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Video game developers graduate to kid titles

Some who once made gory games to entertain themselves have grown up and broadened their sense of fun with titles their kids can enjoy.

March 23, 2009|Alex Pham
  • Connor McPherson tests the game Free Realms at Sony offices in San Diego.
Connor McPherson tests the game Free Realms at Sony offices in San Diego. (Christine Cotter / Los Angeles…)

SAN DIEGO — It's no coincidence that most of the blockbuster video games of the last two decades have been gorefests and war simulations. Their creators were single guys in their teens and 20s whose all-night coding sessions were fueled by Doritos and Mountain Dew.

John Smedley was one of them. In the mid-1990s, he helped make the trailblazing online game EverQuest, a slash-'em-up fantasy world that only a Dungeons & Dragons-obsessed geek could love.

But Smedley has grown up, and so has the industry.

Now 40, he is broadening his definition of fun and putting the finishing touches on a game that he wants his four children to be able to play. Free Realms, expected to go live on the Web in early April, reflects a level of maturity that's starting to change the nature of games now bursting onto the market.

"The cliche of game developers 20 years ago is that of socially inept young men who sleep under their desks," said Billy Pidgeon, an analyst with IDC who worked as a game producer in the late 1980s and early 1990s. "Many of those have now climbed out from under their desks and started families."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, March 24, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Online games: An article in Monday's Business section about online games said EverQuest was rated "Mature," meaning only adults are supposed to play. It is rated "Teen," meaning it's suitable for players 13 and older.

Smedley and the San Diego company he runs, Sony Online Entertainment, are prime examples. Sony Online has gone from creating Cash Money Chaos, a bang-bang game released in 2006 that features guns, girls and gold, to Free Realms.

Instead of death, blood and foul language, Free Realms has tutu-wearing goblins, puppies and snow angels. Like EverQuest, the game has adventures, but these quests involve exploration rather than combat.

"I wanted to make a game that would be fun for my kids," Smedley said. "But I also wanted to make it safe enough so parents like my wife wouldn't have to worry about them."

Smedley is in a good position to reinvent the nature of virtual worlds. He pioneered the game genre. As a computer science student at San Diego State, Smedley spent $600 (and hundreds of hours) a month playing an online game called CyberStrike. It was so much money that he had to quit college after 18 months to get a job developing games for Alien Technology Group.

In 1993, he shifted to Sony. Three years later, he proposed the idea for EverQuest, which could be played simultaneously by thousands of players in a lush graphical environment. It was a radical departure from the crudely rendered, text-based online games that existed then. Six years later, EverQuest was released.

Its creators hoped the game would break even within two years by garnering 70,000 players paying $10 a month. They doubled that in six months.

Today, these figures pale in comparison with the 11.5 million people who play World of Warcraft, an online game released in 2004. But in 1999, the EverQuest flood nearly ground San Diego's Internet traffic to a halt.

"John really helped invent this genre," said Geoff Keighley, executive in charge of game content at MTV Networks.

Players loved EverQuest, sometimes a little too much. Some clocked more hours in the game than they did for work, leading people to call the game "EverCrack." There was also a lot of bullying. Smedley hired hundreds of employees to constantly patrol it, resolve conflicts and banish players who got out of hand.

The game is rated "Mature," which means only adults are supposed to play. That doesn't prevent teens from finding their way in, often by getting permission from their parents. Smedley once took a call from an outraged parent who demanded to know why his son was banned.

"I told him his son used bad language," Smedley said. "The parent insisted that his son never cursed. So I pulled up the logs of what his son had typed in the game and e-mailed it to him right then. He read it and said, 'I'll take care of this.' "

The incident taught Smedley to be more aware of what his own kids were doing online.

Instead of a pool table and a pinball machine, the game room of Smedley's San Diego-area house has half a dozen high-end computers, each with a 30-inch monitor.

One Sunday afternoon last year, Catherine, 11, fiendishly typed away at her keyboard, constructing an online story involving a unicorn in a game called Neopets. His two younger girls, Emily, 9, and Rose, 7, clicked through pages filled with cute animals in another online game called Webkinz. And Patrick, 14, toggled between EverQuest and World of Warcraft.

Smedley peered behind Catherine's shoulder, marveling at the story she was creating with her online friends.

"There's a whole subculture of kids her age who do nothing but write stories," Smedley said. "We added a similar feature to Free Realms just because of what Catherine does in this game."

Other developers at Sony have also recruited their own children, bringing them into the company's test lab to get input. Some of the characters in the game are named after those young testers.

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