An Interview With SOE's Laura Naviaux

We hopped on the phone to talk with Laura Naviaux, Senior Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing at Sony Online Entertainment, about SOE's big ambitions in the free-to-play world.

ZAM: It's definitely something to keep an eye on for the next few years. When Free Realms was launched, it was one of the first titles where SOE explored a new microtransaction model alongside creating a game for an entirely different demographic. Any lessons you've learned in the past two years with Free Realms that have helped you push forward things like EverQuest II and DCUO's shift to free-to-play?

Laura: I think it was primarily the appetite players have for virtual items. Obviously this model has been exploding in popularity and growth throughout the industry, but it was interesting to see what people wanted to buy in what categories. It really broadened our thinking about what would make our games more fun and engaging. Obviously there are a lot of differences between the kids market and the more adult market, but it's fun to see how the parent gets involved in the purchasing decisions. Game cards sell in much higher volumes towards kids because they work as great stocking stuffers, and they're a good way for parents to keep control over budgets.

The other thing is that we want to make sure our games are engaging and fun, and throughout all of our experiences. People who play but don't necessarily spend are just as valuable to our company's ecosystem, the player base, and the community. It's not necessarily all about getting people to spend, and I think it's more about getting people to have fun and to play; the spending will come naturally. This is also a healthier relationship for us to have with our players because they're buying what they want. I think that's what's amazing about the free-to-play model; we're not telling anyone what to buy, we're just offering a vast variety of things, and people can choose to explore those options on their own terms.

ZAM: On that note, have there been any surprising microtransaction trends in EverQuest II?

Laura: Well, we knew that mounts would be popular, but we didn't think they were going to be almost 25% of our revenue! There are a few things that created more volume than we necessarily thought. The expansion - Age of Discovery - is selling tremendously well. There are also a few things that come up on the boards where we go, "Oh yeah, that'd be cool to add in!" Colors are another big thing. Often times we'll make something and someone will say "Oh, I'd really love this in another color!" Nine times out of ten, we can accommodate that!

ZAM: Speaking of accommodating player's needs: With traditional expansion packs, a lot of content is premeditated and executed, whereas with this microtransaction model, you seem to be able to get those smaller requests done much faster, like color. Do you think pursuing this model has given you more fluidity in dealing with your players?

Laura: Yeah, I'd definitely say that's true. I think what's awesome about Sony Online Entertainment and the EverQuest II team in particular is that they're really nimble. We've got roadmaps that span years and we have a pretty good idea of what we're going to be building in 2012, but we can still accommodate quick requests, and I think the team is very passionate about what they're making. I just don't think there's any other game out there that has the heritage and community of EverQuest II. I think it's about creating this larger ecosystem where we can work on features down the road while also accommodating quick requests that can happen in a week or two.

ZAM: With overall development, has this affected or changed the development approach of SOE, aside from these small requests? It used to be hitting these big expansion packs while doing month to month small changes, but has this transition changed how you see MMO development?

Laura: Hmmm, that's an interesting question! I definitely feel like the whole video game industry has become more dynamic. We're not putting things in a box and hoping they sell anymore. We've naturally had to become way more nimble to be able to engage with our customers while providing what they want. I think there are a lot of offerings out there, but what's paramount to us is keeping our players happy and giving them what they're asking for. I think the whole industry has shifted toward being more customer-centric while being able to react in real-time, as opposed to these longer development cycles that end with putting something into a box and hoping somebody likes it.

ZAM: There's a big focus here on giving what customers want, but are there any items that you, on principal, won't put in the microtransaction store?

Laura: We've had that dialogue with our players all throughout the transition, and I think we plan on continuing that dialogue. Nobody knows where this is heading, and I know there are some items that a portion of the player base wants while more traditional players don't think belongs in EQ2, so we'll continue keeping the discussion open. We've even committed to doing some polls to see what the players think. I don't think that anybody wants a game where you can outright buy power that it makes the game unfair and un-fun, and that is a line we don't want to cross. But there are a lot of shades of grey in there, and that's something we want the players to determine.

ZAM: Alright, last question here that I have to make an attempt at... Do you have any... hints as to what PlanetSide 2 wants to do with SOE's vision of free-to-play?

Laura: I would love to chat with you about that [laughs], but it's definitely something we'll be sharing in the near future. We're pretty excited about what we've come up with, but rest assured that it's based on the same theme about giving players options and being Free-to-Play your way.

ZAM: Well... I tried! Thanks so much for this interview, Laura!

Laura: Thanks for your time! It's an exciting topic for us and the industry!

Christopher "Pwyff" Tom, Editor-in-Chief.
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