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Why  EverQuest  house SOE went all-in with free-to-play games
Why EverQuest house SOE went all-in with free-to-play games Exclusive
June 28, 2012 | By Chris Morris

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."

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Jeremy Reaban
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Is it really a mystery? F2P is a way to get people who are willing to pay for a game to spend more than $15 a month.

When games have been around for a while and you basically are left with the fans of the game who are going to stick and not jump to the new MMORPG on the block, switching to F2P can soak those fans for all they are worth.

LOTRO is a great example. They were stuck with all those people with lifetime subs. The only thing they could make money on was expansions. But now with F2P, they can still sell the expansions, but then put out a new horse skin a month for $15 (per character), sell items to boost various aspects of a character, from weapon damage ($5 a pop) to stats ($5 for +10) and so on.

EQ2 isn't as bad as Lotro when it comes to monetization (at least from what I've played of it, it's hard game to get into) but it's not far from it.

Mike Griffin
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Free-to-play regimes shouldn't dodge the whole pervasive "Pay to Win" paranoia. If I was putting out a free title, I would say my microtransaction-based consumables are "Pay to Compete" -- not Pay to Win. It kind of takes the edge off it. It infers that winning isn't delivered on a silver platter.

Paying to compete sort of implies that you may be a good player that can stand on even ground with others, but you might lack the play time to invest and thus accumulate X amount of progression. So you have the option to purchase a spectrum of cosmetics or consumables that allow you to compete with those who elect to "grind" those same advancements sans purchased booster assistance.

Yeah, Pay to Compete. Built to allow gamers to hop into the fray and remain competitive, not to assure victory.

Eh, who am I kidding? A term like Pay to Compete might be just as offensive to the old school as Pay to Win. Or confused with 'paying to engage in competitive gameplay with others.'
Which isn't actually confusing matters in the least. Hellfire.

We're entering a very interesting 5-6 year phase of free-to-play experimentation and exploitation. Those who are intelligent and balanced will survive the bubble's rapid expansion and ultimate burst.

Joe McGinn
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I think Crytek has it right. Pay to shorten (not eliminate) your progression curve or pay for vanity items. Problem solved.

Jason Carter
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I think vanity items is mainly the way to go for this.

Make a system where you can "reskin" old items with skins bought in a store and just make some amazing looking models for people to purchase and upgrade their armor.

Pay to compete or pay to win turns off even paying players. I do not like pay to win games, but in a game like League of Legends, I feel completely justified in supporting the company by buying new champion sets and vanity skins.

I trust them (mostly still after the last few weeks of bad servers) to make a good game and to provide an even competitive service. And to do their best to remove the trolls. ^^;

But a company that relies on pay to win... too sketch I don't like it. I can't stand the idea of buying an experience boost or a damage increase for my character that isn't permanent. I just can't bring myself to buy those types of things that aren't a perma purchase.

Jason Long
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I think it says something about the entitlement-based, instant-gratification nature of our society when such a large number of games are based around the idea avoiding purposeful tediousness by paying real money to get what you want -right now.- It's incredible that this model is being copied over and over and it makes a lot of money for those cashing in on a lack of patience - or rather people's willingness to forgo real money for patience. It's an odd trend to watch, but from ipad games up to AAA companies like Sony, it's everywhere.