SOE Deal: Exclusive Interview with SOE and Flying Lab CEO

SOE and Flying Lab Software shocked some people when they announced the SOE’s Platform Publishing would bring Pirates of the Burning Sea to market. We wanted to find out what the deal meant, so we go FLS CEO Russell Williams and SOE VP of Business Development David Christensen on the phone to find out the details.

Read on for our exclusive interview:

Pirates of the Burning Sea: The SOE Deal
Article based on interview with David Christensen (SOE VP Business Dev) & Russell Williams (FLS CEO)
Article by Dana Massey

imageYesterday, Flying Lab Software and SOE announced that the MMO giants will publish Pirates of the Burning Sea this fall under their Platform Publishing brand. Platform is the independent wing of Sony Online Entertainment and offers the marketing, organizational and business expertise of SOE to independently financed developers who want to bring their games to market. Today, we interviewed SOE VP of Business Development and International Operations David D. Christensen and Flying Lab Software CEO Russell Williams about the deal and what it means for SOE, FLS and fans of the game.

“Really it all comes down to the platform publishing system that they have,” Williams told us.

Throughout the interview, Williams reiterated his enthusiasm for the package SOE offers through Platform Publishing. Williams comes from the single-player industry where traditional publishing deals are nearly universally one-sided and spoke of how most other companies wanted to have the control that is typical of those deals without the financial investment or risk. Flying Lab Software does not need Sony’s money to finish the game, they need their marketing and sales network. According to Williams, this deal provides them with access to that and lets FLS keep its focus on the game.

Further to their marketing and sales network, FLS is gaining acces to the Station Pass. SOE revealed for the first time that Pirates of the Burning Sea – unlike their Platform brothers Gods and Heroes – will join the company’s All Access Station Pass when it launches this fall. The pass provides subscribers with access to the full SOE library of titles for one monthly fee.

image“We wanted to have a good partner to do things that are not our core competency,” Williams added. Specifically, he mentioned that instead of hiring people to work on localization, billing, marketing and other areas that are necessary for a successful project, he’s able to funnel those resources into QA and the game itself. SOE handles the other parts for them.

“This is their game, they’re going to be the ones at the end of the day who really benefit from this game doing very well,” SOE’s Christensen added. The majority of the financial investment and risk belongs to Flying Lab Software. That is not to say that SOE doesn’t benefit from the game’s success, but with the risk goes the potential for reward. Too often companies make their publisher rich just before being swallowed whole. The deal with SOE, Williams related, ensures Flying Lab Software can remain an independent company in good position if the game does well.

Further to this deal, both Williams and Christensen confirmed that Flying Lab Software retains complete creative control over their product. That means if for some reason FLS wants to release a Martian invasion expansion pack, SOE can advise them it might be a bad idea, but will not interfere.

The retention of creative control means that the final product will not look all that much different from what people expect. There will likely be more content, simply because the company can now invest more heavily in content creation, and fans overseas can expect better and more timely localization, but the game itself was selected on its merits, not as a project they hope to shoehorn into something it is not.

image“We have a group that does evaluations of products,” Christensen told us as he explained SOE’s process, “but going back to January of this year, Russell was able to provide us with a build and we were able to get 10 guys from our QA group who are trained in evaluating titles to play this game.”

That group came back with one of the strongest product reviews they’d ever given, according to Christensen and made SOE’s decision much easier.

Ironically, FLS announced this deal at almost exactly the time it had said it would launch. At PAX 2006, June 2007 was unveiled as the launch date. Was this deal the reason the window had been missed?

“What held us back is two things,” Williams said. The first was in fact the time it took to hammer out a distribution agreement, while the second was delays in development. Williams told us they had just recently completed a build they feel fully represents the game. Soon, that build will be available to testers, but they want to give it time and not launch a product that needs several patches before it’s playable. As such, they’ll only say their release date is “this fall.”

image“We’ve really refocused efforts on never shipping a project until its ready,” Christensen said of SOE. Recent history taught them that lesson with Vanguard, and both sides professed a desire to do it right and not suffer that same fate.

Christensen went on to explain that SOE has made it a priority that they be completely comfortable with when games they publish launch. In the past, that had not always been the case, as developers had more control, he told us. With Pirates of the Burning Sea, both the developer and publisher must agree for the game to go out the door.

“Their position has always been to do whatever it takes to launch this game and do it right,” Williams added. He added that they’ve never pushed them towards a date that is convenient for marketing or any reason other than the long term viability of the project.

A final reason for delay is both companies’ desire to launch the game simultaneously in North American and Europe. Christensen mentioned that one mistake publishers make is to treat Europe like second class citizens and release localized versions several months later. History has shown that to be a less than successful approach.

imageSOE has taken on rapid localization of the game into French, German and potentially other European languages so that the game is ready in each territory this fall.

Williams added that Russian and Asian publishing rights remain unchanged. Akella continues with plans to publish the game in Russia and Williams said FLS is independently moving toward agreements to release the game across Asia.

Thanks to a number of high profile situations, SOE has developed a vocal contingent of detractors in the MMO community. The way the company handled Star Wars Galaxies and the recent launch of Vanguard clearly make some people very worried when they hear a game like Pirates of the Burning Sea is with SOE.

“We’re honest enough with ourselves to say there are things we can to improve our current games,” added the SOE public relations person who organized the call, in reference to recent improvements in Star Wars Galaxies and EverQuest II.

How would these issues influence the Pirates of the Burning Sea community though?

image“I think when you address the issue head on, it’s easier for people to accept,” Williams told us. He mentioned how the company has long been up front with its community and in this case, things were no different. A long letter from Williams on Monday explained the deal, the division of responsibilities and tried to answer whatever questions people might have. Then, after the press release circulated yesterday, the company hosted a developer chat in IRC so that fans could directly have their voices heard.

Some may never look at the game again simply because of the association, but ultimately, Williams believes that the good the deal does far outweighs the historical negatives of SOE. He also reiterated his excitement of the freedom Platform Publishing provides independent game developers. Flat out, he told us that it would encourage growth in a genre that sees too many “retreads.”

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