The Art of Play - Part Two
Russell Arons and Harvey Elliott on the evolution of the social gaming space, and games that span platforms
Following on from the first part of this feature, in which Russell Arons talked about the combination of the Casual and Sims labels at Electronic Arts, here she and Harvey Elliott, VP and general manager of Casual, talk more about the evolution of the genre.
Q: How do you feel the casual space has evolved in the past couple of years?
Russell Arons: Well, the Wii is such an interesting microcosm of what's happened - you had the hardcore who were the first people to go out and buy it, but then it's come out and continued. We've seen it blossom to include grandparents, and even the youngest consumers, and families.
I believe our engagement on that is not to always be necessarily on the leading edge of it, but to be right in synch with where consumers want to play. So for example, there have been a bunch of party games on the Wii which have been okay, but we were the one to really bring a top party game out with Boom Blox - first the original and now the sequel.
So our approach is looking at it from a quality and innovation standpoint as opposed to throwing a lot of SKUs out there and seeing what sticks. We're pretty methodical about what we choose to launch - a lot of pre-development testing and market analysis is going into it, so what you see is a tight focus.
This could be a house full of 50 games if we wanted it to be, but the approach that we're taking is certainly for high quality development, and then best-in-class licenses or our strongest IP.
Q: You mentioned Boom Blox - a lot of people took notice due to the involvement of Steven Spielberg, but what's his involvement been in the sequel?
Russell Arons: He's equally involved in the sequel as he was in the first one. I think some people think he was a name - he was actively in the studio every two weeks, he's a huge gamer. Boom Blox was his way of having a game for his family to play with him. The sequel, and what's happened from the first game, I think what we realised is that we had positioned it from a marketing standpoint mainly for kids from 8 to 12 years old, but what we heard from the research was that everyone was playing it.
So you'll see that we've added more elements to the game, and certainly how we're marketing it, that really broaden its appeal, so that it goes beyond what we lovingly call the 'blow things up' approach. There's a bit more strategy play to it now, so I think the game's gotten better and better.
Q: If you got somebody like Spielberg involved in a game then obviously it's a good plan to tell people about that - but is there a point where you want to move away from that a little bit?
Russell Arons: Actually the game has allowed us to graduate beyond that. For the initial launch we could say that a lot of the interest came from Steven Spielberg now being in videogames. That was a good thing, and it was also around the same time he was doing Indiana Jones so there was a lot of buzz.
But what I think has happened was that the game was a great game - I forget how many top awards that it's won, but at least ten. What's happened now is that people see Boom Blox for just being great, so while he was a big part of the second game, that's not our main thrust - the main thrust is features and all the new elements that we've brought in. So one message has advanced beyond the other.
Q: I assume that your marketing strategies are set on a case-by-case basis, but hw do you make decisions around that?
Russell Arons: It's all about going to where the consumer is - we can't expect them to have to seek us out. Still the top way with kids is TV. They're watching television and that's their primary source of knowledge.
But what we're seeing with Harry Potter is that kids were going online - it's an expensive thing to ask mom for a videogame, so they really use online to research and make sure they really want to buy the game. So we've moved online up as a part of our online approach significantly.
Then, as you get older, with The Sims 3 (16-24 year old primary target) - those folks aren't watching TV. Good luck there, they're all Tivo-ing or watching online, so we had to go online. It's probably one of the first marketing plans in EA where the online is more heavily weighted than television - and that's an evolution. We have to spend a lot more time getting to this consumer group, that's a lot harder to find than ever before.
Q: How does that online spend manifest itself? Not just banner ads, I presume?
Russell Arons: No - it's everything, from creating trial experiences that can include social networking activities to traditional online advertising and search engine optimisation. Now there are many, many tools.
Q: What's the label view of the current platform mix?
Harvey Elliott: I think what the Wii did more than any other platform is just open up the mature audience - the audience beyond the people that we normally sell games to. What I like about the Wii is that on my nursery school run each week my kids, who know I work in videogames, are always asking about the Wii and its games.
The reason is that it's become a family console, a thing that unites people around a gaming experience. If you think about games that you and I remember from seven plus years ago, it was being alone in a darkened room with the sound turned up and no one around.
Now we've grown up a bit, people have had kids, and they're something that's in people's minds when making games - the Wii's just opened up a bit of socialness around the machine and gaming as a whole. It's now more acceptable and it just feels like it's changed some of the stereotypes that people have associated with gaming. It's like Star Trek - people are talking about having watched the new film, and it's a great film, but if you'd talked to people about watching old Star Trek movies a few years ago, they wouldn't back you... unless they were the ones with the ears...
That's the way gaming has felt, and the Wii has just helped to open up our audience and our potential, and we're now talking to a much broader consumer base of people who will love our experiences, but just need the access point in.
Q: The Wii and DS are now pretty mature platforms, so how does EA Play as a label view something like the iPhone platform when it comes along, with the potential to open up new audiences again - how do you take advantage of those opportunities?
Harvey Elliott: From a product standpoint I've long given up on the idea that you just port what you've got to that platform. I think a lot of platforms have come in with a lot of things which just naturally fit our customers - they're either people that are buying that platform for a reason, or they've got technology that works in a certain way (such as the Wii with motion controls).
There are things that those platforms allow us to do, and for me it's about building an experience that's tailored to that platform. There's nothing worse than having a third-grade port from a franchise when you can have something that's custom-built for that platform. You have to build great games for that platform, rather than taking a game and porting.
Russell Arons: Very soon the consumer isn't going to care which device they're on. More and more it's going to be about taking a character because they want to play with it on the iPhone, then wanting to take it home and play online because they want to play with a buddy... and then onto console.
We haven't cracked that nut yet, in terms of characters moving from platform to platform, but it's one of the highest priorities.
Q: And there's a lot of excitement about that sort of idea.
Harvey Elliott: If you think about how many devices you play games on, and I don't just mean console, but PC, laptop, phone, Blackberry, iPhone... but you play games on everything - you might not even recognise some of them as games. That little Solitaire thing you may play when you have nothing else with you.
I think people are already gaming on these platforms, and it's just a case of linking them so that the gaming experience is additive.
Russell Arons: Where EA has done the most impressive job is Hasbro - we've taken games like Monopoly and put them out onto every platform. It's on POGO, mobile, the Wii and multi-platform, differently presented, but nonetheless - if you want to play Monopoly you have that option.
Q: And platforms within platforms, with something like Facebook apps?
Harvey Elliott: Yes - you're iPhone Scrabble can play games against Facebook Scrabble - that's the first touch for those connected plays, especially for something that's turn-based like Scrabble.
Russell Arons: I think it's a point of advantage that only EA has, because we have world class game development studios, EA Mobile, POGO - you can harness the power of the bigger, integrated organisation and keep doing that for our best franchises.
Harvey Elliott is VP and general manager for Casual, and Russell Arons is VP of marketing for EA Play. Interview by Phil Elliott.