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Q&A: Trion On Platform, Von Caneghem MMO, Sci-Fi Channel Deal

Q&A: Trion On Platform, Von Caneghem MMO, Sci-Fi Channel Deal

June 2, 2008 | By Christian Nutt

Online world firm Trion World Network has revealed its first projects - including a Jon Von Caneghem-helmed fantasy themed MMO, and a Sci-Fi Channel co-developed online game to intertwine with a TV series, as the company becomes a licensed PS3 developer and publisher.

The firm, headed by EA veteran CEO Lars Buttler and Might & Magic creator and chief creative officer John Van Caneghem, will deliver games developed by both its internal studios and external partners via its Trion Platform, which is compatible with broadband-enabled PCs and PlayStation 3 systems.

Delivering what Trion calls "server-based games", the user will have a client which handles I/O and rendering, while content - which can be changed dynamically - is stored on servers and fed to the clients as needed.

Games will initially be delivered via download, retail, and other distribution methods -- with Buttler alluding to the possibility of free AOL-disc-like distribution methods for the client. Different "channels", which are essentially different game titles, will be maintained on Trion's server, and deliver that dynamic content to users depending on which "channel" they engage with.

The first newly announced game for the Trion Network platform is a currently-unnamed fantasy MMORPG developed under Van Caneghem in Trion's Redwood Shores, California studio.

No specific details about the game were revealed, but Trion's promises "battles of enormous scale will create epic moments that an unprecedented number of players can participate in." It will be published by Trion in both North America and Europe, and promises dynamic content -- a feature at the core of the Trion Platform experience.

During its presentation to Gamasutra, Buttler and Van Caneghem showed a short video presentation to give a better idea of this dynamic content. Though it was not meant to represent a specific product or partnership, it depicted a fantasy-MMO like world which smoothly changed into a cartoony action-platformer.

The second project in development at Trion encompasses a "dynamic, connected" cross-media franchise which encompasses both a Sci-Fi Channel television show and a Trion-published game, in development at Trion's San Diego studio, with ex-Sony Online Entertainment staffer Bill Trost as lead designer.

To further explore the workings of the Trion Platform, Gamasutra conducted an interview with Buttler and Van Caneghem after the presentation.

This is going to be a dynamic, server-side technology, in which everything is going to be stored on the servers. Is there going to be a big client download at all on the user end?

John van Caneghem: It depends on the game, but yes there is. You need all the graphics. We're not sending, obviously, video feed or anything like that. The clients themselves are basically rendering devices, and I/O devices. But all the rest of the game is being simulated on the server. For a big RPG, you're going to need all the art assets on your machine. That's why we talked about DVD distributions or downloads.

Lars Buttler: Or retail. All the ways of getting it.

JVC: So for a big 3D action game, you're going to have a big download.

LB: Normal size. Big, but dumb. It's not doing much. The 'smarts' are in the cloud.

So essentially, what the user downloads, or what will be distributed on the disc, are the art assets; the primary thing that's going to bulk up that download.

JVC: Art and sound, yes. Sound's huge, too.

You talked about doing things like physics, calculations of player positioning, all kinds of statistics and everything on the server side. What kind of broadband connection is required to participate in this?

JVC: That's a great question, but regular broadband.

LB: Lowest DSL connection.

JVC: Yeah, a low DSL connection. Not a dial-up though.

LB: It takes more bandwidth for any voice chat in any existing game, than you need for that. It's built really smartly, the way the servers communicate with the client.

We really think you have to have a world of broadband, but you can do it with today's devices, and with today's broadband speeds, and today's latencies. Everything beyond: new devices coming online, faster pipes, lower latencies, is upside for us. But everything we want to do, we can do today.

You've also talked about multiple distribution models, alluding to the fact that it could be potentially be on a DVD that someone might get like an AOL demo disc, or as a retail product. Presumably you'll also be distributing online or with an OEM partner, like on an HP computer.

What do you see as your primary distribution model? Will it change depending on the product? With John's product -- people might expect to go buy a fantasy MMO at GameStop, whereas they might expect to get a social network, like the Club Penguin of Trion online.

JVC: Well, even for large scale games, I think we want to use all forms of distribution. It's about getting it into as many people's hands to try it. We don't want to sell the client. We want the client to be given away. With our retail box we can give added incentives like an X month subscription, or extra special items. We have a money system for buying extra items.

LB: Yeah, it's a fully dynamic platform, so you can have different products for different channels that still make sense for those different channels.

JVC: The real idea is, let's stop the fifty or sixty dollar barrier of entry to try products that are online, and let people try them. Whether they download them or they pick up a low price-point retail item that just saves them the download time -- or one that they really want that has extra stuff in it, like collectors' editions -- just get them to try the game. Once they're trying the game, there's lots of ways for monetizing past that, but it's not about just selling the box anymore. That's been really ratified with what's happening in Asia, of course.

LB: Yeah, some games have different lead business models and different lead platforms, but you're totally right that a more lightweight, casual experience is very different.

You discussed the Trion platform with channels. Is there a core application on the user's end that is the Trion platform, or is this going to be something that's an integral part of different games and they can pick and choose the games and it serves as the backbone?

JVC: The latter is correct. The platform is the server architecture, not anything that's really on the client. Those are game-specific pieces of the architecture.

LB: The platform is the whole backbone.

Integration with social networking is key for a lot of reasons: appealing to new audiences and your media partners. You gave an example of a Facebook app to show what's happening in the game world - is that something that you're developing?

JVC: Absolutely. If you think about it, because the games are all running on servers in our database architecture, it's much, much easier to allow access to everything -- social networking, players' web pages -- all sorts of interconnectivity on all sorts of different devices.

That's half the reason why our architecture is like this, versus so much in clients. Right now it's very difficult for current online games to allow people to have any interconnectivity to them. It's a big re-write. And it's a big re-write for each application, whereas we've taken the next giant step of, "Oh, okay, we want a phone application, we want a web application, we want something that talks to your MySpace page." It's very easy for us to do.

You've shown that you can dynamically change things in the world, because the server controls the experience. It's potentially a hefty download to change something on the scale of, a zone in MMO, though. It might be instantly changeable from a gameplay perspective, but what kind of experience is it going to be for the user, as a download?

JVC: That's a great question. And then there are different tiers of change obviously. So, we have a whole category of what the designers can change instantly, what they can change that has swappable assets, and then more of a bigger picture of what people have to have already received down on their machine.

LB: Which they get as a background download.

JVC: We have some real clever ways of doing that, so that there's redundancies, and there's a way that most everyone can enjoy anything that's going on without having a, "Hey, you don't have this," situation. We've taken great lengths to prevent that. So, on the high-end, if you think about it, anything you already have, obviously we can change. That's already immensely powerful -- gameplay, quests, events, and combat, a whole series of things.

Then we have on-the-fly capabilities, if you're just thinking of speed of broadband and what they can get in terms of textures and sound. There's also big updates, like any other traditional game that does a patch. We do it as just content, though, so it can come in the background. It doesn't prevent them from playing otherwise. We can do those as periodically or as often we want. I'd say eighty percent of what we're doing dynamically, there isn't any time delay or download at all.

And that's tested out across the broadband platform that we currently work with?

JVC: Yeah.

During the presentation, it was noted that under fifty percent of the content, compared to old games, will be available at launch. That's something similar I've heard from people who work on Asian MMOs.

JVC: That's correct. That's exactly right.

So it's an ongoing development cycle.

JVC: That's a very different mentality for developers as well. We've had to retool a lot of our thinking in terms of how we built games for so long, and then everybody pushes to release, and then they move on to other titles.

Here, the idea is that the dev team stays steady-state after release to continually add stuff every day, and that way you don't have to build all that stuff up front, like we just talked about earlier -- fifty-plus percent we didn't even know was right.

We build enough to make a great game and have people playing, and then if there's stuff coming every day you have the ability to really go with the direction people are liking, as opposed to striking that bigger guess up front. So it's a two-fold win.

LB: And you have great gameplay. You still build all the all the core game mechanics.

JVC: Yeah, it's definitely pulling lessons learned from the different markets, on what works well and what people enjoy. And obviously high-quality, both gameplay and production quality, are very important. But it's the tremendous stuff from the Asian markets, and the social gaming markets, that, applied to this space, is what keeps people playing for a long time.

Are you going to be building a web platform, a Trion website that is a community hub for these games? Especially in the case of an MMO, that's an absolutely key element.

LB: The answer is yes. We really want to combine the best of online games and traditional media, right? From the traditional media we have this evolving, long-lasting evolving format, almost like a TV show.

From the online space, you really have a ton of social networking applications, other things. Not just on our side, but also tying into the social networking world with widgets and other things.

We don't see this as only as a destination, where this is the only way you get to experience it. We really want to reach people everywhere. It's a larger, broader network. We empower them to come through their Facebook profile, or come through their own website, or through our website, or directly through the game client, or any other way they want.

JVC: All of the developers we know want to build these type of games, and the traditional publishers don't have an outlet for them. We really want to be the destination for anyone who wants to build online server-based games.

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