The Art of Play - Part One

Russell Arons talks about the combination of Sims and Casual in the EA label structure

Late last year Electronic Arts announced a reshuffle in their still-new label structure, which scrapped the Casual and Sims labels and combined them into one entity, later called EA Play.

At a recent showcase event in Paris, caught up with Russell Arons, VP of marketing for the EA Play label, to find out how the new entity was faring ahead of some big releases in June.

Q: How's business been for EA Play? How happy are you with the way things are going?

Russell Arons: We're about to have our most important month, because we've got three major launches - The Sims 3, Harry Potter and MySims Racing. What's interesting is that each one of those is aimed at a slightly different consumer audience. The Sims 3 is looking at 16-24 year-old PC players, Harry Potter is certainly focused on the Wii platform, and then MySims Racing is an extension of the franchise.

Each one of those games has been developed from the ground up specifically against those consumer audiences, so we think it's going to be a very big quarter for us. Even within EA they're three of the highest priority launches - so the EA Play label is a really important part of what's happening in EA in general.

What you're seeing is an interesting counter-seasonality that casual is bringing - a lot of June releases - if you think that casual is more typically in the holiday timeframe and becoming a bigger part of EA's total portfolio.

Q: Is it intentional to have those three come out now? Wasn't The Sims 3 pushed back from its original launch date?

Russell Arons: Half strategy, half shifting. Harry Potter was supposed to launch last November. But in some cases, and EA Sports Active is a great example, the consumer research said that for a product that's aimed largely at women who want to get in shape, that when do they want to get in shape? In time for swimsuit season. So naturally a May launch makes the most sense to lead up into the summer.

In terms of The Sims 3, the timing was in part driven to allow us to truly develop the marketing. Because we really want to be the number one PC launch of the year, it's not just about appealing to the current Sims fans - they're critically important, but we know we have to bring new consumers in too.

Also people who have lapsed - they tend to be males between 15-17 who used to play, but aren't so sure now. A lot of what we've put significant effort into since we moved from February into June was creating trial experiences for new and lapsed players, to say that it's a whole new Sims.

Everything from leveraging social networking heavily - our Sims Sidekick is something that launches, depending on what country you're in, from Facebook or Bebo, that gives people a way to take Sims characters, send them around the internet and see how they react.

And for the first time ever we basically have a Sims 'lite' online game, called Sims Social. The consumer insight pointed to... let's say you're a hardcore Sims player, and I'm your girlfriend. You love the game, and try to get me to play, but I think it takes too long to play, and just want to try it out.

We never offered that before - but Sims Social is basically a way for you to play multi-player online in a trial experience. It's a demonstration that the way we're approaching The Sims is new in the marketing, as much as it is in the game itself.

It wasn't enough to simply create the best Sims game ever - we had to come up with a marketing plan that brought a whole new franchise of people into it.

Q: You want The Sims 3 to be the biggest PC launch of the year - what are your hopes or expectations for its performance to the end of 2009?

Russell Arons: What we hope is that we have a lot of people buying the game as it comes out, and that sustains through the whole year. My personal hypothesis is that you're going to have the current Sims players and community be the first players online in June, but as our marketing efforts on all these trial experiences go on over time I think Holiday will see a lot of lapsed and new players joining in - because it's a great gift.

Q: EA's label structure initially had Sims as a separate business pillar, and then recently that was brought in with Casual under EA Play - now that's settling, what do you feel are the main gains from the move?

Russell Arons: It's really terrific - what was merged was the Casual Entertainment division with The Sims group, and what that really meant was that it brought together four business groups - The Sims, MySims, Casual (which had Harry Potter and Boom Blox) and Hasbro - all unified into one division.

What that meant was that the expertise that was being developed, such as in the Boom Blox team - those guys know the fabulous ways you can really leverage the Wii. The game's award-winning, but that insight and knowledge needs to be shared with the MySims team as they work on games. Similarly, there are no better PC experts in the world than The Sims team - so you're seeing that cross-pollenisation.

From my perspective the marketing teams have also had that opportunity on the business side. Again, what we're leveraging on The Sims 3 in terms of social networking being a primary marketing vehicle - actually that's not as appropriate for, say, young kids, but as we go into building up Littlest Pet Shop online, or any kind of kids online sites, we now know a lot more about social networking and how you dial it down for younger consumers.

So what was really great was taking all these smart minds and bringing them together.

Q: There's still a huge variety of genres and target demographics contained in the label's products - does that make managing it all a bit tough?

Russell Arons: Well, it is about portfolio management, and you do have to balance out launching certain titles. For example, MySims Agent - which is our Fall game - is a bit of a mystery game, solving clues and cases. We were looking at launching the Hasbro game Clue/Cluedo, and what didn't make sense was to launch those titles right on top of each other - we shouldn't compete with ourselves.

What you have now is a group that can look across the portfolio of franchises, genres and play patterns and start to architect when products are launched. We're not afraid to see more than one launch targeted at the same consumer, otherwise there'd only be one game for girls, but we're getting really smart about optimising opportunities over a full year - and then globally as well.

Q: We saw last year, in the build-up to Holiday, a ridiculous number of games across the board released in the same few weeks - but this structure enables you to be more strategic in that respect?

Russell Arons: Absolutely - it allows us to leverage our internal resources, and then our communication out. So the consumer and retailer see them in a way that makes sense, rather than everybody trying to put titles out there without a lot of rhyme or reason, but simply it's just a great game.

Q: The other labels in EA, generally-speaking, have a clear demographic target that they focus on - EA Play needs to appeal to a huge variety of people though?

Russell Arons: The Play label doesn't own casual gaming exclusively. Given that that's where a lot of growth in the market is - if you ask most people what EA Sports means you'd hear about excellence in sport, and realism. But EA Sports Active is obviously very different from that - it's a casual title - and it's the same with Spore Hero.

So I think what you're seeing is across EA, we haven't become rigid in who should go after a casual opportunity. We've kind of asked who has the greatest expertise - sports and fitness, there's the knowledge in EA Sports.

Q: But it's still quite catch-all compared to the other labels, so how would you specifically define its role?

Russell Arons: We tend to say that what we're about it surprising and delighting consumers. We're probably more consumer-centric in our focus than any other label - EA Play is less about "Let's make a great game, because we know there's a market out there." It's more about seeing that girls are really getting into gaming, younger and younger. We have this partnership with Hasbro, and Littlest Pet Shop is the world's most popular girls' brand - let's go to market with a Littlest Pet Shop title.

So I'd say it was a consumer-centric approach that asks where the market opportunities are, and then goes about building the right titles and game experiences towards them.

Russell Arons is VP of marketing for the EA Play label. Interview by Phil Elliott. Part two will follow next week.

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