Q&A: SOE's John Smedley on Galaxies' outer limits

Galaxies boss sees only one game around that could possibly humble World of Warcraft. Are you sitting down? Part 2.

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Last week, Sony Online president John Smedley discusssed the motivations and goals behind the recent update to Star Wars Galaxies.

This week, we conclude our conversation with Smedley and ask him to think ahead, not only about the future prospects of Galaxies, but also about the future prospects of online gaming in general.

GameSpot: Because there are so many online gamers in Asia, do you create a product with that market in mind? And how do you deal with the fact that the subscription model in Asia is all but dead?

John Smedley: Well, first of all I would have to say that in Asia, the subscription model is definitely, by far, the number one model. Revenue wise, it's about 75 percent of the market. Look at World of Warcraft, Legend of Mir, Legend of MU...all are very high-priced subscriptions, by the way.

GS: It's a moving target, no?

JS: Yes. The 25 percent that was non-subscription based was 10 percent a year ago, so it's growing quick. And I think pretty quickly it's going to go to 50-50, maybe higher. But subscription is not dead.

GS: Why did the first EverQuest do so badly in Asia?

JS: With EverQuest 1, we learned an important lesson. We put it out in Korea and it didn't do very well. Why? Because it wasn't a Korean game. And we didn't make any effort whatsoever, beyond basic translation, to make it adaptable to that market.

Take something simple: for example, mouse control. When you're playing in a PC Bang, there are people that want to play with one hand--holding a cigarette in one hand and controlling the mouse in the other. They want to play the entire game that way; touching the keyboard rarely.

But we didn't consider that. We learned that that's important after the fact. Another great example: here in the States, when you put something out at beta, people expect bugs. But beta in Asia means the game is ready for release. Beta is really a marketing period where people are just checking the game out for free.

GS: What steps did you take to overcome those early mistakes?

JS: In EverQuest II, we went a step further. We formed a joint venture with a company called Gamania out there that runs Lineage 1 and 2 in Taiwan. We started to, what we call, culturalize, which means we're talking not just a translation, we're doing voice-over. But more importantly, we're putting in Asian quests, we're modifying interface, this is all done by the way, and actually, is live now. And we had literally five to six times the success that we had with EverQuest 1. We're seeing good numbers over there now.

We generated a completely new set of models in the Asian R-style--a much more anime style--for the character models. Gamania did such a good job that we actually imported the characters and are putting them [into the local version] of EverQuest II.

And now we're going to take it to the next level. We have a game in development right now at our Asian subsidiary, which is being completely done for the Asian market. We haven't announced what it is yet, but it's a really strong, licensed game that we're making from scratch.

Our Asian team is making it and it's going to be awesome.

GS: Tell me a little bit about your recent evangelizing of massively cross-platform gaming and how that strategy might apply to the Star Wars franchise at SOE. In what way is Star Wars Galaxies going to factor into that vision?

JS: We think that cross-platform massively multiplayer games are certainly a strong way to go. And for our company, it's a mission now. It's something that we want to do with as many of our games as we can.

We think that in the future, and in the near future, people are going to want to be able to play these kind of games from any device, anywhere in the world. The gameplay style will be different, maybe the specifics of the game will be different, but if they can have that persistent character and they can keep their character in the same basic form across different platforms.

We think that that could be a really compelling way to lead a digital life and get people excited about the kind of games that we make.

Console online gaming has just started. There's a hell of a lot more consoles--a hundred and something million PlayStation 2s--out there right now. That's a lot more penetration than PC gaming has ever seen.

GS: Are any platforms or any terminals excluded from the future world of cross-platform gaming?

JS: Well, I think you're probably trying to ask me about Xbox?

GS: I am and I'm not.

JS: From our perspective, we think that cross-platform means cross-platform and we see a bright future ahead for console online games, but I doubt you're going to see a world where the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox 360 player is going to be playing together. Not only do I doubt it, I'm positive that that won't happen.

But PCs hooked up with PlayStation 3s, or Xbox 360s, darn straight I think that's going to happen. I know we believe strongly in that vision and we, the same with PSP, want to be able to play an MMO on PSP. And log your character in while you're sitting in a Starbucks.

GS: I understand you just came back from a meeting with Sony CEO Howard Stringer. What does Stringer look for from Sony Online Entertainment?

JS: Sir Howard looks for us to be leaders in the online space, and innovators, and he wants us to work with other Sony groups--bringing other divisions of Sony into this. So a great example is, wouldn't it be great to be able to download music from Connect into our games? Wouldn't it be nice to be able to choose the songs you want to download and have it automatically integrate with our games? We see that as an awesome way to go.

So I think SOE being leaders in the online space is the biggest thing that he expressed. And most importantly to help other Sony groups with their online plans; to offer any help that we can.

In fact, we just had a marketing council meeting, where the focus within Sony is really starting to broadly encompass the digital, the online businesses. I think we're going to be a big part of that.

GS: You've gone from a game guy to much more...someone who's involved at much higher levels. How does that feel?

JS: It's interesting because I still spend time playing games. I've been playing Civ 4 and Battlefield 2. Those are my two passions right now, in a major way. So that part of my life hasn't really changed.

At work, the only thing that's changed is more focus on a greater number of products, as opposed to just any one single product. But I work with a great team of people here. They know their stuff in a big way. We've got a lot of very strong visionary people that are leading that charge and making sure that the games that we're making are going to be the best out there.

To tell you the truth, I have a lot of fun in my job. I like coming to work every day, which is a good thing I guess. I still spend probably three hours a day playing games at work, so we have a ton of stuff we're working on and it's just fun. I make a point every day to log in to all of our games.

GS: Last question, John. What's the one lesson from your two years of seeing Star Wars Galaxies being played, that you wish you knew sooner?

JS: That straight sandbox games don't work. And that we needed to focus much more on the Star Wars experience. I think in the past, what we probably made was the Uncle Owen experience as opposed to the Luke experience. We needed to deliver more of the Star Wars heroic and epic feeling to the game. I think we missed there. That's what I think we really brought to the game [with the update].

One thing that I love about our company is that there is no "quit" in this company. It's about making sure that we have pride in what we do. People within the company feel so much pride in this game that they want it to beat the crap out of World of Warcraft. That's something we feel very passionate about. We know we are capable of making the best stuff out there, and I'm proud to say that with the changes we're making in Galaxies, I think we're headed in the right direction.

GS: Thanks, John.

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