend to do very well. As long as we stick to our values, we should be good. That’s where, for me, values and culture are so much of what makes this place work.


Above: Devilian

Image Credit: Trion Worlds

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