Interview: How Cloud Computing Changes Trion's Game

Trion CEO Lars Buttler promises that platforms like his company's will evolve the way we play online. The company recently announced some ambitious plans - to develop a persistent MMO that ties into an ongoing Sci-Fi Channel television series, to create a new fantasy MMO helmed by Might and Magic creator Jon Van Caneghem, and to publish PlayStation 3 games through an agreement with Sony.

Though Trion has just recently announced its games, the company has been quietly at work on its technology infrastructure since last year, when it scored $30 million in investments from Time Warner and NBC Universal, among others. It's this infrastructure, says Buttler, that aims to shift the paradigm for multiplayer gaming.

Trion's World Network server cloud, Buttler said, will allow high volumes of players to participate in a fully persistent online world that can be evolved at any point by the game operators - or affected by the users. And the company has big cross-platform visions, promising mobile access to the worlds as well as console or PC, on the heels of the Sony partnership.

What about the Xbox 360? Is Trion talking to Microsoft, too?

Yes, said Buttler, and we can expect an announcement soon.

"For 20 years, games have been built essentially the same way," Buttler told us. "The client-based game world is only peer-to-peer, so it only really works for 16 to 32 people at a time, and after that it breaks down. Once you ship a game, it only lives in your client, and there's not much you can do."

Even larger games like WoW and EverQuest still rely largely on client computing, Buttler said. The entire game must be built up-front, they lack multi-device capability and neither the users nor the game teams can influence it much in realtime, beyond patches, expansions and bug fixes.

"But the way we build games, of the quality of a Halo or Madden or WoW, is essentially entirely server-based," Buttler said. "All of the computing for the game lives in the server cloud, and because that's the case, the entire game becomes dynamic - meaning anything and everything you want to change in those games after launch can be changed. Users can change it, and live teams can change it, to a degree never seen before."

The objective of the technology, Buttler said, is to create "massively social" game worlds that can evolve over time and tell stories. His ultimate aim is that any changes made in the game world or its story results from a collaborative decision between the users and the live teams.

Every action taken by the users within the game is recorded as data in a database - information such as what quests draw the highest number of players, what areas are the most frequently visited, and what content just doesn't seem to be catching on, and adjustments can be made accordingly.

"They don't have to consciously do it - it's like 'voting with your feet'. We can actually know what people like. Everything is a data entry, an aggregate view of what people do and what they like," said Buttler.

"It's a fine balance. If people influence everything, it might look like a Second Life at the end and destroy the fun. If they influence nothing, it's boring. So we have now the technical capability to improve the game constantly, to introduce new things constantly and allow users to talk about the changes they want to make."

Buttler is especially excited about the way the Sci-Fi Channel partnership will expand online gaing to new audiences. "We can literally evolve the game and the TV show in parallel, and to a large degree also use the game to inform what's cool for writing a show. If you see something in the TV show that you would love to do, you can stand up from your TV, go to your PC or console, and then do it yourself."

In that way, Buttler said, television also becomes a gaming platform in a way that goes beyond the trend of interactive television we see today, when viewers can vote on things like American Idol. He refers to the various games on Trion's platform as separate "channels," as well.

Ideally, he said, users will be able to access the game world from any platform they like - checking in with friends and auctions using the cell phone, and playing in the same world on the console as they do on the PC.

Though the official release date for the company's "Channel One" project, the Van Caneghem-led fantasy MMORPG, has not been announced, Buttler said the Sci-Fi Channel game is set to launch simultaneously with the show in 2010, and that audiences can expect the first project prior to that.