In its quest for a multi-billion dollar digital business Electronic Arts hasn't been shy about spending. The social developer Playfish, for example, cost the veteran publisher $275 million, and The Sims Social is the most convincing return on that investment to date. Indeed, The Sims seemed a natural fit for a social network from the very beginning, but the combination of that potential with the sterling reputation of the IP made it a truly daunting prospect.
In this interview, John Earner, general manager of European studios at Playfish, talks about the most ambitious project in the studio's history, finding a new direction for social games, and why brands will play an important role in the future of the market.
Q: I visited Playfish shortly after the EA deal went through, and nobody was ready to talk about how EA's stable of IP would be used. To me, The Sims seemed like the obvious place to start for a number of reasons, but it took far longer than I expected for a game to emerge. Why is that?
John Earner: That's a good question. The time taken to develop the game... was in the ballpark of a year, but from my studio's perspective we were already well under way on another game when we got acquired, and this is an extremely daunting project. I think we all felt that, as good as the opportunity The Sims created was, it was a hard game to start with.
A story that I think is appropriate is that Maxis didn't start with The Sims either: they did SimCity and SimFarm and other variations that are a lot simpler to simulate than human life. It's a tough thing to make, and the design of it - it's a pretty open-ended game, and yet the Facebook platform is not very generous towards open-ended games.
Very high production values required, very large team required. The studio that built it, nearly two years ago when EA acquired us, that was 25 people total working on several projects. The team on The Sims Social alone is now up to 70 people, so it took a huge levelling-up of the way we do business.
Q: When social games are criticised it is often on the grounds of a lack of variety and depth. Does an IP like The Sims offer an opportunity to bring something new to the space?
John Earner: I think it does, and I think the proof is in the pudding in terms of the game's success. If you categorise - I'm gonna take some grand luxuries here - just put social games into three categories. There's a category of games like Bejewelled Blitz that are evergreen; poker games are in this category, three-across games are in this category. You know what I'm talking about - they do well, and with Bejewelled PopCap has figured out how to monetise them beautifully.
There's a second category of games like Pet Society, FarmVille, FrontierVille, and now The Sims Social. These games are generally isometric, they're certainly builder games; they give you a big sandbox and you get to build stuff. And I'd say that there's a third emerging category - what people call "mid-core" - that are basically content with fewer than a million players, they are very immersive, more niche, and they command higher ARPUs (average revenue per user) because their players are more hardcore.
When EA acquired us, we had 25 people total working on several projects. The Sims Social alone is now up to 70 people, so it took a huge levelling-up of the way we do business
In my mind The Sims is an apex centre of the second category, in that what we've done with The Sims is open up a second dimension in which we can evolve the game. It's excellent as a decoration game, and that has mass appeal - you're building a home, which every human can relate to, and women, in particular, love. But with the relationships feature it is genuinely social in a way that very few social games every have been.
We often talk about being social, but often what we mean when we say that is that the game sends communications to your friends - requests or notifications or whatever. But with The Sims Social's relationships feature, where my Sim can date yours, or be best friends with your Sim, or become enemies with your friends, it's a genuine social game.
This means that as a game we can progress in two dimensions that others can't. First, I think it's the best decoration game on Facebook, and second, I think it's the only legitimate relationships game on Facebook. So it makes the game very special.
Q: Is the relationship feature representative of a larger trend in the social gaming space? Is The Sims a pioneer in that respect?
John Earner: The relationship feature, or rather the idea of making these social games truly social, that is a trend, but it is a past due trend. We have always talked about it, our competitors have always talked about it, we're finally delivering on it and its working. So I think the big development here that The Sims provided was an "A-ha" that true social genuinely works and therefore people should invest more into it, whereas I think previous to The Sims there was a sentiment that true social was an ambition, but one that doesn't seem to pay off.
People now realise that there's something to this, and our data, by the way, bears that out. The relationship feature in The Sims is one of the highest engaged features we've got, and people are continuing to engage with it well after two months into the game.
Q: Essentially your task was to deconstruct and then reconstruct the experience of The Sims. How do you go about a task like that? What's the first step?
John Earner: We began with what we call a "technical feasibility study." Can you recreate the isometric experience of looking at Sims that have some intelligence of their own? That creates some CPU requirements, for example, it creates a lot of art challenges and technical challenges. Is it even feasible?
We spent a month just proving that, yeah, in fact we could make little Sims move around houses that you could decorate, and those little Sims could have some autonomy of their own. Once we knew that was feasible then we began the deconstruction process, and we worked very closely with the guys at EA Play, which is now called Maxis; people that worked on The Sims through to The Sims 3 and continue to work on Sims projects to this day.
They brought around 11 years of experience on this franchise to the table, answering a lot of the questions that we were encountering for the first time. They also have a lot of development experience on large-scale teams; they've seen what a 100 person dev team looks like, they've had a lot of practice operating on that kind of scale.
What we bought to the conversation was platform expertise; we understand how social games work, what has been successful in the past, what this player likes. If you imagine a Venn diagram, we have expanded the definition of The Sims' player-base. The majority of our players have never played a Sims game before, and we know a lot about that audience.
Lastly, we have a lot of data, and we have a quantitative aspect of our DNA that asks the question, 'How does a player really engage in the game? What do they really like to do? They tell you what they like to do, but what do we actually see and observe in the data?'
We have expanded the definition of The Sims' player-base. The majority of our players have never played a Sims game before
Q: Was it necessary to sacrifice certain parts of The Sims experience to make it work in the context of a social network?
John Earner: Reconstructing it required both sides to make compromises on what they generally viewed as 'norms'. For our part, we were making a game far more ambitious with a lot more features ready on day one than what we considered the norm. For the Play label's part, they had to depart with some of the things that had become accepted canon with the Sims franchise.
But what we put out is a great first step, and what I'm really optimistic about is - as great as The Sims Social is - we have many renewable opportunities to continue to bring this franchise to the Facebook platform in different variations, just as you've seen The Sims do with expansion packs. We can do that by continuing to add on to The Sims Social over the coming years, but also when the sort of thing we want to do is a significant enough departure from [The Sims Social], we can make a new game.
So that gives us a huge runway over the next few years to bring The Sims to Facebook in a massive way.
Q: Were those omissions largely due to technical problems, or was it the audience? Is there a limit to the amount of complexity the average social gamer will accept?
John Earner: It's both. I'll give you an example of a technical challenge: it would be very technically challenging for us to have, on day one, multiple Sims that you owned.... So you create a guy, a girl, and they have a kid, and that entire experience takes place in a single player game; that was technically very challenging for us.
The envelope as to what we can pull off technically changes every day, but in our game when you have more than three little Sims on the screen you really start to encounter performance issues that are overwhelming. When you consider that the game is social by nature, if each of us has three Sims the moment that I visit you the whole game begins technically to break down.
On the design side we faced a particular challenge around one question: are you the Sim, or are you some sort of demi-god, because that's classic Sims canon? In our game, even though we designed it so there's a separation between what you want and what the Sim wants, players really find themselves adopting their Sims persona far more than in other Sims games, because the relationships they choose to engage with are with their friends.
Right now, the biggest limitation in social games is on the design side. By the time you get to the point where you want to make something that's technically more challenging than, say, Flash allows for, you're probably designing a game that's more hardcore than the audience. On the flip side, it is very easy to make a game just a few steps too complicated, and in doing so you lose your entire user-base.
Q: A future where social gamers demand more complex design is far from inevitable. You need games to offer that before demand can be created. How long will it take for a transition like that to take place?
John Earner: First of all, I agree with you - you need product to make it happen. The second thing is that I think it's more accretive than it is a transition.
I have a hard time imagining the kind of player - and I'm one of them, by the way - that really likes the hardcore first-person shooter experience, like Battlefield 3, I really can't imagine that player-base going away. I can imagine them downloading the game rather than going to a retail store to buy the game. I can imagine purchasing behaviour skewing more and more toward purchasing in the game as opposed to up-front. But the notion that they're going to stop playing games that require intense hardware - whether it's an Xbox 360 or a gaming PC - is crazy. I think that the numbers speak extremely loudly.
A minority of our players are core Sims players, but they are and will continue to be a critical part of our ecosystem because they were the first adopters
This business is getting bigger, not smaller. I just think that what's happening is, in parallel to that, Facebook and social graphs are expanding the audience of gamers, and that's going to create opportunities to teach people who never thought about playing hardcore games, didn't have the money to have that intense hardware, or the technical understanding to figure it all out, we're going to create opportunities for those guys to like core games as well.
Q: So do you expect the traffic to go both ways? I imagine that you've had a decent number of existing Sims players trying The Sims Social, but do you expect to create new players for other Sims products with your game?
John Earner: Well, on October 20 the latest Sims 3 expansion pack, Pets - which is historically one of the most popular - launched, and we're doing things to push people towards that. It's early days in the relationship between us and Maxis, but if you buy The Sims 3: Pets you get stuff in [The Sims Social]... and you can imagine in a year, two years from now that our understanding of our players will be much more expansive.
Whereas today we understand our players and Maxis understands theirs, in a year's time that CRM (customer relationship management) database is going to be the same thing. And at that point I very much can imagine pushing people around all of the franchises. It's not just gonna be a funnel from us to them; it'll also be a funnel from them back to us.
We certainly see a lot of promise in owning the player and the franchise versus focusing on the hardware. It seems to us that if you can get a player into the concept of playing a Sims game, you can get them playing Sims games on all of the different devices they own.
Q: Who are your players right now? Is it mainly existing social gamers?
John Earner: When you've got 40 million people playing your game every month, by definition the majority of our players do not play The Sims on console. In the early days, one of the reasons our game grew so quickly was that it was well designed to be viral, but at the same time people recognised the brand. They had played it, or their brother had played it, or they had seen a poster in a store two years ago, that kind of thing.
We definitely benefited in the early days with a quick surge of early Sims players and a bunch of other people recognising the brand... But people who joined from, say, week two to month one tended to be people who had not played [The Sims] before. At this point a minority of our players are core Sims players, but they are and will continue to be a critical part of our ecosystem because they were the first adopters.
Q: If nothing else, it indicates what a strong brand can bring to social gaming, which is still dominated by its own, unique IPs.
John Earner: Yeah. It has been a total proof of concept that a good brand with mass appeal combined with a well designed social game works. We saw orders of magnitude higher click-through rates on every type of communication that we sent out, whether it was e-mail or a fan feed or a request. It said that The Sims imbued players with a sense of trust or knowledge that this is a high quality game.
But the truth is that the brand can only get them in the game; it can't keep them there. We have seen brands enter Facebook gaming and fail before, and I think the reason is that they had the brand but they didn't have the sticky game.
Q: When I last visited Playfish the feeling I got was that there was more value to the company being positioned as the brand rather than any individual games, but The Sims Social is a different prospect. Is the role of brands in social gaming about to change?
John Earner: Brands were less important two years ago. Not that a brand wouldn't have helped two years ago, but I don't think you needed it. Now, there are ten times as many people making games, Facebook is a less viral environment, and the quality has gone up. So brands are starting to do what they do in other markets; they have started signalling to players, 'you want to play this game, and not that game.'
So I think brands are critical, but not any old brand. It should be something that matches the audience, so if what you choose to make is a hardcore game and you're okay with hardcore game numbers on Facebook, then a hardcore brand will work. For a massively resonant brand like The Sims Social, Facebook is perfect, and there are many other brands that EA has got - particularly in the Maxis label - that will be similarly resonant, whether it be SimCity or anything else of that nature.
Brands are now extremely important, and I think that you either are a big player in the space already and you have an installed base of users, or... I think you're in big trouble
So I think brands are now extremely important, and I think that you either are a big player in the space already and you have an installed base of users, or you have a... man, otherwise I think you're in big trouble. It has just become a much more mature platform, and I'm not saying somebody can't rise up from the bottom - sure they can - but the barriers to entry now have changed in a big way and it's become a lot harder.
I see that trend continuing, but at the end of the day, though, a brand is never a replacement for a good game. If you have a great product and a great brand, you'll have a lot of success.
Q: How well did The Sims fit the free-to-play business model? Traditionally, Sims games offer a sandbox where nothing is fenced off, so how do you decide where to put the transaction layer?
John Earner: With regards to the deconstruction and reconstruction of the brand, this was one of the easier tasks. The Sims was born to be a social game, and if you look at the games that have been successful on Facebook to date, most of them come straight out of the Maxis play-book.
And there's a reason: Maxis has been in the business of making games that appeal to a mass audience, and that have to do with a persistent thing, whether it be a farm, a world, a city, a household.
So for us, we're looking at this game that involves fundamentally improving your Sim, your Sim's house, and your Sim's relationships - all three of those things easily beget micro-transactions, whether the most vanilla of micro-transactions like, 'I wanna buy that couch,' or more complicated ones like the need to complete a quest when you don't have time to do it. It was pretty easy for us to imagine from day one how we were going to monetise this game.
Q: Around a month after The Sims Social launched it really looked on course to finally unseat CityVille as the number one game on Facebook. The numbers have declined somewhat since then and CityVille is still at the top, so what measures are you taking to retain players? Does the churn apply to this game in the same way it does to others?
John Earner: The hardest part about social gaming, and online gaming in general, is that it's a service. When we ship the product our job is only just beginning, so we are constantly facing churn, as is every other player in the industry. You can never provide enough content and new features for your most engaged players; they are always going to consume it more rapidly than you can provide it.
And that begets a series of very difficult choices in terms of what you're going to choose to do. Generally, we focus on providing those elder players - the ones who stick around the game for longer - with a great experience, keeping them satisfied. But with a large team you can also allocate a portion of your resources to just making it a better experience.
In a lot of cases people churn because they have a lot of options and they don't have a lot of time
So for example... we've got a good chunk of our development resources going towards making the game easier to play, reducing the friction. In a lot of cases people churn because Facebook gamers... I'm not gonna call them lazy, but they have a lot of options and they don't have a lot of time. So if you have a game that takes a minute to load or plays too slowly, they're just not going to have time for you.
So, yeah, we've had churn as well, and the way we're going to chase that is a really great road-map. You're going to see new content in the game several times a week, new features more than once a month, and you're going to see massive new features every couple of months.
We intend to invest a lot in the game and make it a multi-year franchise, and we intend to bring other games to market using the brand as well, so that we can become a force on Facebook not just this month but for the years to come. That's our goal.