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MMO devs will lose the fight against content churn, says SOE's Smedley
MMO devs will lose the fight against content churn, says SOE's Smedley Exclusive
January 24, 2013 | By Chris Morris

January 24, 2013 | By Chris Morris
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

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.

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Glenn Sturgeon
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Cheaters are as my saying goes, "losers in denile."
As far as the quote about the next EQ "We're betting the company's future on this game." i'd very much rather see sony risk it all on the PS brand not EQ. I hope he's only referring to the SOE branch of the company.
If they don't end up making a profit on planetside 2 it'd be a shame, as its a nice game and getting better.

David McGraw
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I'm incredibly curious to see what they've got going on with EQ Next. That IP is by far my fav MMO IP and I really hope they don't get too crazy…

Chris OKeefe
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I'm intrigued by anything billed as the 'world's largest sandbox game,' and especially curious considering that they appear to be applying their free-to-play dogma to it. 'Free to play' + 'enormous sandbox game' is going to be quite a feat. But they managed what seemed to be the impossible by successfully giving PS2 away, so I wouldn't put it past them.

Gian Dominguez
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"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."

I'd say WoW has managed to debunk it. Of course it does have millions of players so they have the resources to make content that will keep people entertained. As for SWToR itself I have heard it endgame was horrible. Its problem wasnt that is lack content, its problem is the content it made was not something that would keep people entertained for years.

Chris OKeefe
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I think part of the argument is that it is getting harder and harder to retain players when there are increasingly more and better options available for the MMO player. Ultimately I think a lot of MMO players 'shop around' and have their one fallback. For a lot of people who got their start in MMOs, WoW is their fallback, and as long as Blizzard keeps pushing out content, it will keep bringing back repeat customers. Very, very few MMOs can probably make that claim.

How an established MMO generates revenue and how a new MMO generates revenue is probably an increasingly different thing. It may be safer right now to move away from the content generation game and into providing users with the capacity to generate their own content. I think Smedley is making a good point.

You're right that SWToR pretty much mucked up its endgame and it crashed and burned in large part due to that (and a failure to correct that problem), but it's a pretty extreme example of an MMO doing the wrong things. Even a good new MMO these days seems to bleed players over time.

Michael Wenk
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I don't think WoW has debunked it really. WoW has player churn, quite a bit of it. What makes WoW different is they manage to keep the intake of players high to offset the loss of old players. Much of WoW's content is fun, which is also different from the typical MMO where only a small part of it is fun. Also, marketing. We all underestimate marketing and ATVI does an incredible job marketing WoW.

If I had to characterize WoW in this context, I would say that WoW has done an end around.

Ian Uniacke
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Lets not beat around the bush though...this isn't a "dead market" or whatever you want to call it. It's just a very profitable market that has attracted very talented competition and you have to compete with it. Most MMOs are just not in the ball park of quality that the competition has (eg WoW, Guild Wars).

benn rice
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but if you sidestep the competition and do something really different, you remove them as competition

Jeremiah Guffey
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Actually I would say WoW helps prove it. WoW was the last "big hit" mmo that really used that model. Since WoW games that have tried to follow that same style of game design have largely failed, and either die off or have had to switch their revenue models to free to play and other ways to attract people to them.

See: Tera, SW:TOR, The Secret World, Aion, Lord of the Rings online, Age of conan, etc.

Apart fromt hat I really hope EQnext is truly something different then your standard mmorpg formula (which the first EQ basically set, the theme park design, trinity class focus, hotkey combat, etc). They talk about sandbox and things that I have hope it's not the same ole same ole.

Thomas Eidson
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You can make a sandbox game, have content that would take years to complete, and have a team that regularly outpaces the players consuming that content. We did that with many pieces of Ultima Online (EA) and Star Wars: Galaxies (SOE). The problem is you are limiting yourself to what you consider "content" as being a story line. A high quality story line is not something all players want to play. The success of Diablo 2 was not just its story line. Diablo 2's success was replay-ability.

A good procedural system can keep players occupied for a long time. Build your procedural systems early with tons of synergy between stats. Use pyramid reward systems (such as gem combining; or the Bulk Order Deed system I made for UO) that have very long term replayability. How about a procedural battleground, such as the ones we made for SWG that allowed the players to craft offensive positions and defensive positions (Planetside has some elements of this)?

You do not need to limit your games to "click on a dude for a few lines of text/voice over" quests.

Alan Rimkeit
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Who wants a story line? I want a MMO sand box game with absolutely no story line. Just a world. An open world under the control of the players. No quests. No theme park style dungeons. The most similar game that I can think of is EVE Online. Combine the player controlled structure of EVE Online with a fantasy world. Star Wars Galaxies did this to a degree as well. But it did not go far enough IMHO. All governments controlled by the players. All guilds too. Mercenary bands, thieves guilds, merchants guilds, ect. All under player control.

I also know I am not the only one who wants these things in an MMO. Apparently the Pathfinder MMO is going for this kind of idea as well, but we shall see how that works out for Paizo and Goblinworks. I also hope that this is the direction the upcoming World of Darkness MMO from CCP and White Wolf will follow. Open world, no quests. Gang land Vampire warfare!

If the new EQ is anything close these ideas I am in.

TC Weidner
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@ALan I sort of agree. What many in this industry are missing is that if you allow and give players the ability to create, then they will do the content for you.
The old proverb,
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Give the players a dynamic world with the tools and content that allows for creative growth, and you will have created that virtual world which so many wish to escape too. Way to much time is wasted on quests and story and all that, why not instead create an interesting complex dynamic world and set the players free.

Matt Cratty
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You had me at SWG.

benn rice
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@TC right on

Ramin Shokrizade
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I'm struggling to see what the title of this article has to do with the discussion in the article. The article itself looks like the usual Sony press release disguised as a news story.

Steve Badley
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This. I would have placed my post (below) under this but I missed it. I agree ... the story had nothing to do with the story.

Emmanuel Henne
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First, those "10%" who buy stuff dont exist outside of SOE's wildest dreams.
Secondly, even at 10%, which would equal 75,000 players PER WEEK, how much do You make, 150,000 $ a month ?
Now deduct taxes, maintenance and workforce required to provide service, community support and new content, and that number quickly becomes rather frightening than a proof of concept.
In reality, 10% might be the peak, while most months You will see 5-7% of the users pay for something, and only 2 % leave substantial money for SOE. Its really like Lawrence of Arabia, big companies with loads of financial ressources just "don't mind that it hurts" because they think the long run will provide profits. AoE Online Press releases were correct: You can NOT produce content for FREE games, unless You can produce that content FOR FREE (aka "user generated").

Robert Lever
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Where's your data bro?

Martin Sabom
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ARPU is probably much higher than the amount you are proposing above Emmanuel.

Andy Stennett
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I'm still waiting for Otherland to launch. It was billed as the biggest sandbox game 4 years ago.

Zach Grant
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I'd maybe purchase something in Planetside 2 if they weren't price gouging the crap out of the players. One weapon on one vehicle costs $10. One gun, for one class, for one faction costs $7. Still having fun with the default weapons though.

Alan Rimkeit
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That much? For one vehicle gun? Really? Huh, that is not cool at all. I wonder how well that is going for Sony.

Bob Johnson
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Yes in a vacuum the prices would be high. But much less so relative to someone enjoying a game on a regular basis for free. ;)

Steve Badley
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'MMO devs will lose the fight against content churn, says SOE's Smedley' ... but he didn't open any dialogue about what will take its place. F2P cash sales? PvP end game where contained space map design, adding a few objectives & possibly a new antagonist or two comprise the bulk of dev work? Sandboxing where MMORPGs become more world building than role play storyline adventure gaming? What's the cure?

Ricky Bankemper
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I don't particularly agree with Smedley that 'MMO devs will lose the fight against content churn'. As I don't believe that is the battle.

The MMO consumer base often sparks a lot of debate, often dealing in absolutes. Players and forum goers have very strong opinions on how a game should play out and what features they want. So this means there should be a market for a mmos with varying features.

A majority of mmos, however, only attempt what is the most successful and I think everyone would agree that is World of Warcraft.

There are these list of features everyone has that should be in a mmo that range from quest hubs, soloing, cross-server group finding, open world pvp, etc. But ultimatly it feels like the same game is being made over and over.

A lot of those features have a heavy influence on the community and their interactions. I think there is room in the mmo market for games that split some of these features up.

Some people enjoy having to group to do everything. Yeah, that means they have to spend a lot of time looking for a group. What does being able to solo hurt? You are instantly lowering the pool of available players to group with. This is OK. There are plenty of games out there that let you solo or group. Why can't we have just one game that forces you to group. Why does every game need to have every option possible?

I think the mmo genre just needs to be bold and break the mold of trying to make the game please every type of player. Instead focus on a set of players and you will have a dedicated player base.

Mike Mcgee
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Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, anyone?

That was "EQ Next", IMO. A vast sandbox game. Most players called it EQ 1.5 when it was released. The classes were very similar to EQ1, especially the Bard class.

The game failed to gain popularity because it was just too ambitious, and too many things went wrong. Terribly wrong. I stuck with it anyway for several years, because even if the game was 50% functional, it was far better than any other MMO.

I'm kind of surprised that it's just now dawning on the EQ Next team, to try something like Vanguard. I would have done that from day one. Vanguard was and should have been "EQ Next". It's only proper that the next attempt should follow in its footsteps...

Birgit Tolman
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Vanguard is one of the best kept secrets, no matter how many bumps in the road it has it is still an incredible game.

Jeff Nice
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I beta tested Vanguard and it didn't feel sandbox at all to me. It had great character creation and a fun leveling experience. However what I was hoping for was not even close to what was released.

EvE is a great idea of sandbox; where it allows PvErs to play to their style, while allowing PvPers their style as well. The major clash that I see with EQ Next is so many people want a PvE centric game and sandbox screams PvP. For people that cringe at PvP I would like you to understand that even playing the market in EvE is PvP, or putting items up in an auction house. You are competing against another player for limited resources; those resources are either another players money, or the game resources. In EvE resources are limited; Moon Goo is only found on specific planets and it is one of the biggest reasons large alliances go to war.

Vanguard had player housing, but it was limited to predefined locations. Even Mortal Online another sandbox game got the player housing wrong. A sandbox game should allow the player to design and build their own house based on certain existing wall/floor styles; something similar to but more refined than minecraft.

I will oversimplify that sandbox is geared more for PvP and themeparks are geared more for PvE. SWTOR another game I beta'd failed because the end game PvP was instanced and not truly free and open.

I believe that Shadowbane was ahead of it's time. It had a great character creation system, in depth guild system and asset destruction in the form of Banes. Alan Rimkeit stated earlier he wanted a "game with absolutely no story line. Just a world. An open world under the control of the players". I would love to see a game like that; unfortunately a game like that would scare a lot of PvE centric players away, becauase a truly open sandbox world would allow unlimited player competition.

There are already 2 PvE centric games in EQ and EQ2; I'm hoping that EQ Next is for the PvPers.