GDC 08: SOE CEO John Smedley on Vivox and More

Quietly, during the hoopla that surrounded the 2008 Game Developers Conference (GDC), SOE announced a deal with Vivox to integrate VOIP support into all of their titles. They are hardly the first; in fact it seemed that every second company at GDC had a similar agreement with the Boston-based company. But this agreement has the potential to change the very way gamers communicate – and not just in SOE’s games.

At GDC, we spoke to Sony Online Entertainment CEO John Smedley, who offered us some insights into the magnitude of their agreement with Vivox, some insights on their upcoming games and the business models that drive them.

On the surface, their deal with Vivox seems pretty straight forward. Vivox has built a company out of partnerships with MMO and online developers who integrate their VOIP solutions directly into their games. Clients already include Second Life, EVE Online, HeroEngine and many more. They provide crisp audio and features tailored to the needs of the individual game designers. The assumption is they’ll just do the same with SOE’s stable of games, which include EverQuest II, EverQuest, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Star Wars Galaxies and a host of others. And they will, but with one added wrinkle that could be bigger than the rest of the deal.

Smedley told us they also intend to integrate VOIP into their Station Launcher, an upcoming single-client jumping off point to all their games, which will be available to anyone who has a free Station account.

This means SOE is taking on traditional VOIP providers like Ventrilo and TeamSpeak, and they’re doing it with a no cost, stand-alone client and plan to host all the calls themselves.

To date, gamers who want to talk over the internet with headsets and microphones have divided between TeamSpeak, Ventrilo and in-game systems. Each has their advantages and limitations. TeamSpeak is free to use, but the quality is not as high as some of the competitors. Ventrilo offers high quality, flexible communications and has found a strong niche among guilds, but it isn’t free. In-game solutions, while convenient, are limited to single games, have a wide range of quality and controls, and leave players at the perils of the in-game UI’s responsiveness.

The Station Launcher will be a low CPU consumption program, originally devised as a launching pad for all SOE titles. It is entirely conceivable a player could run the Launcher for its VOIP and go play any other game in their own library without adverse performance, beyond the basic bandwidth that VOIP requires.

SOE’s software will support huge numbers of people in a single channel and frills like telephone call-in support (which likely won’t incur long distance thanks to a network of local call-in numbers), and voice fonts. It will not require a fee, nor any bulky hosting software and it will be high quality Vivox sound.

SOE has not worked out all the details that hardcore VOIP gamers will need to know, but if they keep on their current path, this has the potential to be an extremely user friendly, multi-game application that could put a serious dent in Ventrilo’s business. The win for SOE is that every user will be a single click away from any of SOE’s many games, which reduces the barrier to entry and potentially makes them more money.

Smedley hopes to have the Station Launcher available in the May timeframe. The initial launch will cover all the features described above and he seemed committed to adding more over time, such as integration with the PS3 voice network.

In the meantime, he also has the designers in all of the company’s MMORPGs (except EvereQuest: Online Adventures due to limitations of the PS2) at work on custom integration into each of their titles. This is a separate layer. Fans can use the launcher VOIP or the in-game stuff, but the in-game version will have custom channel and font features that make sense to the individual games. Smedley wouldn’t give us many insights on what to expect though, saying only that it was in the hands of the individual development teams. Vivox will roll out in these games on a case by case basis, and in some cases – such as EverQuest II – long before the Launcher itself.

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From there, Smedley turned toward a couple upcoming or recently launched games, namely DC Universe Online, The Agency and Pirates of the Burning Sea.

As is usual with a game that technically hasn’t even been announced yet, Smedley had little to say on DC, their upcoming comic-book licensed MMO out of SOE Austin. He did say that later this summer – likely E3 – he hopes to show the first version of DC to the media. But in general, how does he feel about its progress?

“We worry about the competition all the time, but not with this game,” he boasted with a grin. He’s confident, very confident in the sheer fun factor of the title, which has been in development for a number of years and will make its debut much later in the development cycle than many of their past games have. He noted that famed comic book artist Jim Lee (no relation to Stan), who has during his career drawn the likes of Superman, Batman and the X-Men, lives very near their Austin studio and works two to three days a week in the office on the game.

With The Agency, Smedley seemed almost relieved they had the time to really polish their project. He was pleased with its evolution, but noted that in the past they as a company had been focused more on profit than polish and as a corporation they now had the ability to reverse that and make solid games. The Agency will be one of the first to benefit from their refined philosophy. He believes as a result, SOE will have the first truly next-generation games on many platforms.

Pirates of the Burning Sea (PotBS) launched last month, and Smedley was pleased with the smooth roll-out and strong sales. Developed by Flying Lab Software, the game is part of their platform publishing label and has also added value to their Station Pass, which allows access to all their titles for one fee.

PotBS is a traditional subscription based MMORPG, which for years has been the staple of SOE and most other North American companies. This, though, appears poised to change.

“We don’t think the future is all subscriptions,” said Smedley. “We think it’s a mixture of different models.”

To that end, they have taken baby steps into peer-to-peer marketplaces, first with Station Exchange and now with Live Gamer, a third party provider. Both are limited to two EverQuest II servers, but to date, have been a success. Smedley noted that as of today, there are actually four people who have made $100,000 or more in the two years since Station Exchange launched and they’ve done it solely from sales of EverQuest II related items and characters on the Station Exchange.

As they move forward, they hope to combine business models in each of their new games to ensure the consumer has several choices. While obviously retail likely isn’t out for SOE – they do plan to launch The Agency and DC Universe on the Playstation 3 as well as the PC after all – even that won’t power each game. FreeRealms, for example, is a free-to-play, free-to-download, micro-transaction and ad-supported MMO aimed at younger girls.

It is an interesting time for the traditional big MMO developers. Over the last while, the traditional marketplace has become more and more congested and as they try to compete with an influx of new ideas and models from around the world, it takes some fresh ideas. Say what you will about Smedley, SOE and their often controversial past, but for better or worse, they see the changing landscape and have plans to tackle it.

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