No game in the history of video games has cost me more money over the years than "The Sims" series. That my daughter needed to have every version upgrade and every expansion pack was only the beginning. It is the ancillary costs that will kill you.
"It runs like a slide show on that old computer," she complained repeatedly of every major release in the series. That "old computer" often could run "Quake II" at high frame rates and encode video streams without a hiccup. Throw "Sims 2" at it, however, and the hard drive, graphics card and memory overhead even of the heartiest rig would slow to a crawl. "What the hell do you guys have in this thing," I once complained to an Electronic Arts rep. Game design wunderkind Will Wright can craft killer sandbox game toys but he can't figure out how to load a game in under three minutes?
And so it is with some trepidation that I approach "Sims 3," which launches today across PC and mobile platforms. My daughter is already planning on wiping her hard drive and reinstalling Windows to see if that will help drive it. I am hoping she will be happy with the iPhone/iPod Touch version that also appeared in the iTunes App Store early this morning.
With "Spore" last year and "Sims 3" this year, Electronic Arts Mobile is exploring new ways to market a mobile game in this age of applications. For "Sims 3," the company took a different route to build prelaunch buzz. Rather than a straight demo of the game "the idea here was to create something that can be fun to play with that isn't a game," says Adam Sussman, head of worldwide publishing, EA Mobile. The SimSampler includes a "relationship tester" and a mood indicator, a lot of small toys that evoke the game's core themes of relationships and emotions.
Apparently "Sims" fans wanted something more, though. The app suffers a two-star rating in the App Store, with the overwhelming majority of user-reviewers giving it a one-star rating. While Sussman puts the best face on it and describes it having "decent performance" promotionally, he admits "the one thing we learned is people enjoyed it -- but they wanted the game."
A better lesson EA Mobile learned from its cross-platform "Spore" launch was the power of the Apple partnership in promoting a game. Viral distribution on a relatively open marketplace is all well and good for indie developers who are happy with the largesse the App Store can confer on small shops. But when you have a multi-million-dollar investment in a massive game franchise, you need to get the word out fast and hard and move code. Look for a major full-court press of "Sims 3" on iPhone/iPod Touch that flips all the levers in the Apple co-marketing arsenal. EA finds especially effective the "brick" promotions that cycle in the main iTunes and App Store main pages. This drives awareness. Also important, however, is the product landing page, which is themed or papered with brand images and loads of in-game screens. Cross-promotion throughout the iTunes store of related items, soundtracks, podcasts, etc. is also effectively driving the fans to the title.
But EA Mobile is also working with Apple at retail. The Apple Stores will be featuring "Sims 3" on easels. New iPhones/iPod Touches will have the SimSampler pre-loaded, and from there the user can link to the full game download. Sussman says these are the kinds of surround sound strategies that helped make the mobile "Spore" game number one on the App Store within hours of its release.
As a game, EA is promising that "Sims 3" will leverage the iPhone's technical capabilities more thoroughly than we have seen from EA in the past. "We think this is leaps and bounds ahead of any game we have done in terms of depth and nuance," says Sussman. The open world game play has 75 goals and uses the accelerometer for a number of mini-games throughout the eight or so hours of promised game play. The touch screen is especially helpful to the "Sims experience because it lets the user literally tap the character in order to pop-up commands to change mood and attitude. In addition to the usual physical personalization the game allows of your avatars, players will be able to integrate their own music library.
Interestingly, Sussman compared the iPhone to the Sony PSP in power and usability. This suggests to me that traditional game publishers are starting to see the smart phone market as real competition for the dedicated handhelds. "Sims 3" is being released across many other handsets today, including feature phones that will scale the mobile game back to different levels of visual and game play complexity. Sussman says while the smart phones are great additions to the mobile gaming market, he doesn't expect the fragmentation problem to go away anytime soon. With iPhone, Android, Windows Mobile, Blackberry, Nokia, etc., "you will still have some of the porting issues of today, but hopefully you get rid of the low end builds and not need so many ports."
Sussman says that conversions on mobile games are much higher on smart phones, but the eco-system still has kinks to work out. Despite the proliferation of the app store concept, all marketplaces are not created equal from a publishing perspective. "The challenge is, we haven't seen the efficient distribution on other channels," he says. "We haven't seen iTunes-like versions of integrated billing on some smart phones. As distribution catches up we have high hopes." There are also issues with programming onto these phones. "Many don't give you access to the native layer to the Palm Pre or the BlackBerry, so it is challenging to deliver a good experience. Without that, you deliver a Java experience."
I am a devoted handheld gamer. You will only take my DSi out of my cold dead hands. That "Sims 3" is available on mobile phones at day and date of the PC release and a DS or PSP version is nowhere in sight tells me a lot about where EA sees this market headed.
And along with the games will come the marketing. While it's not clear in this title yet, Sussman says that upcoming cross-platform games will incorporate the in-game marketing partners that we see integrated on console and PC. "We see more and more, EA as an organization will do sponsorships with partners for some products and they want that to extend from console to iPhone," he notes. "We are seeing a lot of traction around that."
Like console and PC gaming itself, mobile gaming is still trying to evolve into a real media platform where marketers can find effective, scalable, repeatable ways to work with gamers. As I have said here before, the app store model is an exceptional opportunity for marketers to sponsor game add-ons and virtual goods, to be in the game without intruding into the experience. Ease up on the branded apps for a second and consider how grateful this Dad would be if your packaged goods manufacturer handed his daughter new kinds of "Sims" avatars or additional environments -- anything to keep her using the iPod Touch version instead of the PC behemoth.