This week the news broke that John Smedley was “leaving” Amazon Games in San Diego. It was rumored that he was working on an unannounced sci-fi MMORPG. Smedley was there for 6 years and he brought with him many ex-EverQuest developers such as Bill Trost, Steve Klug, Ryan Barker, Paul Molina, Paul Carrico, and Michelle Butler wife of former EQ producer Jeff Butler.
Smedley is a controversial figure in the MMO world. Although he was the main person responsible for spearheading the development of the ground-breaking EverQuest fantasy virtual world back in 1996, he has a checkered past with a long litany of failures which include the cancellation of Free Worlds and the ambitious EverQuest Next.
Without EverQuest, there would be no billion-dollar franchise called World of Warcraft. Whatever you think about John Smedley, he deserves a helluva lot of credit for this.
After hearing the news, a thought crossed my mind: What will John Smedley do next?
I would not be surprised if he returns to the MMORPG that started it all: EverQuest.
Currently, the EverQuest franchise is like a ship without a captain. A few years ago, Darkpaw Games was created by Daybreak as an entity where all EverQuest products are consolidated into one studio. Darkpaw got off to a great start under the leadership of Holly Longdale. Eventually, Holly left Darkpaw in order to produce the World of Warcraft Classic MMORPG at Blizzard Entertainment. At the time, I speculated that Daybreak had shelved their plans to create an updated and modernized version of EverQuest and that is what caused Holly to look for greener pastures.
After Holly moved to Blizzard, Darkpaw replaced her with Jennifer Chan. Chan has been a major disappointment at the helm of Darkpaw. After claiming she would “get to know the community” she has barely said a word on the official player forums and instead dictates a few producer’s letters every year to community managers that post them for her.
Chan is a complete dud.
Jennifer Chan has no real vision for the EQ franchise and it shows. People who run studios need to wear many hats. But, the most important role is that of a product evangelist. Product evangelists need to be actively using the product they are in charge of. They need to exude excite genuine passion and infectious excitement to the community and beyond. Chan fails this test on every account.
Studio heads also need to be visionaries. They need to chart a course for the future of the franchise. Jen Chan has not shared her aspirations for the EQ franchise with the community. The problem is that many of the veteran developers at Darkpaw just as bad or worse than Chan. They’ve made no effort to engage loyal EQ players in meaningful dialogue. Names like Alan VanCouvering, Edward Harding, Adam Bell, and Jared Kate come to mind as being completely missing in action from any substantive community involvement.
When is the last time anyone at Darkpaw gave a public lecture at GDC or attended a gaming convention promoting EverQuest and MMORPG design?
When is the last time anyone at Darkpaw has done a serious post-mortem on any of their expansions?
Darkpaw Games seems to be like a retirement home for old developers where they can coast and put in the least amount of effort for the maximum return. The studio is like a hospice where the franchise is barely clinging to life and draining the existing patients (players) of their last remaining wealth before they shake off this mortal coil.
This sounds crazy but I think the EverQuest franchise needs John Smedley to run Darkpaw.
Already a thread about the news that Smedley had left Amazon Games was created and promptly deleted on the official EverQuest forums. This suggests that something may be afoot.
From a professional game development perspective, I think he’s made a lot of bad decisions over the years that hurt the franchise. During his tenure at SOE, the studio was like a revolving door. Brad McQuaid and Jeff Butler were so pissed off at SOE that they left the studio and formed their own and took many talented developers with them.
Another problem is that Smedley never learned the lessons of World of Warcraft and failed to leverage those lessons to change the culture at SOE to make better games. Those lessons are that focusing on the new player experience is vital, polish matters, releasing games only when they are ready, and the importance of studio culture to facilitate maximum creativity. In addition, SOE was a toxic place to work and it was rife with nepotism and cronyism.
Deserved or not, Smedley is hated by many people in the EverQuest community. I’m shocked when I see the vitriol felt by players who believe he screwed them. But to me, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. Smedley could not do worse than what Chan is doing right now. The EverQuest franchise needs a visionary — not an absentee custodian.
John has the experience and the force of personality to sell the idea of a new EverQuest. He is probably the only person in the MMOPRG industry that has the clout to convince Enad Global 7’s CEO Ji Ham to invest in the future of EQ. Much of the work has already been done in pre-production. All that is needed is the will and the resources.
The only way I could support John Smedley returning to Darkpaw is if he is spearheading a new version of EverQuest that stays true to its unique value proposition. That’s the only play that makes sense. There is no way he’ll return to manage the decline of EQ as is being done by Enad Global 7 and Jen Chan. He would have to be given a noble commission and a new EQ fits the bill perfectly.
Smedley has a lot to apologize and atone for. The debacle of EverQuest Next is still seared into the minds of thousands of people who traveled to Las Vegas for the grand reveal and those who subsequently supported it. Creating a new EverQuest that stays true to the fundamentals that made it revolutionary back in 1999 but combines modern quality-of-life conveniences, updated graphics, and user interface refinements would be a recipe for success and would rehabilitate Smed’s impoverished street cred. Heck, I’ll even create the pitch deck free of charge.
I doubt that John Smedley wants to bow out of the video game industry as a loser and a failure. What better way to redeem yourself and end your career than with a successful, new version of EverQuest? If anyone can pull this off, it just might be Smed.