by: Tony "RadarX" Jones
Few names in the MMO game industry produce more controversy and respect than that of Sony Online
Entertainment's John Smedley. As a leader in development of games, he has been at the forefront of
great success and occasional contention with games such as EverQuest and Star Wars Galaxies. His
keynote at the 2008 ION Conference previewed not only Free Realms, which promises to make inroads into the younger demographic, but the more adult themed The Agency as well. We were fortunate enough to sit down with John right after his keynote and ask him a number of questions regarding the direction of SOE.
We began with discussing how the Real Money Trade (RMT) system of Free Realms will be effective
considering they are targeting a demographic (younger children) who typically have no means of
income. "We've designed the games from the ground up to keep farming out of the game," he states,
"we have a wallet system which parents can give kids an allowance on a monthly basis." He went on to
describe how kids are frequently given gift cards to things like iTunes from parents and it provides
a way to purchase products online. The business model should work for Free Realms as well.
As the discussion continued into alternate business models and John forsees changes in the industry. "I certainly hope we go away from just subscription. I think it's limiting and I also think, and I'm an MMO gamer myself, that the "try before you buy" is bigger than we as the industry are giving credit to." He also mentioned that they are still determining what model to use for the Agency and how Free Realms works out will be a determining factor.
Free Realms also will feature a referral program that will actually pay people to bring users in the game. "This is a big deal to us," he begins, "Let's say you had a Free Realms ad. Every single user that you bring to us and subscribes through you will provide a revenue stream in perpetuity on every one of those users." Apparently the system will use a sliding scale based on the number of users to pay those sites who drive players to their game and "share the wealth."
When you bring actual currency into a game there is always a chance for fraud and other forms of criminal activity. To battle this SOE has partnered with other companies such as Acclaim to fund the creation of the first secure RMT broker. "I hope everyone in the industry signs up for Live Gamer," John says, "Why? Because then there will be a safe place to transact, then people won't go to farmers." Stating their charge backs for fraud have been in the millions, it's no wonder SOE is looking for a permanent solution to farming.
Another announcement we saw during the keynote was that The Agency would be SOE's first M rated
product. When asking about the demographic he states "With the Agency we are going after the core
gamer audience." He continues by explaining there is shooter gameplay and that SOE is looking to push some limits you wouldn't find in other games. Calling it an evolution of their game design, the development team is just going out to make the game they want to, and tell a specific type of story. When mixed with Free Realms this type of title will allow SOE to get more people into the market by using what he referred to as a "funnel strategy" and broaden their reach.
Moving into the global markets John openly discussed their overseas projects which include Kung Fu Hustle and Raymayan. "We think if you make stuff for the local markets, and it's good, it will be very successful. We're also taking our big games, and putting them over there. The problem is, no western game has succeeded over there except World of Warcraft." He goes on to discuss how SOE is making an effort to create a game that is globally playable avoiding the need for so much localization.
As we wrapped things up, we discussed the busy year for the MMO game market with exciting products such as Age of Conan, Warhammer Online, and Wrath of the Lich King all seeing release. In a time of such growth, what is SOE doing to stay competitive? "New features," he states, "Vivox is a great example of that. We want Teamspeak and Ventrillo users to use our stuff. We're putting in voice in all our games. We're also making sure guilds have a completely secure and free site that is persistent. We're also coming out with expansion packs; you better believe we're not going to stay idle."
Bold statements from an industry leader and based on the products they have in development, SOE won't be out of the spotlight any time soon. While the discussion may have been on business strategies and current trends in the market, one thing was certainly apparent. John Smedley is a gamer first and foremost, so we'll see what the future brings.