John Smedley: Exclusive Interview with the SOE CEO

Dana Massey | 1 Oct 2007 22:17
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As the President and CEO of Sony Online Entertainment (SOE), John Smedley oversees the largest portfolio of AAA MMOs on the planet. With fans as passionate as they are about their games, it's no surprise that he has evolved from a simple game programmer to easily the most polarizing personality in the video game development industry. Today, SOE is a company in transition as Smedley works to bring MMOs into the mainstream. He spoke to us about his company and each of the titles in their library in a wide-ranging interview.

"I think we have the capability to make a game that has 10 million or 15 million subs," Smedley said of his company's prospects. "What you can do is make your best game and see what happens."

The above comment doesn't mean he expects one of the games in the pipe to surpass World of Warcraft, it's just a statement of his confidence in what they as a company can achieve.

"The MMO genre in general is becoming the me too stuff," he told us. "There's a lot of grind that's in all the games, ours included."

He's hardly the first executive to lament this, but year in, year out, the same kinds of games keep coming out. According to Smedley, SOE at least, hopes to go in some new directions.

Justly or not, SOE does not exactly have a strong reputation for innovation. They essentially set the standard everyone - including WoW - with EverQuest and like most, have been reluctant to deviate from it. Smedley though, is emphatic that it's finally time for some new looks.

"We are very focused on taking the grind out of our next round of games," he said simply. "Our next generation is not trying to do what we did in this generation." He cited The Agency, with its more mature theme, FPS elements and cinematic-storytelling as an example.

It's been a turbulent path for Smedley and SOE. The online game division of Sony began when the company purchased Verant, the studio behind EverQuest of which Smedley was a co-founder. That blossomed into "The Station", a game hub that has since been the model for the entire industry. It included EQ and a host of smaller games, like Tanarus, an online tank-combat game, whose mechanics were a forerunner to games like Battlefield.

In the early part of this century, SOE had the World of Warcraft of its generation in EverQuest. They tried to leverage that into a host of games in the same universe. Some did well, like Champions of Norrath, the successful Playstation 2 RPG, and others - like the ill-fated RTS Lords of EverQuest - did not. They even made a little-known Playstation 2 MMORPG, EverQuest: Online Adventures (EQ:OA).

EverQuest is a valuable IP, but that period showed them that diversity is not a bad thing. That's not to say they've lost their console illusions. Smedley reiterated his belief that MMOs can work on consoles. EQ:OA, Smedley told us, was before its time and the limitations of that console made it very difficult to properly support the game. The current generation with their onboard hard-drives and wireless capabilities make them great MMO platforms. Obviously, SOE is married to the Playstation 3, but they have plans to aggressively pursue development on that platform. Both the DC Comics MMO and spy-themed The Agency are headed to both PS3 and PC.

The company's roots are both in MMOs and smaller online games - like Tanarus - and they continue to honor that legacy through their support of Playstation Home, Sony's answer to Xbox Live. SOE built and supports both the system itself and several of the games on it. That said, MMOs are what keeps SOE going.

"[We're] refocusing SOE on high quality and not rushing releases," said of his coming crop of games. They learned many valuable lessons from EverQuest II and its head-to-head competition against World of Warcraft. Fact was, while both games did rather well, WoW had the budget, time and polish that EverQuest II did not. What's more, EQII was the first attempt at an MMO sequel, a mistake Smedley readily admits.

"In hindsight, I wish we could have had a do-over and not called it EverQuest II," he said frankly. "I doubt you will see us do that again."

He explained how to him, the two games are very different.

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