When a franchise has aired 500 different episodes on television (and that's not counting the three years it ran as a series of shorts) and 24 separate video games, figuring out the next move can be tricky.
A big console game is a risk for a licensed property these days. A $2 or $5 iOS game might make an initial splash, but its sustainability is questionable given the constant flood of new titles. But freemium? That's something The Simpsons hasn't tried before.
The Simpsons: Tapped Out will be the first free-to-play title centered around the misfit Springfield family. EA and Gracie Films collaborated from day one to build a game from the ground up that would cater to fans of the show and potentially be a recurring source of revenue for the companies.
It's ground that has been previously tread, with some impressive results. Capcom's Smurfs' Village and Snoopy's Street Fair have had a regular presence on Apple's list of the top grossing apps since their release. (Smurfs' Village, released in 2012, is still at #6, in fact.) And EA's hoping to follow that path.
"Consumers are looking for not only a freemium title, but one that's filled with licensed properties and characters they care about," says Bernard Kim, senior vice president of social and mobile games for EA. "Our goal is to have an evergreen title that makes consumers and users laugh and enjoy themselves. And we'd love to have that same kind of lifeline [as Smurfs' Village]."
Like most freemium games, EA realizes that The Simpsons: Tapped Out will largely be enjoyed by a non-paying audience. Patient players won't feel the need to speed things along – and the few doughnuts (the obvious choice for in-game premium currency) they find as they explore Springfield will be sufficient. But EA hopes dogged fans of the show will be wiling to pony up real cash – just as has been the case with The Sims FreePlay (another regular presence in the Top Grossing list).
Kim declined to break down the percentage of whales (to use casino terminology) in that game, but did confirm they were the minority.
The Simpsons: Tapped Out, which has no firm release date at present but is expected in the next couple of weeks, centers on a nuclear meltdown caused by Homer, which destroys Springfield. The player is then tasked to recreate the town however they want. Penned by the show's writing staff, the game contains winks, nods and plenty of satire directed at both the television program and the free-to-play app genre, says Kim. EA is also working with Gracie to ensure new content flows in regularly (ranging from new characters to additional mini-quests).
"We see this product as having a tremendously long tail," says Kim. "The key to a product like this is to continue to generate new content. Just as the writers are creating new content for the program, that's our goal with this as well... I personally believe it's going to be one of our biggest release of 2012."
Players will not be required to log into EA's Origin system, but those who do will be able to share their virtual Springfields with friends.
While EA has been taking an interest in freemium iOS (and Android) games for a while now, this is actually only the second licensed property it has brought into the arena. (FIFA Superstars was released last August.)
That's deliberate, says Kim, since not every licensed property can succeed as a freemium game.
"It really needs to be the right license and the right property," he says. "The Simpsons really is the prefect property because we have such a tight relationship with the [production] company and the writers."