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Q&A: Smedley On SOE's  Hustle  To Evolve

Q&A: Smedley On SOE's Hustle To Evolve

May 10, 2007 | By Michael Zenke

Sony Online Entertainment's president John Smedley is a confident man. At this year's Gamer's Day event for the EverQuest-creating Sony division and sister firm to PlayStation 3 creator SCEE, he introduced the heads of the company's different development studios with the air of a man who sees new opportunities on the horizon.

He had a good deal of excitement and enthusiasm for the newly announced Rise of Kunark expansion for EverQuest 2, the ongoing progress for Gods and Heroes, and the quiet continuation of other SOE titles.

But new projects on the horizon are what he feels passionate about right now. SOE is adapting to the times with new business models, new genres of massively multiplayer games, mobile gaming, and a focus on appealing to gaming habits abroad. The most significant new announcement is an Asian-focused online game based on Stephen Chow's frantic movie Kung Fu Hustle.

Gamasutra sat down with Smedley to talk about his vision for Sony Online's expansion beyond its traditional Western and monthly subscription-based roots, and his concept for the future of online games.

With the focus on future titles and on new payment methods, is the future of SOE 'anything but fantasy MMOs'?

John Smedley: It's not anything but fantasy MMOs. That's still our core. We're still investing very heavily in that. Vanguard you can see, and we'll be having some big news to announce on that within the next two weeks. It's imminent. That's certainly going to stay a part of our company, a lot of us still love fantasy games, and we're going to continue with them. But our feeling is that we need to take this beyond just fantasy.

That's been the successful model to date. A lot of us play shooters, and play heavily. There's two Counter-Strike games a day at our office; during lunch and after work there are always playing these things in our company. There's a lot of people who want to take things outside of fantasy. Down the line we have the DC license, and you'll be hearing more from us on that.

You seem to be interested in new business elements as well; can you tell us a bit about that?

We're trying to introduce new business models, trying out new ways of paying for a game. Things that are 'core', such as game balance, will be treated as sacred. You can't just go buy a more powerful sword in this concept. It's more about trying to give players multiple ways to play. We see the subscription barrier as a pretty significant hurdle to playing.

Getting players over that will be a big deal. I don't see this getting back to the traditional MMOs. Kung Fu Hustle is our first big experiment with this, what we call the 'velvet rope' model. We we are going to do is evolve towards this other model. But evolve quickly; we have three games coming out in a fifteen month timeframe here. We'll try it out, see what happens, see if it grows the market. If it does, we'll make changes to future titles.

Lowering the barrier of accessibility - is that something you're looking to bring back to the traditional MMOs?

Not really, but we do have other big things slated for the future along those lines. As you can imagine, the SOE Denver studio [working on digital versions of a number of CCGs] is a launching point for future projects. We're going to have a good-sized announcement in early August. The technology behind their current releases is very flexible; we can have a chess engine, a checkers engine, a poker engine - their system is very powerful. They're really sharp guys, and they have a lot of great technologies.

Something seemed a bit different about the LA studio; they're folks who were doing their own thing within Sony's outer structure, and now they're part of your organization. What do you think of those guys?

We as SOE about four years ago did Wheel of Fortune; I carry my phone around not just because it's an email device, I'm a freak about phones, a lot of us are. Sony Pictures had a mobile group, and they decided to move it under us; it just made common sense. They're really talented, award-winning stuff.

They're working on [newly announced titles] such as Snoop Dogg Cruisin', Snoop Dogg Boxing - wild stuff. There's a much bigger world out there than us PC gamers, and it's pretty stunning the work that they've done. They've worked with SCEA on God of War, and they're doing some PlayStation 3 downloadable stuff for us - Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, eventually we want to see that hooked into Home.

Are you folks involved with the Home project at all? I know you're running the PlayStation Network...

Our end is the back end, we're doing some stuff to support it. Some of it is not announced yet.

There seems to be a lot of focus on newer games, things on the horizon. Will there be a push back towards getting some of the older games into the public eye?

Well, our retention has gone up on a number of games, not down. The teams have their heads down, they're working hard, and we're learning from past mistakes. In the case of EverQuest 2, it's still a very very healthy business for us. In terms of getting it in the public eye, that's the purpose of the free updates; we're trying to target several large-scale free things to add to the world.

We want people to know that we're not just slamming out expansion packs. I think that was a mistaken strategy that we had for a while. It decreased our quality level. The teams, and myself included, just get to the point where you want to be super proud of what you're releasing, and we wanted more time to polish things, and so we said 'the heck with it' and went with it that way.

So then, to your thinking, people are somewhat focused already on EverQuest and EverQuest 2 and Star Wars Galaxies. Can you explain where a game like Kung Fu Hustle fits in?

Sure. Kung Fu Hustle [developed by Sony's Taiwanese studio SOGA] is a 2D online fighting game, and the idea is that players will be free to play every day. A certain number of times per day, they can hop on and fight their friends, and we have a mechanic where if they're good they can keep on playing.

Truth is, I don't know how well it's going to do. I love the game. It was made for Asian markets, so I think it's going to do well here, but it is kind of a different mechanic where you 'feed the machine'. If you're good, you can just keep on playing, which is neat.

It runs on the notion of eight on eight multiplayer... it's not massively multiplayer, but there's a number of titles like that over there, racing games and such. That's huge. It plays really well, and a lot of people like that sort of anime style. I hope people judge it for themselves.

[UPDATE - 05/10/07, 5.25pm PST: Fixed phrase from 'non-core' to 'core' - now reads: "Things that are 'core', such as game balance, will be treated as sacred."]

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