Last week Sony Online Entertainment made the move to port its hugely popular kids' MMO FreeRealms over the the PlayStation 3 platform.
Just ahead of that launch, GamesIndustry.biz caught up with SOE president John Smedley to find out how smooth a transition it had been - what the company hard learned from DC Universe Online, what the ultimate potential for the game was and did it spell a new industry gold rush?
[Editors note: This interview took place the day before Sony Online Entertainment announced a decision to close three studios and make 205 staff redundant.]
Q: We're here to talk about the launch of FreeRealms for the PlayStation 3 - that's happening against a backdrop of 17 million users on the PC and Mac platforms. That's a phenomenal number.
John Smedley: It is a phenomenal number, and we're very pleased with its success - and it's really keeping going. I don't see this thing stopping until it hits 100 million.
Q: Has it taken you by surprise?
John Smedley: I've got to say yes, but in ways that are very personal to me. I've got four kids, two of which are my younger daughters - they play the game incessantly, and I think I'm as proud of that accomplishment as I am about the 17 million.
And when I say "incessantly" I mean that when I get home at night, they bug me about FreeRealms. They've been in to meet some of the GMs here at work, and they've made them food and cards... they're obsessing about it.
I'd say it's taken me by surprise because we've never made a game for kids before this - their passion is something new to us.
"[17 million] is a phenomenal number, and we're very pleased with its success - and it's really keeping going. I don't see this thing stopping until it hits 100 million."
Q: So let's talk about FreeRealms for the PS3 - it's been a while in coming, so what have been the main challenges in bringing the game to the console platform?
John Smedley: Probably the single-biggest obstacle was probably the interaction with communication - it's a unique problem for us, because by-and-large the PS3 has a bit of an older audience, and FreeRealms is a kids' game. So we've had to do some thinking about that.
Also, communicating in general - most PS3 owners don't have keyboards, so we're using PS3 Voice, which I think is really cool.
Q: The user interface has also been one of the traditional problems for consoles.
John Smedley: We've spent a lot of time and learned a lot of lessons from DCUO with that, and we've applied those learnings to FreeRealms. I think people are going to feel like this is a real console game - and the cool thing about it for me is that now I can get my PC back, and let my girls play on the television!
Q: There's also hard drive installation and patching - generally-speaking there's a lot less of that for console users.
John Smedley: You're right, and that's part of the learning experience that we've had. One of the things that gives us a good competitive advantage is that we've now successfully launched two MMOs on the PS3 platform - and one for the PS2.
So we've got three console MMOs under our belts, and no one else can say that.
Q: How you do make the process easier for users then?
John Smedley: Well, simply put it's a console game at heart now, so we've made the updating and all that stuff seamless. Users just log-in, and they don't even need to type anything because they're already logged in to the PlayStation Network - they just hit a button and they're in our game.
So we've made it simple and easy, and we've made the interface streamlined, so they can communicate either by voice or by quick chat - and we've just tried to make it as simple as possible.
Q: With any MMO launch there are normally a couple of teething problems that come along with it; what sort of initial issues do you anticipate for FreeRealms, and how will you tackle them?
John Smedley: We won't really know for a few days, but in our testing everything went so smoothly that we think everything will just work; and people are going to love it. We'll have to wait and see what the users think, and what they tell us.
"We've seen triple-digit growth in those sections of our business - it's just a very interesting way to monetise things. I think free-to-play is a big part of the industry's future."
Q: What sort of response do you think there will be from PS3 owners? How fast can it grow from 17 million to 100 million?
John Smedley: I think it could take five or six years - that should give you some idea. But I don't see any reason why it can't go to 100 million, because there are so many kids out there. And the great thing about a kids' game, and this is different for an adult audience and people don't think about this, is that there are always more kids.
That endless supply of children that have a hunger for gaming, as long as we keep improving it and make sure it's still relevant - which we do every month with patches - means that we expect the game to have a long life.
One of our other games, Everquest, has just hit its twelfth birthday - and I can definitely see FreeRealms doing that.
Q: And what sort of proportion of that 100 million will be PS3 users?
John Smedley: If you ask me that question in a week, I'd give you an estimate. But at the moment I don't know. I wouldn't give out our internal estimates, because they could be radically out one way or another.
We're trying something new - we're bringing a kids' game to the PS3, and we're hopeful that a lot of adults will try it too. But what we're really hopeful is that the family will game together around the TV, and that it's an online game that parents will be proud to let their kids play - and feel safe with that.
Because it's a free-to-play game, we're radically changing the business model for PS3 games too. That's a big, big advance - to go free-to-play on the PS3.
Q: How confident are you that console users are as happy with micro-transactions as PC user are, or are they a little bit earlier on the curve?
John Smedley: I think it's probably a little bit earlier on the curve, but not by much. They're used to DLC - they just call it something different on console. Five years ago micro-transactions were not mainstream in the US, and we made a heavy investment in them in all our games, and that paid off.
We've seen triple-digit growth in those sections of our business - it's just a very interesting way to monetise things. I think free-to-play is a big part of the industry's future.
Q: I guess it does beg the question that putting a free-to-play game on a premium piece of hardware that was built around $60 software price points is an evolution of the overarching business model. How do you see that evolving over time?
John Smedley: That's a really tough question. My gut tells me that, just like on PC, it's going to become an increasing part of the business. There are a lot of people out there that have, in the past, associated free-to-play with lower quality - and simply put, that's just not true any more. There are a lot of free-to-play games that are great, and I think that's going to come over to console just as well.
With the console, we're selling to an audience that already has the PS3 obviously - and by the way not the just the PS3, but in the future I can other devices. Sony's announced the NGP, and if that isn't a perfect machine for doing MMOs on, then I don't know what is.
So it's too soon to tell for sure but I think you're going to start seeing free-to-play gaming on console as well. People will realise that getting a lot more folk to try their games using that kind of business model will help; it'll just be in addition to the Blu-ray business model.
Q: It's a different skillset on the part of developers to convince people to pay along those lines. Traditionally only a low percentage of free-to-play gamers will pay anything at all for the games they play - it's a big challenge, and FreeRealms has already succeeded with number and production values, but how do you approach it, and how will it evolve as the industry changes as well?
John Smedley: The interesting thing here is making sure that the business results follow the investment. A good example for us with FreeRealms is that we've been able to take that same technology base and use it for another game, Clone Wars. We got that finished in less than a year - a very high quality game, but built on our engine, and we're using the same technology base to power other games we're working on.
So for us, the pay-off comes from having multiple games with different business models. We're doing some subscription stuff, like DCUO; we're doing some free-to-play stuff, like FreeRealms - and probably some others we haven't announced yet.
We see this as making a number of bets, and smart bets at that.
"People will realise that getting a lot more folk to try their games using that kind of business model will help; it'll just be in addition to the Blu-ray business model."
Q: FreeRealms has some advantages - it's first, it has an strong existing user base, and I'm sure you'll put strong marketing behind it. But as we've seen on other platforms, once people see success with something, a gold rush tends to follow, and it becomes very hard to get the right mix of visibility. Is that something you're anticipating?
John Smedley: I'm sure there will be a lot of people giving it a try. The difference here - and this is a really big difference - is that on the console you're going to have to spend a lot of money to get in there to begin with.
So I'd expect there to be a lot down the road, but it'll take time to try to do it, frankly. I think that will give us a lead for a while, and we're not resting on our laurels - we've got other games we're working on. It's going to take some time, but I'm pretty confident in our ability to iterate on what we've got, and add other cool games that we want to do.
Q: Was it a difficult task to sell the idea internally to other parts of SCE?
John Smedley: Not at all - in fact, quite the opposite. Everybody wants to see what happens with this business model, and our sister companies are glad to see that being done.
Q: I'd assume that it's been an easier process as part of SCE than it might have been as part of Sony Pictures, as you were previously?
John Smedley: It has, in such a major way. The biggest advantage that we have is this large swell of knowledge with the SCE family, and we've been able to tap that to get help where we've needed it. I'd like to think too that we've contributed to the overall PlayStation Network, and some of what we've asked for is winding its way back too.
It's something we're really happy about - and most people don't realise that we've actually got 32 published PSN titles. All of the PopCap stuff, we publish.
Q: Child safety's obviously a big part of kids' games - are you transferring that element wholesale to the PS3 version as well?
John Smedley: It'll be a little different on the PS3 - yes, we're transferring it, but the restrictions are at the account level. So we follow the same rules that all the other titles follow - there's a great set of parental controls that our games work with, and the PS3 really makes it super-easy to keep your kids safe.
Luckily we've got that standing in front of us - and then doing double duty is our game-watching stuff. We monitor literally everything that's said in chat.
John Smedley is president of Sony Online Entertainment. Interview by Phil Elliott.