How EA plans to compete with Fortnite and Roblox in the metaverse

Electronic Arts’ Q3 2023 earnings call on Tuesday was a mixed bag for the gaming giant — but “The Sims” was a bright point. As marketing dollars flood into platforms such as Roblox and Fortnite, EA sees its popular simulation game as its way to secure a piece of the metaversal pie.

Gaming platforms are currently the closest thing to a truly immersive and persistent digital world, and brands have taken note. As games like Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft transform into full-service metaverse platforms, marketers have spent millions of dollars partnering with in-game creators to build bespoke virtual brand experiences inside them.

EA didn’t use the word “metaverse” a single time during its Q3 2023 earnings call — but the game developer has clearly taken note of the revenue-generating potential of virtual platforms powered by user-generated content, or UGC.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that ‘The Sims’ will be [as big as Fortnite and Roblox] at some point,” said Samantha Ryan, an svp and general manager at EA who oversees studios including Maxis, the developer of ‘The Sims.’ To learn more about EA’s plans to crank up the UGC capabilities of its games, Digiday spoke to Ryan for this annotated Q&A, supported by observations from EA’s Q3 2023 earnings call.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

On the EA titles ripe for conversion into metaverse platforms

“For my studios, I have Maxis, which is the guardian of the ‘Sims’ franchise, and Full Circle, which is the guardian of the ‘Skate’ franchise, and those studios are both working on future projects that are very ‘game-out.’

Game-out is about making sure that the game elements and features that people know and love are respected, and are delivering everything that they would want to keep them highly, deeply engaged. And then around that we put a layer of in-game tools that our players can use directly in the game, merging and using them with outside tools as well, so it’s easy to take things from the ‘out’ and put them into the game. It’s not a surprising strategy, because it is similar to what some of these other companies are doing.”

— Ryan

It’s no surprise that Ryan zeroed in on “The Sims” in her answer to this question. It’s one of EA’s most popular series — if not the most popular — and “The Sims 4” boasted a total player count of 33 million in October 2022, six years after its initial release. (33 million, while a relatively high player count for any game, is still dwarfed by the 173 million and 400 million users respectively enjoyed by “Minecraft and “Fortnite.”)

“The Sims” is a series that is based on the construction of virtual worlds and virtual people to populate them, much like Roblox and Minecraft. Still, as it currently stands, “The Sims” is more of a simulation game — not a true metaverse platform. While users can share their creations with each other, they cannot co-create simultaneously. In Roblox and Minecraft, socializing with other players in-game is practically necessary to keep things entertaining; in “The Sims,” the core gameplay loops are mostly single-player.

On the specific changes that will bring games like ‘The Sims’ closer to metaverse platforms

“We are working on the next ‘Sims’ game — ‘Project Rene’ is its code name right now — and we did an apartment customization test where they were testing how multiple players would build together. Historically, in ‘The Sims,’ you have not been able to do that. But it is something that our players have asked for. They actually hack it in there — there are mods out there where two people can build an apartment together. So if the modders are already doing it, and it’s really hacky and hard to use, then of course we should be putting it in a future game.”

— Ryan

The planned changes to “The Sims” outlined above by Ryan show how the game’s developers at Maxis are well aware of the inherently social nature of today’s leading metaverse platforms. Taking cues from game modders is also important for EA to ensure that the final product lines up with the community’s expectations, and EA has recently started to test prototype versions of its games with select group of players, sometimes under NDA, before rolling out the final release.

Another key change that EA has made to bring “The Sims” closer to its metaversal competitors is the series’ recent switch to a free-to-play, live service model. “The Sims is also evolving and growing as a live service,” said EA CEO Andrew Wilson on Tuesday’s earnings call. “In Q3, we took the base game free-to-enter and welcomed over 10 million new players into the community.”

On the scale of EA’s UGC audience

“The great thing about EA is that Maxis, and to some extent ‘Skate,’ have already been working in this space. The ‘Sims’ franchise is 23 years old, and user-generated content has been in that franchise since the very beginnings. ‘The Sims 4,’ which we operate right now, has over 88 million total uploads into the ‘Sims 4’ gallery — I mean, that’s a lot of content, and we do about 200,000 downloads daily from that same gallery.

We also just announced a partnership with Overwolf to create a destination to download mods and custom content, to ensure it’s a bit more moderated and curated. That is one of the challenges with this type of content: that people are often afraid to access it. So that’s ‘The Sims 4’ today, and most of those mods that are out there, they’re creating them with in-game tools, but it’s not super easy to access them. So in the future, we hope to make it even easier for people to create and even easier for people to access.”

— Ryan

EA’s partnership with Overwolf is another reason to believe that the company views Minecraft as a serious competitor. Overwolf owns CurseForge, the largest online game-mod-sharing platform. Millions of users visit CurseForge every month to download Minecraft mods — and now they are also served “Sims” mods whenever they navigate to the CurseForge home page.

“We believe that UGC is the future of gaming. Gamers get more content, mod authors are recognized and rewarded for their creations and publishers can outsource content creation in a way that is safe, while fostering engagement,” said Overwolf CEO Uri Marchand. “Overwolf’s partnership with ‘The Sims 4’ marked a significant step toward unleashing the community’s creativity and making UGC more accessible to the entire ecosystem.”

On the formation of a brand/creator economy in EA’s corner of the metaverse

We have already done branded packs with ‘The Sims 4.’ We’ve done clothing brands, we’ve done big brands, we’ve done community collaborations. We will do more over time — we’re just dipping our toes in now. 

‘The Sims 4’ is going on 10-plus years, so if we have that same kind of thread, then yes, the genius of our players will inspire new things to be created. And then we, as a development studio, can decide, ‘hey, do we want to professionalize that? Do we want to allow them to become sort of semi-pro modders, as others have done in the Minecraft and Roblox communities?’ There’s a lot of things we can do to really keep these games humming along for many years, with players at the center. It’s a self-sustaining wheel that goes around, and players are driving it — and when we see something that we can support, we’ll jump in and we’ll do that.”

— Ryan

Platforms like Fortnite and Roblox are full of branded experiences created by independent creator studios without any involvement on the part of the platforms’ developers. In contrast, most brand activations in “The Sims 4” are the result of direct partnerships between EA and the brands. If EA truly wants to compete with today’s leading metaverse platforms, it will have to support the development of a more robust creator economy that allows brands to activate inside the game with minimal involvement from EA itself.

“The future of entertainment is interactive,” said Wilson on Tuesday’s earning call. By pushing titles like “The Sims” and “Skate” into the metaverse using a game-out approaching, EA is betting big on the continued rise of interactive, immersive and virtual media.

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