When Electronic Arts announced Spark’d, a reality TV tie-in with its long-standing simulation game The Sims 4, there was more than a bit of confusion.
An open-ended life simulation game isn’t the type of title usually broadcast to viewers. That, however, is exactly what makes Spark’d intriguing. I spoke with The Sims General Manager Lyndsay Pearson about what to expect.
Like e-sports, but for designing virtual houses
Gaming viewership has long been pigeonholed into streams of others playing or e-sports competitions. The Sims doesn’t naturally translate to e-sports, yet a reality show format feels like an oddly perfect fit. In Spark’d, instead of competing for kills, players compete in skill challenges by creating in-game stories.
“What I hope people will find in Spark’d are a lot of different ways to look at The Sims game,” said Pearson. “The game can be played in a million ways. You can build Sims, or build houses, or tell stories, or do crazy experiments with the simulation.”
The Sims has thrived online, particularly since its latest entry, The Sims 4, came out in 2014. YouTube boasts several “Simmers” who regularly post Let’s Play videos and viral challenges. There’s Rags to Riches, where players remove any initial starting funds, including a home, and work their way up in the world. The 100 Baby Challenge, meanwhile, is just what it says — players attempt to give birth to 100 babies in as few generations as possible. There’s also the Black Widow Challenge, which sees female Sims marry and eventually kill their spouses. These challenges don’t even touch the complex homes people create, or the unique Sims they design.
If you’re surprised The Sims offers so much variety, that’s exactly the point. Pearson said she wants Spark’d to show people everything you didn’t know the game could do. The show aims to bring the game’s creative spirit to television, where contestants compete for a $100,000 prize.
“We said it almost jokingly in the beginning, ‘If we were to think of The Sims as an e-sport, what would it be?'” Pearson said. She likens the show’s challenges to the tasks contestants might complete in on Chopped or Project Runway.
Keeping it in the fan base
The show takes its viral roots into account. One of the judges is Kelsey Impicciche, who created the 100 Baby Challenge web series. She’s joined by Maxis game developer Dave Miotke and singer-songwriter Tayla Parx, who does voice acting for the game and recorded a song in Simlish. Former American Idol finalist Rayvon Owen, who has been playing since middle school, hosts Spark’d.
Contestants are Simmers with online followings.
“We wanted it to feel like you already had someone you were rooting for and someone you already knew a bit about,” said Pearson. “Knowing they had already been online and had some community, we knew they would be somewhat comfortable going through some of the on-camera elements.”
One might expect YouTube or Twitch would be the obvious go-to for Spark’d. But Pearson said the team wanted to reach a new audience, which led to a partnership with ELeague and TBS for the show’s television debut, as well as Buzzfeed Multiplayer for greater visibility online.
In its announcement, EA noted the opportunity to target Gen Z players, but Pearson’s vision goes being just one age group.
“By being on TBS and Buzzfeed, you actually get much more than Gen Z. You get Gen Z, you get millennials, you get Gen X, any of those groups. We have a game that’s been around a long time, and there’s a nostalgia,” she said. “Maybe you originally played back in college or high school, and you want to share it with your kids or your younger cousin.”
New marketing tool
Spark’d is also a new marketing tool for one of EA’s most reliable brands. The show is an opportunity to highlight what players can do with the game. It has expanded over the years with three dozen DLC options, including $10 Stuff Packs, $20 Game Packs, and Expansion Packs, which cost as much as the base game at $40. The Sims 4 team also has more on the way, and has said on numerous occasions that it’s focused on developing more before thinking about a possible Sims 5.
“We wanted it to feel like you already had someone you were rooting for and someone you already knew a bit about.
Pearson mentioned there will be in-game challenges rolled out as the series progresses, allowing players to participate in the on-screen competition. For now, she says only the base game is needed.
Pearson is hopeful that future seasons might be able to incorporate new content as it releases. Yes, Pearson is already thinking about more seasons. But with quarantine lasting through the foreseeable future (the first season was filmed at the end of 2019), that will have to wait.
“We would have loved to be jumping into more seasons already, but we’re just not in a position to do that yet,” Pearson remarked on the effect of COVID-19. “I think that’s okay, actually. It gives us some time to learn … .”
The first episode of Spark’d premieres on TBS and Buzzfeed Multiplayerat 11 p.m. ET/PT on Friday, July 17.
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