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Free for All: Smedley helps us understand free-to-play


John Smedley has been in this business a long, long time. Under his eye, Sony Online Entertainment has released some of the most influential and controversial titles out there. It should surprise no one that he has had to become very flexible when it comes to his customers, but he's also very decisive when it comes to fluctuations in the market.

One of those fluctuations is the coming of free-to-play gaming and unlimited trial payment models. Of all the audiences in the world of gaming, SOE's tend to skew a bit older. These are players who might not appreciate all changes and who definitely know what they like. And so when Smedley and SOE released freemium titles like Free Realms and rolled out free versions of one of their most popular titles, EverQuest II, some said it would be the end of SOE.

Well, they're still here. And Smedley was kind enough to take some time to talk to me about this very subject. Click past the cut for more!

DCUO screenshot
Before I get to the interview, you might want to read up on some of the other free-to-play news that's been coming from Smedley in recent weeks. First, he announced that DC Universe Online was going to go free-to-play. While this was not entirely surprising, many of us agreed that it was a good move considering that most of the game's audience is on the PlayStation 3. Next he wrote up a very informative article about the free-to-play shift in the industry. Giggle and make comments all you want about the NGE, but when Smedley discusses happenings in the industry, you know it's coming from an informed source. I wanted to ask him some questions, so I sat down with him for a bit yesterday.

All those years ago, did he think in the future he would be discussing the fact that subs are being phased out?

"I can't say I did. It was a different time and place. It was work to get people over the hump about buying a box and then paying a subscription afterwards. I have to credit Ultima Online with really being the first product to do that."

"It's also important, according to Smedley, to remember that running a game can take a lot of money. You have to pay for high-quality bandwidth, staffing, customer service and other things."

The price at first was a bit low, and later it was decided that it would be raised to the standard 15 dollars a month. "There was not quite the outcry I expected," he told me, "and that sort of has become the industry standard model."

But is 15 dollars a month still a good deal? "For sure it's a good deal," he says. He compared the price to going to the movies, and it did feel a bit shocking to think that 15 dollars would barely pay for one person to attend. Also, a sub fee gets you unlimited hours. As someone who has covered a lot of gaming, I think it's important to note that many outsiders would see unlimited access as unhealthy. Fortunately, we can make our own choices. It's also important, according to Smedley, to remember that running a game can take a lot of money. You have to pay for high-quality bandwidth, staffing, customer service and other things. "We treat it as a service, and therefore it requires a monthly upkeep," he said.

So what about the idea that an SOE subscription goes directly to developing the game that the player plays? I've seen players refuse to pay for an unlimited Station Pass for fear that their dollars will go into content for a game they do not favor.

"It's very simple," Smedley answered. "The games with a lot more players certainly get more resources from the company, as you would expect. We try to keep some resources on every game to varying extents."

He noted that he got into some hot water when he said in an article about DCUO that a sub fee essentially guarantees further development. Vanguard: Saga of Heroes players thought this meant their game, which has stayed dormant for a while now, deserved the same treatment.

And Smedley agreed. "You know what, they were absolutely right. We assigned more development resources to it, even though that game is smaller. We're seeing such a huge interest in that game -- it's really been renewed -- that we're taking another close look at it. Vanguard players and people who have never tried might be in for some... interesting news in the near future."

And yes, I asked for more information, but he's dodged better interviewers than me.

I wondered whether there is there a danger in making the move to free-to-play? Does a company as established as SOE risk inviting and retaining players who only want to play for nothing? SOE has shown that it is a fan of the freemium model, allowing players free access with addons or subscriptions for those players who prefer the old ways. The key is to give the players a value proposition, something that makes subscribing worthwhile. It's sort of like rest experience in games like World of Warcraft. Players without rested exp aren't going without necessarily, but players with rest are getting a bonus. SOE seems to want to set the baseline of value pretty high while pushing the sub value even higher.

"I consider our job as game-makers and service operators to entertain our players and to keep them engaged," Smedley said. "If we do that successfully, there is no concern that they're going to keep coming back. They will."

Smedley also brought up non-recurring passes, a system that would allow players to turn off those pesky monthly hits on their credit cards. Essentially a player would buy a chunk of time, and if she forgot to cancel, she would not face a larger-than-expected credit card bill. Sure, it's only 15 dollars, but that small amount can add up quickly and is often the first thing to go in a tight budget.

"I think Steam really is helping put this in the forefront with games like Spiral Knights and seeing some of the games like Champions Online go free-to-play on Steam. It's really exposing high-quality games to people who otherwise might not have tried them because they had to pay an upfront fee."

If you wonder why all of this free-to-play talk is going around so much, it has to do with people becoming used to the idea. The same readers who last year were confirmed free-to-play "haters" literally have made a turnaround and enjoy the model now. Why? Smedley thinks it's simply a result of the higher quality of the games. While he believes that there are two perceived types of free-to-play games -- those from Asia with a different style and those older Western games that went free-to-play to help ease their financial troubles -- the shift itself is due to the fact that SOE and other publishers have been frequenting the model such that perceptions are changing. As I have said before, players are simply getting used to free-to-play. It's picking up steam.

"I think Steam really is helping put this in the forefront with games like Spiral Knights and seeing some of the games like Champions Online go free-to-play on Steam," said Smedley. "It's really exposing high-quality games to people who otherwise might not have tried them because they had to pay an upfront fee."

Is free-to-play a fad? Is it possible that players are becoming attracted to it because it's new and shiny? Smedley doesn't think so. He thinks it's a matter of giving players a taste of something for free, something that they can get excited about, and something that would normally require selling boxes. I'm surprised at how long it's taken to get to this point, given how simple the idea is. The idea of releasing content and selling the items around the content, instead of selling the content itself, is an attractive one to Smedley. He cites Riot Games' League of Legends as inspiration for the monetary model.

"In a perfect world, I would like us to go that direction. I don't know that it's entirely possible; it's going to be dependent on the game. I think it's a goal, though, for future games."

So how long will this discussion go on? How long do we need to dedicate time to debating the finer points of paying for, or not paying for, our virtual worlds? It'll be a while longer, according to Smedley, but we are getting over the hump slowly. It's a little disturbing to see players say that they wish certain developers would just give away their games, players who would be happy to never pay a dime. While it is true that free-to-play has the word free in it, it's also true that paying for the game is always an option.

Smedley considers it like kicking in a donation to a team of artists. "That's really what we are. We're people who make entertainment for a living, and somebody needs to pay our salaries. Hopefully we're good enough that players think we deserve their money. We have to earn that."

I had to end my time with Smedley with a question about his favorite SOE title. I knew about his love for PlanetSide but wasn't sure he would name it as his pick. While the familiar MMOFPS is understandably his favorite, it was also nice to hear about his love for Free Realms, a love born of his own family's interactions with the game. I felt vindicated... Free Realms is my second favorite as well! In the end, it's good to see such a known company recognizing the wave of free-to-play. Sure, we can debate what free-to-play means exactly, but SOE is moving forward anyway. It's made its mistakes, but if you don't make mistakes, you aren't trying anything new.

Thanks to John Smedley for taking the time for an interview!

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!

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