We spoke to Hartsman as he was in the second week of a two-month period of evaluation, meetings, and decision-making. Instead of sounding tired or stressed, Hartsman came across as upbeat, enthusiastic, and brimming with good things to say about his team and the studio's future.
So why did Hartsman return to the Trion fold now, and what does it portend for the studio and its many titles? The full story is more interesting than you might think.
So why did Scott Hartsman return to Trion? To answer that, he went back to why he left in January of this year. According to Hartsman, he left not because of anything wrong with the company but because he saw an opportunity to make a difference in the industry. The current publisher-developer model was broken, he told Massively back in May, and he burned with the desire to change that.
Thus Hartsman left to found his own start-up that would change the stale and unfair dynamic of how publishers treated studios. "The way games are made is changing rapidly," he said, pointing to the phenomenons of indie projects like Minecraft and crowdsourced MMOs that are outright challenging the publisher-developer model. Hartsman could capitalize on that by creating a company that was more nimble and offered trust and support to developers.
Right on the cusp of seeing his start-up go live, Trion came back with an offer to make him CEO. It was then that Hartsman faced a difficult choice: continue with his start-up or return to the studio that he'd invested so much time and energy in. It wasn't a hard decision in the end, he says, because it was a chance to reunite with "a large number of the best people I've ever worked with."
Hartsman returned with the understanding that he was going to push Trion further in the direction of creating new types of relationships with developers. Instead of being a puppetmaster overlord who pulled the strings, Trion would see these developers as true partners and trust them to make the best games they could.
"If you look at the old model as a 'we own you' model," Hartsman concluded, "the new model is 'how can we help?'"
Coming back wasn't just an endless parade of parties and high-fives. Hartsman inherited a Trion Worlds in flux, one that was starting to shrink after a period of expansion. The layoffs and consolidations we've been reporting on are partially what was already happening and partially the directives of the new CEO.
The problem, as Hartsman explained it, was that Trion was too spread out to do its job properly. A decision would bounce around between the studios and time zones, taking a week to resolve. Hartsman knew that everyone had to get under the same roof for these decisions to be made faster -- so that 20 could be made in a day instead of one per week. Hence the condensation of everything but the Redwood City and Austin offices. Even in the remaining two offices, a single unified team works to coordinate activities and messages between both so that all stay on the same page.
Hartsman also knew that Trion had had a problem properly articulating its vision as it bounced between promoting technology, publishing, and game efforts. The goal as the studio moves forward is to focus on being an entertainment company that does things quickly and well.
But what about folks like former CM James Nichols? Why were they let go? Hartsman couldn't comment on individual cases, but he did want to stress two things: One, that he is a huge fan of everyone who's worked at Trion, past and present, and two, that it's business, not personal.
"A lot of it comes down to making sure that we are the right size for the business that we are so that we can begin to grow healthy again. It's not personal, and it's not a commentary on any specific individual," Hartsman said.
Like a ravenous hellbug, Defiance might've bitten off more than it could chew. Since he's come back, Hartsman identified three core issues that have kept the game from becoming an MMO superstar. The biggest problem, he said, is that the scope of the game is far larger than the team could handle. Add on a fixed launch date and the "massive unknown" of collaborating with a television show, and it's been a difficult project to keep on track.
That said, Hartsman believes that Defiance has a good core and a promising future. Right now the team is transitioning from the recently closed San Diego studio to the Redwood City location, and Hartsman said that effort is being made to keep as many team members as possible in the move.
"It's up to us to make the game a hell of a lot better," he explained, going on to say that the team is committed to DLC but is also exploring "exciting" ideas to weave in as well.
So what's going on with End of Nations, the MMORTS-turned-MOBA-turned-stalled-project? Scott Hartsman said that the team is currently evaluating the title and its future, although the alpha test continues and a team lingers in San Diego to work on it. After coming back to the studio, Hartsman got to play a bit of the revamped title and said that he had 10 times more fun with this iteration than the old game.
"We're still exploring and transitioning," he said, promising more information once the dust settles.
When oh when is ArcheAge coming to the west? It's the question Hartsman knew we had to ask, and the long and the short of it is that he doesn't know. To go with his philosophy of being a great partner to developers, Hartsman and his company are adamant that they don't pressure XLGAMES into launching before everything is absolutely ready.
"We are ready to catch it as soon as we're both satisfied it's in the best shape that can possibly be," he said.
Personally, Hartsman loves the title and can't wait to let players get in on the fun. He's attracted to the fact that ArcheAge encourages players to both compete and cooperate. When it comes to finding the right balance of hand-holding and freedom that a title like this needs to draw in as many people as possible, he says has to trust that XLGAMES knows what it's doing.
Getting the game into beta will be telling and immensely helpful, Hartsman knows, but he also sees ArcheAge as benefiting from all of the effort and feedback that's gone into the live version overseas: "We need to get games improved based on what's being experienced."
On the RIFT homefront, Hartsman could not be more pleased. He said that one of the first things he did when he returned was to sit and observe the team, and all he could think is, "Holy crap, [they] grew up good." He had nothing but good things to say about the way the team is operating the game, the roadmap for the future, and especially the free-to-play conversion.
Free-to-play has propelled RIFT into an entirely new tier of operation. While he couldn't give numbers, Hartsman said the game is making "vastly" more money than before and has the largest monthly player population it's ever had.
He wanted to clarify that he isn't for or against free-to-play; for him, it's all about finding the right fit for the right model. Hartsman said that for a game to go F2P, the audience has to be interested in it, the game has to be modified to work with it just right, and there need to be enough resources to do it. He praised the decisions that the RIFT team made with this F2P model, saying that Trion chose absolutely right in ensuring that players felt good about what they bought instead of buying to alleviate pain.
"I would say that RIFT is the most successful F2P conversion that's ever been done because the team went deep and thoughtful about the best way to do that," he said.
What the future holds for RIFT is still a mystery -- Hartsman wouldn't spill details of the roadmap -- but he's certain that it will thrill fans of the game.
In his early assessment of Trion's strengths, Hartsman identified three "bright points" that gave him great hope for the future. The first was the RIFT F2P conversion, the second was seeing an opportunity to make Defiance far better, and the third was realizing potential that ArcheAge holds. From these, he's launching forward with initiatives and ideas.
While he's racing around doing a lot of internal conversations with Trion employees, Hartsman does carve out a little time here and there to game. He rattled off a list of titles that he's enjoyed in the past month, including RIFT, Defiance, End of Nations, Minecraft, Cube World, Borderlands 1 and 2, FTL, and plenty of tablet games. It's obvious that he's not just a guy who runs a games company; he's an avid gamer as well.
Soon Scott Hartsman will be addressing the community at large with more specific plans for the future of Trion's flock, but until then he wants to communicate that there's a bright future ahead for this company. "I think there's a lot to be excited about, honestly," he said.
When readers want the scoop on a launch or a patch (or even a brewing fiasco), Massively goes right to the source to interview the developers themselves. Be they John Smedley or Chris Roberts or anyone in between, we ask the devs the hard questions. Of course, whether they tell us the truth or not is up to them!