Massively interviews Jon Van Caneghem about the SCI FI Channel MMO

Trion World Network is quite a company -- without releasing a single game, they've put together millions of dollars in venture capital and compiled a staff list that's got team members from across the history of MMO games, from EverQuest and Ultima Online to World of Warcraft and City of Heroes.

This week, they sent waves through the MMO community by announcing that not only were they working on a fantasy MMO to be helmed by Jon Van Caneghem (original creator of the Might and Magic series of RPG strategy games and co-founder of the company along with Lars Buttler), but that they were forming a groundbreaking partnership with the SCI FI Channel to develop and publish and MMO to live alongside a television show. Finally, we had a small glimpse of just what Trion, with all of their money and experience, were up to.

To find out more, Massively sat down with Van Caneghem (a busy man since the news dropped on Monday) to chat about both the fantasy MMO and the SCI FI project, and what Trion's been working on since they formed. Van Caneghem told us why Trion wants to make a different kind of MMO, and how they'll balance an online game with a television series from the network that's running Battlestar Galactica. The interview starts right after you click the link below.

Trion has raised a lot of money (some people have said $30 million), but you haven't actually officially announced a single game by name, or released anything. As someone who could use some more money, how did you do that? And by that I mean how did Trion start? Where did this all come from?

Jon Van Caneghem, President and co-founder of Trion World Network: Well, it was two-fold. Obviously, my background was in making RPGs and strategy games. Since the mid to late '90s, I knew online gaming was the future and that's all I wanted to work on. And Lars [Buttler, Trion's co-founder] went through Electronic Arts, we were going to do a big division together, and once we started talking and saw where the market was at, we thought it was obvious that we should start a company and do this ourselves.

And it was really exciting -- Lars comes from the venture world and a lot of media companies, and I, of course, have been in the PC and videogame world for... too long. [Laughs]

What kind of games did Lars work on at EA? I know he was in the "global online" department.

Yeah so under Lars' team they managed UO, and what was left of The Sims Online, and all the SDKs and whatnot, as well as the online purchasing and the direction that was starting to go.

And in your background, you worked on Heroes of Might and Magic and the Might and Magic universe -- what's your background in online gaming?

I started a company called New World, and designed all the Might and Magic RPGs and the Heroes strategy games, but we also published numerous multiplayer games, and I sold my company to 3DO when they had Meredian 59, which was the precursor to UO, and we started to work on Might and Magic Online, which was going to be a big competitor for them back then. I think it was a little early -- we were still on modems, lots of technical issues. But I did spend a little bit of time at NCSoft, working with my old friend Richard Garriot.

On Tabula Rasa?

No, we didn't work on that project, we were going to build a new title together, but Tabula Rasa kept going on and on, so hence my decision to start this company with Lars. So that's briefly how it got started but in general, we knew there was a big gap in terms of quality online games, and basically all games are going to some degree online, whether it's just some connectivity or completely to what we like to call "server-based gaming," which seems like the future for all games. And there wasn't really a lot of avenues, or a lot of companies at this point, especially in the West, who were doing that. We're both developing and publishing, and really creating a place where developers can go to publish great online games. And one of my big reasons for starting the company was the frustration I had with the current tech and the way online games are built, which was, to my surprise, mostly the same way we build standalone games. You know, a standalone game, you put it in the box, and hope they like it, right? Eventually you can do a patch, but that's about it.

And online games, you're connected to a server, but the way we update them is very much like building expansion packs, it's a huge process, the server goes down, you do your patch, and whatnot. It's not really like people would expect an online game to be. And some of the casual games have been doing this for years, and a lot of the Asian games have been moving in the direction of much more of a live service as opposed to just an "it is what it is and it doesn't change" type of a game. And I said from a game developer point of view, why can't we do that? Why can't we make games that we can add to them every week, every day, every hour, why can't we make a live game, as opposed to what we're currently doing. And to start the company, we basically set out to build the tech, and what would we have to accomplish from a server point of view to fulfill that dream of being able to build live games and add to them quicker and change stuff and really make it more exciting.

And now you've got this endeavor with the SCI FI Channel. How did that come about? Did they call you or did you call them?

A couple of our first investors were some of the big media companies that you see on our investment page. But really on our way to making online games, we basically stepped on a nerve of the entire entertainment industry -- they really want to be more involved with online and online games. They're losing viewers -- all the studies are showing they're not watching TV, they're playing online games, right? So they obviously wanted to be involved. And one of our investors, one of their sub companies was SCI FI Channel, and they had been looking for years now on how to get into online gaming, and they basically said to us, "Is this something we could work together on?" And we said absolutely. And once we showed them what we had built from a tech point of view in terms of how quickly we could turnaround new content, and how quickly in a live game we could add and change stuff, it was exactly what they were looking for, and in terms of being able to build something that followed and moved along with a TV show and added a lot of content and stuff to do for viewers and players while the show wasn't airing, between shows and between seasons and it just made so much sense to work together.

You said that Lars had worked on Ultima Online and you worked on Might and Magic, and those are very different games from the games that we consider MMOs now. The behind the shoulder, third-person MMO type of thing. Can we draw conclusions from the games that you guys have worked on to look at how this game will be? Will it be a standard third-person MMO?

The MMO that we're making here at the Redwood City office, the fantasy one, was announced as well. That will definitely play as a third-person, familiar. A lot of what we're trying to do is not make it so unfamiliar that people are going to go "what the heck is this." There's a lot of familiarity that people like in these type of games, so you obviously want to keep those. But what we want to introduce is the whole concept of the world evolving and changing constantly. Very familiar in terms of how it would feel from an MMO player point of view, but a lot of stuff they wouldn't expect in terms of how the game would evolve and change and react to players' activities and outcomes.

In general for us, it's about saying, if the game lives on a server, as opposed to just buying a standard videogame, what can you do, and what are all the great things you can do that now you couldn't have done before, and really taking advantage of that. And MMOs are just kind of the first step in that direction, you might say. And we're trying to take further steps past that evolution in terms of features and scheduled events and world changing, and constant content adding, and it's really where most people believe the industry's going and have been talking about it for a long time, and forming a company was really just how do we pull it all together and actually pull it all off.

You threw a whole wrench into this thing, too -- not only are you guys trying to make a futuristic MMO, but now you're also trying to partner it up with a TV show. So how is that partnership going to work? Are you going to put players in the show as characters? Are they writing the setting, or are you giving them a setting to work with?

Basically we're collaboratively doing the storyline, and the background to the universe and story to the show with the knowledge that it has to be written in a certain way that makes for a great MMO, with all the depth and breadth you need to have for a big game world. And also making sure we cater to the stuff that they need to make a compelling television show, so we're not trying to cram a game into a show or a show into a game. They're trying to be complementary, in the same way that if there's a famous universe you love watching movies or shows about, you would also like to go play in that universe. And the addition to that that people have already done to some degree is that as things appear in the show, they'll also change and appear in the game, and vice versa.

I also heard that the TV show is supposed to "match the look" of the game. Does that mean that the show is going to be like machinima? How are you going to draw lines in terms of the visual connection between the show and the game?

The show the same production quality that you'd expect from a TV show. There can be a lot of sharing of CG assets, whether we have to render them in 10,000 polygons, and they can do full movie quality renderings. But that's where I think the similarities come from. No, you're not going to see game machinima in the TV show.

The other question I had about this partnership -- it seems really unique to me, I can't think of another situation where people are trying to drive content in these two different directions. So what is the percentage partnership here -- is it trying to be 50/50 or 60/40 to one side? The example I thought of was if a show is ready to air, but the game content isn't quite set to go, what's the decision you're going to make?

We're equal partners in development of the game, and it's in everyone's best interest that they align, so we're going to do our best, obviously. But it's really about making a great game and it's about them making a great show, and what we can cross over and share to our best, we will. Neither one of them should hamper the other one from being the best they can be.

I wanted to talk about the other game that you're working on -- the fantasy game. I think that was mentioned possibly going to consoles?

First PC, and then other platforms to follow.

And I heard also that you were trying to go multiplatform with the sci-fi game as well.


That seems crazy to me. This is a new IP, right?

[Laughs] Yes.

So not only are you trying to break in a new IP, and not only are you going to partner with a TV show, but you also want to do a console thing. That's like saying "I'm going to jump through this hoop, but it's also going to be on fire, and it's going to be over a pit of sharks."

[Laughs] Well I'm glad you think it sounds like that. It's not quite as crazy as that might sound actually. If you have game developers that know how to make games on PC/Xbox/Playstation, they've already done that in the past, and you really have a pretty clear vision of what would be a good game, really the only difficulty is the connection with the media partner, the SCI FI Channel and how we don't slow each other down, and how we can help each other as opposed to hinder in terms of schedules and probably one of the most interesting things we're learning is game development and TV development are completely backward in terms of what you do first. They like to do their art and costume design and stuff last, and of course that's one of the first things we do.

And of course I'm not a game designer, and maybe I'm just thinking that creating a console MMO is a bigger task than it is. But can you name a console MMO that is doing what you want to do? Final Fantasy XI maybe, but that's a known IP. It just seems really tough to me.

No. There really isn't any. And at the same time, there'll be a PC version. So, honestly, if you would build an MMO the way they were built in the past, a console one is much more difficult, but the way we architected what we build, 80% of what we do is on the server, and the actual device that is PC or Xbox or whatever is not as big of a deal as it was before, so it's less of a problem. The UI is your biggest hurdle, not so much the rest of the game.

Cool. I did want to ask you about plans for a pay scheme. What are you considering -- a free client, pay to play, RMT? What kind of things are still open?

So we built our publishing tools and background stuff to support all types of payments, from subscription to microtransaction to pay-to-play to ad-based. So for me, any product we publish or even develop, it's about matching the product to the pay type, not trying to stick it on afterwards. So some games will be better in subscriptions, others will be better in microtransactions, and hopefully some point in the future, we'll have completely ad-supported games. Which would be, I think, great, at some time.

But one of the things for us is that, on all of our products, we don't want to require people to buy full-blown clients. We want you to try the game and see if you like it before you make any financial commitment. That's real important.

Well, to a certain extent, the game is already an advertisement for the show on SCI FI Channel.

[Laughs] Yeah, exactly. That's true.

Are you leaning then towards free or cheaper clients then? What are you leaning towards at this point?

I think definitely leaning towards transactions. But it has to play well from the mechanics of the product and how big it is, but I think that is potentially the future, just in terms of not a large $60 commitment up front and monthly fees, but in terms of pay-as-you-go, or access different parts of the game for different prices. It's not set yet, and it's, like I said, going to come out of how the game actually plays out and what the details are. We're very much in the beginning of design in terms of scope at this point.

I know you all have said release in 2010, which is a long way away, but what's the plan for this? When's the next we'll hear about it, or what are we looking at here in terms of timeline?

I guess we don't really have any dates I'm supposed to give out or even I have officially yet, but I don't think it'll be too long until you'll start to see some stuff -- obviously by next year for the SCI FI channel product, you'll be seeing stuff on what it's going to start to look like.

Great. Anything else you wanted to mention to MMO players about this stuff?

[Laughs] Yeah, I wasn't supposed to talk too much about the games. We're trying to talk more about the deal with SCI FI, and the fact that we are building a fantasy MMO, so...

Well, Massively is all about MMOs, obviously, and we're players, so that's what we're gravitating towards, I guess. We've got a ton of Battlestar Galactica fans, so I think the match is a perfect fit, but I know we're more interested in how the game is going to play and what type of game is going to be in there. Do you think the main audience for this thing will be SCI FI viewers, or people who like to play online games?

The way we obviously want to build games here is catered towards gamers. It's to your audience. And if we can bring in a wider audience of people who like sci-fi, all the better. But our number one goal is make great games.

Almost everybody here is a fanatical MMO player from one degree to another, so we have a lot of vested interest in game mechanics and how it plays out. There's not a lot of people who don't understand all the inner workings of MMOs, so I think that's a real positive.

Sounds good to me. Thanks very much for chatting.

No problem, you're very welcome.