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Exclusive Interview with Trion Developers - Can Sci-Fi Succeed?

Posted Wed, Dec 31, 2008 by Cody Bye

Science fiction MMOs have had a really bad stretch of luck. From Auto Assault to Earth and Beyond to Tabula Rasa, the number of cancellations in the science fiction genre compared to the fantasy genre is nearing somewhere around five or six to one. Although we have one brilliant star in the science fiction sky – EVE Online – there’s still a long ways to go for the sci-fi genre to get a firm foundation.

So when I had the opportunity to interview Trion’s Rob Hill and Kevin Beardslee, two developers working on their science fiction-based, SCI FI Channel MMO, I jumped at the chance and really asked them how their game was going to succeed where so many others failed. Although they couldn’t reveal any details about the game, they were eager to explain how their game is going to really stand out from the sci-fi crowd. Enjoy!


Trion World Network Logo

Ten Ton Hammer: Why did you decide to go the science fiction route? Was it something that you had to do based on the IP you’re working with or was it a more conscious choice?

Rob Hill: We looked at all sorts of different genres to be honest. We sat down with the SCI FI Channel folks and really figured out that the science fiction genre plays to both our strengths. The sci-fi genre is pretty huge in mass media, right?

It’s big in TV, it’s big in movies, it’s big in cartoons. It’s really a niche that we can really hit in MMOs.

Ten Ton Hammer: The science fiction genre hasn’t had a lot of success in the past, other than what the folks at CCP and EVE Online have done. How are you working to avoid getting your product tossed in the “cancellation bin” like so many other sci-fi titles?

Rob: We’re basically trying to take a different approach than those other games that you listed. We’ve certainly looked at all the games you mentioned and there are plenty of theories on why those games weren’t successful, but we’re just trying to take a different approach with our core gameplay mechanics. The previous games were taking standard MMO mechanics and translating them to the sci-fi space. We’re looking to do something a little different.

Kevin Beardslee: At Blizzard, my experience with science fiction was Starcraft, and it did pretty well. When we decided to make World of Warcraft, there were a lot of us at the company that wanted to make a Starcraft MMO. For us, it wasn’t really a question of which IP could succeed, it was more of a question of which IP do we have more lore for?

I think it’s more about making a good game than it is about an entire genre being cursed or something like that. We’re going to make a really good game, and it just happens to work best for us in the sci-fi genre.

Ten Ton Hammer: Have any of your design philosophies changed to reflect this change in gameplay mechanics?

Kevin: We’re just making the game that we want to play. It’s the same approach that we took at Blizzard when we made WoW. We asked ourselves what type of game we wanted to play based on what’s out there and what we could do to make it better.

Everyone here at Trion is extremely excited about the game we’re making here.

Ten Ton Hammer: How important are the standard traditions in the MMO space in your game? Things like crafting, advancing via gaining experience, auction houses, chat rooms…those sort of things.

Rob: Without going into any detail, there are a number of elements on that list that are extremely important. Community is extremely important to us. Doing things with guilds, grouping, auction houses, any thing that brings a community together is always extremely important in any MMO.

Outside of that, we really don’t have much to talk about yet.

Ten Ton Hammer: You’ve got a large contingent of competitors that are in development and will be releasing in the next few years:  Star Trek Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Jumpgate Evolution, and more. How are you planning on competing with these games and these studios that are going to be right in the thick of it when your game is released?

Rob: It’s hard to say, since very little is known about any of those games. I’m actually looking forward to playing them, since I love those IPs!

Ten Ton Hammer: To rephrase that, how are you making your game stand apart from the other sci-fi games that are coming?

Trion will be co-building this product with the SCI FI Channel.

Rob: Like I said, we’re taking some unique approaches. Whether they’re doing that or not, we really can’t say. If they’re following the same core models, then we’ll certainly differentiate ourselves that way.

Kevin: We also have a pretty proven track record with this team. A lot of the guys have worked at Sony, and I’m from Blizzard. A lot of us have made MMOs in the past that have succeeded very well, and that’s definitely going to have some impact on the success of our title.

Ten Ton Hammer: Can you talk about your team a little bit?

Rob: We have a team in that numbers in the 20s; we really want to stay focused for awhile. We have a designer from EQ Live and two content designers from EQ2. A lot of our core team worked on Untold Legends for the PSP and I worked on Champions of Norrath to design all the core system.

Ten Ton Hammer: Kevin, why do you think World of Warcraft did that made it take off? You saw the internal workings of that product, what made it different?

Kevin: It really began when a bunch of us were playing EverQuest and were certain we could do it better. Our initial design was all the things we would do better than the original EverQuest. Couple that with Blizzard’s polish and attention to detail and the whole mantra of “it’s done when it’s done” and it really came together. Until a game becomes something that everyone wants to play internally, it’s not going to be a project that Blizzard puts out.

Rob: It’s important to build iteration time into your schedule. I know Blizzard does, and we plan on doing it too. We want the core stuff to be as good as it can be. We want that time scheduled in instead of just finishing a system and moving on, finishing a system and moving on.

Ten Ton Hammer: How important is story in your game?

Rob: It’s still being formulated, but since we’re tying in with the TV show, it’s going to be pretty important.

Ten Ton Hammer: What are your thoughts on art styles in MMOs? Are they a key feature?

Kevin: I think a compelling art style gets people drawn into the world. If they see screenshots and videos and a game looks inviting and done well, they’re more inclined to give it a shot.

Once they’re in the world, I think gameplay and other features can take over and keep people in, but having a beautiful game will only add another element that will keep people playing.

Ten Ton Hammer: When you’re iterating on a game this early, do you use broad brush strokes or go at it with a fine toothed comb?

Rob: It really depends on the system you’re talking about. If it’s a core gameplay system, you iterate on it early and often.

Ten Ton Hammer: But if it’s on the periphery, you don’t iterate on it so much in the beginning?

Rob: Correct. You always spend more time on the mechanics that players are going to use the most.

Ten Ton Hammer: Is there anything else you’d like to tell Ten Ton Hammer fans and SCI FI Channel viewers?

Rob: One of the things that I think is cool and unique about what we’re doing is that usually you have a game based off of a movie or TV show or you have a TV show or a movie based off of a game. This is an opportunity to – because we’re co-building this TV show and game – to be unique in this industry.

We’re still discussing how the game and the TV show are going to influence each other, but there’s definitely lots of crossover stuff that we can do. It’s really one of the most exciting parts of this whole project.

Ten Ton Hammer: Thanks again for your time. We look forward to talking to you again when we can really discuss the nitty gritty details of the game!

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