By David Radd

The past year hasn’t been kind to the subscription-only MMORPG. Star Wars: The Old Republic saw free-to-play plans shifted up after subscriber retention did not meet expectations, Funcom has admitted that The Secret World did not hit launch expectations and Mists of Pandaria has failed to completely stave off World of Warcraft’s lower player engagement. All the while countless subscription-only games have switched to free-to-play. Yet, at the same time all of this has been happening, little Rift from Trion has been plugging along and even thriving due to fast design adaptation, plenty of regular content (including Ember Isle, a free expansion) and a variety of ways to experience the game. Now only a few weeks out from the launch of the game’s first paid expansion Storm Legion, we talked with Rift global brand director Jim Butler about marketing the game’s first expansion pack and aspects of making it as well.

The tagline for Storm Legion is “Our Quest Never Ends” – why was this chosen as an important part of the messaging?

This ties back to something we’ve heard customers say again and again: “The Rift team is listening to us.” We wanted to drive that message home to a wider audience and let them know that we’re still listening, and we’re never done adding new features or polishing current ones. That’s true on both the Development and Marketing sides.

Tell me about the “Save a Panda” campaign that was launched to support Pandas International — what prompted it and was the timing a continuation of a proud Trion tradition of tweaking Blizzard in its advertising?

What do you mean, you don’t like pandas Really?! I mean they’re so adorable and cuddly, and . . .  Oh, all right.

Our agency presented a number of great ideas for the pre-order campaign. While we went forward with “Our Quest Never Ends” we really liked the prodding of a Panda treatment they presented — but we didn’t want to be the game that always pokes fun Blizzard in our launch advertising. We couldn’t let their launch go by without a good jab, and this one was too good to pass up. We did a week-long promotion for this around the week of the Pandaria launch, and everyone seemed to love it.

Speaking of purchasing the expansion, how have initiatives to offer the expansion for free to those who purchase a certain amount of subscription time gone down?

Amazingly well; beyond expectations. Our original forecast had us targeting an 7 percent adoption rate. We’re currently at 13 percent and climbing. It’s an amazing deal for gamers that know they’re going to play Rift for the next year.

MMOs are a cyclical business, with gamers playing intensely around major content updates and then sampling other games before returning. Some of those gamers cancel their subs as they check out the new hotness; promotions like this help to insulate the business from the newest flavor.

Any chance for Lifetime subscription to Rift?

Nope; never. I was against the idea when we did it at Turbine, and it won’t happen on my watch here at Trion. Lifetime memberships are a great deal for consumers that plan to spend the next few years playing the game, and a financial disaster for subscription-only companies that have to continue paying for new feature development, salaries, server costs, marketing, etc. Ultimately, it’s a bad deal for the consumer in the long-term.

MMO’s tend to acquire reputations a PvPer’s MMO, a crafter’s MMO, a social MMO, etc. What sort of reputation do you see Rift as possessing, and what sort of reputation would you want it to possess?

I’m one of those marketing folks that plays the hell out of the games I’m working on, from Dungeons & Dragons Online to Lord of the Rings Online to Rift. That’s still a tough question, because I think MMOs present different visages to the various segments of the MMO marketplace.

I’d say Rift has the reputation of a dynamic MMO. The world literally comes to life around me with zone events, invasions, and more. One encounter I’m raid healing, the next I’m DPS, and then I’m tanking the third (all with the same character). Ember Isle, the current level 50 end-zone for Rift, brings all of this together and is one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had soloing. The Storm Legion expansion is taking all this to the next level with a colossus that actually destroys part of the world and changes tactics based on his attackers.

What has the reception been like to the soul reveals you’ve done for Storm Legion?

We’ve had a very strong, positive reaction to the new souls. We’ve been listening for more than the last year about what customers are saying they’d really like to see for their favorite classes, and these souls are fulfilling those wants. We’ll keep listening too.

Storm Legion is Rift‘s first big expansion . . . what’s hardest thing about creating/producing the new campaign and what’s the most exciting thing about creating/producing it?

Selecting each campaign was hard, but the hardest thing has been managing all the various components for the different campaigns. We work closely with the Development team to ensure that their vision for the final feature matches what’s showing up in videos and text, and typically that means that material comes in very close to the deadlines. Sometimes it means we have to change our schedule to ensure that a feature is available for us to show, and that causes a lot of cascade changes down the line.

Working closely with Dev is also one of the most exciting things too, because we kind of feed off each other. We get excited for their vision, and then we add more feedback from customers and the press, and the feature gets an extra polish pass before it’s even released.

How will you seek to message some of the small but important incremental improvements that are being incorporated into Storm Legion?

We’ve focused on the new features, giving each one a full week or so of coverage before moving to the next. We’ve targeted each of the new souls separately, because we know that players have a favorite class of character to play and they’re waiting for this information. In each of those reveals, we’ve tried to add additional details of new features that will make that core element shine even more.

Ultimately we focus on (and broadcast) those improvements that we’ve heard from customers are on their wish list. For instance, we heard that the macro system was making combat a bit too easy and allowing simple rotations. Update 1.11 (live now) improves all of the classes and makes for much more dynamic (fun!) gameplay.

What sort of creative input do you get from your players and fans? Can you think of an particular examples of useful or intriguing player input you’ve ever received?

We put creative in front of focus groups from time to time, especially for big campaigns. The most useful feedback we’ve received has been to focus on actual gameplay and don’t drown them in CG. Everyone knows CG looks awesome, but you can’t play CG.

Sometimes, what someone says isn’t as important as what they do. We had players who were incredibly upset over the whole ‘We’re not in Azeroth anymore’ campaign; shocked and enraged over us touching something sacred. That was just what a new company needed to launch its first product, though . . . and the rest is history!

Jim, thanks.