Why EverQuest house SOE went all-in with free-to-play games
Most company presidents spent E3 locked in meeting rooms, only getting a few sparse moments to explore the show floor. Not Sony Online Entertainment's John Smedley. He actively spent time in the thick of things -- though he rarely strayed far from his own booth.
Smedley's a heavy FPS fan -- and he's especially enamored with SOE's upcoming action MMO Planetside 2. That professed dedication isn't unusual when an executive has a product to sell, but few of those executives arrive to E3 2.5 hours early so they can sneak in a couple hours of gameplay, and lob trash talk at other players.
While SOE may not be as high profile as it was in the heyday of EverQuest, it has settled into a new niche -- as one of the biggest players in free-to-play triple-A games. And Smedley says we can only expect that to continue in the months and years to come.
Planetside 2? That'll launch as a free-to-play game. So what about EverQuest Next? Smedley dodges that one half-heartedly, noting that the company's not talking about that game too much at present. However, he adds, "it's safe to say we're going to be a completely free-to-play company."
Spending tens of millions of dollars (perhaps more) to create massive online worlds, then just giving them away to players is a strategy that might give some executives pause. But Smedley says the transition to free-to-play has been one of the best moves SOE has ever made. Charging $50 or $60 for a boxed game, he contends, limits the audience.
"You're much more focused on the player themselves and listening to what they tell you," he says. "When you're at retail, there are two transactions. You are selling your game to the retailer and also selling to the public. Now it's just us putting our games out there and saying 'bring it on.' If they like it, great! If they don't, they don't spend a dime. ... We think we can get a part of their life. That our games are good enough they'll spend their time with us and once they do they'll spend some money with us."
Beyond Planetside 2, SOE also introduced "SOEmote" at this year's E3, a new facial animation capture system that will first be introduced in EverQuest II.
If you're not familiar with it, it works like this: Using a webcam, you'll capture your facial animations as you explore the land of Norrah. Those reactions will be reflected by your in-game avatar in real-time. In other words, when you blink, your Froglok blinks. Laugh and it will too. We're not sure what it will do when you shove a fistful of Cheetos in your mouth.
Beyond facial animation, when you talk into your webcam's mic, the system will alter your voice to what your character should sound like. It's pretty impressive technology (though you freak out the next time a Sarnak accuses your parents of never being married). So why launch it in an eight-year-old game?
Smedley argues it's a way to keep that player base happy -- and spending.
"EverQuest 2 is one of our premiere RPGs," he says. "The RPG has been understated we think -- and the technology gives people the ability to role-play for real. ... At some point, we need to focus on emergent gameplay. There's only so much content you can make for players. A smile is content from one player to another. A nod and wink, that's content. These people spend so much time in our world, so we want them to be able to express themselves."
SOE also hopes SOEmote will give rise to a new sort of viral marketing for its games.
"Where we're going SOEmote is much more than the face," says Smedley. "We want to introduce digital puppeteering. We want a new wave of machinima to be created with this. We want to give them the tools to make crazy, viral movies and fun stuff."
As such, expansion for the technology is high on the agenda as well.
"I want to get it in as many titles as possible by the end of the calendar year," says Smedley.
Asked if the technology will be a part of EverQuest Next, he again holds back from answering. While it has been three years since the company announced development was underway on that title, it has yet to show the title, or even make mention of it without prodding from reporters.
Smedley is confident that the community will understand the veil of silence once it introduces the game.
"It shouldn't make them worry," he says. "We want to get it right. That's the pillar of our company and we are going to get it right. We're also making the next generation of MMOs, not an evolution -- and everyone says that, but in this case, we're zigging every other company's zag. Everybody's making WoW 1.5. We're doing something else."