If there was writing on the walls following the lukewarm showing of The Matrix Online, it never went so far as predicting that Sony Online Entertainment would ever one day take over The Matrix Online from Warner Bros. But stranger things have happened in the games business.
Now, whatever the future holds for the gamers, live team, and anyone else with half an interest in The Matrix Online just got a little more interesting after last Friday's MXO licensing agreement was announced.
We spoke with two of the key deal makers--Sony Online Entertainment president John Smedley and Warner Interactive SVP Jason Hall--shortly after the deal was announced.
GameSpot: The press release that announced the deal was actually a bit fuzzy, John. What exactly is SOE getting itself into? Support of the game alone?
John Smedley: There are actually two parts to the agreements SOE has recently signed with WBIE. SOE has purchased outright The Matrix Online--we now own everything associated with the game except for the actual movie license. The second part of the deal has to do with the acquisition of the license to create an MMO based on the DC Comics universe.
GS: Any Monolith staffers coming over to lend a bit of continuity to the transition?
JS: We have extended job offers to more than 25 members of the MXO team at Monolith to come to SOE. These folks will continue to work on the game.
GS: What kind of marketing will support the transition? Major? Some? None at all?
JS: MXO is now an SOE title and will become part of our marketing mix for the year. Our goal is to grow the game, so you can expect to see our marketing team getting behind the title in the same way we are behind EverQuest or EverQuest II.
GS: Can we expect to see the same kind of fan support as we've seen for EverQuest? A Matrix Online gathering and costume ball, maybe?
JS: We're no longer doing EQ-specific Fan Faires--it's now the SOE Fan Faire. We'd love to include the MXO community in our next gathering, which will be in Las Vegas in the spring of 2006.
GS: NPD says 40,000 units of the game sold since its March launch. How can you correct those slim sales stats?
JS: The first thing we're going to do is add MXO to Station Access, our "all for one" $21.99 subscription plan. We will also be exposing the game to nearly 800,000 MMO players as we begin messaging out to our community about the game.
GS: Assuming you folks picked this up for its unrealized potential, where are the opportunities with MXO? In other words, where do you see potential for the game?
JS: The Matrix Online has a lot of unique ideas that we hope to grow and nurture. The potential is not just in the license but in the game's unique approach to MMO combat, storytelling, and live events.
GS: What is your connection to the Matrix franchise, the intellectual property? Do you think it still has legs? Are you a fan?
JS: Personally, I am a huge fan of The Matrix. It is one of the biggest movie franchises out there and has a huge amount of devoted fans. We plan on keeping the game true to the movies' legacy.
GS: Where is there overlap with current Sony MMO gamers? Any?
JS: We feel that people who are playing our games are, more likely than not, fans of The Matrix. We're sure that by adding the game to Station Access our fans will be very interested in checking it out.
GS: Is there a revenue split built into the deal, or was it a onetime licensing fee paid that secured you the property? What's the term length of the deal?
JS: We do not discuss financial details, sorry. The two licenses are both long-term deals, with plenty of time for us to develop and run an MMO.
GS: How will you price this game? Has it been decided? What are the fees if you are able to tell us?
JS: There will be no change to MXO pricing. The game will soon be added to our Station Access program, so our current player base will have a chance to pick up the software and check it out. Likewise, MXO players will be able to join Station Access and try EverQuest, Star Wars Galaxies, or the other games offered as part of the service.
And now over to Jason Hall in Los Angeles:
GameSpot: What ongoing role does Sega play in The Matrix Online's business model?
Jason Hall: Sega is currently distributing the game. The licensing agreement for The Matrix Online exists between WBIE and SOE, since WBIE is the licensor of the game and property.
GS: Does the agreement currently exist only for the two titles (The Matrix Online and the DC game), or is there room to grow for future titles?
JH: Licensing agreements were only signed for The Matrix Online and the DC online game.
GS: What lessons have been learned from the development and launch of The Matrix Online, and what implications does this deal have for WBIE's future game development plans? Is it fair to say that WBIE will be putting less focus on online games in the future?
JH: WBIE is focused on all areas of developing new content for video games across multiple platforms, and we are now collaborating with SOE on two games. Like any expanding business, we are always looking for new opportunities to explore with getting our creative game content to the most consumers possible. Our partnership on The Matrix Online with SOE is beneficial to us in allowing us to combine our strengths and work closely together.
GS: About The Matrix Online--some fans and more than a few journalists expressed concern when its ship date was delayed past the theatrical release of the third motion picture, worried that perhaps the Matrix franchise was becoming less relevant over time. What, if anything, does this deal say about the continued strength of the Matrix franchise? How much of a future does it have in movies, TV, games, and other media?
JH: The Matrix Online will still be the future of the Matrix storyline, overseen by the Wachowski Brothers. We have to leave it to the filmmakers to speak to any of the other media for the Matrix brand, but Atari is working with us to launch the console game The Matrix: Path of Neo this November. In that game players can take on the role of Neo and play through different scenes of the film trilogy.
GS: The Matrix Online was originally intended to be supplemented with monthly content updates based on a constantly changing story in which major characters from the motion pictures made appearances and in which the actual world would change to reflect the ongoing story. How many of these plans remain intact for The Matrix Online?
JH: The continuing storyline within The Matrix Online will continue at full strength with new developments and live events. All plans are intact, and there will be more to come. The Wachowski Brothers are still overseeing the overall story arch. More gamers will now be exposed to The Matrix Online, and SOE will continue running The Matrix Online at the high level players have enjoyed the game.
GS: Why did WBIE choose to pursue a game based on DC Comics? Beyond the obvious coincident timing with the recent Batman Begins motion picture and the upcoming Superman Returns movie next year and Wonder Woman the following year, what else did WBIE feel that DC Comics had to offer in a game, especially an online game?
JH: We think there is so much great content within the DC universe, so we will leave it to our partner, SOE, to disclose what the actual content of this game will be.
GS: It may be too early to ask this sort of question, but we've seen trends in massively multiplayer games in which online worlds are built around licensed characters and properties, but players are often disappointed to learn that they can't play as their favorite characters. Any idea if the DC game will allow players to play as their favorite DC heroes or, if not, any idea how players will interact with them?
JH: Yes, it is a bit too early since the game is just now being developed. WBIE and SOE will have a future announcement with more game details, so please stay tuned.