GDC Online 2012  SOE President John Smedley's Keynote
At GDC Online this week, SOE President John Smedley gave a keynote address titled Free-to-play: Driving the Future of MMOs. In it, he explains SOE's (and other studios') shift toward a free-to-play model lets MMOs keep up with an ever-changing industry.

But the talk actually went beyond the notion of free-to-play and into the larger picture of how SOE is reinventing its games to include more emergent gameplay and take advantage of new trends in media. Read on for a broad look at the past decade of trends in the industry and a glimpse of what the future holds for SOE titles.

Smedley began by outlining recent industry trends, including business models, genre, user behavior, and even the ecosystem around games as a whole. The biggest shift, he argued, has come in the transition from a subscription base to a free-to-play model; even casual and social games have embraced this model.

If you use Google trends to compare popular games over the past decade, Smed said, you get a clearer picture of how the market is changing over time. He used World of Warcraft, League of Legends, Team Fortress 2, DOTA 2 and DC Universe Online in his comparison, showing that we're seeing a fracturing of the userbase that WoW built up. WoW's search numbers on Google were once like nothing we'd ever seen (and like nothing we probably ever will see for a long time, he added), but within the last 12 months, it's League of Legends that's topping the searches.

Smedley believes players are consuming content at an unprecedented pace, an unsustainable pace. Furthermore, because there are so many free-to-play games available now, players move from game to game easily. Big releases of new content may pull players back in, but once they've finished the new content, they quickly move on. BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic and even popular Facebook games like FarmVille or CityVille show high interest for a certain amount of time in Google trends but then a sharp drop as players have mastered the game and moved on.

The success of a game like League of Legends, where the players are the content, he says, illustrates the industry's move toward emergent gameplay. The gaming ecosystem is changing; no longer are publishers feeding content to the players. Instead, we're witnessing the rise of e-sports, livecasting, marketing initiated by users, consumer-friendly business models, and user-created content being sold for real money. E-sports tournaments are growing in popularity, as are the prize rewards. Popular players who have their own channels and stream their gaming are earning revenue from YouTube advertising. Meanwhile, SOE's decision to implement user-generated, salable content with Player Studio is all part of a trend that allows players to make their contribution to the game world and earn revenue at the same time.

SOE is likewise easing into a content model that focuses on players as the content. He points to RIFT's wedding instance and EVE Online's player-run Hulkageddon as in-game events that can be repeated over and over yet are different each time because they're player-driven. SOE's upcoming title PlanetSide 2 is heavy on this approach, allowing players to self-organize, plan strategy on a massive scale, and contribute in more ways than just shooting.

GDC Online 2012  SOE President John Smedley's Keynote  Freetoplay  Driving the future of  MMOs
Meanwhile, he says that it's the job of the game designers to innovate; they can't always rely on asking users what they want. He cites Henry Ford, who said, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."

Smedley also looked at the growing trend in video game livestreaming, suggesting that SOE is working to take advantage of streaming's growing importance. He points to the fact that on YouTube, videos of gaming are now number two on the charts and continuing to grow. Meanwhile, Twitch TV has exploded on the scene, and the audience for e-sports and game streams is rivaling that of the regular sports-viewing audience. There were more viewers for the last MLG tournament than there were for the Rose Bowl, and last month, there were over four billion minutes of video viewed on Twitch TV. In fact, 40% of the viewers watched games they do not even own, meaning there is a growing audience of viewers who are more interested in watching gameplay and even following their favorite teams than in playing the game itself.

This, Smedley argued, is another sign of emergent gameplay changing the face of MMOs. With all of that exposure through Twitch, players are not only earning revenue from advertising but indirectly marketing the games for the studio. Outside sites like Wikia, Curse, and Reddit have also become even more popular than official game sites, and they, too, are examples of player-created content.

All of it is reflective of SOE's trademarked logo, "Free-to-play, your way." In short, Smed said, you don't have to pay us if you don't want to. Go full sub or go a la carte. MMOs are no longer one-dimensional; they now give players the chance to create and contribute to their world.

Massively sent two plucky game journalists -- Beau Hindman and Karen Bryan -- to Austin, Texas, for this year's GDC Online, where they'll be reporting back on MMO trends, community theory, old favorites, and new classics. Stay tuned for even more highlights from the show!

This article was originally published on Massively.