Transparency: A look at John Smedley's influence on games
I have actually only talked to John Smedley once during an interview in 2012. He talked about Planetside 2 and a little bit about EverQuest Next, but mostly he talked about the direction of SOE and the influence of free-to-play games on the MMO industry. During that discussion, he said and reiterated that he didn't think that SOE would ever create a game that wasn't free-to-play ever again.
As the driving force behind many of the games that I played, he has had an influence on my gaming career for about 12 years. I believe that everyone that pays attention to SOE or Daybreak Games was floored when the word came out that Smedley was taking a break from gaming for awhile and stepping down as CEO.
Of course, everyone that I know wishes him well and hopes that he returns soon. Anyone who has talked to him for any period of time knows that he has a passion for online gaming like no one else, and many hope that he returns to Daybreak very soon.
I know that many people have had issues with some of what Smed has said in the past. He said things that didn’t quite sit well with the gaming community at large, and he’s also made some decisions that didn’t make people happy.
But what I’d like to do today is talk about some of the amazing things that have happened and many groundbreaking steps in gaming that Daybreak and SOE made under John Smedley's leadership.
The popularization of the MMORPG
We cannot talk about John Smedley without talking about one of the greatest accomplishments in not just online gaming but gaming as a whole: EverQuest. Of course, EQ wasn’t the first fully online game to release. We had seen Ultima Online, Meridian 59, and a handful of others before the release of EverQuest. However, if anyone were to look at gaming historically, it would be EverQuest that brought MMORPGs to the forefront of gaming.
For many people EverQuest became much more than a game, it became a lifestyle. Although I cannot condone people becoming addicted to games, it was with EverQuest that we really began hearing stories of over a hundred hours a week being spent on games.
Mainstream media even picked up on it. Of course, mainstream media didn’t understand it, but the community managers, developers, and yes, John Smedley understood the importance of the game in people’s lives.
I believe it’s safe to say that EverQuest was a first. Although EQ wasn’t the first MMORPG, it paved its own path, and without EQ -- without John Smedley’s work -- there would be no World of Warcraft or many of the other MMORPGs that we enjoy today.
Taking huge risks with major IPs
My first major influence in the realms of MMORPGs was Star Wars Galaxies. I had played Ultima Online and Asheron's Call, but they didn’t hold me for a number of reasons that weren’t at all related to the games themselves. However, serendipity would allow me to play Star Wars Galaxies for a lengthy period of time. I had told my wife that I would likely not play the game for more than a couple of months before quitting. But this game grabbed me.
Of course, I don’t think that Smedley was the primary reason that I stuck with the game. In fact, given Smed’s statements about how H1Z1 would be the new home for Star Wars Galaxies player, I don’t really know that he understood why people played that game in the first place. But it was his influence as CEO of SOE that allowed the game to be made.
I think one of Smed’s primary skills isn’t necessarily being able to do everything himself, but he knows how to find and motivate good talent. And that’s what happened with SWG. Smed put together an amazing team of designers including the much beloved Raph Koster.
Although there were many major failures with Star Wars Galaxies, it still stands as an example of a company taking huge risk, not something you see very often anymore. And although Smedley gets more hate from the NGE than credit for taking a risk with SWG in the first place, I will give him credit and thanks for bringing that game into my life.
Leading the way for free-to-play in the western market
If creating Star Wars Galaxies was taking a big risk, then Free Realms was even bigger. I don’t think people give Free Realms enough credit for being a huge, groundbreaking MMORPG. Many of the things that we now take for granted were first found in Free Realms. I beta-tested this game, and I can tell you that Smedley was leading the charge in some of this games’ most innovative features.
The MMO press and players like to credit Dungeons and Dragons Online as proving that free-to-play MMOs can turn a profit and make a viable game. Then Lord of the Rings Online did it, too, giving developer Turbine the press-power to show the world that F2P works. But six months before the F2P conversion of DDO, another game launched and made amazing bank for its developer. Free Realms released in April 2009. I remember talking about it with other SOE fans and influencers, saying that there is no way for SOE to make money off this game unless they have a subscription. But Smed and his crew insisted that F2P was the wave of the future for MMOs in the west, and it would start with Free Realms.
The first persistent online first-person shooter
Alongside Star Wars Galaxies, another MMO launched in 2003 from SOE, it was an MMOFPS called Planetside. Some people called it way ahead of its time, and wish I could comment on it, but really wasn’t my kind of game at the time.
However, I can talk about Planetside 2.
In many ways this game was Smed’s baby. You could tell by the way that he would post random pieces of concept art on Twitter that he was really looking forward to this game’s release. In fact, it’s possible that Smed’s desire to get this game into players’ hands pushed its soft release too early. Regardless, the game was groundbreaking. The ability to have foot soldiers, vehicles, and aircraft all in one persistent had never been accomplished to the level of Planetside 2 before. Some can even say that it hasn’t been done since.
Needless to say, Smed’s made a huge impact on the gaming world. There are many I haven't even mentioned. I have not always agreed with every decision that he’s made nor every game that’s he’s spearheaded, but I cannot deny the influence he’s had on the gaming world. Speaking for myself, I’m glad that he’s taking a break from games and the like.
But, I do hope that he returns soon. The gaming industry needs more risk-takers and positive influences.