I was surprised and dismayed reading Green Armadillo’s 2013 predictions post last night. It seems that Scott Hartsman has departed from Trion Worlds and the executive producer position on RIFT. This is probably the most dismaying news to come out about the game since the scaling back of zone invasions pre-launch. In a statement on the forums, he does his best to assure us that the game is safe:
The good news is that if you enjoy what’s been going on in RIFT lately, the folks who are now in charge are the same ones who have been making all of the game-impacting decisions, both to content and gameplay, for some time now. You’ll definitely be hearing from Bill Fisher, the lead game designer soon with some exciting updates. They love and play the game a lot as well and I feel strongly that RIFT couldn’t be in better hands.
Still, I find it saddening that Scott is taking his leave of the company and what’s become my favorite MMORPG. Under his leadership, the game was able to become what it is today: a thriving, vibrant world filled with competitive features, excellent PvE and PvP, and a content schedule that puts the rest of the industry to shame. His team challenged expectations by bringing factions together and breaking down barriers that keep friends apart. They introduced the world to the best housing system in any MMO, instanced or not. And for a first expansion, Storm Legion wasn’t just a big content drop, it was a redefining content drop. They included so much into that $40 box that it set a new precedent for what players should expect for their development dollars.
It was Scott who took the game from being an un-fun mass of dynamic systems into the refined, dynamically enhanced content that we have today. It was him who, anytime he was put in front of a microphone, camera, or keyboard that talked openly and frankly about his game and the industry. If there was a problem, he called it out and we could see his team’s reaction to that with his quotes still in memory. On that same token, if there was something players were responding positively to, he shared that too and wasn’t afraid to counter the negativity with facts. He was active, and involved, and made a point to keep in touch with the average player whether they had a blog or not. He surprised me once by commenting on this very site before pre-launch when I raised the question if rifts were PQs 2.0. I always got the sense that he was a down to earth guy that would look at and discuss MMOs like a seasoned player rather than a groomed-by-PR executive.
I worry about what this means for RIFT. Commenters at Massively pretty consistently feel that this probably heralds F2P. I would tend to agree. The layoffs following Storm Legion don’t just indicate the game may not have met expectations, but they go directly counter to statements Scott made about Trion directly avoiding that. When RIFT came out, layoffs didn’t follow because he, and presumably other higher ups, believed in keeping teams together and not fragmenting vision and ability for the bottom line. But that wasn’t the case recently and I wonder if the company going public doesn’t have a big role to play in that decision. And on that same token, the company being publicly, I believe, would have a lot to do with the game dropping its subscription fee. Free to play is where it’s at now and investors want return.
I hope that’s not the case. Out of all games, I truly hope RIFT avoids free-to-play. There are good arguments about making the game available to all players, and I can see that reasoning, but my question is simply this: If they go F2P, will they be able to maintain the update pace? Traditional cash shop models rely on whales to fund most of the game. Are they enough to keep the bi-monthly updates coming? Maybe they are. If they’re not, however, RIFT’s biggest claim to fame, that rapid iteration and constant expansion, will fall by the wayside. I worry that even a buy to play model might not be able to support it because, heck, even when every game had a sub cost, that rate of expansion was unprecedented. If the game comes out free and they keep it up, I will be the first to pat them on the back. RIFT is truly and excellent game and has earned ever penny of profit its made. I wish them the absolute best no matter what path the future leads them down.
Either way, the team Scott crafted and supported with RIFT is made up of some of the best in the industry. I have faith that whether they keep the sub, drop it, or anything in between, that will do so with the same impeccable quality we’ve come to expect. Scott was a head man, but now it’s up to his successor and the remaining team members to show the world that they’re still there ready to knock it out of the park. The few that I’ve met and interviewed have always been masters of their craft and I have a lot of faith in them to do great things.
Also, Trion as a whole is publishing ArcheAge and that’s pretty awesome. So bonus points for the larger entity.
One thing is for sure, wherever Scott goes next, I will surely be keeping a close eye. Everquest Next, maybe? (Please?) For myself, and I’m sure many others, I’d like to extend my thanks for how he piloted the ship and spoke to those of us on the shoreline. It was nice to be treated like real people instead of cattle to be driven by the PR-prod. Good luck, Scott!