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Smedley expounds on benefits blunder and SOE's philosophy

MJ Guthrie

When SOE first announced the membership changes coming to some of its titles, the company stirred up a storm that was completely unexpected, according to CEO John Smedley. After listening to the community, the studio reversed parts of the proposal and unveiled an extra benefit: a $14.99 All-Access pass.

But even after a few extra posts explaining the changes and the reasoning behind them, there were still some unanswered questions and remnants of confusion from the quick succession of announcements. Why were some titles in SOE's arsenal listed part of the pass but others aren't? Which membership gift is actually the one going forward? When will these changes take place? And what about the European players? I sat down with Smedley to answer these questions and get some added clarity on these changes,

A method behind the madness

When you first encounter the whole membership benefits topic, you might think of the old idiom "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." So what led SOE to "fix" benefits that appeared to be working so well for customers? The change wasn't just for change's sake. As Smedley explained in one of his Reddit posts, the rewards were broken in a way: There was a disparity between the PC and console versions (consoles can't use Station Cash) as well as internal issues with the accrual of SC for people who don't play. But above that, the company really was trying to give a better value to players.

When talking about the first proposed changes, Smedley noted that the idea has been discussed on and off for months, but that it was not put into motion until a few weeks ago. It was considered a win/win: Not only would the solution solve internal issues, but players would love it. He told me, "We actually thought we had something that everybody's going to like; we didn't see any downsides. And we were wrong." He explained that the idea was that if the company released some awesome new item that cost $10, players could snag it immediately with their monthly gift. "Honestly, when we looked at putting out the choose your item option, all of us were thinking, 'They're going to love this! They can get the more expensive items and that would be great.'"

Surprisingly to the devs, that wasn't the case; many players saw things in a different way and expressed unhappiness with the change. One reason could be because the initial announcement was vague and players knew nothing of the intended $14.99 All Access price change. Reflecting on this experience, Smedley noted that even when everyone involved in the meetings is certain that the players would embrace some incredible change, developers "just really need to put that out there and see if they really do."

What went wrong

Part of the problem was in the order of delivery. In hindsight, it was pretty apparent that announcing the change in benefits before giving the reasons why or even asking for feedback was the wrong approach. Shortly after players expressed disapproval, Smedley took to Reddit and shared his personal goal to explain why decisions are made. And here, he summed up his philosophy going forward: "We'll put our ideas up, we'll ask for comments, we'll wait until we listen to the feedback, and then we'll make the decision."

Players definitely made their feelings known on this issue, leaving feedback in threads that Smedley called "great and well-reasoned." And from that feedback, the proposed changes were altered. "When our players have a good, cohesive set of arguments about why something we want to do isn't the best thing for them," Smedley said, "we have to listen." He believes this approach is critical; he wants to reach the point where the community knows that the ideas are just ideas and is not afraid to leave feedback. It is the studio's job, he said, to ensure that ideas are expressed in that manner and not as a done deal. He further explained,
"The one thing that I want for our company is to have a well-earned reputation -- I'm not saying we are there yet -- for listening to the players more than anybody else. That's so important for us... [that customers] begin to trust that when we put an idea out there they don't like that they don't become upset about it because they know we're going to listen."
On the opposite side of the coin, some of those who have responded to the latest changes to the changes (namely, returning to the one gift of 500 SC per month instead of one 2K SC gift per game) have countered that SOE has cowed to the vocal minority and cheated the rest of the playerbase out of their free goodies. Responding to this, Smedley assured that those who expressed their concerns were definitely not the minority and that numbers backed that up.

What is the plan?

The last time that Smedley posted about this issue, he noted that the devs will be meeting about the new proposal and that players still have the opportunity to give feedback, especially about the value of the SC gift. So what's the status of the plan now; has it been finalized? According to Smedley, some of the components are set. Players will definitely be getting only the 500 SC; there will not be any chance for a choice between that or the 2K gift because of the logistics of supporting both would be complex and quite a bit of work. And Smedley noted those resources would be better spent elsewhere.

Additional membership benefits include a 10% discount on the Marketplace and no restrictions on Player Studio items. We also know that players who subscribe to any SOE PC title will have access to all of SOE's current and future PC games, with the exception of subscribers of family-friendly games who are 12 years old and younger). But what about games like Dragon's Prophet, which is noticeably absent from the current pass? Smedley told me that some titles just aren't in SOE's portfolio because they are third-party titles, so any decisions have to be made as a partnership. And speaking of partnerships...

Is there any headway on what's in store for European players with these changes? Not until later this month. Smedley explained that members of the Prosiebensat.1 team are meeting with SOE in the next few weeks, and one of the top topics on the agenda will focus on working out how EU players will benefit from benefits. While he couldn't go into details before the business meeting plays out, Smedley said his team has an idea that he says "should make European players exceedingly happy."

And finally, when can players expect these change in membership benefits to deploy? The estimate is one to two months, but Smedley believes the team will have a better idea later today.

When readers want the scoop on a launch or a patch (or even a brewing fiasco), Massively goes right to the source to interview the developers themselves. Be they John Smedley or Chris Roberts or anyone in between, we ask the devs the hard questions. Of course, whether they tell us the truth or not is up to them!

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