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Too Big To Fail

Playfish's John Earner on the pleasures and problems of making The Sims Social

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. 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. 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. 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.

Matthew Handrahan avatar
Matthew Handrahan: Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.
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