Continuing the series of features looking at world-beating franchise The Sims, here EA Play's senior marketing director, John Buchanan, explains how the label has gone to great lengths to try and lure new players and lapsed ones alike into the latest version of the game.
Specifically he explains how social networking and ongoing online support is contributing to the game's appeal, and looks back at how the franchise's marketing has developed over the years.
Q: How has the marketing plan changed over the years for The Sims?
John Buchanan: This is the third launch in The Sims franchise - 2000, 2004 and now 2009 - and historically those launches have all done really well. When you look back what you find is that the marketing efforts in 2000 and 2004 were very much focused on traditional media outlets - TV, print, and so on. Online played a role, but it wasn't the primary vehicle, because the consumers were we targeting weren't necessarily consuming media in that way. Traditional media still played a very important part of reaching those consumers.
When you look at 2009, for the launch of The Sims 3, the very first thing we had to do was identify who our target consumer was, and how were they consuming media. That target was 16-24 year olds, both male and female - because the game does have such a broad audience in terms of gender appeal.
So when we started looking at that audience it was clear that some things had changed dramatically since the launch of The Sims 2 - that's to say that 16-24 year olds are consuming media when and where they want it, whether it's on a laptop, Blackberry, iPod, iPhone, desktop or through traditional television - and that's 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
So we needed to build a plan to reach that target audience, when and where they wanted that media. If you look at what we've done relative to past launches, traditional media still plays a very important role, but the importance of online and social networking is dramatically more important than it was back in 2004. That becomes effectively the most important piece of our overall campaign.
That's what I like about it - it's built on traditional media, but it's driven by the most extensive and integrated online campaign The Sims has ever done.
Q: Why specifically focus on 16-24s?
John Buchanan: There are three key reasons - firstly, it does represent the largest audience that plays The Sims. Second, we know from a cultural perspective that 16-24 year olds are aspirational to a younger audience, so when we look at our other fans that 14 or 15 they'll look to the 16-24 year olds to see what's on the market place. Interestingly enough, that same audience is influential to an older age range as well, because older people will tend to look down to them to see what's culturally relevant, what's hip and trendy. Unfortunately I'm one of those people that falls into the older group...
So when we see The Sims with such a broad consumer appeal, the 16-24 year old range felt like a very important range to target, in order to be able to reach the broad audience that we have.
Q: Are they also likely to be the people that will go out and buy the game on launch day, or shortly thereafter?
John Buchanan: Absolutely - they're the largest audience we have, but also the most passionate. Those are the ones that will be out buying the game, not only through pre-orders, but certainly on launch day as well.
Q: So does that mean you might look at changing the way you market the game post-launch?
John Buchanan: The beauty of social networking and online today is that we're able to have those conversations with our fans all the time, so whether it's pre-launch, launch or post-launch, we can have those kinds of conversations with all of the audiences, and ensure that we're meeting their needs - plus learning and understanding what's really important to them in order to be able to respond to that.
Q: You've been putting out a selection of what's been termed 'trial' content, utilising social networks and online - can you just describe that activity and explain the reasoning for it?
John Buchanan: One thing we know, that we've already touched on, is that we have a very broad audience - and we also know that we have an opportunity to continue to build up that broad audience for the franchise. In order to do that we wanted to create trial experiences that would excite our current players and at the same time be able to bring in a whole new world of fans.
So when we architected the trial experiences there was a focus to make sure we met the needs of both sets of people. We did that through these trial experiences, each of which targeted a different consumer group.
John Buchanan: The first is called SimFriend, which is an application available from The Sims 3 website, that allows you to choose from up to 120 different Sims, each with very different personalities. You'll then engage in a one-on-one email relationship with that Sim - they'll ask you particular questions that are pertinent to parts of their life, and you'll have a chance to respond as to what you think they should do.
The thinking behind that application is down to the ability in The Sims 3 to build millions of different personality traits for your Sims, so the response you might get from your SimFriend might be quite different - and delightful - than what you expect.
The second trial experience is call SimSocial - it's a Flash-based application that's turn-based, and does a wonderful job in a light way of introducing you to the core attributes of The Sims. Through this experience both new and current players are able to get a taste of what the attributes of the broader Sims is about, so they'll be excited to go get the full experience from The Sims 3.
We're actually working with Facebook right now to have that as one of their applications, and it'll live on our official Facebook page for both normal users and Sims fans on Facebook to be able to enjoy.
So while SimFriend focuses mainly on current players, SimSocial gave us a chance to speak to both new and current players.
The third trial experience is what we call SimSidekick - and that's exactly what it is, your sidekick to the worldwide web. The idea here is that both new and current players can choose from up to six Sims, each with different personality traits, who would then follow them to any website to see what sort of response they'd have.
So if I went to bbc.co.uk, or cnn.com, that Sim would respond to that site - so the Sim knows what type of site that is - and can respond specifically to one of the key partner sites like MySpace or Facebook, while at the same time being able to respond to other sites that are in a particular category.
If a Sim went to the BBC, CNN or Yahoo, it would read that as a news-type site and respond in an interesting way to tie into that particularly site.
Q: Give us a quick example of how a SimSidekick might react specifically?
John Buchanan: Let's say we go to a sports site - maybe ESPN - and we've chosen Alex, he's our sports enthusiast Sim. You take him there and he'll start to jump up and down and grab a 'Number One Fan' sign, because he's on a site that he's very excited about.
Q: What's the response been like so far?
John Buchanan: It's actually been quite phenomenal - we've been tracking what fans have been saying through Facebook and Twitter, as well as other social network sites, so we can gather information and see how many people out there are using them.
For example, SimSocial now has over 200,000 users playing that trial experience, and that's a number that's doubled within the last week. We're really excited, and we think that will go up exponentially.
Q: Once the game is launched the online aspect will also be crucial - what sort of things are you doing there to add to users' game experiences?
John Buchanan: There are four key ways that will enable that to happen. The first is that all consumers, when they buy an official copy of The Sims 3, will immediately be able to download an entire second town called River View. So the moment you register your game you'll get it - so your experience is already expanded when you start to play the game.
The second way we're doing that is that this is the first time, certainly for The Sims but maybe in the industry, that we have a simultaneous launch of The Sims 3 Store, which is an online site for people to be able to buy objects and place them in the game. You'll receive 1000 Sim Points to be able to purchase those items when you register the game.
Q: And that's in-game items, like furniture, and so on?
John Buchanan: Exactly. The third piece is that we'll consistently update The Sims 3 Store with new objects for people to be able to buy and download - consistently engage our players with new content in order to drive them back to the Store to further their experience of The Sims 3.
A part of that will be The Exchange, which has been around for a few years, and that's a location for the fans of the game to upload content they're created to be able to share with the world. That's been unbelievably successful for us - we've seen over 100 million downloads from The Exchange over time.
The final piece, which is incredibly important for us, is that we're expanding the players' ability to create their own content with what we call the Movie Mash-up tool - one of the beautiful pieces of our brand is that it enables everyone to build, create and share whatever story they want to tell.
We've seen over 11 million videos posted on the EA YouTube channel specific to The Sims over the last eight years, and we want our fans to be able to extend that experience of showcasing their experience by creating movies.
The Movie Mash-up tool is truly one of the easiest tools you'll see - it's a point-and-click way to capture content, emotion and your game experiences. Then with the push of a button you'll then be able to upload that not only to The Sims 3 website, but also to social and video networks around the world.
John Buchanan is senior director of marketing for EA Play. Interview by Phil Elliott.