Last weekend, SOE President John Smedley appeared at the ninth annual meeting of The Syndicate, a thousand-strong influential multi-game guild in its fifteenth year of existence. Actually, ÂappearedÂ is a misstatement Â the man affectionately known as Smed chatted, commiserated, dined, and imbibed with the members, all the while fielding untold numbers of questions and absorbing countless rants during the five day event. Â To top it off, Ten Ton Hammer was on hand toÂ ask Mr. Smedley a wide range of questions from DC Universe OnlineÂs impending launch to the fate of Star Wars Galaxies and Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. His answers appear below.
SOE's John Smedley dons the ceremonial pimp hat to address hundreds of SyndCon attendees
Ten Ton Hammer: First, I have to give you props for the last panel. For an hour and a half you took questions, some of which were pretty incendiary, from an audience full of not only MMORPG veterans but by and large WoW players. A lot of these questions got into undisclosed projects, which is why we canÂt air the content of the panel, but by and large, and your were candid, cool-headed, and sympathetic without being patronizing. And, whatÂs more, I think you took a room full of jaded gamers and wonÂ over a lot of hearts and minds.
I donÂt know how many game execs would or could do what you just did in that conference room. Are we seeing SOE turn over a new leaf in this industry or start a new chapter in online community management?
John Smedley, President, Sony Online Entertainment: I would say weÂre taking a more noticeable turn, but IÂm the same person I was ten years ago- just more experienced now.Â Groups like The Syndicate Â you donÂt see that kind of cohesive organization unless itÂs full of players that want to participate in the process. We want to respond to that and make that a part of what we do.
Interacting with people Â it takes a lot of energy, but you get more than you put in. You saw this at Fan Faire too Â sure, we get the hardcore questions, we get the people that are pissed at us, but they love that weÂre interacting and thinking and listening. Even if we have to say no, theyÂre there for a reason, because they love these kind of games.
TTH: I know youÂve consulted heavily with groups like the Syndicate over the years, stretching back to the Community Summit program.Â But is this renewed effort totally on the design side, or will you be carrying it over to marketing as well?
Smed: I would say weÂve started to include that in our marketing mix, but I wouldnÂt say that weÂre directing all of our marketing towards guilds. ItÂs something that weÂre still evolving through.
TTH: Speaking of Fan Faire, IÂve been to a lot of fan events, but I donÂt think IÂve ever seen a fan audience in this industry as vocal as yours.
Smed: Yea, they will go to the mat with some of our developers. But, you know what? WeÂve got to listen to them.Â That doesnÂt mean that everything they say, weÂll do. Â But weÂll listen, and weÂll give honest feedback and be as direct as we can.Â I donÂt want us to be a company where weÂre giving grey answers Â black or white, yes or no, and then weÂll follow through on what weÂll say weÂll do. Those are the things I want us to be known for.Â
TTH: YouÂve come to the last two SyndCon events; last year you even travelled to Austin for SyndCon 2009. What makes this event special?
Smed: ItÂs kind of funny Â the reason I went to last yearÂsÂ Syndicate is that I read SeanÂs book (Legend of the Syndicate) a few years back, and it really impacted me. It impacted me because I got to read aÂ really well written account of why a really major guild did not go from EverQuest to EverQuest II. It hit me like a ton of bricks, not because I didnÂt know these things, but reading and thinking about the decisions that we made during development really had an impact on me.
TTH: Has that impacted the course youÂre taking with EverQuest II now, with the now free-to-play EQ2 Extended ?
Smed: The free-to-play move is really pure business. It has mostly to do with the competition Â not that theyÂre all moving that way because some are some arenÂt. But the competitive environment has changed, acquiring players is different now than it was a few years ago.
TTH: Your other products that players either seem to love or hate Â Star Wars Galaxies being the most obvious example Â whatÂs the future of these games?
Smed: I can say in the case of SWG, it wonÂt be stopping in the foreseeable future.Â A lot of people think itÂs going to end when SWTOR comes out, and I donÂt think they need to worry about that.
TTH: What about Vanguard?
Smed: WeÂre thinking about specific next steps for Vangaurd, but weÂre not shutting it down or anything like that. We want to add more stuff to it. Will we change the business model? ThatÂs the question people keep asking me.Â Will it go free-to-play? I donÂt know Â weÂve discussed it.Â What weÂll decide? IÂm not sure yet. WeÂre going to see where EverQuest II Extended goes. But certainly if we make a decision like that, it wonÂt be without deciding to add more content to the game.
TTH: DC Universe seems to be a far more revolutionary thing than a lot of people give SOE credit for Â youÂre coming up with forums tailor-made for a console community, for one thing. Like EQ2 Extended, is DCUO another big decision point or risk for SOE?
Smed: ItÂs not a risk, because weÂre positive thereÂs a market there.Â ItÂll take time, money, and resources to do it right, and weÂve made a conscious decision to do that because we think the PlayStation 3 is a great place for online gaming. We helped to make the PlayStation Network so we know thereÂs a big market out there.Â We just want to expand Â youÂre seeing us, Final Fantasy XIV, and I think youÂre going to see a lot more MMOs on consoles.Â Will those console MMOs be just like the ones on PC? No. Will they be just as cool? Yes. Will they be cool in different ways? Yes.
TTH: WeÂre out of time, or else IÂd love to hear more of your thoughts onÂ the future of console MMOs. To wrap it up, I just want to thank you for showing some love to The Syndicate and Internet gamer communities like ours. We might disagree from time to time, but SOE, Ten Ton Hammer and sites like ours, and The Syndicate all have one thing in common Â we exist for the good of the community.
Smed: ThatÂs exactly right. If the MMO industry thrives, we all thrive. The game is the center, but the people around it are what matters.