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SOE Live 2012: John Smedley on EQ Next and SOE's future

Karen Bryan

There's been a never-ending news stream this weekend at SOE Live, and underlying all the announcements has been a single theme: a fundamental shift towards emergent gameplay. We had the chance to talk to SOE President John Smedley about that philosophical change and how it fits in to current and upcoming titles. He spoke about the growing popularity of MMOs as viewing entertainment and how it's caught on in PlanetSide 2. And while he wouldn't go into details about EQ Next, he did give some exciting hints about what players will get to experience with this third EverQuest title. Read on for a look at the future of SOE!

Massively: Let's start with EQ Next. When did you make the call to scrap everything? What was it that made you choose to do so?

John Smedley: A year and a half ago, we made that decision. I didn't get to cover this in the keynote, so I should mention it here. The engine and underlying technology has not changed. A lot of the guts and infrastructure are staying the same. What we're really changing is what the game is all about, all the design elements. We made one fundamental shift to emergent gameplay.

Once we made that shift, everything else had to follow. And what we saw was RIFT. We saw the writing on the wall with SWTOR. We saw The Secret World. We saw all these games that we knew were in development and very high-quality, but we saw what was going to happen -- this big spike and then it goes down. That's the truth of what's been happening with MMOs. The fans need to realize that if you don't change the nature of what these games are, you're not going to change that core behavior. We want to make games that last more than 15 years. That's why we made the decision to change it.

You mentioned last night that EQ Next will look like nothing we've ever seen. Will EQ Next still have the familiar feel to it that EQ fans are used to? How do you strike the balance between innovation and still staying true to the franchise?

I also said in there that it will still be very familiar to you, but what I meant by that statement is that we're changing what an MMO is. MMO means something now, and it means the same thing to everybody because it's the same game. EverQuest, WoW, SWTOR all use the same core loot gameplay, which is kill stuff, get reward, get loot, level up. Very few games have broken out of that mold. One or two have. EVE Online is a great example; it's not standard level-based gameplay, although I'm not saying we're going to a big skill-based system. You're still going to recognize the roleplaying game heritage in it. In EverQuest Next, the world itself is a part of the game. What is the world in these other games? It's a simple backdrop. It's nothing. We are changing that greatly. We're changing what AI is in these games to a degree that we're going to bring life to the world. That to us is the essence of the change that we're making.

At GDC last week, you pointed out the growing popularity of MMOs as e-sports and the success of League of Legends and DOTA 2. PlanetSide 2 fits in perfectly with that, but do you have plans to move other SOE titles into the e-sports arena?

E-sports, not as much. The way I'd characterize it is that we're moving into casting and watching, giving modes for people to watch other people game and for people to cast their experiences. What we see is these games as viewing opportunities where people sometimes just want to kick back with a beer and watch. It's TV for gamers. We want to enable our games to have that. It doesn't necessarily mean that all these games are going to be competitive. I'm excited to watch a high-end WoW player on TwitchTV, watching them play in a raid or something. I may never be in a raid that that person is, but it's fun watching that stuff. It's fun watching the group dynamics and the organization. We want to make those viewing experiences for people. Some of our games will have e-sports, like PlanetSide 2, where we're organizing tournaments and whole systems for that, but for our next generation of games, we want the casting opportunities to be strong, and we see that as a big part of the future.

SOE Live 2012  SOE President John Smedley on EQ Next and SOE's future
When it comes to emergent gameplay and the notion of players as content, there's also the problem of antisocial behavior. What sorts of ways do you address that in sandbox titles?

It all revolves around what the sandbox elements that you're putting into the game are. Certainly griefers are a part of every game. Our intent is not to make a game where antisocial people rule the world. The intent is to make a world that's immersive and allows so many player interactions and so much involvement, not to empower griefers. Every single one of our new games is designed with that in mind. A good example is PlanetSide 2. There's a very harsh anti-griefing system in that game. It's funny because before we put it in, you had exactly what you'd expect, which was people just mowing teammates down. We went to China Joy, and it was one of the funniest things I've ever seen, just watching people. They only had 15 minutes on the game, so they shot anything that moved. They were just mowing teammates down. So we had to put the anti-griefing stuff in.

This is not going to be Grieferquest, and every system will be designed around not allowing that. It's one of those things where you have to make it so that griefers can't ruin the experience for everyone else.

At GDC last week, you also talked about how quickly traditional MMO content is consumed and how that plays into your decision to adopt a philosophy toward emergent gameplay. The question comes up about how that affects the future of raid content -- something that takes a lot of time to design and is usually played by only a portion of the community. What are your thoughts on that?

This is a very interesting question. I think it's at the core of why what we're doing is sustainable. I'll go right to the heart of the matter. You get to the point where we make an expansion, and when I say we, I mean the entire MMO community. You make your expansion, the real hardcore players consume it in a month, and they're doing the raids over and over and over until the next round of live content that we put in. Typically, three or four times a year, we as MMO companies put new endgame in there to keep the raiders happy.

We absolutely need to build that style of content into every game we make because players want that. We're not talking about the end of raids, the end of this incredibly high-level content. We're talking about changing the nature of the world around it so that there's a lot more to do "in between" expansions. A good example, but a very narrow example, is battlegrounds in WoW or EQII, where players get bored doing it over and over again. But imagine the entire world as part of the interaction. Imagine seasons changing. Imagine if you're a Druid and you need to literally seek out reagents for your spells or worship your deity in a glade somewhere off in the wilderness, but you don't know where. Or image forests growing back after they're burned to the ground by invading forces. What we want is a dynamic world that gives all those other possibilities and doesn't just say OK, go to raid X with group composition of X, Y, Z, and kill the dragon for the 52nd time to get the tier 800 gear. It's this rinse-and-repeat gameplay that's got to change, and so we're changing it.

This has been a tough year for the industry, yet you seem genuinely excited and optimistic about not only the future of SOE but MMOs in general. What are your thoughts on the state of the industry right now and where we are headed?

I think the state of the industry is that it's in flux. We're seeing players bored with our content after a period of time, and that's where they're going to games like LoL and DOTA 2. That's where this fundamental shift from the traditional subscription model to free-to-play is so important: because it gives them the ability to move from game to game, to try different things, in between the content that we make. But that's precisely why I'm so optimistic about the future. If you design games that can keep players engaged for longer periods of time by making a world that is truly emergent and evolves with them, we think you can keep them around for another 15 years. We just need to make that shift, not just with the business model but with the thought process of making games that are evolving because of the players and with the players.

I'm super optimistic about it. I really am. I look at SWTOR, and that game is going to make a ton of money over a very long time because it's a great game. The business model they're going to now is the right one, and anybody who thinks that game isn't going to be a dominant force is crazy. It's huge; it just needed a business model that allowed players to go in and out of it.

What happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas, at least where SOE Live is concerned! Massively sent intrepid reporters MJ Guthrie and Karen Bryan to this year's SOE Live, from which they'll be transmitting all the best fan news on PlanetSide 2, EverQuest II, DC Universe Online, and the other MMOs on SOE's roster.

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