Sony's John Smedley on the Future of Gaming (Q&A)

John Smedley - P 2012

John Smedley - P 2012

Amidst all the big holiday releases comes "Planetside 2," a massive free-to-play science fiction shooter via the entertainment company's online arm.

Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) launches its biggest game this year with Planetside 2, a free-to-play, sci-fi, massively multiplayer online (MMO) release that allows players to experience futuristic combat on the ground and in the air. The company is also developing a new fantasy free-to-play MMO, Dragon’s Prophet, and has had continued success with its DC Universe Online game.

John Smedley, president of Sony Online Entertainment, discusses the current landscape of online gaming and addresses the free-to-play future of the industry in this exclusive interview.

The Hollywood Reporter: Can you explain how Dragon’s Prophet fits into the Sony Online Entertainment library?

John Smedley: We’re proud to have Runewaker Entertainment’s new game, Dragon’s Prophet, in the SOE suite of games and it’s an amazing new game. I think our fans are really going to love this. It’s right in the wheelhouse of our other MMORPGs and it’s an amazing new kind of game. It has a lot of dragon riding and all kinds of great things that we think our fans are going to love. I think the idea of riding on a dragon is something that since we’ve seen in all the movies and all the books, it’s the kind of a core fantasy thing that people who read fantasy or play fantasy games want, and it fulfills that quota.

STORY: 'Call of Duty: Black Ops II' Earns Record $500 Million in First Day Sales

THR: From a big picture perspective, what impact have you seen free-to-play games have on the online space?

Smedley: Free-to-play as a business model is made for the online gaming space. It really lets a large number of fans try something before they spend any money on it, or if they ever decide to spend any money on it. It’s a way to grow the space into people that may not have ever wanted to play an online game, but they try it, they get hooked, and they become fans for life.

THR: How have you seen free-to-play impact your own games using this business model?

Smedley: With EverQuest, when we launched it as a free-to-play product, we got a 150 percent bump in unique usage. With EverQuest II, we got a 300 percent boost in unique usage. That kind of a boost comes because of a business model’s power to bring a lot of new people into the game, and a lot of old people back, where they don’t have to spend money. They can just see how the game has been doing.

THR: After the failure of big games like Electronic Arts’ Star Wars: The Old Republic and Secret World to find a big audience, are the big days of subscription-paid MMOs over?

Smedley: Star Wars: The Old Republic and Secret World are two very amazing games. I actually think free-to-play is going to bring new life into both games and grow them very significantly. A game like Star Wars: The Old Republic, which is just an amazing, high-quality game, is going to find a much larger player base in free-to-play than it ever did just with a standard subscription model.

THR: What are the challenges of launching a new game like Planetside 2 in this online environment?

Smedley: The truth is that launching a new game requires first and foremost a really great game. And that takes investment, it takes time and it takes experience. At SOE we’re lucky to have all three of those. For us, launching a new game is a lot of fun and it enables us to bring more people into our audience.

THR: How important are brands like DC Universe in this space today?

Smedley: At SOE we’ve tried to maintain a split between our own IP and big brands like DC Universe and Star Wars with the Clone Wars Adventures license. Brands are a big thing to get new players into the space. A lot of people watch the Batman movies and we have an opportunity to get those fans into our games, and that’s not something you can necessary do with new IP.

THR: What impact do you think Marvel Heroes will have on DC Universe Online when both games are out?

Smedley: Gazillion is a great company and they’re making a great game. I look forward to playing it. It’s very different from DCUO. It’s more Diablo style and the genre’s hungry for new games and new styles of gameplay. Dave Brevick and John Needham know what they’re doing and it’s going to be an awesome game. 

THR: How will the role of Playstation 3 evolve with Sony Online Entertainment games moving forward?

Smedley: We are part of the Playstation family of companies and for us it’s at our core. We have the DNA of Sony in us and we’ve been fortunate enough to make three MMOs on consoles. We’ve had EverQuest Online for PlayStation 2 and DC Universe Online and Free Realms on the PlayStation 3. You can count us on a going forward basis to make new MMOs for consoles. 

THR: What opportunities does the PS Vita open up?

Smedley: PlayStation Vita is an amazing console. It’s so connected that it’s the perfect platform to make any kind of an online game for it, and it’s something that we’re looking at very closely ourselves.

THR: Where do you see the online gaming space five years from now?

Smedley: Five years from now is a long time, but we are putting our bets on emerging gameplay and things that players can do to help create new content. Things like our Players Studio, where players can make items for the games. We see players participating in literally the evolution of games themselves directly. Five years from now we think that’s going to be a mainstream part of online gaming.