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The Sims Online Evolution: A Case Study

Since its launch last December, the The Sims Online the development team has taken various steps to move the game in a direction that would bring in more subscribers. The question was, what new target audiences should they go after, and what new features would those audiences want in the game? Here are the processes that EA went through to analyze where the TSO was, and what direction it needed to go.

Although The Sims Online (TSO) box hit the shelves in mid-December 2002, the content design and target audience was first put to the test during beta. As our team discovered, it's best to look at this time period with massively multiplayer online games (MMOG) as a rite of passage. The launch of an MMOG is a transition stage for the game's content, the market, the community and the product as a whole. Where the product goes after its launch is an evolutionary process.

This article describes how The Sims Online continues to grow after its launch. I've been on the production team for two years (minus a seven-week stint on The Sims PS2) and I've been "in the trenches" the whole time. I saw the product and team change from pre-beta to launch to post-launch, and beyond.

For the last ten months our team has focused on realizing and implementing the potential of TSO in order to grow our market and do new things with the game. To figure how to evolve the game, we have been researching our current audience as well as targeting new audiences. Armed with that information, we've been devising new content that satisfies both groups, including leveraging the market of single-player Sims fans and creating content to draw them in. It has been a tremendous experience, and I hope you will benefit from the lessons we've learned and the strategies we're pursuing to make a new and improved game out of TSO.

Analyzing the Product

When trying to determine how to evolve your MMOG, you need to know where your game currently stands. You need to have a firm grasp on what it is today, before you can start thinking about where you want to take it. And you need to know what your players and retailers think about it, too. That said, this is what we did with TSO.

Design. Four years ago, the TSO designers began conceptualizing a game for a particular kind of player, with a particular kind of gameplay in mind. In general, their goal was to develop an open-ended game in the familiar and successful Sims world. The game would include creative tools (e.g., objects to set up mini-games for contests, businesses, and so on) that would empower players to make it their game.

Marketing. It's no secret that The Sims franchise, in general, is skewed female -- 52% of its players are female. That hasn't changed with TSO. We are very proud of this fact, since it is not a common attribute of today's games. When we first marketed this product, teenage girls who knew about The Sims were our number one fans. It was assumed that we would have a large teenage audience for TSO, and indeed most of our initial players (through beta and into public launch) were girls and women under age 25. To collect data about our audience the marketing team sent out free trial offers and surveys to people on The Sims email lists.

Audience. When we launched, we successfully sold boxes and subscriptions to the fanatical Sims player that we had intentionally designed for and marketed for. However, the unfortunate consequence of targeting this niche group is that it turned out to be a smaller audience than we anticipated. Ongoing research, combined with our churn rate, indicated that this age group of The Sims fans does not hold a strong interest in an online environment. That was not good news for a game based on subscription business model. We also discovered that the teens we targeted did not have purchasing power; in other words, requiring teenagers to pay for the subscription with a credit card was a significant marketing challenge for us.

Feedback. As the game unfolded from beta to post launch, we received useful feedback directly from players, via the TSO community discussion boards, and from retailers. Different parts of the TSO team examined the game, analyzing how it was being played and listening to all of our feedback channels. We continued to collect feedback from email surveys to players about their likes/dislikes, new content ideas we were considering, existing content ratings, and different payment options for existing players.

One example of how feedback directly influenced the TSO strategy concerned the game's price. The price of TSO at launch was $49.99, but about eight weeks later the price was reduced to $29.99. Part of the reason for this price drop was that players and potential players told us that they didn't understand the game's value. (That isn't exactly what they said, but that is how we interpreted it.) People were used to seeing Sims products on the shelf for $29.99 to $39.99, without an added monthly fee, so when the apple green TSO box appeared with a $49.99 sticker on it (plus subscription) players probably reached for one of the less expensive Sims expansion packs instead.

This was the situation we faced a couple of months after the launch of TSO. To increase the number of the game's subscribers and broaden its market, we knew we had to change the gameplay dynamic, reach new players, maintain our existing community, and change the box price. We knew it wouldn't be an easy task, nor risk-free. But it is what TSO required to grow.

Identifying Where to Grow

Using a combination of survey results, community feedback, and demographic studies about players of the Sims games, the development team leads (from the production, design, engineering, and QA) brainstormed a series of goals for the game. We agreed that it would be good to add very specific elements to TSO that were recognizable from The Sims. These ideas have become the team's new content goals.

I should also point out that there are multiple parties involved in achieving these goals, and each of these groups has their own agenda for improving the game. All of these views must be reconciled in the overall game plan. For example, certain goals for some of our engineer groups are based on optimizing existing TSO systems. The designers want to add features that expand the player experience beyond just simple new objects. This means coding a new, richer player experience, and sometimes it's more time consuming to design than implement. Our production and marketing teams need new content regularly to keep the buzz alive with our subscribers and retailers. To manage all of these different agendas, there is an overall schedule to synchronize the efforts of the different groups. After all, if subscriptions begin to rapidly decline and retailers begin taking the game off the shelves, who will be around to notice that we are reticulating splines faster than before?

Members of marketing, sales, and production got together to look at the aforementioned player feedback data and analyze the makeup of the current audience TSO. They also considered who the game, perhaps with some design changes, was best positioned to attract. Once we realized that we should make TSO more recognizable to The Sims players, it was not difficult to decide which demographics to go after. We identified three new subsets of the overall Sims audience we hadn't previously targeted. We also discovered that the average age of a TSO player was about 27, not the teenager we had previously pictured. So our new demographic target is players in the 24-35 age range, who play The Sims, claim to be social or somewhat-social people, and are accustomed to using a credit card on the Internet.

It's been challenging to decide how to change TSO's content. We are very lucky to have the immediately recognizable assets (art, objects, sounds, and so on) from The Sims brand available to us. But simply porting over a bunch of skins and objects from existing Sims expansion packs is not the complete solution. On the other end of the spectrum, imbuing the game with the ultimate AI wouldn't fit into our production schedule. While on this point, it is important to note that the content in TSO creates a different experience than the exact same content in The Sims offline products. Primarily this is because TSO is a shared experience with other "real" players. Unlike the single-player Sims games, you witness the reactions of other TSO players to the game's content. This lets TSO leverage existing content while adding a fresh "online value."


TSO is a shared experience with other "real" players.

There were some design considerations we had to take into account as we began evolving the game. First, there was the fact that TSO players are different than most online gamers. Most are new to playing games online, they're not hardcore gamers, and they consistently express the desire for us to stick to the gameplay from The Sims offline game. For example, some basic design feedback indicated our players didn't want the degree of "open-endedness" that they perceived in the game. In The Sims, there are elements of indirect control and predictable gameplay. By adding traditional Sims "dollhouse" gameplay to TSO, the thinking is the game becomes more familiar, structured and easier to play.


One key lesson we learned post-launch was that we shouldn't expect the majority of players to be creative and provide entertainment to other players. When players entered the TSO world, they understood the concepts of buying and building a property, but they did not understand what else they could do, since there was no longer the green diamond over their head, indicating the active sim the player is currently puppeteering. (In The Sims, you could be puppeteering multiple sims in one game session. In TSO you have only one character at a time.) When we automated more character actions, players told us "there isn't enough to do." We realized we needed to give players specific goals and activities, outside the broader goals of getting "skills" and building wealth for their Sims.

Adding job properties and mini-games was one result of this realization. In The Sims, characters are whisked off to work and time passes very quickly without any "workplace" gameplay. In an effort to add some more mini-game activities for players, soon in TSO players will be responsible for getting their sim off to work and responsible for the actual work they do. These jobs will serve multiple purposes, but most obviously they will give players "something to do" without having to create their own forms of entertainment. Players can be taken by car to a job property that is Maxis (system) owned, versus player owned, and can participate in an eight sim-hour work shift with other TSO players. There will be a specific goal to every shift besides making money. For example, one may have to construct a robot in a factory or keep restaurant NPC patrons in a good mood. Very specific job tasks have to be completed in sequence and within a set timeframe to be successful. These "rules" are set and checked by the game (not another player), leaving players in an environment of being entertained versus having to entertain others.

We learned that in-game activities that worked in The Sims didn't always translate well into TSO, because they actually decreased the player interactions that went on in the game. Like in The Sims, motives (the eight basic needs for a player's character -- hunger, comfort, room, energy, fun, hygiene, and social) are a very important part of TSO. But in TSO, the quest for money seemed to be an even bigger motivation, and that had a negative impact on the overall player experience. Players began to interact with skill-building objects (like having a character play chess to increase his logic skills, or interacting with the exercise machine to build body skills) and then go AFK -- away from keyboard -- for long periods at a time. One could literally be on a property filled with other players and never be inclined to say one word to anyone else. As a result, a player could wander onto a property that looked incredibly full of life and begin to think they were in a property possessed by mute and blind skill-building zombies. That's not a fun, compelling game experience.

Enhancing the social aspects of the game has become a major goal for the game's evolution. Real-time chatting, one of the big differentiators between TSO and The Sims, is an existing game component and has always been rated highly. Some of the demographics of The Sims audience we targeted are self-proclaimed "social game" players. So we thought, "Hey! Chatting is social, right? If 1) TSO is a great place to chat and 2) there are some offline Sims players that like to be social and haven't tried TSO, let's hook these two factors together in some of our designs!" We felt that players would respond positively if we evolved the game in ways that would make it easier for people to socialize.


Roughly 70% of current TSO players own The Sims.

The third aspect to evolving TSO involved our current community of players. In one survey that marketing took, we found that roughly 70% of current TSO players own The Sims. Given this huge overlap between the online and offline games, we felt that the addition of new content from The Sims like the pets features would help draw even more of the offline players into the online version. The thinking here is that since 70% of our players own the other Sims products, they are likely to be involved in The Sims community. If these particular players begin to speak up about their positive TSO experiences with owning a dog, fans of The Sims Unleashed might be more likely to try TSO. Essentially, we examined who is currently playing our game and discovered a way to spread a word-of-mouth buzz around the evolution of the product.

As we make these various changes to TSO, we're actively taking steps to retain our current player base. It is from them that we learned how important some features are to develop, like pets. However, there is always a risk that though we see the coming changes as a win-win situation, the community will not. This is a risk we are willing to take based on the potential number of new players to be acquired by our new, larger target audience.


Growing the Game

Currently, the TSO live team releases new game content at a fairly regular cadence. We've added 20+ new features that give new dimensions to TSO, filling in the gaps as seen by players. Some of these features were based on the original pre-launch designs, while others were created in response to player feedback and our new design direction.

For example, one new feature is the addition of clothing racks. After seven months of forcing players to wear the same thing (besides temporary costume changes), players finally have the ability to buy new, never-seen-in-the-game-before outfits. The other side to this feature is the chance to sell clothes, adding the ability for players to profit from selling skins purchased from the game to other players. There is also a new secure trading feature we implemented post-launch, allowing players to trade objects that they originally purchased in the catalog. Both of these features add value to the existing property category know as "stores." These two new features added depth to the game and were highly requested by players. Also, they were developed and launched in by the live-team, demonstrating that we can react to the players' feedback and grow the game.

TSO players have been seeing new content integrated with existing content ever since beta. The clothing racks and secure trade features are examples of this - neither was present at launch -- and they exceeded our expectations when released to all of our production cities. Our community was very pleased. Clothing racks were designed to enable players to maximize their own creativity and direction of how they may play the game. Continuing down this path isn't growing the game to the extent we've identified. Going forward, the goal of our content will be attracting a new audience with the "new and improved" game including service NPCs, pets, new immersive job environments and levels of achievement, not just the post-launch-content.

Dogs and cats, as seen in The Sims Unleashed, will be in TSO soon. Players will individually own and have to take care of these pets, giving players more of the familiar dollhouse-like gameplay. These pets will have their own motives, and will search out different ways to fulfill these needs without player direction. If a kitty becomes bored, she may begin looking for an object "advertising" fun like a scratching post or maybe another pet to play with or scare.

Another feature we are adding is service NPCs. A player will be able to hire an NPC, like a maid, to automatically show up and clean their TSO property. This feature was first seen in The Sims, and as our players become busier entertaining other players or going to work, they won't have the time to keep their property neat and tidy. Both pets and service NPCs add an element of autonomy and unpredictability never seen in TSO before, and is believed to be a big win with the community

Spreading the word of these ongoing injections of content has been crucial to growing our audience and retaining existing players. The game cannot appear stagnant. Word moves quickly within the community when new teaser content is added to our "Test Center" (TC) city, creating a buzz among players. (The Test Center is a known temporary city where we add, test, and take away features regularly. This provides the development team a last minute tuning and bug check before implementing the features to all of the regular cities. For instance, we found out that outfits on the clothing racks were not expensive enough. We increased the price ten-fold before dropping the content to the other cities.

With the upcoming changes to TSO, we are counting on word of mouth communication to create a positive, fresh buzz and get new people into the game. So we'll be leaning this strong grapevine between the various Sims and TSO communities.

Balancing Development Efforts

Balancing the current game experience while we move towards our new goals is a delicate procedure. It may turn out that particular areas of the game get updated differently. If we add more NPCs to the game to pursue a similar feel as "townies" in The Sims Hot Date expansion pack, we risk depleting our internal team resources to enhance other existing features and make optimizations.

An example of where limited resources have affected the game is the lack of direct focus on the economy. Currently our marketing plans and design priorities are forcing us to focus on issues that aren't strictly related to the economy. That's a decision that some of us find painful, since the economy is a very important part of the game and if we neglect it too much, the game weakens. If this becomes a substantial threat to the game, we'll have to change focus and react appropriately. Production, design, engineering and QA will need keep an eye on the overall game as they continue balancing the finer points of the new content.

Another lesson we've learned is that live content updates are challenging. We want to deliver all sorts of new content, but the reality is that adding new content means that players have to download all of this new content to their PCs. We need to be sensitive to this, since most of our audience isn't used to this kind of process in their game experience. We've explored creative solutions to the distribution of new content, including a method similar to how we handled beta CDs: send us $5 for shipping and handling and we'll mail you the new CDs. But that means that we have to verify that each person is an existing player, and we have to be sure players aren't selling these CDs to others. We're tempted to let players continue to get content updates via downloadable "updates" and perhaps reward them with in-game perks or community events in exchange for their patience.

How Do You Know When You've Succeeded?

Marketing, production and design put a lot of effort into researching where the product is and mapping potential audience segments to just the right kind of content. We also had to keep delivering content to the current community while at the same time make a plan about how to take our product to a new market and content direction. Reevaluating some of the fundamental game designs was not easy, but the team bought into it and came up with great solutions. Most recently, we have started rolling out the new features to the community. We are counting on the community to create an enthusiastic buzz in existing TSO circles, which will hopefully compel new players to join TSO. The positive results of some of our efforts have already been validated by our current community on the Test Center city.

If the TSO community broadens, we'll know we've been successful. Reports indicate that players love the similarities to The Sims, and many are recommending the game to their friends who play The Sims.


TSO hopes to created strong word-of-mouth in existing TSO circles to lure in new players.

TSO is still a relatively new online game compared to most other MMOGs on the market, and we'll continue to modify the game to suit the desires of our player community and retailers. We will also closely watch the player demographics, gameplay styles and listen to the community. The Sims Online will continue to evolve.


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