I’m beginning to think gaming industry people don’t actually know what the word “dead” means. Back in my day, it was a pretty final thing – oftentimes even considered fatal. Now, though, if something doesn’t have all eyes on it, it’s apparently dead and gone forever. Just ask adventure games and, oh right, that whole “entirety of PC gaming” thing. And now, with the era of WoW’s incomparable dominion drawing to a close, MMOs seem to be getting the same treatment. But that’s a knee-jerk reaction. Nothing’s six feet under just yet. The writing is, however, on the wall, and its message is quite clear: change or lose your audience to boredom’s creeping clutches. But how? Well, if you ask SOE president John Smedley, it’s time to stop railroading players and start letting them live their virtual lives as they see fit. I know because I did, er, ask him. I also asked him about replicating the success of EVE Online, PlanetSide 2‘s eventual planet-based metagame, EverQuest Next‘s new incredibly player-driven reboot, and tons more.
RPS: One of the major trends that’s emerged in triple-A gaming over the years is this move towards presenting games as these flawless, perfectly wrapped packages. Publishers just advertising their game and not really engaging the audience beyond that. Meanwhile, with PlanetSide 2, you seem very willing to acknowledge that your game has flaws and that you’re going to work on them. Is it – at least, in part – about presenting a more human image, basically? Saying, “We’re people too. We play the game. We’re not just this gigantic soulless entity.”
John Smedley: It’s something that we’ve wanted to do for a while. We’re evolving the rest of our games to do exactly the same thing. More openness. More forums like Reddit. Not just sitting on our forums, because people don’t like it when we have to moderate our forums. It bothers some people. So, OK great, I’m happy to go on to Reddit. I’m happy to get cussed out on Reddit. If people want to bitch at me on Twitter, go for it. I’m fine with that.
But the key thing is the one-to-one interaction with people. On Twitter I get a lot of feedback, good and bad. What I’m finding is that even the bad stuff, if I just respond and say, “Yeah, I agree, that sucks,” it makes people go, “Oh, so you see what I’m talking about. Okay, I get it.” It makes a difference to them. It makes them understand that we’re trying to make a fun game. We’re not trying to dictate from on high how something is going to be. We’ve got our ideas, but ultimately they’re the ones that decide if the game is any good. They pay the bills. We want to interact with them.
I look at a game like EverQuest, 13 years later it’s… Who knew it would last that long? Getting that involvement from the community, having them say, “We like this, we don’t like this,” and having us be able to say, “Yeah, we agree” or “Here’s why I don’t agree with that. Think about this,” that’s crucial.
With PlanetSide 2 we’re even taking that to the monetization element. Matt Higby put up, “Here’s our ideas for what we’re going to charge, what we wanted to have as a subscription for this as an option.” It was amazing, the feedback we got. It was loud and vocal. We made material changes to the plan based on what people said. Five years ago we would have just put that package out there and we would have gotten complaints about it. This time we were able to react before we announced it. It’s a different world. I like it much better this way.
RPS: I feel like one of the reasons that, for a while, that wasn’t the conventional thing to do is because developers were afraid of giving potential customers the wrong impression. “Oh, if we introduce our game to players in this state, they’ll assume that it’s not good. That it’s broken.” For you, is it just a matter of assuming that your players are intelligent? That they’ll get what you’re ultimately trying to do?
John Smedley: “Smarter than we are” would be the way that I would put it. What I’m astounded by is, people will come up with solutions to problems and we won’t. Before, where we would have handed that down from on high, now it’s easier to simply say, “Oh, that’s a really good idea. We’re gonna use that. Love it.” They find solutions to things that are far smarter than some of the things we can do. We’re embracing that.
I feel like we’re the engine and the users now have the steering wheel in their hands. To me, that’s a much better place to be than the other way around. It’s our ideas originally, but at some point you put it out there and say, “OK, here are our ideas for the game. This is where we want to go. What do you think?” Next week, at SOE Live, we’re talking about the future of PlanetSide 2. Even though the game isn’t launched yet, we’re going to be talking about what we’re doing with it. We want our players to say “We like that” or “We hate that,” and if they hate it we’ll change it and do something else.
RPS: That seems to be the trend with more systemic MMOs like that. Similar to EVE, where a lot of what ends up going into the game is shaped by the players. Is there where SOE’s hoping MMOs are headed? To the point of shedding off archaic, grindy quests in favor of dynamic worlds? I mean, I see a bit of EVE in PlanetSide’s structure, but what about in, say, EverQuest Next?
John Smedley: We are, as a company, embracing that. I don’t talk a lot about EverQuest Next because we’re not ready to yet, but I will say that you’re going to see that times 20 in the next EverQuest. We’re embracing that. That’s the whole game. It’s going to be a very, very different game than the original EverQuest or any other MMO ever made. In fact, we rebooted it. This is the third reboot of it. Users saw the first iteration… We trashed it. We said, “This is just too similar to other games.” Then we did another iteration, and we said, “This is better,” but we trashed that too. This time it stuck, because everybody in the company said, “Oh, yes, we want that.”
RPS: It certainly seems like a “now or never” type of situation. I mean, games like The Secret World, The Old Republic, and even Tera were all pretty good, but people left in droves as soon as they fell back into a predictable WoW-style rhythm. Do you think players are simply burnt-out on that kind of thing?
John Smedley: I do. In fact, every one of the games you mentioned I would consider a high-quality game, and yet… Players just eat through the content and say, “OK, I’m done. Thank you! Next?” Then they go play League of Legends or they go play DOTA or they go play some kind of a game that has emergent gameplay. Because what do you do when you’ve leveled to the max in Mists of Pandaria? What do you do?
Now, it’s funny. My kids and me, we went back to Pandaria immediately. I was telling [WoW lead] J Allen Brack just a few minutes ago, “Hey, they loved it.” And then they’ll be finished with it and they’ll be waiting for the next WoW expansion. It doesn’t mean they’re not going to log in a lot to play WoW, but it does mean that during that time in between, they’re doing other stuff too. That’s the change. That’s why free-to-play matters.
RPS: But designing MMOs like that – hitting that sweet spot between giving players something to do that you created and letting them make their own fun. Speaking in as eloquent of terms as possible, that sounds hard.
John Smedley: It is hard.
RPS: EVE had lightning strike many years before everyone else caught on to it. But very few other games have replicated that type of world, where the players are all about it. They live in it. Players care hugely about each other outside of it. It has its own thriving economy. Things like that.
John Smedley: I think that’s right. That’s actually the space we’re moving our entire company into. The whole company. PlanetSide 2, we did that because we love the game. We also did it because we want a game where the content that we’re making is things like, “Hey, here’s a new style of gameplay. Here’s a new gun. Here’s player bases.”
It’s not just “Kill ten rats, repeat.” The days where you can just make kill-ten-rats stuff and not have the emergent side of things, those days are gone. Here’s The Secret World. SWTOR. Tera. Look at how much money they spent on The Old Republic. It’s a brilliant game… with the wrong business model. That’s the key difference here now. Free-to-play games tend to do this, and then they just keep going. We think that’s why it’s the future.
RPS: One of the major problems all those games have had is keeping people interested over time. The philosophy a lot of them have adopted is frequent new content. New missions every month and things like that. But it still runs out eventually.
John Smedley: It runs out immediately. You put out a new patch with The Old Republic content, and the same week that it’s out, the players have played it all. What do you do after that? That’s why you spend time on battlegrounds. That’s why the job WoW has done, I think, has been brilliant. They focused on stuff like battlegrounds. The pet battle system. Those are smart decisions that they make, because they know that players are going to eat through the content in hours, literally hours.
RPS: SOE’s Player Studio seems like an extension of that to me. Let players make their own new content. How far do you hope to expand that, though? Right now it’s just objects in games like EverQuest and eventually PlanetSide. Would you ever like to see players creating their own missions and gametypes, though?
John Smedley: Stay tuned. The answer is yes, wholeheartedly. We have plans for that that go out a long way, and a game that is going to dominate because of that kind of stuff.
It’s not just players making quests. Don’t think of it just as Dungeons & Dragons. What we’re actually building is the ability for players to put in systems. System-level stuff. We give them some rules, some basic simple rules, and they can make things out of whole cloth. They could build their own battlegrounds style of gameplay. That’s what we want. What we have is an amazing infrastructure and ability to let players do new and emerging things.
We want them to… Not make their own fun. We’re going to make our games amazingly fun. We want them to be able to make things we didn’t think of fun. That’s really what it is. I mentioned Hulkageddon, I love that in EVE. That’s just players putting bounties on something. It’s nothing. That’s all it is. But that’s as fun as anything in EVE. More fun if you ask me. It’s amazingly fun.
RPS: So, that in mind, where’s PlanetSide 2 headed after you finish laying the groundwork? I mean, based on the fact that you recently dropped a whole continent with its own set of rules on players, the game seems more or less built for large-scale expansion.
John Smedley: We have jungle fighting coming in. It won’t be the next continent. It’ll probably be the one after that. It’s planned because we’re still building it and we’re not sure if it’s going to be fun. These ideas are in our heads. We’re going to try it and see what the users think. We have Amerish coming online next. We’ll be talking about that probably next week at SOE Live. We may even give a sneak peek out.
Each of the continents, we want them to play differently. We really want it to be meaningfully different. We want it to be where people can decide for themselves, “I like this style of base capture,” or “I want more open environments because I want tank battles, I suck at infantry.” Stuff like that. We want it to be a meaningfully different place, not just a cold place. The original PlanetSide was more like that. We want this to be different.
Our plan is very simple. It’s continent, continent, continent, planet. We’ll add continents to a planet until we’re done with that planet. Then we’ll make another planet. We don’t want there to be the Scottish highlands on every single planet. We want them to be really different, meaningfully different. Some of those places will have continents that are empty, that players can build bases on. All of them have resources.
We’ll make really super-rare resources, where if you’re on this planet and you’re fighting. This is a great example of emergent gameplay. “Here’s what we’re giving you. It’s a map. It’s empty. It’s got resources on it. GO!” They’ll build bases on it, and they’ll have to defend those bases, 24 hours a day. If people blow them up while they’re offline, tough shit. That’s what we want. We’ll see how it works.