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How EA turned The Sims into a reality TV show

During GamesIndustry.biz digital conference Changing Channels, EA talked about how to evolve a brand into a concept for another medium

To say that competition reality TV shows are prominent would be an understatement. The genre has completely overtaken TV since the early 2000s and shows no sign of slowing down, with new concepts being explored every day.

So it's almost surprising to notice that the games industry, which has grown alongside this TV genre, has not made more bets to branch out in that direction. The closest attempt to a games-related show would probably have to be Lego Masters.

But many games would lend themselves very easily to such a format. When EA announced The Sims Spark'd earlier this year, it was instantly clear that The Sims is one of them.

During GamesIndustry.biz's digital conference Changing Channels last week -- which explored the crossover between video games, film, TV, books and more -- EA's director of brand marketing for The Sims Sheila Judkins told us more about how the show came to be. She talked about how video games companies can identify such opportunities and how they can work on turning their brands into something else.

"For 20 years, The Sims has been a place where people from all walks of life have come to express themselves"

"For 20 years, The Sims has been a place where people from all walks of life have come to express themselves, experiment with new ideas, and feel safe enough to find their true voice," Judkins said. "Like the self-conscious teen who designs bold, wildly colorful outfits they'd be too shy to wear to school. Or the gay couple who, judged by their small-town community, builds a world where they finally feel like they can belong.

"Players are given a colourful canvas to create an entire spectrum of identity and experience. As a result the stories told in the game are as diverse and creative as the people who tell them."

With The Sims Spark'd, EA wanted to give these creators a chance to share their stories and creativity. The four episode series sees four teams compete on Sims challenges that are either time-based or theme-based.

EA identified that Sims players usually fall into three categories: stylist, builder or storyteller. Each team has one player from one of these categories. In the usual reality TV formula, a team goes home at the end of each episode, and the winner gets $100,000.

Evolving a brand into a concept

In order to evolve The Sims into a TV reality show, EA first identified two strengths within its brand that could lend themselves to a new concept and medium: individual storytelling, and the players themselves.

"This is how we evolved the brand into this entertainment concept: it was really focusing on our player," Judkins said. "This project actually had a very, very long lead time, thinking about our players and the internal capabilities of EA. We listen intently to our players every day, from the social channels to our Game Changers program. And we'd been hearing the players wanted more challenge. And so much of The Sims is about telling personal stories.

"And so this really led us to this reality competition format that focuses on individual storytelling, and put some challenges around that. The Sims is traditionally a single player game, and so inevitably when you ask people to team up and do something different, there will be these interesting moments of conflict and, trying to work together as a team, collaborate and agree or disagree on a decision. And we see that, in other reality competition shows, that's a key ingredient in making entertainment, so that's really something we thought a lot about."

"Do you outsource the new and risky thing? Or do you own it because you want more oversight?"

Having identified the core strengths the show could rely on, the second challenge for EA was to identify whether or not the project was viable internally.

"We have an amazing broadcast center on campus that creates esports entertainment for all of EA's brands. And our Sims team has experience with bringing these 'Game Changers' -- this close group of players we work with -- onto our campus and host different events with them.

"So while filming entertainment was a new space for us, we already had some confidence in the operational ability to create and develop something like this. We also called an expert from reality television to help us and be a part of this, guide us and point out our blind spots.

"I think this right here is always a really tricky question when you think about core competencies. Do you outsource the new and risky thing and put the trust into someone who's got more experience than you in the area? Or do you own it because you want more oversight on how the brand is represented?

"In this case, I'm very glad that we produced the show in-house because it was an incredible learning experience for all of us, and I think we learned a lot about how we want to continue to optimise and evolve this."

The Sims Spark'd premiered on July 17

The Sims Spark'd premiered on July 17

Translating a game into a show

  • Leveraging story and staying 'on brand'

Having settled on a concept and a team to tackle it, EA then had to nail down the specifics of how to turn a game into a TV show. According to Judkins, "story and brand story" were integral to being able to extend the IP beyond its core category. To explain this, she took an example from a previous job, as head of publishing at Hasbro.

"When I was [working] on Playskool, we launched a preschool property called Transformers Rescue Bots. This was a new IP that we created based on well-known Transformers. Now, it wasn't enough to say that this was 'Transformers made appropriate for younger boys', we really needed a story. We needed to lean into it, to make sure that it made sense for the brand."

"We needed to lean harder on our brand values as guardrails for what made this feel on brand"

So the team created a storyline revolving around teaming up with Transformers to save the day, explored themes that were appropriate within that storyline, and created new characters to populate it.

"We included books that told these stories and shared who these characters were, in the toys. We partnered with studios to create entertainment. And the reason I'm sharing this example is to show you how traditionally brands have leveraged story to expand beyond their core category.

"But what's so unique about The Sims is that this isn't a brand story. The Sims' story is actually about our players and their stories. And so we needed to lean harder on our brand values as guardrails for what made this feel 'on brand': diversity and inclusion -- we all know how important representation is and how it can impact society -- self-expression, and creativity. We really relied on those to make sure that this felt like The Sims and stayed on brand."

  • Finding the right tone

The other difficulty when adapting a game -- or any existing brand for that matter -- into a TV show is that it could quickly turn into a giant ad. The tone has to be right.

"How commercial would this be?," is the question EA had to face, Judkins said. "Inevitably, when you create a show or entertainment based on a product, there is always risk that it can be perceived as a long-form infomercial. And so that's why it was really important for us to make sure our jumping off point was the players, their stories, and this creative competition.

"It was not about making sure people knew how to play The Sims, or about the number of packs or games we have in the catalog. We talked a lot about minimizing packaging, logos and sales messages. And I think that came through because we're not seeing press or social conversation around that.

"And the continual question we asked ourselves was: is this good entertainment? That is the objective here."

  • Making it accessible

As Judkins just touched upon, the show wasn't about making sure people knew how to play The Sims. However, when turning your game into another form of entertainment, you need to make sure that even the people who don't know about it will understand it.

"We knew that we wanted current Sims fans to watch and like this, [but] we also hoped that non-Sims fans would enjoy this," Judkins continued. "So it was this tricky balance of making sure that we were explaining some of the game basics and avoid insider language, so that people who had never played The Sims felt like they could enjoy and watch this show without feeling like they're excluded.

"Think about how your show concept could be half of a wheel with a game"

"For example, one of the challenges was a six-hour challenge. And if you're not a video creator or influencer for The Sims, you may not have realised how tough that was.

"So what we did was we made sure to ask the contestants one-on-one about the challenge and then we included a clip of a contestant, direct to camera, talking about what a big deal that was and how she didn't even know if you could do this in six hours. So there was context for the non-player about how difficult this was."

  • Creating a bridge between game and show

An important aspect of a successful cross-media brand is making sure that the TV show will drive people to the game and, vice-versa, that someone playing the game will have an incentive to watch the show.

"Think about how your show concept could be half of a wheel with a game," Judkins said. "I think there's more longevity in that approach, versus it being a moment in time. It's really filling out the other half of the ecosystem for a consumer."

EA also approached this by running challenges for its players alongside the show.

"In addition to the show, we launched a Spark'd Challenge series program," Judkins explained. "This is an in-game challenge program that anyone who has The Sims can participate in."

EA ran Sims challenges for its players alongside the show

EA ran Sims challenges for its players alongside the show

Advice for developers, publishers and IP holders

Judkins concluded her talk by giving advice on how to identify opportunities like this and how to approach them.

It also complemented the questions that were previously highlighted in the talk:

  • How commercial does it need to be?
  • What is the story or brand essence that you need to lean on?
  • Who is the audience? (is it a new audience or is it deepening engagement with your core audience?)

The most important question to ask yourself is about whether or not your brand is strong enough to support being cross-media.

"Is your story relatable enough to branch into another category?"

"Is your story strong enough?," Judkins asked. "Is it well-known enough? Is it relatable enough to branch into another category? And, if not, what do you need to do to build that?"

If you're relaunching a brand that's older, you also need to consider how relevant it is to today's society, she continued.

"Do you need to add characters that represent the modern world? Do you need to expand for further representation? Hint: the answer is always yes on the representation [side]."

If you're unsure about whether your brand is strong enough, Judkins advised to look at user-generated content around your brand as a proof of market demand.

"Look at content or products that people are creating around your brand from Etsy to YouTube to social channels, the spaces that they're ideating in and selling in or creating in.

"Because brands can't always fulfill market demand for everything, consumers will create it on their own, especially as we continue to evolve further into co-creation with brands and consumers. Every generation is adopting technology younger and interacting with brands more. Ten years ago co-creating with brands wasn't really a thing people talked about on social channels, and now it's fully expected from consumers.

"Kids are even using the word 'brand' and understand the meaning of it fully. So it's a really interesting time to be thinking about media and entertainment, and how brands can use entertainment to build connections in their communities or fan channels."

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