In this Q&A, Gamasutra talks to Sony Online San Diego studio head Nicholas Beliaeff about SOE's plans to broaden beyond hardcore MMOs, the history of marriage in MMOs, and keeping the EverQuest
franchise alive and kicking.
Beliaeff currently heads up the Southern Californian studio for the EverQuest
and Star Wars Galaxies
creator, and Gamasutra covered a range of subjects when quizzing him at the recent Hollywood & Games Summit.
What's going on at Sony Online right now?
NB: I think one of the two biggest things that we've announced in recent times is The Agency
, which is being done out of our Seattle office. That's the spy-based MMO. We're really excited about that, because it's bringing a lot more action than we've done since PlanetSide
. We think it's a really fresh take, it's got a great stylized look, and we're really looking forward to that to come out.
Then, out of the San Diego studio where I work, there's FreeRealms
. We've sort of teased about that, and haven't given it its moment in the sun yet, but we like that one a lot because it's a big departure for us, in that it's focused a lot more towards the teenage demographic.
One of the guys in the panel [at H&G] was talking about Club Penguin
. If you look at some of the free to play games like Club Penguin
, it's a huge market. If you look at the actual numbers of people playing RuneScape
, there may actually be more people playing RuneScape
than there are playing World of Warcraft
We're really excited about the social mechanism of it for that particular audience, because we're making a lot lighter and happier game than we're used to, we get to play with a lot of business models because it's free and not subscription-based, and we're doing some neat things with the technology going on as well.
We've got a lot of streaming going on, and we've reduced the barrier to entry for players. There's no big download, and no credit card required. We're really excited about that.
You guys have a history of keeping the older games alive for a really long time, and that's very admirable. How are you doing that? It seems like in that kind of situation, you really have to play to the fans a lot, because you've got a really dedicated fanbase at that point.
NB: Yeah. But at that point -- like with EverQuest
, which has been going on for over eight years -- we do have all these ways of reaching out to them. We find out the things they like the most and the things they like the least, then we do more of the stuff that they like.
We talk to them, and that's the key. You've got this audience that's hooked, and they love what you do, and we love our consumers. You have to listen to what they want, but you have to filter it.
Like one of the guys on the panels said, "You can't do everything that everyone says," because sometimes it's not a good idea, or it's not worth the effort. You absolutely have to listen to them, though, and if they go, "This guy's listening to me, and they're actually doing [something I suggested]. That's cool!" that's what keeps them in.
Some of our older games -- like Cosmic Rift, Infantry
, and Tanarus
-- had a really big community that dwindled over time, so what we did with those is we made them free. We just did that this month. We've got the games, and rather than just pull the plug and disappoint the fanbase, [we just say] "Play. Have at it. Enjoy."
Plus that way, you're keeping numbers high on that sort of thing as well.
NB: Whenever you talk about the numbers of any given game, it's for that game, so a person playing Tanarus
doesn't count towards EverQuest II
. You have to be fundamentally honest about that sort of stuff. What it does is that it keeps people playing our game, and for the older games, it shows that people have been loyal to us for a long amount of time.
With EverQuest being one of the first deeper, more popular MMO experiences aside from Ultima Online, it was difficult to transition people over to EverQuest II. I think that's part of why the original EverQuest is still so strong. How do you address that sort of issue? How do you get those people? One solution is to just keep it going, but eventually, you're going to have to transition them to something else, right?
NB: Why? When people are loyal, and you've got a good business, there's no reason. Keep them happy. Keep them coming back. There's no reason to try and force them to leave. You've got a good relationship, so why would you want to dump them and go on to something else? Maintain the relationship.
How much can you change the graphical interface and things like that with a game of that age? How much can you do of that without alienating people?
NB: You can actually do a lot. If you look at the original EverQuest
over its span, it's had some pretty significant engine revamps. Some of the things that we've been doing, particularly over the last two years, are going through the older zones and redoing all the art in those zones, to modernize them to the changes that we've done to the engine.
The real balance that you fight there -- when it comes to alienation -- is that you're not creating changes such that you're not completely outmoding the lower system specs. You have to make it better without cutting off the bottom tier of technology. That's how you'll lose people, if you make change for change's sake and don't take into account the technical limitation of some of your players.
Do you find that the bottom tier of technology is becoming less important now? Most people who buy new computers can certainly play EverQuest at this point. Do you find that you're having less problems with that these days, or are there a lot of people who are still on the older stuff?
NB: The majority of people are on the older stuff. Whenever you're making a game and are proud of it, you want as many people as possible to play that game. In the PC world, the lower the machine spec you can get, the bigger potential audience you have, and the more chance you have for people to look at your work.
How many subscribers does the original EverQuest have now?
NB: We don't disclose those numbers.
I was mostly thinking about how surprising it was to me that anything could maintain someone for quite that long, or at least a group of people who keep coming back and subscribing.
NB: It's a tremendously healthy game. We're coming out with our next expansion in November. We have our next [just-held
] fan fair in August in Las Vegas, to meet with the people who play that game. It's going strong, and showing no signs of going away.
Are you considering console MMOs more deeply?
NB: Absolutely. We have EverQuest Online Adventures
that came out on the PS2 four years ago, and that was one of the first, along with Final Fantasy XI
, to be a console MMO. For us as a company moving forward, all of our MMOs in development have a console component.
That's good, because now the consoles are really set up to do it. The PS2 wasn't necessarily set up to be online in terms of Sony's support of the network.
NB: Yeah, the network adapter was an add-on, and you really had to understand how to configure network stuff to get it to work well, and it was both broadband and dial-up. In MMOs, you infinitely prefer being able to rely on broadband if at all possible. Now that everything's broadband-enabled, it's great.
Moving on, we were talking earlier about player marriages in Meridian 59, which you were also associated with. You seem to have a legacy of getting people married! Why do you think it is that the games you work on tend to work out that way?
NB: I don't think that has anything to do with me. I'm not the love doctor, or anything like that! I think what it is is that the game is so immersive, and people are willing to commit a large amount of time in-game, and then they play with people who are also willing to commit a large amount of time in-game.
What's the hardest thing in relationships? You go to bars, and what do you have beyond [talking about drinks]? In the game, where you're spending a good portion of your free time, you have someone else who's got a very similar interest, so you've already started with, "Do you have hobbies that I like?"
There's the social aspect while you're in the game, both back in the Meridian 59
days of chatting back and forth through keyboard, and now these days, when everyone's got a headset. You have epic conversations with a person, and you really get to know the person that you're gaming with. I think that's what breeds the closeness, whether it's married or a good friend.
Do people follow up with you guys on that sort of thing? Have you heard if those marriages last? If they decide to cohabitate, do they have to have two computers so they can still play together?
NB: Definitely, they have to have two computers. It becomes a much more social, family affair. "Looking for group" has a new meaning now! Anyway, no, nobody's going to [follow up and] say, "Hey, I got divorced! F*ck you!"
Or they might say, "Hey, we've been together for a bunch of years. Thank you guys!"
NB: I've had stuff where people have said, "We've named our kid after one of the legendary characters in the game," and things like that, so you do hear that. You hear the good stuff.