Stakes are high throughout the billion-dollar gaming industry, but the market is particularly competitive in the sports genre. Unlike many franchises that put out a new edition every couple of years, the sports game cycle is set to the clock of real life. That means every year a new version is created and needs to be bigger, stronger, faster than its predecessor in order to pry another $60 from your pocket.
Obviously, a big part of that is marketing. But aside from the big budget ads and other traditional paid persuasion, game developers often take consumer engagement to the next level, using fans to help create the product and then having them go out into the (largely online) world and be the brand’s biggest advocates.
Two of the world’s most popular sports game franchises are largely developed using plenty of Canadian talent at EA Sports’ studio in Burnaby, BC. NHL 12 has sold more than 415,000 copies since its release worldwide on September 13, a 19% increase over last year and the franchise’s best ever first-week sales. FIFA 12 launched worldwide on September 30th and quickly sold more than 3.2 million copies, making it the biggest launch in the history of sports video games and the biggest video game launch yet this year.
Two key Canadian players on the these teams are NHL 12 lead producer Sean Ramjagsingh and FIFA 12 lead game play producer Aaron McHardy. I spoke to them about the pressures unique to putting out an annual title, how they engage with consumers and how those fans impact the development and success of a game.
What’s the biggest challenge unique to working on an annual game that other developers don’t necessarily have to deal with so intensely?
Sean Ramjagsingh: It’s an aggressive cycle. We need to make sure we have a compelling feature set that we can execute at a high quality, so when we start talking about the next iteration of the game it looks, feels and plays different enough that people feel like they have to get the next version. With the economy the way it is, people having less disposable income, we’re challenged to get our consumers to feel it’s worth spending the money on our game. It’s up to us to put together an exciting enough offering within that year cycle to bring them back and fulfill their expectations.
How did development this year differ from previous experiences?
Aaron McHardy: This is one of the biggest games we’ve ever made in a one year cycle, in terms of changes from last year. It’s not just the big new features, there are a million little things that have changed. But we had the benefit of planning years in advance. The new Player Impact Engine is a very big feature but it wasn’t created in a year. A couple years ago we set out to rectify some of the technical limitations we had in previous games, specifically collisions and impact systems. And when we set out to do it, we realized right away it wasn’t a one-year project. We’ve actually had people working on it for two years, this is just when it was ready to go.
How big is fan interaction when it comes to finding and evaluating new ideas?
Sean Ramjagsingh: Yeah, it’s huge. For me personally, my Twitter and Facebook are wide open for fans to get in touch and talk about the games. I really use it as a way for fans to get past the corporate face of EA and understand they’re talking to Sean, one of the producers on the game. It’s an opportunity for me and other producers to educate fans on the development process, the decisions we have to make and why.
Aaron McHardy: The production staff is constantly reading the [EA] forums to know what’s being said. That’s a big avenue our fans use to give us feedback. Over the last couple of years we’ve developed relationships with some of the more prominent members of our hardcore community that we call game changers. They have a secure forum where we can speak a bit more candidly with them than we might with the general public, to try and develop some of their ideas and understand what they like and don’t like. We’ll also invite some of them here to EA or somewhere else in the world, to play parts of a new game before it’s released to give us feedback. So we’re constantly in touch with our community to make sure they’re happy with the product we’re making and the direction it’s going.
How valuable is that, not only for ideas, but in marketing the game?
Aaron McHardy: Incredibly valuable. These guys are evangelists for us and they’ll tell everyone on the forums what we’re up to, be genuinely excited and pass that passion on. The biggest thing is we’re in here everyday making this game, making a little change here, a tweak there. Sometimes we’re so close to the new game that when we give it to someone who has been playing the previous edition for six months, it’s amazing to see what they notice, how some of the changes impact them and if you’re achieving what you set out to achieve.