MMO devs will lose the fight against content churn, says SOE's Smedley
Sony Online Entertainment has become largely pseudonymous with the free-to-play movement, offering triple-A titles like PlanetSide 2 for no cost from day one, and converting legacy games like EverQuest to the model.
It's fairly seamless these days, but when Smedley and his team decided to embrace free-to-play, it was a big leap of faith.
"Sometimes you make a decision and you're like 'Oh God, let's buckle in and hope everything goes well.' That's how it was with free-to-play," he says. "Now we look back and wonder 'How did we ever survive before this?' Living in a world where retailers control your software was horrible."
Though he did not reveal revenue figures, Smedley says that since the move to free-to-play, SOE has seen a 300 percent increase in new players for EverQuest 2, a 125 percent increase in item sales for EverQuest and a 350 percent bump in overall registrations. Planetside 2, its most recent release, has more than 1.6 million registered users, with 750,000 logging in to play every week.
Roughly 10 percent of those Planetside 2 players end up paying for items, says Smedley. And while he acknowledges some parties might focus on the 90 percent who don't pay, he's not concerned about it.
"Everybody is content for everyone else," he says. "That's the core of our strategy moving forward. A simple way to put it is: By allowing players to interact with each other, we're providing tools. It's like we're building a gladiator arena and throwing in the swords. ... We might bust the tigers out or bring in new kinds of weapons, like a tank. In my opinion, the days when companies can make content [generation] the number one strategy, in the kinds of games we make, are over, because we can't win the war. Star Wars [The Old Republic] proved that. Players bought it, loved it and they played the game. Then they left."
That, in part, is why Smedley takes such a very public no-tolerance stance on hackers. In December, he made headlines by declaring war on Planetside 2 hackers - banning one and naming him on Twitter.
"The reason I took that step was because that guy was one of the senior people at one of the most famous AIMbotting sites there is," says Smedley. "I think cheaters are disgusting human beings - specifically when it comes to gaming. I fail to see it is anything but being a scumbag, to cheat, because it's hurting other people. In a game like PlanetSide 2, you're ruining someone else's fun and that is the height of scumbaggery. ... We might lose players because of that. That means they're hurting our revenue and our living."
Smedley comes to that opinion as a "gamer" himself. He's an avid Planetside 2 player. He says he regularly plays EVE Online and League of Legends. And he watches a lot of TwitchTV.
What he's really itching to play, though, is the one game he can't talk much about: EverQuest Next.
SOE has been dropping hints about the game for a while now, but Smedley says to expect a much bigger reveal this year.
"There are times you know something and you're bursting to talk about it - and that is the case here," he says. "We're betting the company's future on this game. ... The last EverQuest game launched in 2005. We've blown up two design ideas over the last four years because they were too 'me too.' It wasn't enough of a change. We settled on a design that, when we looked at it, everyone in the room thought we were crazy. We gave it a week and came back, and we all said 'yeah, we're still crazy, but we can't get the idea out of our heads. ... It's going to be the world's largest sandbox game."
EverQuest Next was a black box project for years - and it was only last month that Smedley and the team showed it to the EverQuest and EverQuest 2 teams. Smedley says he was so nervous the night before the presentation that he couldn't sleep - but that both teams received it enthusiastically.
Players will have to wait a bit longer to try it themselves, but maybe not as long as you'd expect. "Players will get their hands on an actual release version of what we're doing late [this] year - and I don't mean a beta," says Smedley.