Some of you may remember a recent editorial that was published here at Allakhazam about my concerns with Station Cash. Obviously, there were people at Sony Online Entertainment who disagreed with me. During my time at CES last week I had the opportunity to sit down with John Smedley to let him know why I decided to write the piece and our conversation quickly turned into an interview opportunity. Mr. Smedley was both rational and receptive during our off the record talks and clearly understood my opinions, regardless of his own. He even went out on a limb to let me know that he'd like to take some of the concerns that I had back to the EverQuest II development team. You don't have to have a very big imagination to know that those remarks put a smile on my face.
During the interview, which is nearly ten minutes in length, we talked about Station Cash, Free Realms, EverQuest's ten year anniversary, and the EverQuest movie which has been rumored for years. I have to admit, some of the Station Cash products that Sony Online Entertainment is going to be rolling out are exciting. I even found myself saying 'I'd buy that' during the interview. As far as my opinions of Station Cash are concerned, as long as the experience potions available for purchase are where they draw the line, I'm willing to co-exist.
'Imagine being able to open up a book with every member of your guild, and have that physically mailed to you as a part of station cash. Our goal is to be able to buy both in game items, and those kinds of items, but be able to do that among all of our games in the future.'
Please check out our interview with John Smedley which we've transcribed for those of you who don't want to see John Smedley and me stare into each other's eyes for ten minutes. Also, please tell us what you think about the interview, Station Cash, the EverQuest movie and anything else that comes to mind, in the comment box below.
Transcribed Version :
Tamat : So where’s the line with Station Cash?
John Smedley : I think it’s fair to say that we walked up to the line and probably stood on the line with XP potions. That’s really as far as we want to go. Most of the things we want to be cosmetic. We’re going to be announcing a few things that we’re going to be doing for a charity here in the near future, but the important steps that we’re trying to take are to get a variety of things that people can buy. Not just virtual items but things like a T-shirt with your character's picture on it, posters, maybe a guild book. These are all things we’re working on right now. Imagine being able to open up a book with every member of your guild and have that physically mailed to you.
Our goal is for players to be able to buy both in game items and those kinds of items, but be able to do that among all of our games in the future. Right now we’ve done it for EverQuest and EverQuest II. We’re not going to be doing it for Star Wars Galaxies or for Vanguard. We have made the decision for Free Realms and you’ll likely see it in our other games in the future as well.
Tamat : DC Universe Online and The Agency being those?
John : We'll certainly have micro transaction items available, but our goal is to make things that allow for different game play options, not necessarily 'selling power'. I realize that there are respectable viewpoints that say that this is selling power - and I can see why they can feel like we've gone too far - but I respectfully disagree. I feel like we've been pretty careful with what we've done. We have to be careful not to upset our player base so much that people start quitting, which, frankly speaking, people have not done with the introduction of Station Cash.
Tamat : So earlier today you and I were talking and one of the concerns that I brought up was that has been a concern within the community were items that are available via Station Cash that can’t be acquired in game by any other means. Are you going to continue with that standard or is that the line that we were talking about earlier
John : I think it's fair to say that there are going to be some items that are only available through Station Cash at the end of the day. However, you brought up the idea that there might be some way to make experience potions. I want to bring those ideas back to the team. One of the things we've done is we've started a thread and we've asked people to submit their ideas and their comments; now we’re monitoring that thread pretty carefully so we can get feedback from people. The experience potion idea is something I'd like to discuss with the team. The problem, however, is that I think we need to be super careful about how we do this, so that we can get items that are truly a 'convenience,' where the community doesn't feel like it's over the line. That, to me, is the line. Is that fuzzy? Sure, but we're being careful not to cross that line. I understand the slippery slope argument, but it's our job to make sure we don't go down the slippery slope. I think so far we're doing that. Respectable people may disagree.
Tamat : In a recent article that I did about Station Cash, which voiced some of the concerns that I had and were somewhat shared by the player base, I talked about the differences between Station Cash and Station Exchange as far as how they were unveiled. With Station Exchange, the players knew long in advance what was going on and they were only implemented on a few, select servers. With Station Cash however, it was just kind of shoved down everyone’s throats. Why was that?
John : What happened with Station Cash was that, during the very last part of development of our most recent set of expansion packs, we decided that micro transaction currency was a strategic move we wanted to make as a company. We also knew that it would be a controversial choice, so we decided that it would be best to simply implement it, test it thoroughly, and then put it out there. The reason behind this is that it's hard to have an argument in a vacuum. Talking about it, there is a vocal group of players who are passionately against it, and there is a larger group of players who have mixed feelings about it. By putting it in, we are able to get strong feedback about it, both ways, instead of everyone simply arguing in a vacuum. While there are people who are very against it on the forums, there are more people simply playing the game and experiencing what we're talking about. The reality is, the reaction to it, for the most part, has been neutral. While there is certainly an active group in the forums that are complaining about it; most people are just in and simply playing the game and they got to see for themselves exactly what we were talking about, instead of talking about it within a vacuum. We felt that would be a better way, knowing that it would be controversial.
Tamat : Let’s change pace a little bit. You’ve talked about launching Free Realms in Q2. Is that still a realistic goal?
John : Very much so. We are about to be opening up the beta to our company. We have a lot of testers on this game; we're very far along on it internally. All of the major systems are done, and a lot of them have been tested, actually. So we're pretty far down the line with it and we're going to start letting in outsiders very soon too. The website has been up at www.freerealms.com and we've gotten good response there, for anybody who wants to participate in the beta testing. We are being careful, though, it's interesting. This is the first time we've done a beta test where we're actually looking at the gender, for example, of the people that are signing up. We want an equal number of boys, girls, men and woman, so when we select beta testers, we're actually being careful to evaluate that.
Tamat : That’s another thing; your target demographic for this game is 10-14, boys and girls. How are you going to incorporate that demographic into the beta with such a young player base?
John : One of the big things that we are doing, is we're being super careful to make sure that we select people based on the criteria when they sign up. Obviously we can't tell if it's really a boy or girl, but we assume that people are telling the truth when they sign up. What we're trying to do is make sure the beta testers are reflective of the audience we expect, because MMOs are predominantly male right now. The average age of our players is 33 years old, 85% of them are male right now. This is a different demographic we're going after, so we have to get the testers in there that are of the right age and the right gender mix.
Tamat : So designing a game for that demographic has to be somewhat challenging considering the much older age of the design team. How have you been able to bring in younger kids to see what their reaction is to the game?
John : One of the exciting things that we’re doing with Free Realms which is really sort of new to SOE, is that we built a “Usability Lab”. It’s really neat, it’s a lab with six computers that allows us to record the players face, and we also put a camera on the keyboard and mouse. So we can actually see everything that they see on the screen and how they are reacting to the stuff. It’s really helpful when we were doing the interface. The interface for Free Realms was really a radical new design for an MMO interface. We’ve been tweaking it along the way based on what were seeing. We might put a button in a place that makes sense to us, but the kids didn’t get it.
A good example of this is the registration flow for the Free Realms website. We actually did extensive usability testing on it to make sure that kids could get through the process and that error message were very clearly explained in big bold letters. In fact we’re still making revisions to it because we still don’t have it perfect yet. We don’t want a player to not be able to register for the game, so we’re streamlining even that aspect of it. Within the game we’re doing that in major ways. Every major system gets ‘usability tested’, and then goes back into the shop if we find out something that isn’t fun. It’s been a blast to see this process
Tamat : There have been rumors for years about a possible EverQuest movie. Is that ever going to be something that comes to light?
John : So the EverQuest movie, I can say that it’s being worked on. I can’t really announce anything specific yet, but it is in active discussion with Sony Pictures, and they’ve got some things going up there but we can’t really comment on it yet.
Tamat : So now that the 10 year anniversary for EverQuest has been announced. What can we expect to see in March?
John : I think you can expect the tabletop book which we haven’t announced when it will come out. We’re working on a documentary about the making and history of EverQuest. It’s a really big deal for us. I mean 10 years since EverQuest helped launch this industry, and this industry has grown so much and there are some amazing games out there. We’re proud to be one of the companies that helped start it.