Friday, 13 February 2015

Hope You Like Our New Direction: Daybreak Games

Yesterday I spent a considerable amount of time drafting and re-drafting a post about the ongoing situation at Daybreak. I never finished it because as I wrote more news kept coming in, almost all of it either reported or generated by Feldon of the invaluable EQ2Wire.

David Carey, a former producer and systems designer for Planetside2, himself now out of a job at Daybreak following the layoffs, posted a revealing and intriguing open letter on Reddit in which he explained, in most convincing fashion, why Columbus Nova does not deserve to be treated as the bad guy in all this:

"They are more like white knights than negative forces here. SOE needed a shake up/new direction, and CN provided that. They have done nothing but been gracious in their new ownership, and they went out of their way to make sure that Devs and support teams that got laid off were taken care of."

Before I'd had time to formulate my thoughts on that Feldon put up a no-holds-barred editorial dismantling SOE/Daybreak president John "Smed" Smedley's role in and version of events:

"You would think that Sony Online Entertainment president John Smedley would have sought bids from companies that had the best interests in mind for the long-term growth and survival of the company in mind. However you would be wrong. According to an anonymous source at SOE and verified by a source in the gaming industry, SOE turned down three serious offers to buy the company, with one deal falling through literally days before the papers were to be signed".

The editorial makes a number of incendiary claims and it drew an immediate response from Smed. After an exchange of emails Feldon posted a follow-up in which he quoted Smed directly :

"We absolutely made sure that taking care of our employees was the highest priority and this deal was by far and away the one that took care of people the best."

Feldon confirmed that "It is absolutely true that Columbus Nova honored severance packages for those who were laid off and so salaried employees have time to find a new job, most with several months not including unemployment."


That exchange between Feldon and Smed corroborates and confirms the latter part of what  David Carey had to say in the quote above but it doesn't address his opening gambit. A look at the (complete?) list of the individuals who were laid off as posted this morning by Azuriel at In An Age is more illuminating in that regard.

Leaving aside for the moment the degree to which the President of the company is, or should be, responsible for its failings and avoiding metaphors relating to ship's captains and samurai warriors, that list does indeed suggest something more like a new broom sweeping clean than the clearing of deadwood. The lay-offs appear to fall into three broad categories: Communication, Content and Direction.

Communication has long been something SOE found diffcult to manage effectively. There was a long history of aggressive and antagonistic communication going all the way back to  the confrontational styles of community reps Absor and Abashi. At one point things got so bad SOE had to close down their own forums because of the damage the negativity there was doing to recruitment of new customers.

That did get sorted out and the individuals who fronted those communication channels over the last few years were largely popular and well-liked. There is, rightly, a sense of loss within the community they cared for and a concern for their future. The tributes coming in for Ashlanne, Afista, Hats and especially Brasse (about whom even SynCaine felt compelled to say something nice) show that it wasn't any fault in their ability to do the job required of them - to speak to and on behalf of the playing customers - that lost them their positions.

Overall, however, and despite the efforts of willing and able people, communication between the company and its customers remained confused and confusing. SOE employed a lot of people to talk to us on a lot of channels and yet somehow clear messages never seemed to get through. Let's hope there are changes to the structural approach, how communication is handled at Daybreak in the future as a result of this re-organization, and that past problems are avoided.

Then there are the creators; the designers and developers who fill the games with things for players to do and for characters to use. The removal of so many of those people from EQ2 and PS2 suggests a bleak future for the creation of new content for those games. That, of course, does depend on whether their roles have ended or are simply vacant, to be refilled with new talent with fresh ideas. Unlikely, I know.


It also raises an uncomfortable question, which is this: just how much new content does a game like EQ2 actually need? EQ2 is already one of the most content-rich MMOs in existence. If anything it has too much content. Might it not benefit from some streamlining, with the money saved going towards better marketing aimed at bringing in new players who could enjoy what's already there, rather than endlessly building more attractions to amuse the increasingly jaded palates of the existing audience?

As for PS2, I don't claim to know much about it or its audience but isn't it a jump-in, jump-out, massive persistent shooter? Does that game model require regular additions of designer-created content or just a better reason for people to blow each other to atoms?

Finally we get to the real crux of the issue: Direction. The Future.

Supposedly Columbus Nova bought SOE at least in part because of their belief that new properties like EQNext and H1Z1 could become large, popular, commercially successful products. Let's focus on EQN and Landmark.

For eighteen months, in this corner of the blogosphere and elsewhere, people have been asking two questions: "What the heck is Landmark supposed to be?" and "When are we going to see some actual progress on EQN?". Feldon emphasizes just how long and unproductive the road to New Norrath has been:

"EverQuest Next has been a going concern at SOE since at least 2008, more likely 2007...If we are very conservative on our timing, that’s January 2008-December 2011 or four solid years of development thrown in the trash before the team started over with what we see now in Landmark and what we will eventually see in EQNext."

Dave Georgeson was the face of Landmark/EQN. He's a fine communicator and an enthusiastic and lively presence in any Livestream. He writes a good producer's letter and he brought some solid ideas to EQ2 in his tenure there. I'd be very interested to look at any MMO project he goes on to head up after this. Jeff Butler co-created Everquest and understands, if anyone does, what made that game work. He has a great, dry wit and is always good value in a panel discussion. Steve "Moorguard" Danuser was in charge of EQN's story. On his blog, Mobhunter, he's as optimistic as David Carey: "I poured my heart into the story for EQN, just as I did for Amalur before it. Norrath is in good hands, and I can’t wait to see what Daybreak achieves."


They represented the core of the team responsible for what EQN would become. They are all gone. And yet, for all their estimable qualities, after two years of selling the concept of EQN and Landmark to an initially willing and eager audience, what is their legacy? The footprint of a building game that might be playable for the ordinary, casual player sometime this decade but certainly not now and a lot of rather silly Round Table discussions along the lines of "What pelt markings would you prefer to see on the Kerran?".

As David Carey said "SOE needed a shake up/new direction". We all knew it. We've all been saying it. Now it might just be happening.

Everyone with a functioning heart feels for the individuals who've lost not only their jobs but almost certainly in most cases jobs they really loved and did well. Everyone playing the games is apprehensive, even fearful, about what this means for their virtual homes and families, their characters and their guilds. We all remember what happened to Vanguard and Free Realms.

Not everything has changed, of course. Smed still stands on the bridge, hands on the wheel, gazing to the horizon. Is he Richard Phillips or Captain Ahab? (I know. I said no captain metaphors. I lied). Terry Michaels, Steve Klug and Emily "Domino" Taylor are still driving EQN. Will they go on following the same road-map or tear it up to head off on a road trip all their own? Holly "Windstalker" Longdale and a number of familiar names remain at EQ2.  Does that mean business as usual or battened hatches and a bunker mentality?  

Feldon's right: it didn't have to be this way. This, though, is the way it is. Smed says he did what he did for his people but who are his people? His employees or his players? Could he have done better by both or did he have to make his own hard choice? And anyway, would we really have thanked him if he'd sold us to PWE? We sure didn't like it when he sold us to PSS1. Maybe he actually learned something from that.

Still, in the end, something had to give. The drift had to stop. And we are, as they say, where we are. Will this shake things up enough? Will we like the new direction? Will there even be a new direction? What happens next?

Ah, now that's the adventure!


21 comments:

  1. We are in a strange period in the life of the new company. A lot of people are saying things. Smed is out there saying things like "...the Everquest franchise is our lifeblood and we treat it with the respect it deserves." on Twitter while trying to convince us that Columbus Nova Prime is not "evil."

    And I am sure that Smed and Domino and others believe in what they are saying and are doing so with honest intent.

    However, while CN is not evil, it is, and must be, amoral in its outlook. How much money comes in and the sources which generate it will be under scrutiny. They are not going to back nostalgia or protecting Norrath or whatever if there is no money in it. So Smed can believe it all he wants, but he has to make the numbers to turn his intentions into reality.

    I saw Feldon on Twitter today expressing the hope that Dubious Goals Committee makes a bunch of money so that they can revive the EQII team and pour more effort into that. Among the possible outcomes, I have to think that one is very unlikely. You take money from your current products and you invest it in new products. You do not turn around and dump it into old products that do not have much in the way of growth potential. Norrath is a home to me, but with a 16 year old and a 10 year old version of the place, the days of growth are over. Both games will carry on. They are reported to be fairly inexpensive to operate day to day. However, at some point some new version of Windows or some required security upgrade will be more costly than the deemed value of the products and they will get shut down.

    Anyway, the future is not yet written, but a company like CN seems very unlikely to be interested in the past. And even Smed's words at the acquisition were about new things, Xbox and mobile and what not.

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    1. My instinct is that as far as the older games go they're no more and no less at risk than they were before the sale. If SOE hadn't been throwing good money after bad with both fists on Exciting New Projects these last few years, I would guess the two EQ games would have been quietly but meaningfully profitable. I bet DCUO makes good money too, although as a licensed IP who knows how much of that went to SOE? Smed recently said PS2 is now in profit (or some such phrase) and had they been devoting cash and resources there to do some of what Azuriel mentions below, who knows how much better still it might be doing?

      SOE appears to have been horribly mismanaged for years, something both you and I have often observed in relation to their endless sequence of Big Ideas, none of which they ever maintain or develop once the initial enthusiasm wears off. Whether CN have yet identified the people and processes responsible for that mismanagement, who can say? In my experience, having gone through this a couple of times in my working life, there's usually another change of direction and another round of lay-offs a year or so after the first, when it becomes apparent that there were more or different problems than those that were immediately obvious.

      What's your feeling on where this takes EQNext? In my opinion that's a project can hardly get any LESS viable than it is now and has been for the last, what, seven years. Almost any change or activity there would represent some kind of progress.

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    2. Well, again from the Twitter feed of Chairman Smed, I offer up this, "EQN has the largest development team at SOE. It is going to be more than ok."

      So we have that, though I would guess that EQN includes Landmark because of the link between the two, so there is already some potential dishonesty in there.

      And, if this is like any acquisition I have been through, CN's view of the company is still being guided by Smed and his team. They simply haven't been in control long enough, no matter how deeply they have looked at the books, to have been able to make an informed decision on anything like staffing or layoffs. This week was the elders of Carthage sacrificing their own in hopes of appeasing the gods. Scipio hasn’t yet made it to the gates, much less started talking about salting fields.

      But Smed will be under scrutiny. I have absolutely no doubt that he has a package that requires him to stay and be good and say positive things for the next 12 to 24 months in return for a nice cash out. There is even a possibility that, if he does a stellar job, he might be kept on. But his package no doubt also allows CN to sack him whenever they want, so long as they pay him his package before they send him on his way. And they will no doubt do that and bring in their own person soon or later unless Smed performs like a super star.

      All of which says to me that the “near future” release of EQN will have to be in the real world near future as opposed to the SOE Soon™ meaning of the phrase. The biggest dev team will need to bring home the big prize, so there is a lot of potential to screw this up. And if it drops and flops, I don’t think it will get the EQII level of “we can just fix this as we go for a few years.” It will be on to the next project, which will be something splashy on Xbox and nothing to do with Norrath.

      EQ and EQII will soldier on, since they make money. As I said, only some sort of tech iceberg, like a new version of Windows that requires a big rewrite to the client, will sink them. But new expansions? New content coming out as often as it does? I think that will be a lot more focused. Profits from the games will be going to fund new games, not to keeping staff building full blown expansions. There is going to have to be a Turbine-like coming to Jesus moment where they will have to stop trying to be everything to everybody and focus on what the people who pay the bills want. That will be those who signed up for Daybreak Access and whales in the cash shop. At least Player Studio keeps the cash shop stocked. At least that was one good projects in a sea of SOEmotes.

      I would not be surprised to see some resources spent on revamping Legends of Norrath and putting that out on mobile due to the press Hearthstone gets. Smed said at one point that it was possible. But there might be too many strings attached to that game to do anything but use the assets and start recoding from scratch, at which point it might just be better to simplify the world and kill it.

      All speculation, of course. My opening statement from the previous post still stands.

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    3. As I said in reply to Isey below, much as I've been a supporter of Smed in the past I think his time may be up. SOE were my favorite MMO developers but if I was to attempt a good, hard, objective look at the company I'd have to ask just what is it you've done for me lately? It's been, at best, two steps forward and one step back for quite a few years now and there have been extended periods that were more like one step forward and two back.

      No, difficult and unpleasant though all this is, as a customer and a player my gut feeling is that it had to happen sometime. Let's get it over with and see where we are after that.

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  2. While I tacitly agree with your premise regarding new directions being needed, the case for PlanetSide 2 is particularly bad. The "roadmap" for PS2 was to have border-worlds that connected each continent together, finally delivering on the promise of a metagame that mattered. But how is that possible without a base designer?

    To an extent more maps shouldn't matter for a shooter, but in PS2's case it's a rather poor substitute for a CoD or Battlefield-like experience. Having fights that meant something was supposed to be the game's schtick.

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    1. That makes sense. I would definitely be one of those needing a reason to be shooting people other than "it's fun to shoot people". On the other hand, by the sound of it it's not as though the previous team and management had made to much progress toward that end goal, even if the game is, finally, making money. Wait and see, I guess.

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  3. I had written a piece about whether or not of Smed was laid off with this group if people would feel more doom and gloom or less. Most sources I read (anecdotal - clear on this here!) seem to think that a true shakeup of SOE would require Smed to go. Since he didn't I believe it means way more bad before good.

    For example, if things WERE that bad, he was the boss, and if judging by comments above there is a disconnect with the President and the people funding his moves, it's best to get rid of HIM and get someone with an aligned vision that can be honest and open with the customers while doing his work.

    I wrote quite a bit about it but in the end I didn't feel knowledgeable enough to even speculate if the right thing to do is to fire Mr. Smedley. I don't have all the facts (nor can I OR will I) so I killed the piece. There are way smarter and more involved people writing about this than me.

    I just love my memories in EQ, and they'll stay around no matter what happens.

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    1. It was really hard to find an angle to get into this story. It's HUGE news and as someone who posts regularly on SOE games I felt I couldn't avoid it. I also wanted to get something substantive down. On the other hand, though, what is there to say? We all feel bad for the people who lost their jobs, most of whom seemed to be doing their best as far as we can tell, and none of whom will have hd any say in the outcome. On the other hand, can anyone who's been following SOE's development over the last half a decade or playing their games really say they were happy with how things were going?

      The hard part is going to come now: waiting to see how things turn out. I am more optimistic than I was a few days ago. Wilhelm's prognostications above sound convincing to me. I would be quite content to see development on the two older EQ games scaled back and for them to continue somewhere between maintenance mode and light development.

      Meanwhile, as far as EQNext goes, just about any change of direction or emphasis would be welcome. As things stood just before the takeover was announced I had about made up my mind that I wouldn't be playing EQNext other than in the most minimal "it's F2P so why not get a blog post or two out of it?" fashion. I don't think there's much Daybreak or CN can do to EQN that won't improve it from my perspective.

      Much though I've been a supporter of Smed all these years (and that's not been an easy road to travel) I do think maybe it's time he moved on. I'd love to hear he'd taken his payout and was having a couple of years off to write his autobiography. I bet he has some stories to tell!

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  4. H1Z1 does appear to be a hit on Steam though. And perhaps that is the future: MMO-ish type games without the full virtual world. They hook into an existing social network (Steam), allow small groups of friends to play together (say 2-5), but still have the feel and danger of an open world setting.

    And not coincidentally, 5 people is the standard MOBA team side, and the size of basic dungeons in MMORPGs, which, with group finders, are increasingly instanced anyways.

    So why not just bypass the whole virtual world apparatus altogether (as most people want to do anyways, judging by the popularity of group finders and MOBAs)? If this is the future, then on Smed's part this can be seen as a wise bet. After all, game studios, like movie studios, don't expect all projects to be hits, just enough to cover those that fail, pay salaries, and make the required profits.

    That leaves virtual worlds for the niche games, but with kickstarted games like Shroud of the Avatar and Camelot Unchained, that appears to be where the landscape is going anways.

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    1. Just following up my comment above on H1Z1. Thinking about it, it is actually a lot like what Blizzard did with WoW. Take what wasn't really that user friendly or polished before (EQ, MUDs), and make it more sociable and accessible for the masses.

      That appears to be exactly what H1Z1 is: a polished, accessible more sociable version of the survival shooter game.

      It's not a hit on the scale of WoW. However, with MMORPGs seemingly tapped out for the moment, there are a lot of new genres that could conceivably be given an MMO-treatment. Trion tried this with Trove (making Minecraft more group accessible). There are probably many more possibilities out there, and some could one hit one out of the park. It may be Smed, it might not be.

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    2. I'd tend to agree that full-blown virtual worlds are going to be very rare in the mass-market from now on. It does suggest something of a paradox, though, where the games requiring the largest, most expansive settings and expensive development are targeted at the smaller demographic, while the scaled-down versions are aimed at the masses. Not sure how that's going to work out economically. I guess we'll get quite a lot of quite small virtual worlds!

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    3. Doesn't that describe, pretty much, all consumer products? Entertainment, food, gear/toys, the lot. Roll that around for a sec...

      -- 7rlsy

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  5. I have absolutely no experience with any SOE MMO. Pretty much all I know about SOE is from reading blogs like yours and Wilhelm's. I am really only invested in EQN nowadays, since H1Z1 doesn't appeal to me and I have no desire to jump back in time to EQ/EQ2.

    I was quite excited by the vision of EQN, because of the tales told of how great SOE were at building vast, detailed worlds (EQ) and meaningful social systems (SWG) into their MMOs. I felt that they had a decent chance of getting enough right to deliver a truly next-gen MMO, especially with the Storybricks AI.

    But the first crack in that excitement appeared when talk surfaced of it being F2P. That sent shivers of foreboding down my spine - particularly after having just gone through the F2P abomination of ArcheAge. This acquistion, and all the layoffs, do not do anything to reassure me that EQN will get to release in any way similar to the original vision from a couple of years ago.

    Frankly, I will be shocked if Daybreak focuses most of their development efforts into bringing out EQN in a timely manner without skimping on quality. I foresee it either being released early as a highly monetised skeleton of an MMO, or languishing in development limbo for another year or two until CN gets fed up and cancels it.

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    1. I would be quite surprised if EQN ends up being any kind of "virtual world" worthy of the name. I'd settle for an entertaining, playable game with a Norrathian setting at this stage.

      I have to say, though, that I have never been particularly interested in the supposed USPs of Next - the voxels and destructability, the heroic movement and parkour, the advanced Storybricks AI. I am fairly sure, given the number of times they have started over already, that we are lumbered with that version now but for my taste I'd be more than happy if they dumped all the gimmicks and just made a traditional EQ3.

      Of course, it was always the Norrath lore and pretty much only the Norrath lore that made it an MMO I wanted to play anyway. Frankly, without the EQ name attached I doubt I would have paid it any notice at all. The rest of it was just stuff I knew I'd have to put up with to explore another version of Norrath.

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  6. On Reddit I saw someone refer to the old Glassdoor reviews for SOE, which I thought were quite interesting in this context. Obviously these things tend to be written by disgruntled employees and need to be taken with a grain of salt, but that doesn't mean it's not interesting to see what they complain about, and "too much staff lacking competence and doing too little work" was definitely a theme. In fact, one review suggested that they could fire up to 75% of all employees and it would only improve the company's productivity... Hyperbole for sure, but I still thought that it cast recent events in a slightly different light.

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    1. And on a completely off-topic note: Would you consider changing the "visited link" colour in your blog's theme? Dark grey on a medium blue background is just completely illegible to me...

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    2. For me too! I spent hours trying to change it back when I started the blog and eventually had to give up. If there's some easy way of doing it that I'm missing, please let me know and I'll change it right away!

      On the too many people doing too little work thing, I have to say that in both the similar situations I've been in where the company I was working for was taken over by another, that would not have been an entirely inaccurate observation of the status quo ante. As far as SOE was concerned, even if everyone was 100% competent and 100% productive you might still question what those competences were being directed on and what commercial ends the productivity was leading to.

      A little more focus probably wouldn't go amiss.

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  7. Hm, on my Blogger blog I go to Templates > Customise > Advanced, which gives me all kinds of options to edit fonts and text/link colours. I do believe that different templates can give different options here though.

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    1. Thanks! I fiddled around with that and it kind of works. It doesn't seem to change the actual color of the link after it's been clicked on - it now seems to underline it in whatever color I pick (white is what I settled on) and then leave it that color even after I visit it. In the comments it now seems to leave the link unchanged altogether. Is it looking like that at your end? Anyway, it's an improvement so I am leaving it like that for now. I changed my margins to a non-Blogger-approved setting a couple of years back and ever since I can't use Blogger preview at all and certain other things don't work as you'd expect. I like how it looks though so I am loathe to go messing around with it - it's probably going to stop working one of these days when Google changes something anyway!

      Also I added two of your four blogs to the blogroll. Apologies for not doing that sooner. I have always had a policy of adding the blogs of people who comment here to the blogroll (assuming they have relevant blogs) but I have gotten rather lax about it of late. I must go through that blogroll and thin it out too!

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    2. A visited link is now showing, for me, as white. Looks better here (updated Firefox).

      -- 7rlsy

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    3. Yes, that's much easier on the eyes, thank you! And thanks for the blog roll honours too. :)

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