Hartsman: 'The traditional AAA style of development and distribution' is broken

Hartsman 'The traditional AAA style of development and distribution' is broken
A few days ago we reported on RIFT's impending free-to-play conversion, followed by the news that Trion was undergoing a second set of apparently unrelated layoffs. Former Trion studio GM and CCO Scott Hartsman responded to the layoffs on Twitter, intimating that aspects of the gaming industry are "fundamentally broken."

After we invited your thoughts on that same subject in a Daily Grind earlier this week, we contacted Hartsman in the hopes of getting him to elaborate. Join us after the cut for the resulting interview.

Massively: Your tweet raised a few eyebrows, even after people clicked through to read the whole convo about soaring costs/expectations/etc. For those who didn't get a chance to read it, can you elaborate a little bit about what you meant by the industry being "fundamentally broken"? Do you mean the way MMOs are being pumped out, the free-to-play craze, the way employees are treated disposably, or something else entirely?

Scott Hartsman: I don't know of anyone who's hired with the intent of treating people disposably. No one ever wants that, even the companies frequently perceived as "evil." The industry is generally full of good, smart people trying to create the best entertainment they can. I think what's become broken is the traditional AAA style of development and distribution, MMO or otherwise.

Here -- a picture's worth a thousand words.

zomg massively sorta did journalism!
We're approaching the point at which AAA projects need to be blockbusters just to sustain everyone in the ecosystem: the developer, the publisher, the manufacturing and physical goods cost, the distributor, the retailer, and in some cases, the platform/console owner.

The movie model worked when companies could absorb missteps and teams could hopefully learn from their mistakes to fight another day. As the absolute costs go up, fewer and fewer companies are capable of doing so. That's what's broken. When it comes to who pays the piper in that list a couple sentences ago, it tends to get paid left-to-right, beginning with the developer.

More product creators realize that, and more are choosing to step out of that ecosystem entirely.
Stepping away gets easier every day in a world that now contains things to help you operate independently at a far lower cost, faster than ever before, from funding to accelerating your development, helping you host, helping you bill, helping you distribute, helping you analyze, and so on.

Beyond those stepping out of AAA, take a look the biggest games startup success stories over the past few years. Which ones operate outside the old AAA ecosystem (Riot, Mojang, and SuperCell come to mind), and which are inside of it? (Have there been any inside of it?)

With any luck, we'll see more endeavors where the balance of power returns to the product creators and the audiences they're trying to serve in the most direct relationship possible -- where everyone involved is a "product person" whose sole mission is to best serve the customer. That's powerful and exciting.

You've said before that F2P wasn't a good match for RIFT because the game wasn't designed with it in mind. How much work is involved in retrofitting a game like RIFT for a totally new business model?

A lot of work -- far more than I imagine most people realize. If you can come up with a model that fits your audience, put a sufficiently sized team on it for enough time, and implement it very well, it absolutely can work. Most companies aren't in that position, however.

My commentary back then was more about F2P conversions that alienate existing customers and end up being counterproductive to the long term health of a service -- the ones where content or level gates get added as quickly as possible, advancement rates get slowed down, a store gets added, and developers hope enough of their problems get solved in the precious little time they have to do the job.

Over the last year, we've also seen a lot wider acceptance of free-with-genuine-value-add models in core gaming, where players are paying for enjoyment or as a way to say thank you, not paying to remove pain, like the original free models were. Model, game, and audience have to be a good fit. The customer has to feel he is getting a genuine value for his dollar, no matter the model. That all has to work together. That's the important part.

As a developer do you find it difficult to separate gameplay design from monetization design? Have these disciplines called for individual devs with individual skillsets in the MMOs you've worked on, and if so do you think they'll continue to be separate going forward?

It's challenging, but also exciting.

In past generations, in a lot of places, it was, "Devs, just do your dev things and let the business people figure out the business-y bits. Business people, figure out which of the eight widget types it is, get it on the shelf, and here's some money to get people to buy it." That's all changing.

Going forward, we'll see an expansion in both directions as developers become more business-aware and non-developers become more product-aware. That's actually a great thing. It means more people inside of games companies will have to care about the customer than ever before. People of all disciplines now need to be "product people" who are always conscious of their impact on customers and what they experience. Especially online.

Conversely, we'll also start to see more traditional product people with a keener sense for what it takes to succeed as a business in ways their customers will genuinely appreciate. When you think about the number of teams coming up via Kickstarter alone, they're already more familiar with business realities and bank account balances than many AAA developers have ever needed to or been able to be. That's a great starting point.

In the highest-functioning teams, we'll see people with a wider variety of skills all acting as a cohesive team, all with the mission of product first, customer first, everything else dead last.

Is the industry becoming more focused on monetization-driven design?

Certain parts of it were, but it's just now going through the hangover and coming out the other side. Monetization-driven design isn't a sustainable practice. The rise and decline of pure social and the short-term benefits it provided before burning out entire audiences have shown there's only so far that method will take you.

What's happened there has scared the hell out of the investment community with regard to games as a whole, which is really unfortunate since it's such an exciting time full of new opportunities in every dimension.

Many who used to champion that model as the end-all are backing away from it rapidly in favor of the more balanced view that online games have had success with for years. Data exist to help guide you in the long term, not drive you to short-term win after short-term win until your audience begs for mercy.

The biggest successes focus on fun, have the ability to create long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with customers, and then demonstrate that revenue can be a part of that and can smartly let the data guide them along the way.

When you left Trion, RIFT was still firmly in the subscription-only camp (though it did have a limited free trial). In a recent Massively interview, Trion said that internal F2P discussions have been happening for some time. Did that play a role in your decision to leave, or was it more of a looking-for-new-challenges thing?

No role in it whatsoever. The initial rounds of exploring what potential new models could look like were on my whiteboard for a long time. At the time I left, the folks charged with the real, hard work of evolving those conversations into the right answer for RIFT and turning them into a reality were exactly the right people to pull it off. That remains true today.

These are people who know the game well. They care about the game, its customers, and its ability to endure as a business. I'm looking forward to seeing what they've done!

Speaking of, can you tell us what you're up to these days and whether we'll be seeing you working on MMOs in some capacity again?

I've been spending my time doing a lot of learning while quietly helping out a few different places and working on some of my own projects I've been putting off. It's been a great time meeting and reconnecting with people across all parts of the games industry, from small dev to mid-size to large. From devs to investors. From mobile to online to MMO, across the US and Asia.

It's great to know that there are a lot of smart people out there trying to fix these problems and create new paths forward. I promise to let you know when I'm doing something more than quietly again. :)

Excellent, thanks for catching us up, Scott!

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!
This article was originally published on Massively.