Smart phones, social networks and other relatively low-entry gaming platforms have spawned a new wave of indie developers and fresh IP.
Not since the late ‘70s and early ‘80s days of ‘back bedroom' coding have so many flowers bloomed, or has it been so easy to get a gaming concept from beer mat to screen.
But in the world of MMOs, you still need bulk, time, commitment – and balls. These big beasts take some birthing – and then even more nurturing as a 24/7 support structure kicks in from day one.
Trion Worlds was founded fully five years ago, by Electronic Arts' former head of online games Lars Butler. It has already attracted around $150m of investment but has only just launched its first product, Rift (dev cost – $50m+). Here, success is a serious business. And failure unthinkably expensive.
The firm recently began expanding into Europe, appointing John Burns, who set up EA's online gaming division in Europe, as general manager.
He headed up what he describes as more or less a SWAT team” that managed the Rift launch over here, with the creation of a more substantial infrastructure only just underway now.
Nevertheless, the game topped the charts in several European territories. In the UK it went to No.2 in the PC listings and stayed in the Top Ten for seven weeks. Burns declares it an unqualified success: The first objective was to release the best possible product. Now, I know plenty of companies say that, but if you look at Rift, a lot of people are saying it was the smoothest online game launch ever.
And the reason for that is we had a six-month beta programme. We didn't go to our consumers with an unfinished product. Which meant that the first patch update wasn't to fix bugs, it was to add services. I think there has been a philosophy within online that you can launch a product and then leverage the consumers to finish it. Our view is that you need to launch with a great, finished product and then work with the consumers to create an improved feature set – not to give them what they wanted and maybe expected when they came in and spent 50 up front.”
So far, nearly a million accounts have been registered globally. In the UK those players are paying an 8.99 monthly subscription fee.
The game will be boosted further by a second wave of marketing nearer Q4. Our view is that Rift is the PC and online game that consumers should be buying this year. As we move through to September and into the peak period we have an opportunity to reach out to people who may have heard about the product and tell them that this is a game they must play.”
Next year two more MMOs will launch: End of Nations and Defiance. End of Nations is the world's first MMO Real Time Strategy game”.
It is being developed by Petroglyph Games, a company whose founders were once principles at Westwood Studios and who were involved in the original Command & Conquer games.
Defiance, meanwhile, has received a wealth of publicity due to the fact that it is a joint venture with the SyFy channel (see ‘Trion's Trio'). The link between the two companies is Comcast, a US comms and entertainment giant which owns 51 per cent of NBC Universal (parent company of SyFy) and is also an investor in Trion Worlds.
Burns says: It started not as a game idea or a TV idea, but as a desire to do something new in the entertainment sector.
Anyone who's been in the industry for any length of time knows the history of games of films or TV shows – it's patchy. In order to get it really right, you need the fiction between the two to coexist. You need a collaborative approach on everything from content to launch date and marketing.
So they're being developed together, by connected creative teams. But the important thing is to have a great game. That's what we know we can deliver – and we will.”
Burns points out that Defiance doesn't just break new ground via the link up with SyFy, it is also the first MMO first person shooter and the first MMO on consoles”.
It shows we're ambitious and not afraid to try new things. We were ambitious with Rift and have so far achieved our goals.”
There's no doubt that Trion is looking to shake up the MMO sector – and challenge the expectations of the industry and the audience.
There's no reason at all that MMOs should be stuck in one genre. Real time strategy fans, we feel, have not really had something to get excited about since the Command & Conquer days and this is an opportunity to invigorate them.
Same with FPS games. A service based model on consoles and tied to a TV show gives them something new to get excited about.”
He stops short of saying the genre's in a rut, but does concede that some products haven't performed as well as people expected”.
Talk of the wider MMO market, inevitably, leads to the introduction of the WoW factor. World of Warcraft is one of the most successful products the industry has ever seen – and no one in Western markets has come close to replicating it.
Burns, of course, is full of admiration, but sees the brand's achievement as something to aim for, not something to be scared of. He also feels that Trion and Blizzard share a similar attitude to their players – one that's not as common as it should be: I think some companies have launched MMOs which have maybe taken consumers for granted. In the packaged goods world, you'd never ship a 70 per cent finished product, but I would argue that's happened in the MMO space.
Blizzard never do that. They have massive respect for their consumer and, in turn, we have massive respect for what they've done.
They have attracted millions of gamers to the MMO space and we feel there's a great opportunity to bring them not just another game, Rift, that's in the same genre, but which we would argue is better, but other MMO games in other genres.”
Trion will look to broaden its portfolio further by, potentially, partnering with developers and/or publishers. Burns says: We're looking to attract other products and we're having those conversations. We need to be able to offer, to those partners, as well as for our own products, a top class No.1 company and technical infrastructure.
We want products that have the ambition and genuine potential to be No.1. Those are the only type of products we want in our portfolio.”