John Smedley is CEO of Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) (makers of Everquest 2 and Star Wars Galaxies),
and sometimes serves as a lightning rod for debate in the Massively
Multiplayer genre. SOE and Mr. Smedley made the bold decision in June
of 2005 to roll out a service that would allow players to trade US
currency for in-game currency, items, and even characters. Called the
Sony Station Exchange, it has caused a good deal of debate and, it
turns out, made the company a nice little pile of money.
Today, SOE is releasing a white paper detailing the first full year of
trading; how much was sold, how much they made, and the big bucks
individuals can get from selling non-existent coins. Mr. Smedley was
good enough to answer a few brief questions about the contents of the
white paper, and the future of SOE's Station Exchange service.
When the topic of the white paper came up, you mentioned that your
interests here were possibly 'not what we'd expect.' What does interest
you in about this topic?
I'm interested in shining the light of day on this subject. It's real.
It's a billion dollar industry worldwide and we as game makers need to
seriously work to handle it in-game. There is rampant farming in these
games (yes, ours included). I believe we should work to include some
element of this in some games, but do a better job of cracking down on
it in a big way. I have personally had it affect my gameplay and I
think it's very negative. Our goal for getting this information out
there is to show exactly what's going on so everyone understands. With
this kind of money involved, it's not going away. I strongly believe in
the idea of separate servers to allow people that want to engage in
this sort of activity to do it.
What was the reason SOE decided to have the white paper drawn up? Was
it internal curiosity, or did you always plan to publish the results?
Was there anything in the paper's results that out-and-out surprised
JS: We had the white paper drawn
up because it's a topic we felt was very pertinent to MMO gaming in
general. The biggest surprise to me was the amount of money some of the
sellers were making.
The paper's statement that the opening of the Station Exchange 'was a
cause for great debate' seems like something of an understatement. Has
there been any appreciable backlash from the playerbase as a result of
the SE's opening? Do you feel that opening the Exchange generated some
JS: There was a very large amount of debate and controversy when we
announced it. It became a non-event when it launched.
Did the sheer amount of money that has passed through the service
surprise anyone at SOE, or was the success of the Station Exchange an
assumption from the start?
JS: We always assumed it would be successful. We knew the demand was there.
Despite the paper's statement that revenue for the company from the
Station Exchange was 'not a significant source', $274,083 is nothing to
write off either. Given the monetary success of the Station Exchange
for both SOE and participating players, are there any plans to expand
the service to all game servers? If not, what is keeping you from
taking that step?
JS: Absolutely not.
We said at the start that we would keep it on separate servers, and we
intend to keep that promise. In the future we will include some form of
Exchange in some of our games, although we are leaning towards only
allowing certain types of non-game impacting items to be sold.
What is your reaction to the statistics showing some players may be
making a living wage off of Station Exchange sales? Is this something
that was always intended for the service (as it is certainly not unique
among RMT services), and is this something SOE has any intention of
JS: I will admit the
amount that some of these folks were making did come as a surprise. I
do think it's cool that a person could put themselves through College
by doing this. If it's done on servers where other people choose to
participate in this kind of activity I think it's a great thing.
While the analogy of 'movie snacks' is an apt one insofar as impulse
buys go, do you think it is an applicable lens for the service as a
whole? How would you respond to some who would take exception to that
as an analogy for something they care deeply about?
JS: I don't think it's a good lens for the service as a whole. The
author was trying to make a point about impulse buying (at least in my
The paper ends on a note that some might consider a bit crass. It
reads: "Since the income generated from auctions is predictable, and
can be controlled, it may offer new ways to monetize game play. It is
already clear that the possibility exists of creating an MMO in which
the virtual economy is a core component. This would not work for all
game types. But in the cases where it does work, would provide a
powerful way to keep subscribers glued to the game." How would you
respond to those who might take exception to the concept of 'monetizing
gameplay' as a means of 'keeping subscribers glued', when they're just
there to have a good time?
well, I would disagree that it is a bad thing. I can forsee a game
where there is no subscription but you can use Exchange for non-game
impacting items (clothing and such) and perhaps the in-game tailors can
make real life profit by selling a uniquely designed outfit. Maybe a
person could become very famous for making a special type of shirt with
an artistic design on it. To me the idea that an out-of-game economy
can exist and people can make money by participating in a game they
amazing. However, I have to emphasize that I think it's important we
design with this in mind. If it's non-game impacting and just plain
cool, I suspect people won't mind it.. and if they get a tangible
benefit out of it (not paying a sub-price for example) I think people
will actually like it. The key is to design games in such a way that
"farming" just isn't possible or beneficial. Make it about creativity.
Make that the source of rarity. Then I think we're on to something
On the other side of the coin, the idea of changing the design of a
Massive game as a result of these figures is intriguing. Can you share
with us any changes you could see being implimented in future games as
a result of SOE's experience with the Station Exchange?
JS: Not ready to discuss at this point, but needless to say it's something we're actively working on.