ESPNU College Town's Jay Arrera reveals how TV might help social games grow [Interview]

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ESPNU College Town
ESPNU College Town, released just over 30 days ago, has already amassed over 2 million monthly users and released two major content updates introducing Facebook Credits, baseball, softball and myriad new items. Regardless of the Playdom pedigree, social game growth is in a weird limbo where companies will take a step forward only to take two more back. So, it begs the question: how? ESPNU College Town's Senior Producer Jay Arrera tells us how Playdom managed to attract a few million college sports fans in less than 60 days (hint: lots of TV advertisements) and how the studio plans to keep them coming back for more.

What was the inspiration behind ESPNU College Town and why use the ESPNU brand specifically?

ESPN actually approached Playdom. The company had recently launched Social City in the spring of this year, it did very well and actually received the Game of the Year Award at GDC Online. ESPN were big fans of the game and they approached us and said, 'We have an idea for someone to be an athletic director, we've seen that you made a really popular game in the social game space.' We formed a partnership where ESPN would work with Playdom on multiple titles and this is the first title in that series.
ESPNU Campus
ESPNU might be one of the most traditionally advertised Facebook games to date with TV spots found on ESPN. Why is it that you went with this approach to get the word out there?

That was definitely ESPN's drive. Facebook games are traditionally advertised only on Facebook, but part of it was that we wanted to attract ESPN's audience through the strength of their brand. They wanted this to be a game that was played by their audience and so we wanted to bring new users to ESPN's brand and ESPN wanted to bring new players to Facebook. I think we've succeeded; we've seen an increase in traffic from both ESPN.com and their related fan pages. But also we've got a lot of people playing this game who have never played a Facebook game before. Or they've heard about Facebook games, but nothing but bad things about them and are really enjoying and totally addicted to this game now.

What do you think has contributed most to ESPNU's insanely fast growth in just the past month?
I think it's the passion for college sports, specifically their alma mater. What's an important feature for us is to have people able to identify with a real-world school and with that they bring all of their passion, pride and rivalries. People are very competitive with their [school] rivalries. They're also really enjoying the campus-building portion and being able to make their campus look like how they remember it or wish had it ever been.

Going off of that, have you found trouble finding new players in the face of Facebook's recent changes to discovery and Groups?
I wouldn't say we're having trouble finding players, but it's changing the tactics we're using to get the word out. And that's one of the reasons we're really excited about this partnership with ESPN so that we can try a bunch of different advertising mediums that we haven't used before and see which ones are most effective and which ones aren't. The changes to Facebook have absolutely impacted our ability to use channels that we've used in the past. So, we're definitely getting creative.

ESPNU Cross Promotion Social City
How successful have the cross-game promotions been for ESPNU? Is that something that Playdom plans to continue in the future?
I think we'll do it on a case-by-case basis. It worked really well for this game because we were attracting an audience that was very interested in the specific niche we were going for with U.S.-based college sports fans. So, it was very effective for capturing that audience. We'll see how it performs in other games where we're trying to go more broad appeal or even a tighter niche.

What are your thoughts on the approach of other popular sports Facebook games like Madden NFL Superstars and FIFA Superstars? Was there ever an interest in creating more interactive Challenge games during the game's development?
That was one of the first things we discussed as in the design for the game and we had the very deliberate decision to not make this into a hardcore sports simulator. We've seen a number of games on Facebook come out with that approach and they've generally not done well. There is a very different audience on Facebook that are going to be interested in that fantasy simulator-there is definitely a core audience that is into that and they do well enough for that audience, but it's not a broad appeal. Playdom's approach with this particular game is very much so to make it appeal to as wide an audience as possible, that is engaging for casual users as well as fun for someone who is really passionate about their sports.

ESPN has their brand on the line and they wanted to make sure that sports fans were still getting the full sports experience. A lot of that is done by making a lot of activities to do in the game so that if someone just wants to build a college campus, they can experience the entirety of the game just doing that. If someone wants to be extremely competitive and play out in one or multiple sports either in their conference or against their friends, they can do that too. So, it was definitely a deliberate design decision to have a lot of different gameplay options for different audiences.

I'm sure there have been countless comparisons between ESPNU and Social City, so aside from Challenges, what else do you feel differentiates this game from Social City? How about in the future?
Obviously the Competitions and the sports are the big differentiations. One of the things that was pleasantly surprising to us is that most of the players of ESPNU College Town had never played Social City. So, while some of the gaming press have said, 'Wow, it looks just like Social City," that's because Social City was very effective. And now we have an entirely new audience and they're really enjoying the game mechanics as is. They're just as invested in it as Social City players are. Some people play both games and others just play ESPNU College Town; we're really happy with that.

Challenge Mode
Are there any plans in the future to further differentiate the two games or is this as far as it goes?
Oh no, they will continue to differentiate. Playdom has also recently released City of Wonder and some people say that it's very similar to Social City-that game has its own life now, its own audience and its own theme. ESPNU College Town will continue to do the same and we are already reacting to player-requested items and features; some of the recent releases have been because of player feedback. This game has its own audience and we will deliver on that feature list now.

While we're on it, now that the foundation has been laid for ESPNU, where does Playdom take the game from here?
Well, we're still growing the game, so we're still very much in the early part of what we want to do with the game. We're still doing everything we can to get the word out and getting friends to compete and share with their own friends; that's our primary goal right now. We are continuing to work with the player vs. player competition because it's very popular. So, we've got a lot of features coming in the next few weeks, so stay tuned for those changes. As you saw, we just added baseball and softball-there's a lot of college sports out there. We've also got a lot of ideas with ESPN about how to tie in the real world with the virtual world, so you can look forward to more tie-ins there.

The game was perfectly timed with the college football season, but what plans does Playdom have to keep ESPNU relevant in the future when the 2010-2011 football season is through? Will other sports take prominence as the seasons pass?
I think you'll see that as we go along. The best answer I have is that ESPN has made it their art to keeping sports alive 365 days a year and that's what they bring to this game. The ability to be not just a seasonal game, but something that is a collegiate experience year round.

Last but certainly not least, what tips or advice do you have for ESPNU players to get an edge on the competition?
Upgrade your academics! People joke that Academics don't play any effect in the game, but that is absolutely incorrect. That is how you build your student enrollment and how you get a competitive edge in competition. Also, it helps to have a better team, so having better All Stars you absolutely will improve in your Competition. Those two things are probably the most important.

It's been a lot of fun--if you actually look in the Playdom forums, there's tremendous discussion amongst the players trading tips. Also, Playdom actively participates in the forums too, so that's a great place to go to if players are looking for the edge.

Any last words you would like to throw in?
Play ball! [laughs]
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