Huge Layoffs At Trion Worlds: Defiance’s Fault
Trion Worlds received a hard lesson about the fungibility of consumers with news breaking today that drastic layoffs have hit the company.
While the company has not confirmed the scope and scale of the reductions, rumors are flying, with some reports suggesting that the layoffs have affected as many as 80 percent of the studio’s total staff.
An unnamed studio representative has called that figure “exaggerated” in a statement to IGN, though precisely how exaggerated it is remains to be seen. Other reports put the tally at 70% and all seem to agree around 100 people have been let go. There are also rumors that employees have been denied severance and escorted from the building, though the studio has flatly denied them.
Whatever the actual numbers, the timing is absolutely brutal. With the collapse last year of 38 Studios, the dissolution of THQ at the beginning of this one, and more recently Electronic Arts having recently axed 10 percent of its workforce, the gaming industry is a more harshly competitive environment than at any point in several years.
So what happened? Many have noted that the layoffs come in advance of Rift’s upcoming transition to free-to-play, but Trion said in a public statement the layoffs are limited to the team assigned to its new science-fiction MMO shooter Defiance.
“To best position Trion in a rapidly changing industry,” the statement reads, “we have reorganized our teams and are expanding our free to play offering. With Defiance, we delivered a great game that more than one million gamers registered to play and continue to enjoy. As we progress from launch to ongoing development of the game, we are adjusting our staffing levels to deliver new content and improved features. Rift, and our other titles in development, were unaffected by these changes. We are very much looking forward to the free to play release of Rift and are excited by the other new titles currently in development.”
While it is somewhat common for developers to shrink MMO staff levels even after the successful launch of a new game, Defiance has so far been a flop. Trion claims the game, which launched in early April, has more than one million registered players, but registrations can occur without purchase, and all publicly available data suggests Defiance has yet to break 500,000 sales.
Worse, Defiance received terrible reviews from critics and fans. Game Front’s final review was 55/100, and we weren’t alone: Defiance’s metacritic score averaged between its three platforms is around 60. Criticisms focused on the game’s lack of variety, boring combat and awful interface (particularly on Xbox 360).
Interestingly, the game wasn’t necessarily at risk of falling prey to the current market transition affecting the greater MMO world. It isn’t subscriber-based — revenues come from sales of individual copies and non-mandatory microtransactions in-game. That Guild Wars 2-style approach is a proven success, but for it to work, people have to play the game, and as Game Front’s James Murff put it during a discussion for this analysis, “Defiance has promise but it’s in an awful state right now … it doesn’t have a high enough quality to start the repetitive cycle of play-pay.”
Making things worse, the primary vehicle for advertising Defiance has been a complete nonstarter, at least as far as the game itself is concerned. Not only is Defiance a game, it’s also a TV show currently airing on SyFy, with a shared universe in which events in the show and in the game superficially affect one another.
But SyFy isn’t necessarily a good-faith partner. The network is notorious for throwing inconsistent support behind its scripted dramas. Popular, time-slot leading shows like “Lost Girl” find themselves moved around the network’s schedule almost as if the goal is to kill them, and more recently the network abruptly postponed the latter half of the final season of “Merlin” until after it was available domestically on Blu-ray. (This was almost a rude confirmation SyFy honestly couldn’t care whether the show earns the network any money.)
“Defiance” has been a hit for SyFy, and the network has already renewed it for another season. Unfortunately, there’s ample evidence that the ubiquitous ads for the tie-in game during commercial breaks haven’t turned viewers of the show into players, making the whole linked continuity idea, not to mention the massive expense Trion put into it, a wasted effort. This is almost precisely what I predicted after my hands-on with the game at PAX prime last year. No doubt Trion will receive nice residuals from that series’ success, but not enough to offset the losses incurred by the game itself. At minimum, that’s an important lesson for other developers looking to break into multimedia productions: Always make certain the tail isn’t wagging the dog.
Defiance may continue to chug along for a while longer. Trion Worlds may even managed to improve it enough to attract the players needed to save it for the long term. But with layoffs of this size, resources are going to be taxed more than ever, and I won’t be shocked if the game is ultimately taken offline before the television series’ second season begins. Given how big even measured estimates of these layoffs are, Trion apparently went all-in on this thing, and it bit them hard. Interestingly, THQ attempted a similar tie-in between television and video gaming with a movie — shown, yes, on SyFy — connected to the abysmal Red Faction: Armageddon. Trion Worlds may not be facing THQ’s eventual fate, but it’s likely both company’s experiences will handily deter any other publisher from trying this gimmick again.