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Interview: SOE's Smedley On The Company's Future

Interview: SOE's Smedley On The Company's Future

April 1, 2011 | By Chris Morris

Before Thursday, there was a lot to talk about when it came to Sony Online Entertainment. Then the layoffs hit - and there was only one subject on people's minds.

Unfortunately, my talk with SOE president John Smedley was held on Tuesday - long before even the rumors of layoffs had begun to swirl.

And, not surprisingly, SOE wasn't making him available after shutting down three of its studios and laying off 205 employees. So while there's no look as to what led up to the Thursday axings, Smedley was still willing to look into the company's future in the days leading up to it.

Even before the layoffs, there were a lot of questions where SOE was going. The Agency hadn't been mentioned in a long while, and the company was actively expanding beyond its traditional PC roots.

Smedley refused to talk about The Agency during the discussion, but was willing to shed a little light on the upcoming next generation EverQuest.

"It's too soon to talk about that [in depth]," he said. "When we do, I will say what we intend to show is not an evolutionary product. It's a revolutionary product."

"It's going to change the way we think about how MMO games are played. ... There will be a lot more information out before the end of the year."

Despite a new version on the horizon, Smedley says the original EverQuest isn't going away. Now in its 12th year, the game isn't attracting a lot of new players, but the current player base is immensely loyal. (It's also older, with an average age of 38.)

He won't go so far as to predict how much longer the game will continue, but it certainly has at least another three years in front of it.

"We've got actual plans on what we're going to work on for the next three years," he says. "And I think three years from now, we're going to plan for three years after that. ... It certainly is not a shiny new MMO, but it has a deeper community than any game out there. And you don't get that where you have games with a younger audience. ... Instead of focusing on new players, we focus on retention."

SOE was an early presence on the PSP with Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade, and while it hasn't committed publicly to the NGP yet, Smedley gives every hint that the company will be involved with Sony's upcoming handheld gaming system.

"You can bet our future is more console-based than it is PC-based - and that doesn't just mean the PS3," he says. "We're very excited about the NGP. ... I think you can expect something from us down the road. We kind of have an advantage, since we work for the parent company. It is an amazing device and I think it's perfect to do online games with."

He points to Spacetime Studios' Pocket Legends as a terrific example of what the mobile market can do with persistent world games.

"Spacetime has really shown us how good a portable MMO can be," he says. "So, yeah, I think it could be awesome [to have one on the NGP]."

Of course, the company's biggest release lately has been DC Universe Online, a cross-platform MMO allowing PC and PS3 players to jointly occupy an online world. With a $60 million price tag, it came with high expectations. And Smedley says the company has been happy with its performance so far. The game has also given the company some insight into its audience's demand for digital downloads.

"It's doing very well," he says. "We have about a 52/48 percent PS3/PC split. ... And half of the PC sales have been digital. ... With DCUO, a lot of people didn't want to wait for the download, so they went to the store."

The game has recently become the first retail title to be available as a complete digital download on the PS3, something Sony is monitoring closely.

SOE is also trying its luck in the social network gaming arena, with titles like Dungeon Overlord and Covert Ops - but it hasn't had a lot of luck there.

"It's not a super profitable segment for us," he said. "It's challenging, to be blunt. And we're trying to learn from that."

The problem, Smedley says, is the company was a latecomer to the party - and new Facebook rules about how games are promotes make it hard for new companies to break into the market.

"As a Facebook user, I love that they did that," he says. "As a game maker, I think they may have killed the golden goose for everybody but the early players. It's an interesting place to be building games because I'm not sure anybody is going to make any money at it aside from the early companies. ... Zynga seems to get a pass on the rules that are there now."

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