John Smedley: Exclusive Interview with the SOE CEO

As the President and CEO of Sony Online Entertainment (SOE), John Smedley oversees the largest portfolio of AAA MMOs on the planet. With fans as passionate as they are about their games, it’s no surprise that he has evolved from a simple game programmer to easily the most polarizing personality in the video game development industry. Today, SOE is a company in transition as Smedley works to bring MMOs into the mainstream. He spoke to us about his company and each of the titles in their library in a wide-ranging interview.

“I think we have the capability to make a game that has 10 million or 15 million subs,” Smedley said of his company’s prospects. “What you can do is make your best game and see what happens.”

The above comment doesn’t mean he expects one of the games in the pipe to surpass World of Warcraft, it’s just a statement of his confidence in what they as a company can achieve.

“The MMO genre in general is becoming the me too stuff,” he told us. “There’s a lot of grind that’s in all the games, ours included.”

He’s hardly the first executive to lament this, but year in, year out, the same kinds of games keep coming out. According to Smedley, SOE at least, hopes to go in some new directions.

Justly or not, SOE does not exactly have a strong reputation for innovation. They essentially set the standard everyone – including WoW – with EverQuest and like most, have been reluctant to deviate from it. Smedley though, is emphatic that it’s finally time for some new looks.

“We are very focused on taking the grind out of our next round of games,” he said simply. “Our next generation is not trying to do what we did in this generation.” He cited The Agency, with its more mature theme, FPS elements and cinematic-storytelling as an example.

It’s been a turbulent path for Smedley and SOE. The online game division of Sony began when the company purchased Verant, the studio behind EverQuest of which Smedley was a co-founder. That blossomed into “The Station”, a game hub that has since been the model for the entire industry. It included EQ and a host of smaller games, like Tanarus, an online tank-combat game, whose mechanics were a forerunner to games like Battlefield.

In the early part of this century, SOE had the World of Warcraft of its generation in EverQuest. They tried to leverage that into a host of games in the same universe. Some did well, like Champions of Norrath, the successful Playstation 2 RPG, and others – like the ill-fated RTS Lords of EverQuest – did not. They even made a little-known Playstation 2 MMORPG, EverQuest: Online Adventures (EQ:OA).

EverQuest is a valuable IP, but that period showed them that diversity is not a bad thing. That’s not to say they’ve lost their console illusions. Smedley reiterated his belief that MMOs can work on consoles. EQ:OA, Smedley told us, was before its time and the limitations of that console made it very difficult to properly support the game. The current generation with their onboard hard-drives and wireless capabilities make them great MMO platforms. Obviously, SOE is married to the Playstation 3, but they have plans to aggressively pursue development on that platform. Both the DC Comics MMO and spy-themed The Agency are headed to both PS3 and PC.

The company’s roots are both in MMOs and smaller online games – like Tanarus – and they continue to honor that legacy through their support of Playstation Home, Sony’s answer to Xbox Live. SOE built and supports both the system itself and several of the games on it. That said, MMOs are what keeps SOE going.

“[We’re] refocusing SOE on high quality and not rushing releases,” said of his coming crop of games. They learned many valuable lessons from EverQuest II and its head-to-head competition against World of Warcraft. Fact was, while both games did rather well, WoW had the budget, time and polish that EverQuest II did not. What’s more, EQII was the first attempt at an MMO sequel, a mistake Smedley readily admits.

“In hindsight, I wish we could have had a do-over and not called it EverQuest II,” he said frankly. “I doubt you will see us do that again.”

He explained how to him, the two games are very different.

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“It was called a sequel, but in reality it was a different game set in the same world, just in the future.”

So does that mean EverQuest fans don’t have anything more to expect in the MMO genre? Not at all. Smedley told us that they fully intend to do another EverQuest MMO.

“One day in the future, but not sure what point. No one’s actually working on it,” he said carefully.

After EverQuest II, Smedley directed SOE as they built up a hefty portfolio of games, most of which are available for one price under the SOE Station Pass. Among them were high profile failures in The Matrix Online and Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. With The Matrix, they brought it in not only to broaden their portfolio, but also with an eye to the future.

“We partnered up with Warner Brothers on a couple games, we partnered with them on Matrix and DC,” he revealed. “It wasn’t as much a condition as when we did the deal, it was a part of it.”

More recently, they purchased Vanguard’s developer Sigil and all of their assets. The deal saw a lot of people lose their jobs, but as publishers of the game, Smedley believed the move was necessary for their fans.

“We felt like we needed to take control of the situation,” he told us. “They had run out of money and were about to go out of business.”

Rather than see one of the games under their banner simply disappear, he decided to bring it in-house. Many of the developers still work at a reduced Carlsblad, CA office, now officially under the SOE banner.

“We sold over 200,000 copies of the game,” said of why he believes it still has great potential. “I think the biggest thing that hurts it is the high system specs.”

He believes that time is Vanguard’s biggest ally. It’s chock full of features he doesn’t see in other games and while they hope to improve performance, there is only so much they can do. The game is what it is and over time, people’s computers will catch up and by then, he believes the game will be worth a second look.

Hearkening back to a lesson learned from another game, they’re listening to the community and making Vanguard better at what it is, rather than trying to make it into something it’s not.

“It’s a hardcore game, everybody knows it is and there’s no point in shying away from that,” he pointed out.

That other lesson is the infamous “New Game Experience” the team put into Star Wars Galaxies in 2005. On that, he was completely frank.

“With the NGE, I’m sorry about the mistake we made,” he told us. “We screwed up and didn’t listen to the fans when we should have, and it’s not a mistake we’re going to make again.”

The NGE completely altered Star Wars Galaxies, a game that had launched in cooperation with LucasArts over two years before. Classes disappeared and the game fundamentally changed in almost every way. It came as no surprise to observers that this change was massively unpopular among the playerbase.

And what was the mistake SOE made that Smedley is sorry for?

“[The mistake was] to not just think we know the right direction without bringing the fans into the mix,” he explained. “We made the cardinal sin of not listening, but assuming and we were wrong.”

He went on to point out that after two years, the game is once again stable and growing. They continue to update the game with new content and those fans, old and new, who enjoy the current incarnation of the game are being listened to. The old game won’t come back – to change now would be as unfair as the first time they did it – but he believes SWG still has a solid future.

In the last year and a half, Smedley has not just expanded the company’s in-house MMO portfolio, but also its role as a 3rd party publisher of games. First, they announced Gods and Heroes: Rome Rising as part of their Platform Publishing label. Then, last month, they and developer Perpetual Entertainment clarified that relationship. SOE continues to handle marketing and distribution, but Perpetual does everything else and is now officially the publisher.

Then, a few weeks later, Perpetual announced they had laid off as many as 40 people and delayed the game into 2008.

“I think the game is coming along nicely and the Perpetual guys are having to make business decisions based on the state of the game,” Smedley noted. “In a company our size we have the benefit of being able to move people to other projects.”

Unfortunately, Perpetual only has one and while an unknown number of people were moved to Star Trek Online, not all could be accommodated.

“They’ve been holding the game back for quality and to make sure the game runs smoothly and that means a lot of the content, like art and stuff, is done,” he explained.

The other game currently on the way is Pirates of the Burning Sea, from Seattle’s Flying Lab Software. They only just announced the deal a couple months ago, but so far, there has been no drama on route to a launch in the next few months.

All of these new games represent an obvious diversification. In the next few years, SOE will have two popular science-fiction IPs (Matrix and Star Wars), four fantasy MMOs (EQ, EQII, EQ:OA and Vanguard), a comic-book MMO (DC Comics), a pirate game (Pirates of the Burning Sea), a spy game (The Agency), an MMOFPS (Planetside, which Smedley says he hopes to give a significant update) and a mythology driven title (Gods and Heroes). They also have a low-profile, but ambitious casual virtual world for a younger crowd on the way in FreeRealms.

All they need now is ninjas and they’ve hit every gaming theme currently in use.

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