Interview: Trion CEO - Rift Launch To Go Well, Games To Be Revolutionized

On the eve of its MMO launch, Trion Worlds' CEO Lars Buttler tells Gamasutra that things could not be better for Rift and promises to take the fight to single-player genres with the company's online technology.
This week, Trion Worlds is launching its first game -- Rift -- a premium fantasy MMO, created by a team of veterans, with a subscription business model. The title surpassed 1 million registered users prior to its launch. Gamasutra spoke to CEO Lars Buttler about the launch, the company's philosophy, and plans for Rift and beyond at its Redwood City, California headquarters. Originally announced in 2008, the game is the first for the company -- which has long been working on technology to deliver dynamic content to multiplayer online games. "This is the most social game in the history of gaming," said Buttler of the game, which has hooks in social networks and dynamic systems for allowing players to seamlessly interact with each other. The title is built on the company's new technology, which will also power its future games. "The revolution has happened in casual games, and it's coming to core games," said Buttler. Trion will take on more genres than MMOs and more platforms than just PC once Rift launches, with strategy and action games in development in its studios. Its technology allows for dynamic updates to game content, which in Rift take the form of changes to the game world and large-scale world events which intelligently trigger based on the makeup of the player base in a given area. The title's launch is tomorrow, and Buttler is "more than satisfied" with how the game is tracking in terms of pre-orders and buzz. "If you are walking around here and you cannot pick this up from the energy of what's going on here, we are extremely happy with where this is going. I guarantee to you that I am quite happy." "This is an absolutely wonderful moment in the history of this company," said Buttler of the Rift launch. The launch has been preceded by repeated betas that have shaped the game and tested the technology. "Having a dynamic platform and a game team that is actually super strong and listens" with a "new level of nimbleness at reacting to what people like and dislike" has "allowed the team to craft a title which perfectly fits today's landscape," Buttler said. "You can really use your customer as the ultimate improvement machine if you want. You can only take it so far on your own. Customers are amazing because they are never really completely happy; they always show you where things are not quite perfect, and that keeps people on their toes," said Buttler. He expects big things from Rift. "If the reaction and the traction we are getting in beta already, in presales, responsiveness of game team, strength of tech is any indication, then we have a really really serious, strong and exciting product coming," he said. "We took the time to try to get it right. We built the right technology first, we built an entire new platform architecture first, we then recruited the best team on the planet, and then we took a lot of time to build a complete and polished game, and then also focused very very strongly on slightly improving the things that are already great in MMORPGs, and introducing a lot of things that we and many gamers think are missing." What has driven Rift to where it is today, said Buttler, is Trion's "belie[f] in great, talented people... If you give them the time and money, and you basically leave them alone and get out of their way, they can create amazing things." However, he said that it's also an understanding of the market that drives the team. "They are professionals and what really counts to them is a large, happy audience. It's not just self-expression, it's creating something that people will actually like and appreciate and make their hobby. And spend a lot of time with and get excited about, and get deeply emotionally engaged in." He added, "Making a good MMORPG is the hardest [thing] to do in the entertainment world -- not just in the video games world. But I would also say that if you get it right, and create a visually stunning, highly polished, fully dynamic, massively social game world, then you probably create the most exciting, most emotionally engaging mass entertainment in the world." In Buttler's view, Trion stands on the cusp of a shift toward massive online titles as the center of entertainment innovation. "It used to be movies. It used to be stand alone video games. I think today the type of stunning, immersive, dynamic, and social worlds we create are probably the most exciting and most emotionally engaging entertainment you can find. That's really what drives us, that's really our reason for being." In the future, the company will "do it for other games genres" -- turn them massive and social, in other words. "RPG is a great genre that many people love, and we decided to focus on an MMORPG first, but we have a fantastic MMORTS, an MMO action game, and there will be more, and there will be no limits to taking big core video game genres and improving them dramatically by making them truly connected. Multiplayer, dynamic, social, and so on," Buttler said. "If people think there's a revolution going on in casual games right now, wait until we're done with core games." Said Buttler, "If you want to create a premium game franchise for 2011 and beyond you shouldn't even think about stand alone anymore. You should think about what's great about traditional video games... [but] it should be highly polished and complete, stunning HD graphics... Just the fact that you are online and connected should not give you a hall pass for not being triple-A quality." Buttler believes that games should have multiple entry points and also connect directly with mobile devices and social networking -- as well as having multiple revenue streams. "This is such an incredible revolution in gaming that you cannot just reach anybody who has a console -- which is such a limited market -- but anybody who has a connected device anywhere on planet Earth." And, to that end, he said, Rift is just the beginning. "With Rift, we are not only launching our first high quality core game franchise for the connected era, we are also launching our platform, which is really our game platform, network platform, digital sales platform, with all the capabilities that are built from the ground up for the connection." And while Rift is a premium subscription game, said Buttler, "That's the model for the premium highest quality MMOs today, and that's what this particular audience, the achievers, that want to earn their rewards in game -- and not buy it... But it's not in any way, form or shape that we just look at subscriptions as the only right business model." Different game types, markets and territories have different business models and gamer demographics, Buttler acknowledged, and the company does plan to enter other markets besides North America and Europe. An Asian expansion is presently being discussed, and will be achieved with partners, but as of the Rift launch Buttler has nothing to disclose. "What we would never sacrifice is that we want the highest quality games and superior consumer experience," said Buttler. And the company will go after console gamers eventually, too -- when the product is right. The "biggest genre", per Buttler, action, is in the company's sights for its third release. With two more games in development, is there a chance that Trion might outpace its investment? No, says Buttler. "I think we are in great shape. We have succeeded in an industry leading -- redefining, if you want -- platform... Just the engineering team alone is one of the strongest in our industry. It's one of the strong engineering teams in the world, period." The Rift launch, however, will in many ways prove whether the company can be a success where so many have recently failed: going head-to-head with World of Warcraft. If the company can do that, perhaps it can in fact live up to the rest of Buttler's promises.

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