John Smedley, the outspoken game maker who shepherded Sony Online Entertainment's transformation into Daybreak Games last year, announced today a new company and a Kickstarter-backed open world role playing game powered by pixel art called Hero's Song.
It's been a wild couple of years for Smedley.
For two decades, Smed (as he's known by those who know him) called Sony Online Entertainment his home. That company was perhaps the PlayStation creator's oddest subsidiary, focusing on PC games like the EverQuest franchise and H1Z1 instead of Sony's homespun console.
Smedley is an outspoken public figure, a constant presence in the communities that form around the games that SOE created. His well-known presence gained him friends and enemies. The latter camp includes some from the hacking group Lizard Squad who once grounded a flight he was on, among other things.
Then, out of nowhere last February, came the announcement that SOE was no more. In its place stood Daybreak Game Company, the same studio with the same games and largely the same staff. Smedley was its CEO and president. The future looked bright.
Then, apropos of nothing public, Smedley stepped down from his position last July. At the time, Daybreak said that "Smedley will be taking some time off from the company for the near-term and transitioning to a different role to be determined."
Yesterday, he told us that wasn't happening.
Instead, Smedley founded Pixelmage Games last October with a new game in mind. He recruited the lead designer and co-creator of EverQuest, Bill Trost, the New York Times bestselling author Patrick Rothfuss and 10 others to create Hero's Song, an open world action role-playing game with 2D pixel art. It's hitting Kickstarter today, asking prospective players for $800,000 so the new studio can release the game this October, just nine months from now.
This week, we spoke with Smedley about his new company, his new game and why he left the company he'd spent so much of his career and life building to create something brand new.
John Smedley's story isn't just about hacking, but you can't understand the present without understanding what he's endured.
"I've also been swatted (multiple times) and had over 50 false credit applications submitted in my name and had to deal with the ramifications of what happens to your credit when this kind of thing happens," he wrote last year in a Reddit thread. "It's not good. And to top it all off they decided to submit false tax returns."
Smedley says that, although Daybreak employees and the investor that backed Daybreak, Columbus Nova Technology Partners, were supportive, he ultimately concluded that starting fresh was his best option.
"The bottom line is that whole sales process was a very lengthy and tough one emotionally," Smedley tells Polygon, "watching this company that I love, knowing that some of my friends are going to have to get cut, and it was tough. We'd gotten past all that, and I decided in July that it was the right time for me, and I started my new company."
He's referring to the most difficult part of SOE's transition to Daybreak, which necessitated a round of layoffs.
"It hurt like hell to cut people," he told us last year. "Most of the people we cut were very long-term employees. I'm talking about, in many cases, over 15 years. So, it hurt like hell."
Decisions like that wore on him. And combined with the hacking turmoil, which seemed poised to continue, he made another difficult decision. Instead of returning to Daybreak, he started working on a new company with a new game in mind. And that new game is something that combines a bunch of his interests, from Dwarf Fortress to the hardcore RPGs of old.
Starting fresh wasn't starting from scratch, in other words. He had a game in mind and people in mind to make it. And although he wouldn't be at the company he'd run for decades, he knew it was in a good position, and he was excited to try something different — something smaller.
"It's kind of like if I was a guitarist," Smedley tells Polygon. "This is a song I needed to play. That's what it feels like to me."
He didn't officially incorporate Pixelmage Games until last October, but Smedley says he was working on the company as early as last July, a month after leaving Daybreak. And the plan from the outset was to make a game he'd long been thinking about.
"I love the idea of super, super deep games."
"Hero's Song is a labor of love for me," Smedley says, "because I love the idea of super, super deep games — games where the superficial depth of hit points and the easy armor class, those things are taken to extreme levels. It's old-school RPG [mechanics], where if you die, your characters's dead — dead, dead, dead."
To help make the game, he recruited Patrick Rothfuss, an author he'd known for years. Years ago, Smedley says he bid on Rothfuss' time in a charity auction to read a fantasy novel manuscript Smedley had written. Rothfuss fit because Smedley wanted to make "a game where history matters." He likens Hero's Song to Dwarf Fortress, the esoteric PC game that builds a world rich in history before players ever begin to play.
And so, with the help of EverQuest creator Bill Trost, the three of them started to make a game that combined deep story — a world that gets established before anyone starts playing — and a 2D art style. Going 2D would allow them to concentrate their firepower on the world's AI, rather than fancy graphics. It's a trade-off, he's quick to admit, but one that players should see benefits in.
"Here's how it matters," Smedley says. "You choose the gods of your world, and then you click create. Once you choose those gods, the world is influenced by your decisions. So, if you choose the goddess of the wild … you're going to get elves as a consequence. Elves are one of the races that she forms. But let's say that you decide that the dwarven god is more powerful in this world, you could end up in a situation where the dwarves have wiped the elves out, and you won't even get elves as a choice in your character selection."
In other words, once Pixelmage creates the world — the landscape, the NPCs, the monsters — it creates a historical simulation and story for everything. Characters have history, lineage and skills, all of which will be important to players.
"You might end up picking Billy the one-armed dwarf."
"You might end up picking Billy the one-armed dwarf, because he lost his arm in the dwarven wars year ago, and that's who you end up playing," Smedley says.
On a practical level, Pixelmage would rather your CPU spend cycles crunching the evolving history of Hero's Song, instead of 3D graphics. That's the "conscious trade-off," he says of a game that was designed around deep story.
AN AGGRESSIVE SCHEDULE
Pixelmage is only three months old, officially, but plans to release its first game by the time it celebrates its first birthday this October. It seems like an aggressive schedule, but Smedley isn't quite ready to call it that. H1Z1, Daybreak's zombie-infused online action game, was out after only a year of work.
It's also doable, he says, because developers — made up in part by SOE veterans — have decades of experience they can use to create something new. And they're using Unity, the cross-platform development engine, so they could begin making the game immediately, not the engine that runs it.
This was all part of the plan, including today's announcement and the kickoff of the Kickstarter campaign. Smedley designed the business plan so that he raised $1 million from private investors. He's looking for an additional $800,000 from a community that he hopes to build around Hero's Song, which is a strategy that he employed while at SOE and Daybreak. Community's always been important to him and the games he oversees, and he wants to continue to solicit feedback and be a part of the community that his games create.
SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
It's not surprising that someone who spent so long at one company would use the lessons he learned in his new company. There is one thing he won't do, however.
"I'm done with microtransactions," Smedley says. "Finito. And I have a lot of nasty things to say about them, too."
Hero's Song will be $20, and that'll get players the whole game. He wants to do four content patches. He wants to do an expansion. But he wants the studio to concentrate on one title, and to give players what they want. Then, ultimately, he wants to move on to the next thing.
What he doesn't want to do, unlike what he did at SOE and Daybreak, is monetize the game constantly. It's not that he's against microtransactions. He's just tired of them.
"Microtransactions are a soul-crushing thing when you're making a game. Nobody likes to do this stuff. There's a myth that there's these cigar-chomping conversations that go on where we're trying to extract as much money as we can out of people. No. The truth is, we like our jobs. The company has to make money. But nobody makes games just because they have to. If you have to make games, it's because you can't do anything else. That's how I feel. But you're not getting into this business to make microtransactions. I just … eh. I'm tired [of them]."