A glimpse into Sony Online Entertainment

Three weeks ago I made a spur of the moment decision to spend some time in San Diego during my vacation. After I booked my trip (Air miles + PriceLine.com = about $300 for flight plus three nights at a four star hotel), I decided to try to make visiting Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) a reality and the next day I had an appointment to meet Ashlanne during my trip. I was so ecstatic that I did a little dance at my desk (my co-workers thought I had finally gone insane). 

SOE LobbyOne week later, I took a cab from my hotel in the Gaslamp Quarter to the SOE office. I was paranoid about being late and nervous as if I was going to an interview. I arrived half an hour early and fidgeted in the lobby while waiting. Ashlanne was ready for me a few minutes later. 

First we visited the Community Team’s area. I met several members of the community team (advance apologies if I get names mixed up!). Zatozia’s cube is decorated like a torture chamber. I’d seen at least one picture before but it didn’t do it justice (I regret not snapping a couple of my own). 

Zatozia’s neighbor (Kiara?) gave me a kick-ass EQ2 hat (it actually fits!) and when she learned I am from the Seattle area she offered to trade me places. She was enjoying the abnormally cool weather in San Diego and wanted more of it. I offered to trade her jobs too, and even said I’d do her reports for her. Zatozia vetoed the idea (boo). I briefly met Anmerys, who was showing Sylvia Liu (this year’s G.I.R.L. scholarship winner) around the office, SOE Test Teamfollowed by a pair of interns. 

We walked by the network operations center. It was truly impressive. The server room (which houses only test servers) made the server room in the office where I work look tiny. It was like comparing a pint of beer to a full keg. The network monitoring room was equally impressive (graphs galore!). 

Next we walked through the area where the test team sits. It was impressive; there were some areas (like the picture on the right) that were fairly open, and others that were more cubed off. SOE Play Test RoomIn total, it looked like there were desks for at least 50 people in the area. 

One of the most interesting pieces of the tour for me was seeing just some hints to the detail that goes in to play testing a game. Play testing is a step in the testing process when people who have had no exposure to the game are brought in to try it. I believe play testing usually happens before BETA testing. 

Ashlanne explained that SOE uses play testers at all levels of experience to ensure that their games are as user-friendly for experienced gamers as they are for people who have very little computer experience. The room that SOE has dedicated to play testing has four work stations. Each is set up with three cameras; one focused on the keyboard, one on the mouse, and one on the player’s face. The testing is watched from another room where all of the developers gather to view the testing in progress and watch for places where the player may have trouble. 

Tanarus Server (1998)

 

At one point while we walked through the GM area, and the development and design areas we came upon SOE’s first game server. It was almost as big as a refrigerator and less powerful than my mom’s outdated home computer. Hanging in the same area was the EverQuest time line banner from last year’s Fan Faire. The banner is signed by players of the various titles that take place in Norrath(EverQuest, EverQuest II, Legends of Norrath, EverQuest Online Adventures). 

Artist's Break Room

 

My favorite part of the tour was walking through the area where the artists sit. There were original concept art oil paintings and prints on the walls and people working on all sorts of drawings, paintings, and digital character modeling. It was all beautiful. I was especially thrilled to see some of Gnobrin‘s sketches (Gnobrin works part time on the Community team and interns part time on the art team). SOE has some great artists. 

I am still new to EQ2 so I don’t know much of the lore, and I don’t recall the names of the characters in these paintings (Ashlanne named them as I was looking). (Can anyone give me their names? Pretty please?) 

I had an excellent time when I visited SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo, but visiting SOE was definitely the highlight of my trip. The work environment was even better than I expected. Walking through the offices, you knew you were surrounded by geeks and gamers. People had their cubes decorated, it was dark (you’ll never see that in a normal office environment), and everyone seemed genuinely happy. It is rare to see people having so much fun with their coworkers and truly enjoying their work. Now I need to figure out what role I could fill at a company like SOE. 

Ashlanne – Thank you so much for showing me around and making me feel welcome and graciously answering all of my questions. 

A few tips in case you are thinking about asking for your own SOE studio tour: 

  1. Make contact well in advance of when you’d like to visit, and be flexible. SOE won’t do tours for people who show up out of the blue. The person giving the tour has other duties to attend to as well, so they need to be able to plan ahead.
  2. If you are staying downtown and taking a cab, plan on spending about $50 each way on your cab ride. The SOE offices are a bit north of Miramar, so if you are in that general area a bus or taxi might be more feasible. (Yes, really. If I’d known that San Diego traffic was more like Seattle than LA, I would have gotten a rental car and saved a bunch of money.)
  3. The tour takes about an hour.
  4. SOE has a Block Party during San Diego Comic-Con (that is this weekend – Saturday July 24th) during which anyone can stop by and meet the SOE staff, and tour the facilities (you don’t need to ask in advance to go on this tour).

One comment

  1. Sounds like you had a blast! Those pictures are making me drool with jealousy. I think I could spend days in the artists’ realm studying the various sketches, extrapolating their significance based my prior experience with concept art.

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