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21 Jul 2011

Interview With Lars Buttler, CEO of Trion Worlds

GBR had the opportunity to sit down with Lars Buttler, the CEO of Trion Worlds. Hear what he has to say about the Trion platform as a publisher of next generation, dynamic MMOs.

GBR: Lars, from the Trion Worlds, Inc. launch in 2006 until about a year ago, the company’s press releases were about licensing and co-development agreements, staff hires and investment rounds.  Other than the MMO (massively multiplayer online game) collaboration between Trion and Syfy Channel, you didn’t talk much about games in development.  We heard more about Trion’s technology, a platform/service hybrid for MMOs where game content would be pushed out from the server, allowing for synchronous gameplay events that can change the game in real time as opposed to the current technology model where the server maintains persistence of world state and gameplay is more strictly client-based.  Although this still describes Trion's "special sauce," have you shifted the company's positioning from a MMO platform and service to that of a publisher with both internal and external studios?   

Great question! We did not change our positioning, but are revealing more about our works in progress as it’s appropriate to do so.  When we first began speaking to investors and journalists about Trion Worlds, we could only talk about our general mission, which was, and still is, to provide an unprecedented level of quality and engagement to player experiences in premium next generation MMOs (massively multi-player online games).  We could, at this earlier stage only discuss how Trion might accomplish this goal: by bringing together game industry veterans and  giving them the most innovative platform technologies and tools.  

Though building the Trion platform was an essential step in becoming a publisher of next generation, dynamic MMOs, the tech itself is not our primary focus.  Yet, we needed a new approach to the delivery, service and maintenance of online games to provide the revolutionary player experiences that Trion wanted to publish.  We believe great online games should be dynamic and highly social services - living worlds, so to speak - not static products.  If that is the case, then why are most MMOs still delivered as if they were packaged goods refreshed only by sporadic major upgrades?

Our technology is a key differentiator, but Trion was formed primarily to make amazing next generation MMOs, because we believe those are the next inevitable step in the evolution of video games, and because we love to play MMOs, obviously.  In playing countless games over the years, we kept coming back to three questions concerning the limitations of modern MMOs:

  1. Why can’t online games have production values as good as, or better than, AAA console games?
  2. Why must MMOs require huge downloads or upgrades to change significantly? These are online games, after all. Why can’t MMOs evolve in real time?  Why can’t they be more dynamic? More social?  
  3. Why should premium MMOs only be RPGs (role playing games)?  In the tradition single-player world, there are many other exciting video game genres besides role-playing, including  strategy, action, and more.  So why not evolve other great game genre, why not make those experiences more social? More  massive? More dynamic?  

Technology is only a means to an end.  Breakthrough tools can be very expensive and extremely hard to build, and are probably only exciting to technical professionals.  But the value of your tool only reaches its potential when used by talented people to create something empowering and inspiring. For instance, Pixar could not have made their amazing films without the best tools available, but those same tools couldn’t enable studios of lesser talent to create films capable of competing with Pixar’s.  

Our people have the passion and vision to create the next generation of online games.  We brought together veterans, handpicked for their singular experience, excellence, creativity, and energy. Our team has shipped dozens of premium online multiplayer games for top publishers like Blizzard Entertainment, Electronic Arts, Sony Online Entertainment, NCsoft, and others.  This is the reason why we needed great tech, so that great people can create great games.

We see a huge advantage to pushing content out from the server.  This allows us to enable emergent gameplay, which is a fancy way of saying we can adapt our games quickly to meet and exceed our players’ expectations. All of our games use our technology platform, but each game uses it in a different way to deliver a unique experience.    

We started developing our games in parallel with prototyping the platform, ensuring  that the technology was truly relevant.  But as we all know, the creative bar is high, and schedules and budgets necessary to build competitive high-definition games in general, and MMOs in particular are not getting any shorter or smaller.  So we decided not to talk about our games until they met our rigorous expectations, and we couldn’t discuss game collaborations until deals with partners were finalized.  

Now that we are publicly demonstrating alpha versions of Rift: Planes of Telara and End of Nations
, the technology story takes its proper place, as a “how it works” sidebar.   

Rift: Planes of Telara

GBR: For most publishers creating, launching and maintaining one MMO is enough work and risk during a five to ten year cycle.  Trion is launching two large-scale MMO's in a relatively tight window and has plans to release at least one more huge MMO in the near future.  Considering your creative model to frequently replenish dynamic high value content, how do you manage production on such a scale?

It is ambitious to develop multiple products simultaneously, but we are not launching them all at once. Using the example of Pixar again, or Blizzard’s development philosophy: great films and great games take years to make. Like them, we develop projects in parallel, which enables us to release at least one tent-pole every 12 months or so, in our case on a platform that scales well from game to game, from genre to genre.  And for games further out, we are able to update our tools, thus raising the bar again to remain competitive. We are entirely focused on creating the most fun and most profitable products for the highest growing segment of the gaming industry. We are not distracted by a legacy packaged goods business because  we don’t have to worry about creating dozens of  games at a time.

Additionally, we reduce complexity tremendously by using three separate world-class studios to create three separate games.  If we were building multiple MMORPGs at the same time, cannibalization would be another issue.  Instead, our genre diversity aims to expand the MMO market which is why we are working on not only an MMORPG but also an MMORTS and an MMO Action Game. Each of the game features a different theme, and each game is built by using a different development model, demonstrating the scalability of our approach.  With Rift we are using a first party model, namely a Trion internal studio to create the fantasy themed achievement-based MMORPG that gamers like us have been dying to play for nearly a decade. Our MMORTS End of Nations features an apocalyptic modern military struggle and is being developed externally in a second party model.  

End of Nations

With the project codenamed Syfy Action MMO, we’re bringing together the very different disciplines of Syfy’s network television studio and our game development studio to create a science fiction world that can be experienced from the dual perspectives of a TV show and an action MMO game. The game and the show will each remain a discrete medium, and can be appreciated by audiences separately or together.  Our developers are working directly with the show’s creators, so the two instances of the same world are seamlessly integrated and can play off of each other.  Events that happen in game will affect plot elements in the show and vice versa.  By playing the game, the show’s fans will be able to directly influence the story arc of the television series.

GBR: Do you expect that Rift’s dynamic server activity will feel radically different to gamers acclimated to more passive persistent state MMO sessions?

There are some older, achievement-based, true MMORPGs we liked to play, such as World of Warcraft, Everquest, and  Ultima Online.  Many of the best experiences we enjoyed in those games are the basis for Rift: Planes of Telara.  So far gamers who have played Rift’s alpha say their entry into our world is comfortably familiar, but we have added depth and breadth even to the core features that make MMORPGs so satisfying.  

In this spirit, Rift arguably will be the most complete, most polished MMORPG launched in years; featuring all the core game systems gamers expect to see in the next great MMO: crafting, guilds, auctions, PVP, raids, dungeons, persistent open world, factions, and quests. But that’s only the beginning.  Rift also features an unprecedented class system with tremendous choice and flexibility, and truly dynamic content which allows us to deliver  an ever-changing world  with exciting conflict, both player-versus-player (PvP) and player-versus-(dynamic)-environment (PvE).

In our view, MMORPGs have been on a steady path to wider appeal.  The first MuDs (multi-user dungeons) were niche content accessible only to hardcore RPG fans, but Ultima, Everquest and World of Warcraft were more immersive and stable.  Still these games are a kind of playground for the faithful and tend to suffer from content fatigue, when grinds become the norm.  We believe living worlds, powered by dynamically refreshed content represent the next generation, and Rift will be there on release.

About the Author

Billy Pidgeon is a senior analyst at M2 Research, providing in-depth overview of the games market’s diverse sectors, tracking and projecting changes and growth in traditional and emerging hardware, software, business models and revenue streams on dedicated and convergent platforms. Billy has twenty two years experience in the games industry in market research and games production.

Billy has authored extensive syndicated and custom research reports, as well as advised some of the industry’s top executive management teams. Prior to joining M2 Research, Billy was the Research Manager for the Games at IDC. He also worked at Jupiter Media Metrix, covering interactive entertainment, digital audio and video, user interfaces, software tools networking and 3D technology.

Billy has keynoted and moderated panels at leading trade shows including Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), Game Developers Conference and the Games and Mobile Forum. He has appeared on major networks including CBS, ABC and CNN and has been interviewed and quoted frequently in top publications such as Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and USA Today. He has appeared on international and U.S. radio and television including NPR, CBS, ABC, CNNfn, MSNBC, and data from his reports has been quoted as reference in the media and in console vendor and publisher financial presentations.

This interview was provided by Gaming Business review (GBR)
Gaming Business Review (GBR) is the source for news and information on metrics, business models, and trends in the game industry. Visit GBR on Facebook.

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