Since its launch eight weeks ago, Electronic Arts' The Sims Social has become one of the fastest-growing games on the Facebook platform, reaching 65 million players -- about 20 percent of whom have never played a Sims game before.
That's according to EA Playfish's Tom Mapham, executive producer on the game, who adds Playfish has seen engagement times three or four times longer than the benchmark set by previous games in either EA or Playfish's independent history. Users are playing 15-20 minutes per session, returning three or more times a day.
Incidentally, he says players of the game "woo-hoo" -- guess what that means -- once every second of the day.
The game monetizes on virtual items, and has seen three broad drivers for virtual items purchases. As players invest more time, the world grows more valuable to them, and their ability to maximize their investment becomes important and worth spending money against. It's "not unlike dropping quarters into an arcade machine," in Mapham's words.
"Beautiful-looking items" are offered as tools for customization, another driver of player spend. The third main driver is the social component: "Knowing your friends are in this world also playing the game makes it a place where you can share experiences and communicate with your friends, as well as exhibit yourself however you want to," says Mapham.
Status, whether that's a player's looks and clothing or the way they've decorated their house, creates materialistic competition that keeps users playing -- and paying.
"We were a little nervous; we thought maybe this was a step too far, and that it wouldn't be received well. But it surprised us, in that players really enjoy it," Mapham says.
The company tracks over a terabyte of daily data to analyze how players are using The Sims Social, with an entire team of analysts and product managers running usability tests and market research at the same time. "What they're doing looks a lot more like e-commerce than game design," he explains.
Some results include that new items sell "incredibly well... we have to release new items every week." Consumable, repeatable items are also strong performers and are easier to scale. Functionality trumps decoration when it comes to the volume of items sold.
Finally all items aren't equal. "There are some aspects of virtual items sales that do not reveal themselves through analysis," Mapham said. The team works hard to balance the bottom line-oriented product management and metrics with the work of artists and designers who try to create appealing, exciting new items and experiences for players, and Mapham describes an excellent collaboration between both sides.
In fact, he firmly emphasizes the creative culture; a number of people have creative ownership, and rather than being a "recipe for disaster" as a lack of top-level creative control can sometimes create in game design, it's worked quite well for The Sims Social, in his view.
"We're certainly working very hard to build on this momentum and drive the audience further," he says. "I'm sure that if we drive more of that collaboration, we'll raise standards across the board and it'll make for a richer industry all around."