Former Trion boss Scott Hartsman illuminates the rise and fall of RIFT

Being back in Azeroth might be a little more reassuring.

Yesterday, we ran an editorial from MOP’s Tyler focused on his reasoning that MMOs are better off showcasing their own special attributes than tearing down rivals. Among the multiple examples he gave was one of the more famous in MMO history: RIFT’s “we’re not in Azeroth anymore” ad campaign. And now today, Scott Hartsman, the then-executive producer on RIFT who rose to become Trion Worlds’ CEO before its collapse, has weighed in on the topic.

Hartsman, we note, is not necessarily rebutting our editorial but rather filling in some of the context around the campaign and its aftermath, some of which wasn’t public knowledge. For starters, he argues that (at least initially), the World of Warcraft-nose-tweaking ads did work to get players into the game at launch.

“In rebooting the game to RIFT about 12 months prior, we had assumed lapsed World of Warcraft players, who numbered in the many, many millions, would be our best potential audience,” he writes, explaining that once the idea was pitched by marketing, there was no way they couldn’t go for it. “It didn’t just resonate, it hit hard. It was the perfect inside joke for the people we were trying to connect with. People who were still playing WoW could get angry at us for the audacity, and the people that weren’t playing it anymore who, quite literally, were not in Azeroth anymore, would think: ‘Holy shit. What is this?'”

The campaign, which was roundly teased as “fighting words” even at the time (in 2011), still managed to pull in a million subscribers, which he says was the “biggest launch in the post-WoW era” (beating Warhammer Online’s 800K, by our count, though Age of Conan also sold 1M early on). Among the fun tidbits in Hartsman blog is the fact that Blizzard’s EP saw the ad and sent Hartsman an email that read, simply, “Really?” – but Hartsman points out the campaign was meant as a humorous punch-up, not an aggressive challenge.

Of course, that was a dozen years ago. As Tyler noted in our editorial (and as MMORPG players reading this surely know), RIFT has fallen on pretty hard times, which is precisely why it’s been back in the news, lending weight to the idea that an MMO needs its own longterm strengths, not just thrown gauntlets and spicy marketing, to survive the test of time, no matter how much even we still love it.

Hartsman doesn’t seem to disagree. While he’s clearly proud of RIFT’s innovation and stability, he admits the game fell off in live operations and content cadence when the live team was frozen and then downsized rather than upsized, owing to the other projects Trion had cooking. Hartsman’s elucidation of RIFT’s snowballing plunge in those early years is something most new MMO projects could stand to take to heart, as studios that fail to invest in their MMOs see their content rollouts and playerbases dwindle, slowly but surely.

“Painfully, it wasn’t long before we were asked to shrink the team and, also, figure out how quickly could we get to the first paid expansion. That further took focus away from live game content. We weren’t able to get to a solid quarterly pace of universally appealing, cohesive, themed new content and events, nor iterate enough on the parts that were making us truly unique. We were able to do the first track of patches very well and extremely reliably. We’d even set up the game to where many balance changes and small updates could be done without any downtime. Responsive and important work, but that didn’t keep pushing the launch themes the way they should have. Over our regular updates, were able to add content for different parts of the audience, but they were bullets, not bombs. That mid level track of meaningful periodic updates wasn’t anywhere close to what it should have been. Nailing all three could have keep RIFT on the growth trajectory we all wanted. That absolutely would have required growing, not shrinking the team.”

We can only assume Hartsman’s NDA debuff still hasn’t worn off yet as he glides gracefully past the part of the historical record when Trion Worlds was in such deep trouble that it was sold off to Gamigo in 2018 and all but a handful of Trion staffers were shown the door: “[T]he company’s changed hands,” he says glibly of that event. The implosion shocked fans and locked RIFT into its current pattern of neglect and de facto maintenance mode; the kindest thing we can say about the present situation is that Gamigo has at least kept the power on in the game so far as it reaches its 12th birthday.

“We all know in our hearts it could have been even more, and that every one of us would have loved the chance to take it there,” Hartsman laments. On that, there’s no room to quibble.

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