Sony Online Entertainment's pioneering MMO EverQuest is still chugging along, and SOE president John Smedley says it's still a significant revenue driver.
This March, the game will reach its ten-year anniversary, with over a dozen expansions so far and no plans to stop operations any time soon.
Meanwhile, the company continues with a slate of other PC MMOs (including the sequel EverQuest II) as well as intentions to invest more heavily into the PlayStation 3 platform.
Gamasutra spoke with Smedley about the challenges of operating an MMO in its tenth year, experiments in emerging business models like free-to-play and real money trades, and console plans.
How do you keep the original EverQuest popular after this long?
John Smedley: The game is still going very strong. It's still one of the mainstays of our revenue. I don't give out numbers, but it's still very profitable for us, and it's also coming up on its 10-year anniversary on March 16. We're still doing expansion packs for it; we've still got a live team on it. We've managed to keep the costs in line.
How's item commerce working out for you?
JS: It's just started, so it's a little hard to tell, but it seems to be going fine. We've maintained the number of people -- there was a worry that this would cause people to leave, but that simply hasn't happened. Slowly but surely, we're starting to see people use it, and as we introduce more items, we expect that to continue. It's going well for us.
It's the same game, we just added some items for convenience -- to change your appearance, to make it more convenient to do some things that maybe before would have taken a little longer.
Have you found it to be a workaround against illegal real-money trades?
JS: No, this was just that we wanted to sell people things to customize their character more and make it more convenient. It's nothing to do with RMT.
With the original, how much leeway do you feel you have to change specs and graphics?
JS: Over the years, we've increased the engine capacity such that the EverQuest engine is right in line with what EverQuest II can do, and what modern MMOs can do. We've made sure to keep that pace. But EverQuest still supports the widest number of graphics cards of any of our games.
Is it a challenge to maintain that level of compatibility?
JS: It's a challenge, but it's something we've focused on; we've had engineers on nothing but that since day one. Over time, we feel it's been a big reason we've been able to keep so many players for so long: we never drop players for technical reasons.
In part because the EverQuest community has been going for ten years at this point, some people say it's narrowing down to only including the most hardcore of players. Do you agree with that assessment?
JS: Well, it's still one of the largest MMOs in North America. It also happens to be one of the most profitable, and we're still acquiring new customers. So I don't think we're there yet.
I think it is certainly harder-core than EverQuest II or [World of Warcraft] or some other games, mostly because we made the game we made ten years ago -- actually thirteen years ago, if you count the development time -- and gaming tastes have changed. There are a lot of things in EQ that we probably wouldn't do twice, but that's part of the attraction for some people. I think it's fair to say it's harder-core.
Do you think it's easier to cater to that hardcore group? It could potentially be that they really understand what they want, or it could be that they're extremely finicky.
JS: It's a base that we know real well, so over the years we've spent a lot of time researching what they like and what they don't like. If you're reading a series of books by a particular author, the fans of that author know what they're getting when they read him.
It's the same kind of feeling; when we're making EverQuest expansions, we try to add new things and change things up and do as much as we can in ways we think they'll appreciate.
How do you feel about EverQuest versus EverQuest II? It seems interesting to have both going in tandem.
JS: It's been a challenge for us. Definitely, we didn't know what we were getting into when we made the quote-unquote sequel. It's been interesting keeping both games going, but they both developed their own userbases, and they are pretty different userbases, so over time we've been able to figure that out.
How much of a lifespan do you see for the original EverQuest?
JS: It looks to me like there's no stopping it. I don't even want to predict it. Ten years ago it looked to me like it would be two years. So, it's got years to come. And when we say "the EverQuest franchise," we'll be visiting that world again, and we're definitely in development on some things. I don't want to comment yet, but we're not going to leaving it stale.
How has EverQuest done on consoles?
JS: Well, EverQuest Online Adventures on PlayStation 2 is still operating to this day. There aren't a ton of people playing it -- I think we were about two years two early for that. We released with the launch of the PlayStation 2 network adapter, and I think we were a little early to market with that one.
Will that be revisited?
JS: Oh, absolutely. We are committed to doing PlayStation 3 and PC games. We want to see our users be able to access stuff from as many places as possible.
It seems like you could also do something like a monster hunting game on PSP.
JS: We have done some exploration outside of MMOs, and for now we're going to stick with MMOs.
What do you think of the state of the MMO market right now? The economy is a little weird, studios have been closing -- what is the effect?
JS: What we're seeing is that the MMO space has real competition right now. It's still growing -- the latest DFC numbers I saw had it growing at 17 percent this year. So it's still growing at a very healthy clip. Look -- it costs you 10 bucks to see a movie now, 12 in some places, and in many MMOs you have a subscription paid for right there. It's a good value.
A lot of people seem to be going back to basics, and while an MMO may not seem like the basics, it's a good value for the money. We haven't noticed any downturn due to the economy at all.
Do you think the subscription model will be the model that wins out?
JS: It'll be a mixture. You'll see some free-to-play, some subscriptions, some microtransactions, some advergaming. You will literally see a very wide variety here.
How much are you looking into the free-to-play model?
JS: We have a product, FreeRealms, that is free-to-play and will be launching in a couple months.
Are you feeling out the market with that?
JS: We are, but we have serious plans with other stuff too. We're pretty committed to making more games free-to-play -- not EverQuest and EverQuest II, or Star Wars Galaxies, or the [other] MMOs we have now, but the future games.
It seemed strange to me that you guys weren't involved with Home -- I would have thought that an online experience for the PlayStation 3 would have involved Sony Online Entertainment.
JS: Well, we only recently became a part of the Sony Computer Entertainment group. Now, that group is a sister company of ours, but before we were in different divisions of the company, so it made sense.
How does it feel to have reached the ten-year anniversary point with EverQuest?
JS: We're really proud of the tradition and the industry EverQuest helped build. At SOE, EverQuest is the main pillar of our company, the thing that got it all started, so we're excited to see it grow.