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Interview: Sony Online Entertainment opens up on open development

By Connor Sheridan on Monday 18th Aug 2014 at 9:42 AM UTC

Before Sony Online Entertainment threw open the doors of its development process to Reddit, Twitter, and Twitch, the developer/publisher was a bit of a massively multiplayer milquetoast.

It didn't have the can't-miss heavy hitters of Blizzard. It didn't have the recognizable names and international influence of NCsoft. Hits like EverQuest 2 were matched by faux pas like the Star Wars Galaxies New Game Experience, which infamously gutted much of what made the game appealing to its small but devoted player base.

It was as if thousands of voices suddenly cried out in terror, then were silenced - a bit of a low point. But player's voices are far from silent in determining the fate of Sony Online Entertainment's new slate of titles: PlanetSide 2, EverQuest Next, Landmark (formerly known as EverQuest Next Landmark) and H1Z1.

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Laura Naviaux

We spoke with Laura Naviaux, SOE's senior vice president of sales and marketing, about what it meant for the company to throw out the press release cycle and bring in the community ahead of its big SOE Live event kicking off on Thursday.

Read on to learn what open development means for everything from microvoxels to the fundamental concept of release dates.


CVG: When did SOE start focusing on open development? Why?

Laura Naviaux: I would say we really doubled down on it in the last two years. We started planting a lot of the seeds for it with the launch of PlanetSide 2 and the roadmap feature, which is the online destination where players can upvote and downvote new game features and give us very lengthy feedback about the game development, design, and new features that we're contemplating building.

I don't know if it's necessarily been woven through the company for a long long time. I think we're one of the more progressive developers in terms of wanting to have a relationship with our players. We had a community team at the launch of EverQuest, which was kind of a new thing. Nobody actually understood what that was.

And now it's kind of interesting to me to see how some of the other publishers, who are now having to operate games as a service, are having to start at ground zero and figure out, how do you manage your community? And how do you have a relationship with your players? So it's definitely always been something that's at the heart and soul of the company, but it wasn't as customer facing as it is today in terms of transparency and collaboration.

And that's been really exciting to see players actually respond so positively to it.

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Community managers are the cornerstone of this approach, as they're the ones that keep players and developers communicating. How has their new importance affected your work?

Our community managers always have a seat at the table, they're the seat at the table that's representing the player. They work hand-in-hand with our developers. The community managers are the first stop for many of the developers - "Hey, what do you think about this? How is the community going to react? Is it something they're going to be excited about? What are some of the things we should be thinking about that are potential pitfalls?"

Our developers, too, I have to give them a lot of credit. They're not just sitting behind the scenes making these games, they're out there too. Michele and I have done a lot of change management at the company to let the developers know that it's ok - we're not the PR department that's putting them in shackles - we're saying, "please get out there, please be active on social media".

I think Matt Higby, who is the creative director of PlanetSide 2, really set the model and the tone for how this can work. Even if the community has questions, they may be questioning the balance of a weapon or the empires, and he'll often share data in real time, of spreadsheets that his team is working on.

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That goes a long way. The last thing we want is people thinking we're sitting here in an ivory tower, because we actually recognize and know that we're on an even playing field with our players. Without them, these games wouldn't exist.

What are some ways players have contributed to the game? I believe Landmark's microvoxels [which break down the game's smallest shapes into even smaller variants, like splitting the atom] were a player discovery...

That's exactly the one I was going to bring up! That's case-in-point. The players actually figured out something we didn't know was possible with the microvoxels, that completely changed the trajectory of what was possible to build in the game world. And we fully expect more of that is going to happen.

The systems of Landmark are the foundation of EverQuest Next. So what we've been doing is putting these workshops out there with different races on EverQuest Next.

We did dark elves this most recent round and started having dialogue with the players about, how do you see dark elves forming and shaping up, and what the avatars are going to look like? What does their city look like? How are all the elements and tone of that particular player race envisioned in EverQuest Next.

And so we're letting the players lead the charge on that - and then actually get in Landmark and build it.

H1Z1 was revealed and detailed very early in its development, while EQ Next has been in development for a while but is still relatively quiet. Why are you taking those different approaches?

The easy answer there is that EverQuest Next needs new technology. So we've spent a lot of time actually making a voxel world, and the technology and the infrastructure and the data pipeline that it requires to service a game of that magnitude, and the dynamic AI, and some of the other pieces and parts.

Whereas with H1Z1, we were able to leverage a lot of our existing technology from PlanetSide 2 with the vehicles, Forgelight, the map, the fact that it's a shooter. So we weren't having to reinvent - and I'm not discounting H1Z1 by any means, but it's just apples and oranges, so I don't know if it's a great comparison.

But we really are wanting to be just as open with EverQuest Next as we've been with H1Z1, we're just focused on different things right now. And H1Z1 will be an early access product, where Next probably will not.

We're kind of crafting the strategies as we're watching the landscape evolve. So for H1Z1, it's coming out very soon, and we want to make sure that the players have a front row seat.

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It may be easier to use this sort of crowd-sourced, open development approach on games like H1Z1 that fall more cleanly into established expectations. People know what they want. Is that part of why EQ Next has been a bit more quiet?

With EverQuest Next, we're turning the MMO genre upside-down. I wouldn't disagree with your statement, and maybe it is a little bit genre-specific.

But when you're trying to turn an entire genre upside down, it is very different than when you are able to bring a game to market so quickly and there's sort of an established path.

Was it tough to transition SOE into this open development approach?

It depends on where you are in the spectrum, and everybody has their own little slant or point of view. But I can honestly say when this was rolled out, most people embraced it.

"The more honest, the more transparent we are, hopefully we can set the right level of expectations, instead of it being more smoke and mirrors"

This particular thing, or how do we want to present it, how are we describing this feature, making sure that we're setting the right expectations with players, just so that we're being as honest and open as possible... But I would say that most people were responsive and excited about the prospects.

I don't think anybody likes these games that go into a vacuum, they take five years to make, you don't know anything, there's a few trailers put out and then it's like, "Aren't you excited we're in beta?" That is the antithesis of what we want to do.

It also requires not overhyping. I think we really want to make sure that we're sort of plugging along and growing our sphere of influence, and the target market that's going to respond, and the different players.

We look at it sort of as an onion. There's going to be that nucleus of players that are all in, and then our job is to grow out from there, and make sure we're broadening the perspective of players that are interested in it. And that goes hand-in-hand with not only the development but the marketing strategy and bringing a product to market.

This goes for Kickstarter projects as well, where you might show an interesting feature you're thinking of implementing but have to drop it over time, and fans get disappointed. How do you manage those expectations?

I don't know if that problem is ever totally solvable. It exists not just in the game space, but think about different movies and whether they meet your expectations, or any entertainment medium. Everyday that's our job, to make sure we're trying to - and it goes back to the honesty piece.

The more honest, the more transparent we are, hopefully we can set the right level of expectations, instead of it being more smoke and mirrors. But that challenge will probably always exist, and maybe it's a great thing, too.

Because we want people to be excited, because we're excited too. We're sort of in the same boat, we can't wait to play these games ourselves.

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What have you learned from H1Z1's early reveal that you'll take into future projects?

What we've learned is that it works. I was reading an article about how Sharknado 2 was marketed and released, and it's really not that different. It's something that consumers are responding to, and the world's changed a lot, and with every player having a voice and this idea of democratized gaming, it's what players want.

We're happy to deliver it, and I think what we've recognized is that it's working, it's helping to feed into the influencer community. We regularly have prominent streamers down here and they're getting hands on, just like the press is coming down and getting their hands on.

So I think it's very important that there isn't this tier of seats, that everybody's in the front row and we're excited to partner with you and we want to make it mutually beneficial. We're a publisher that's very happy if other players can find revenue streams and ways to monetize these IPs. That's awesome.

"We'd love [to see some of] our players actually be able to make a living off of these games"

There's a thousand ways to slice it and dice it, and I think that player studio is probably on the far end of that spectrum, in terms of there actually being a revenue stream and a process set up for players to create items and put them in the game world.

But we'd love nothing more than to see some of our players actually be able to make a living off of these games. So all of these different spheres are converging, and we're finding that it's working really well.

Is SOE's free-to-play transition essential to open development, in terms of its greater ability to draw players in?

I absolutely think it can work with any business model.

DayZ does charge premium prices for its development, but it seems to me that free-to-play and its lower barriers to entry might inherently be better suited to the process.

Maybe it's not just the business model thing, it's just the fact that they're online games, they're going to exist for many many years. We have an always-on sort of publishing theory/philosophy/marketing/development, so we're thinking about these games 24/7, for games-as-a-service.

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For the games that are sort of ship-it-and-forget-it, you've gone to great lengths to make sure the community is right there with you side-by-side, you ship the game and then your DLC doesn't come out for nine or 12 months, or maybe even a quarter later - it seems like there might be too much of a lapse in order to keep the players interested.

But I think if you do it right, and you recognize that people are playing these games day in and day out, that maybe the philosophy about how you share shouldn't be so mapped to the game milestones, but it's an always-on approach.

Anything else you want to mention?

I'm not so sure that [game development is] the same as it was where we're marching toward this big milestone and these concrete dates.

I know that sounds sort of like a cop-out, but it's the truth. And we don't want to share dates that we don't know are real, and we want to make sure we ship games or launch the next piece of the game when we feel like we think it's ready, and the players think it's ready.

In this case, H1Z1, the players haven't actually gotten in yet. We want to deliver the best-possible experience that's right for early access, and so we don't want to put dates out there that we're not positive about. And we'll know when it's right.

I know dates are what people get the most excited about, but we really feel like development has changed so significantly that they're less meaningful.

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