First-person shooter games have become a multibillion-dollar market. But no one has really succeeded in the massively multiplayer online space with high-end hardcore shooters. Sony Online Entertainment hopes to change that with the upcoming launch of Planetside 2. John Smedley, head of SOE, believes that the game will set a new bar for online shooters, with more than 2,000 people fighting together in the same region. He also believes that the free-to-play business model for the game will attract a much larger audience than is typical for an MMO. Smedley also feels that Sony Online learned some important lessons from last year’s hacker attack, which brought down the company’s network of games for weeks. We caught up with Smedley at the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) video game conference in Los Angeles. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: So how is everything going for you?
John Smedley: Very good. We have PlanetSide 2, which is our main tentpole feature this year. The reaction has been insane. There’s this point at which your baby is being shown to the world. This was it. To have people feeling as good as they are is what makes me feel the best. People are saying this is as good as Modern Warfare 3 or Battlefield 3 in terms of the feel of the shooter, which is what we’ve been going for. PC Gamer said that we looked better than Battlefield 3. It’s very gratifying to hear these things, because we worked so hard on it. We love it. We made the game for us.
GamesBeat: How many years have you worked on it now?
Smedley: Two years in development now. But we’re using our Forge Light engine, which we use for all of our next-gen stuff now. It’s decreasing the amount of time it takes us to make new games now a lot. That engine was four years in the making. So now we’re into much shorter dev cycles because of this. It’s come in handy.
GamesBeat: Did you wonder if adding the “2″ after the name would hurt the market for this game, since sequels aren’t always as successful as the original?
Smedley: We thought about it. As we were making the transition of our games to free-to-play, we found there’s a large number of people at SOE that have a love affair with PlanetSide 2. I’m one of them. I’m a shooter player at heart. I prefer shooters to role-playing games (RPGs) on a personal level. We were gonna make a free-to-play version of the old one. As we started making that game, we said we can do way better than this with our new engine. So we just started doing it. It kinda came from nowhere, and now I think it’s going to be the biggest thing that we’ve launched since EverQuest. It’s feeling that good. If you’re a shooter player I urge you to give it a try. Judge it for yourself.
GamesBeat: And it’s free-to-play?
Smedley: Yeah. Completely free-to-play.
GamesBeat: It seems like this sort of game, then, is starting to get into serious, serious competition with the 60-dollar products and subscription products.
Smedley: Yeah. I think three or four years ago, free-to-play had this kind of connotation that maybe the quality level wasn’t there. You are definitely seeing free-to-play games at the premier level now. I certainly feel like we’re in the leading pack on that. We’ve got the quality, the visual fidelity, the feel of the shooter, it’s as good as any of the top-tier titles. And those games can’t have 2,000 players playing at the same time. I don’t mean like in instances, I mean 2,000 players in the exact same continent at the exact same time. We have no control over where they go. They could all converge on one base and wreak havoc if they want to. That’s fun.
GamesBeat: How close are you to launch?
Smedley: We are weeks away from starting the beta. In terms of launch, that’s going to be determined by how the beta goes. We’ve got a ramp-up planned for the beta, we’re going to start small and ramp up very fast. And then we’ll just see how it goes. We’ve taken our time doing this right, and we want to make sure we do the beta right.
GamesBeat: How are you doing smartphone and tablet integration?
Smedley: Now, you’ve heard of companion apps. Our is cooler, and here’s why. You can see all the statistics you have in the game, weapons, what kind of weapons we have, all the stuff you expect from a companion app, it’s kind of like a complete encyclopedia. But it also has community features for the game, so you can go and you can check out the videos, tweets, Facebook stuff, all that good stuff. You can do complete voice chat with people in the game. I was standing out in front of our booth yesterday, basically using it as an intercom. If your guys are in-game and they’re in a big fight and you’re at work, you can just say, hey, how’s the fight going? And what’s even cooler, there’s a map. We’re going to enable this thing…this is going to be like the hunt for Osama. It’s a map app, and what we’re going to be doing is allow players to fly a drone on their phone. And then if they have a high enough level in the game, they’ll be able to launch a drone strike. So gameplay out of your phone or your iPad, and it works on both iPhone or Android.