Trion's Scott Hartsman on Rift subscribers, free-to-play and money

"It's definitely been growing since launch."

Trion MMO Rift reviewed well and launched smoothly earlier this year. It was a success. But how much of a success?

"Let me think," Rift executive producer Scott Hartsman told Eurogamer. "Rift has been holding - yeah, it's definitely been growing since launch, for sure."

"Subscribers?" he asked, when asked.

"One of the great things about our business is that we really don't need to worry so much about making noise about overall subscriber numbers. We are pretty damn happy that we have a healthy business and a successful game. And players, thousands of people who pick up the game, continue to."

When pressed if he could share a specific subscriber number, Hartsman answered, "Not at this time."

Which is in keeping with Trion's behaviour since Rift launched. Never have we been told subscriber numbers and, with Trion being a private company, we can't rely on financial reports to dish the dirt.

The only number we saw was 1 million, which referred to Rift accounts pre-launch. That didn't mean 1 million people had bought the game, nor did it mean 1 million were paying an 8.99 a month subscription.

Hartsman declared Rift "is absolutely profitable", but there's a tendency to believe that if the developer/publisher hasn't shared numbers, then those numbers weren't worth shouting about. Had Rift more than 1 million subscribers, we believe we'd have heard about it by now.

We've seen this kind of behaviour before. Dungeons & Dragons Online, The Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan, Champions Online, DC Universe Online and soon Star Trek Online all withheld subscriber numbers. Then, months - sometimes years - down the line, each game eventually reinvented itself as a free-to-play MMO.

"That's an interesting one," said Scott Hartsman, when asked when Rift would turn free-to-play "Right now, absolutely no plans whatsoever.

"One of the assumptions people make is you can just take a game and throw a switch and change the model. For starters, you'd have to decide that that would be a good thing, and I do not think it would be - that would be a fairly large net negative for Rift and Rift community.

"The company as a whole doesn't have a whole lot of religion about business models," he went on. "To us, business model is a function of what is the game designed for, and what the audience is expecting. With this audience, with this type of game, with this level of quality, we very consciously designed a game that would have its best chance of succeeding in a subscription model. "

The unavoidable statistic, however, is that games do better once they turn free-to-play. Or so we've been led to believe. DDO doubled its activity; LOTRO tripled its revenue; AOC doubled its revenue; a million new people played DCUO; and Champions Online helped Atari profits rise.

"Subscription game users bounce out once a month; a free game user bounces out in minutes or hours."

Scott Hartsman, executive producer, Rift

Wouldn't turning free-to-play also make Rift much bigger?

"It depends how you define bigger," said Hartsman. "If you define bigger in terms of raw numbers of users that you can attract at a launch - absolutely; free is a great way to get large, massive numbers of users.

"The thing people need to be mindful of is, if you think subscription users surf between games, free-to-play users bounce out. Subscription game users bounce out once a month; a free game user bounces out in minutes or hours. So you actually need to get numbers like that, and sustain numbers like that, to be able to make money.

"Keep in mind that there's a fundamental difference in the way of thinking and the way you need to design games if you do take them free-to-play.

"Take a free-to-play game or a social game, where the business is all about - the social games' word for it is, 'going whaling'. "The idea is you have a paying player subsidising the play of, potentially, dozens or hundreds of other users. And so you have to be willing to create a game that has the ability to make huge sums of money from relatively small numbers of people.

"Once you decide that you are going to enter the whaling business, it's a different mindset and a different set of goals you're designing for entirely."

Trion received $100 million in funding to make Rift, as well as strategy MMO End of nations and Defiance, the Syfy project. Trion is also licensing its technical platform that all three games were/are being built on. That's four entities helping pay back one $100 million sum; pressure somewhat alleviated.

"For us it's less about having to worry about that specific situation with one game. From our point of view we checked one box on the plan and we continue maintaining and excelling there, and there's more steps to go on that plan. And if it all comes together, it'll continue to be a success," concluded Hartsman.

Eurogamer's Rift review was laden with praise. And that was eight months ago. Now, Rift awaits "by far the biggest" free update yet: patch 1.6, which adds an entire new mini-continent, Ember Isle.

Rift offers a free trial to anyone curious.

A Rift developer diary detailing upcoming patch 1.6.

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