Interview: EA Playfish’s C.J. Prober on Facebook Superstars

EA’s social game developer Playfish gets a lot of traffic love for its FIFA and Madden branded Superstars sports titles developed jointly with EA Sports. Both games rank in the top 10 across all Electronic Arts titles, accounting for roughly 14% of EA’s total monthly and daily active user traffic according to our app tracking service, AppData. Madden is the smaller game with only 1.4 million MAU and just over 170,000 DAU to date, while FIFA is still going strong at 3.5 million MAU and roughly 560,000 DAU.

The newest title in the lineup, World Series Superstars, launched just last week to coincide with the start of the Major League Baseball season and Playfish VP of publishing and product management, C.J. Prober joins us for an interview on the title’s vital link to the real world MLB and how that grow the game’s audience hopefully past Madden’s.

Inside Social Games: First things first. Who’s your favorite pitcher?

C.J. Prober: Brian Wilson, relief pitcher for the SF Giants. [Pictured]

ISG: World Series Superstars differs from other games in the Superstars series in several ways — most notably by adding a highly interactive component to gameplay where players can control the action pitch-by-pitch. How did these features evolve out of previous Superstars games, EA Sports FIFA Superstars and Madden NFL Superstars?

Prober: In FIFA, there’s an animation [for individual soccer games]. In Madden, we wanted to take that to a new level, so we added Game Changers [items] you can play to impact the outcome of the game. So you can return a kickoff for a touchdown or score a field goal or what have you. The feedback from the players was really positive on that, so we’ve taken World Series to a whole new level. We’ve really increased the engagement around playing games in terms of managing [plays]. You also train your team in a much deeper way in MLB than in both FIFA and Madden. It’s kind of a much deeper exercise where you’re like, “Oh, do I want to juice my pitchers or train my outfield?”

ISG: How much of an impact does player interaction have on the outcome of ballgames? For example, if a player chose to manage a game directly instead of using the simulation mode where World Series plays the ballgame for them, could they pull off a win when the simulation would’ve determined that they lost?

Prober: You’re definitely at an advantage if you play the game strategically and manage your players, your training resources, and make smart decisions as you play the game. You can affect the outcome. Will it automatically result in a victory? Not necessarily, but you definitely have an advantage.

ISG: What other lessons did you take from FIFA and Madden to develop World Series?

Prober: I think the deeper training of players was a big on one. The nice thing about these games is that you can evolve them on a weekly basis. So we’ve taken some of the proven social mechanics and adopted those in World Series. For example, when you build out your stadium, it’s kind of an evolution of our collaborative social mechanics. Like if you want to build a dugout, you acquire the dugout and then you’ve got to hire your friends or you can accelerate that process using [the game’s premium currency] Baseball Cash. World Series has some more social hooks in it than we had in FIFA. But again, those games are continuing to evolve, so don’t be surprised to see these things in Madden or FIFA as well.

ISG: World Series launched specifically to coincide with the start of the Major League Baseball season and we know both Madden and FIFA contained some game functionality that depended on real world events within the sport. In what way will the MLB season affect World Series gameplay?

Prober: That’s actually one of the things that we’re excited about with respect to MLB relative to Madden and FIFA. MLB is a much more consistent series. In Madden you’ve got weekly games on Sunday and sometimes there’s games on Thursday. In MLB, you’ve got games happening every day. So we’re confident in the fact that people engage in their affinity for the sport on a daily basis. We think that’s going to increase the engagement of our players in World Series.

One of the things that we haven’t included as part of the launch — but it’s coming in the next couple of weeks — is the Predictor mode. In Madden we had this very light functionality where you would pick who would win the weekly games and you would compete against your friends around winning percentage, how good you were at predicting the winners. We had a mechanic where you had a certain amount of points you could [assign] to certain games you felt really confident about. In MLB, when Predictor mode launches, there’s going to be a game of the day. You’re going to make a selection of games and you’re going to be competing with your friends on a streak of how many games of the day you picked correctly.

ISG: Are you at all concerned that the audience for World Series will be smaller than FIFA’s because baseball is a very American sport? We observe that Madden NFL Superstars’ audience is less than half the size of FIFA’s, according to AppData.

Prober: I would say MLB is probably in between [FIFA and Madden in terms of audience size]. I think you have a lot of baseball fans outside the U.S. But I should point out that currently MLB is only available to players within North America. Nothing to announce on [other territories] at the moment. But one of the things that we’re really excited about with the launch of World Series Superstars is our relationship to MLB. We have a great marketing relationship, so they’re really going to support us through and leveraging the channels to their fans to promote this game.

ISG: Any chance of the MLB offering free tickets to Superstars players?

Prober: We actually did a sweepstakes with Madden — at one point, it was going to be Super Bowl tickets and then we ended up changing that, but there were some pretty exciting prizes there. So the great thing about these games is that you have fans with a massive affinity for the sport, for the teams and for the players. And then it’s fun. And you’re competing against your friends. It’s a recipe for success. There’s just so many opportunities to have fun with this and push the boundaries of what’s been done before in sports games and social games that we’re kind of in a perpetual exercise of prioritization given the opportunity here.

ISG: Because your game is time-sensitive with respect to the MLB season, how important is it for the game to be fully developed right at launch to coincide with the series as opposed to other social games that iterate planned features over a period of time post-launch?

Prober: It’s definitely important. This is where I think EA Sports brings a great pedigree [through] the packaged goods business where we release sports titles on an annual basis. The team is very used to the deadline-driven release timeline in order to meet the launches that typically happen before the season. We definitely felt pressure to get World Series launched before the MLB season started. I think another underlying part of that question is has the bar risen in terms of what users expect from a polished, quality product. I think the answer is definitely yes. Over the last couple of years, we’ve really increased the quality and the polish and the depth of our games at the time of launch and users expect that.