From premium to free-to-play and back again: Why Trion Worlds keeps making changes to Rift's business model

From premium to free-to-play and back again: Why Trion Worlds keeps making changes to Rift's business model

Back in 2011, Trion Worlds released fantasy-themed MMO Rift into the wild. The project launched with a premium business model, but in early 2012 shifted gears to free-to-play.

Yet at the start of 2018, Trion revealed Rift Prime - a premium version of the game that did away with loot boxes and other in-game purchased. We caught up with CEO Scott Hartsman to find out a bit more about this decision.

Why launch a paid service for Rift?

We’ve wanted to do a progression server in Rift for quite some time. The experience of everyone being on an even playing field is some of the best fun that massive, open-world MMOs have to offer.

When we decided to take the plunge and start working on ours last year, we wanted to focus on the gameplay. We felt that the audience who’d be most likely to enjoy that gameplay would find this choice of model the most attractive.

Is it fair to say this is a reaction to the loot crate controversy at the end of last year?

It definitely didn’t go unnoticed. We took the industry-wide outcry as validation of the direction we were headed in, and it gave us a strong push to go out even more loudly with the ‘No loot crates here’ philosophy for the Prime service.

We’re in the business of serving and entertaining fans - period. But the ‘business’ part of that sentence is important too. If the fans here really do want to vote against loot crates by joining a paid service, we’re happy to give them the chance. We need to find a way to deliver entertaining games in ways that are desirable to our audience. That’s on us, and this is one way of trying to serve them better.

Rift went free-to-play in 2012. How has developing the game changed with this shift in business model? Anecdotally, I’ve heard that with making a free-to-play game there’s a pressure to develop a game that’ll incur spending, as opposed to a game that’s ‘fun’ in its own right.

It’s more that more people across development teams have to be cognizant of both aspects, the fun of the game and a game’s revenue, at the same time. In earlier models, most people only have to be aware of the former.

Fun still has to be paramount, but in free-to-play more people on a dev team need to pay attention and ensure that they’re not going to make everyone’s paychecks go to zero by being too generous. That’s a real risk.

If you look across the landscape of free-to-play core-gamer games over the last few years, you’ll see some very big ones that are doing extremely well, and you’ll see a huge number of small ones that ended up shutting down, and in some cases taking entire studios or companies with them. That’s a real danger, and that’s the thing that everyone but the biggest, billion dollar successes are striving to avoid.

With the different business models, are there any other differences between the paid and the free-to-play Rift servers?

Sure, think of what we’re planning on doing with Prime servers to be comparable to what Seasons are in other types of games.

On Prime, this first one is a progression server. People will be progressively unlocking seven years of content at a much more rapid pace, while getting to spend more time among the largest mass of community – the sweet spot of fun for MMOs.

What’s the response from the community been to this news?

Hugely positive. Even we were blown away by the reactions.

What’s your ambition for Rift in the coming year?

I’d love to see Prime take off, and us being able to serve both the audiences who prefer free-to-play as well as those who prefer a paid service. That would set us up not only to continue with Rift content and systems, but with new types of fun Prime services long into the future as well.

PCGamesInsider Contributing Editor

Alex Calvin is a freelance journalist who writes about the business of games. He started out at UK trade paper MCV in 2013 and left as deputy editor over three years later. In June 2017, he joined Steel Media as the editor for new site In October 2019 he left this full-time position at the company but still contributes to the site on a daily basis. He has also written for, VGC, Games London, The Observer/Guardian and Esquire UK.