Summary: President John Smedley gives us his thought on the game developer/publisher's current and future plans, including working on the PS3.
Editor's note: This interview was conducted before the announced departure of Sony Online's Creative Director Raph Koster
FiringSquad: Sony Online runs more massively multiplayer games than any US publisher by far. As Sony Online's head how difficult is it to keep up with all of the games under your view?
John Smedley: EverQuest just recently celebrated it’s seventh anniversary, which comes just a few months after we released the 11th expansion for the game. EverQuest II is a little over a year old, and has two full-blown expansions and two adventure packs. Star Wars Galaxies encompasses land and space combat and exploration across a half-dozen worlds. The Matrix Online is a full living, breathing city. PlanetSide is filled with thousands of players fighting over dozens of bases, towers and control points. It’s hard to know everything about every single one of our MMOs (not to mention our console titles), but I try to keep up.
FiringSquad: Everquest launched with only Origin's Ultima Online as its only serious competitor and now there are tons of MMORPGs out there. Is there always a fear that this genre is going to become saturated?
John Smedley: Saturation probably isn’t the best term. The MMO genre has come a long way since 1999, in terms of game design, quality and availability. Each new MMO game that comes out hopefully grows our audience and brings in new people to a genre that Sony Online Entertainment is clearly vested in. We’re not just dabbling in the MMO space, we’re running a half-dozen live online games with plans for more. New faces coming into our worlds are always welcome.
FiringSquad: There was some thought that Everquest might get hit with player subscription losses as players move to Everquest II. Can you give us any indication if that has turned out to be true and how long does Sony Online expect to continue to support Everquest?
John Smedley: Surprisingly, EQII didn’t put too big a bite into our EQ sub base. Part of the reason is because we began offering the Station Access subscription to our players, which allows them access to all of our games – including EQ, EQII, Star Wars Galaxies, Matrix Online, PlanetSide and EverQuest Online Adventure for the PlayStation 2 – for $24.99. Most EQ players have months (or years, in many cases) invested into the game, building up their characters and guilds, forming relationships within the game and spending a great deal of time and energy completing some of the vast amounts of content available in the game. They did not simply want to “switch,” and lose all of those connections. We still have hundreds of thousands of people playing EQ and we plan on supporting the game as long as they keep playing. We’re already planning for our next expansion for the game.
FiringSquad: Everquest has moved into action-RPGs and RTS genres. Have there been any thoughts about developing other games in the Everquest universe, perhaps a pure action game or a single player only RPG?
John Smedley: There has been talk over the years of producing a Squaresoft- or Bioware-style RPG based on the EQ franchise, but we’ve never progressed much beyond talking about. It’s not something that we’d ever rule out. Personally, I’d love to play an RPG based on the huge amount of lore that we’ve built up over the years.
SIDEBAR: Sony Online now runs six MMORPGs, including The Matrix Online which they took over in 2005 from Monolith
John Smedley: We just recently announced that we are creating a PlayStation 3 launch title, “Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom.” We’ll be taking our hit Untold Legends franchise and bringing it to the new next-gen system, combining hack-and-slash action with the amazing visuals and technical feats that would only be possible on the PS3. We’re also working with the PlayStation group to help them with backend implementation for the PS3 network, so you can expect to see titles from us that will take advantage of the online capabilities of the hardware (including Dark Kingdom).
FiringSquad: A few months ago you revealed that Sony Online would develop a new MMORPG without a monthly fee that would use instead trading and selling items in the game world. Can you give us any more hints about what this game will be like?
John Smedley: We’re still working on this project here in San Diego, and we’re not quite ready to go into more detail at this point in time. The overall plan is that we will be offering a free to play MMO that will also contain upsells for players, such as private zones or sales of virtual items. The goal for the game is that it needs to be simple to get into, both from a technical standpoint (fast, easy download that can be distributed virally) and a design standpoint (anyone should be able to play it). I’d love to tell you more, but it’s just too early right now.
FiringSquad: Most massively multiplayer games do not reveal their subscription numbers but Blizzard recently revealed that World of Warcraft has over 6 million subscribers worldwide. What do these numbers mean for the MMORPG genre in general and how does World of Warcraft's success affect how you develop games at Sony Online?
John Smedley: As I mentioned before, the more new people who are brought into the MMO space, the better for SOE. Blizzard has an incredible reputation and they were able to maximize on their successes to bring in many new players to the world of MMOs. The biggest hurdle we find with new players is the monthly service charge that comes with operating an online game. Now that all of these new folks have come into an MMO for the first time and see how it works, we’re be right there to offer them a number of other online worlds and adventures when they’re ready to try something different.
FiringSquad: It's been several months since Station Exchange started. Has this new program been a profitable one for Sony Online and do you believe this will eventually affect the third party MMORPG trading companies and IGE?
John Smedley: Station Exchange has been very successful for us as a company, on a number of levels. The service itself is making money – in January, we passed a million dollars in player-to-player sales through the service – and it has also been a great experiment, paving the way for further service offerings like this in the future. As we add more services like this for our games, there won’t be a reason for our players to go to a third-party website, as it will be integrated into the game they’re playing.
FiringSquad: Sony Online is currently developing a MMO based on DC Comic's superhero universe. We know the game is very early in development but can you give us an idea on how the game willl be different in terms of gameplay from Cryptic Studios' City of Heroes?
John Smedley: Well, we’ll have Batman. And Superman. And Wonder Woman. And Green Lantern. And The Flash. And… See where I’m going with this? We’re developing the title for both next-gen console and PC. Other than that, we’re not really talking about the game at this point; it’s still too early.
We’d like to thank SOE’s John Smedley for answering our questions for this interview. Sony Online Entertainment has a number of upcoming projects in the works and we’ll certainly be keeping our eye on them.
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