Note from Alissa: With the downtime right now, we thought it would be fun to revisit some of Patric’s old posts from “back in the day” (circa 2014), when he was much angrier at TSTO/EA. Hopefully, they make you chuckle as much as they make us chuckle. Here’s a look back at one of those posts…
It’s not often that one gets an “insider’s look” at what goes on behind the curtain at EA. I was lucky enough to find out for myself, and have one of my biggest questions finally answered. Namely, “Who Sets the Prices for Premium Items In TSTO?”
The fact is…it always seemed random to me. I never understood how they differentiated between “Premium,” “Freemium”and “Community Prizes” that were earned back in the day by visiting neighbors.
Arnold Treadstaff closed the door slowly behind him, and looked across his office at the huge chart hanging on the wall. Once again, he had been given the directive from accounting to set the donut prices on the next update. He knew something that they didn’t. He knew that although he had been hired based on his credentials as a Yale Business Administration graduate, and had spent more than a six months in an internship program at Electronic Arts, he didn’t have a clue what he was doing.
The staff person who had been handling the job before Arnold, had resigned suddenly, leaving a “sticky note” on the screen of his company laptop, that simply read, “G.O.N.E.” And he was.
There had been signs that Bob Flimstead had been struggling with the job, as he had been seen wandering the halls of E.A. executive headquarters mumbling, “Freemium or Premium,” with a fixed look of confusion and fear on his face for days before the “Post It” had been posted. But, it was Jeanene that had noticed that Bob’s clothing had remained the same for a full 16 days, as his finely chiseled chin became encrusted with a growth of beard, and what seemed to be sleep drool.
Now, Jeanene was starting to worry about Arnold. As it turned out…she had good reason to be concerned.
While it was true that Arnold had indeed graduated near the top of his MBA class at Yale, it was equally true that he had never been able to figure out any conceptual formula for assigning price to the digital assets of the The Simpsons Tapped Out, Electronic Arts’ top-selling mobile game. He certainly understood the basic tenants of accounting and economics, and while it seemed that the ability to raise prices until there was a common point of resistance by consumers should work easily, there had already been a disaster in the short time he had been with the company.
It wasn’t Arnold’s fault. He was merely interning, and had been watching from afar, well removed from any actual day-to-day decisions. He knew that the pricing department was still taking very clear input from both the head of accounting, as well as the head of digital programming, as to what direction pricing should take. And perhaps therein lay the true problem. While accounting had a very clear directive to maximize profit at every turn, programming felt that there should be a game “Value Matrix” in place that correlated some type of pricing standard for each character, building or decoration, based on how the players associated with them emotionally, as it pertained to The Simpsons television franchise.
This required some working knowledge of the show, as well as some way of finding out what true fans felt about upcoming characters. Arnold had not been a Simpsons fan in his youth, high school, or his college years. In fact, he had only recently spent the better part of a summer break before his internship, binge-watching as many episodes as he could get online, but realizing that starting after season 12 was a detriment. He had figured this out, as he had tried his best to find show correlations between much of what was already in the game, and which seasons they had appeared. That is where the Pay-Go cell phone had come into play.
The final pricing fiasco by Bob had been completely un-predicted. EA had just come off of a huge jump in increased player action, but with mixed income messages. The Halloween update had been loaded with Freemium content, as well as being buoyed by another full level update toward the end, that caught players in a “generous mood.” The result was that Luan, The Cracker Factory and the Fleet-A-Pita ended up being one of the most downloaded Premium Combinations in TSTO history, in large part out of a feeling of appreciation for the huge list of free content, as well as the ability to earn free donuts after all of the personal Halloween gifts had been earned. The “give some to get some” method had proven effective, but accounting was leery of anything that handed out free donuts…it sent a bad message.
Christmas had followed, with the introduction of the “Holiday Wheel” concept, something on which Bob had “hung his hat in pride.” It was both gambling and a psychological sense of need to “have what is free,” which ironically resulted in a wave of players dropping boatloads of real money, to by donuts for extra spins on the “slightly rigged” wheel. The programming had been complex, the algorithms skewed heavily toward newer players, but all in all, record profits had been achieved, as players resorted desperately to buying extra spins, to earn “free items.” Accounting loved the irony, as well as the extra zeroes in the net profit line on the balance sheet.
The Level 38 update had gone smoothly with Judge Snyder as a Freemium Character and the Blue Haired Lawyer being introduced as Premium at just 90 donuts. This was accepted by both accounting and programming, as 90-100 donuts for a talking premium character was not only fair, but spurred a quick burst of sales, floated on Post-Holiday gift card purchases.
The Super Bowl Tie-Ins followed a similar course, with a FREE Blimp, a relatively inexpensive Duff Race car for just $250,000 in game cash, and the Duff Party Bus being a reprise for those who had not bought it previously, for just 50 donuts. While it was still a vehicle that could not be placed on the street, like all of the vehicles in TSTO, Bob had long since stopped trying to understand the programming part, and was mildly excited to see another burst of sales as soon as the item hit.
Life was good. EA and Bob’s pricing offerings were on a roll. They were minting donut-sprinkled money, and other than a rash of extremely annoying game glitches and bugs that had thrown support teams into 24-hour chaos, it looked like almost anything that Bob laid out to the buying public, would in fact be bought…in record numbers.
Until the Whale.
Perhaps it was hubris. Maybe it was due to Bob’s creative solution for “birthing” extra money/donuts out of Brandine’s “birthing shute” by making the price of speeding up gestation of the Spuckler brood just enough to equal another full Premium Character price. Whatever the case, the whale was the item that destroyed the game’s heart, and most likely Bob’s tender grip on sanity.
Nobody understood it. Programming believed it to be a typo on the initial price “call sheet.” Accounting believed that they had “finally found their boy,” but went into a state of complete deniability when the blubber hit the fan.
The whale, at 300 donuts, for what was essentially a decoration that made a sound, dived, and then reappeared, was clearly the most overpriced, and completely greed and avarice-pumped item that anyone associated with the game could have imagined. It spurred a rash of Blog outrage, and “in-your-face” hacker displays of multiple whales floating near mocking crowds on Squidport’s piers. And, it was the flash fire that burned the last muffin in the fried brain-pan of Bob Flimstead.
That was then. This was now. And Arnold had just one more day to come up with the pricing for level 39.
“Why doesn’t he call?” Arnold said out loud, while staring at the black flip phone on his desk.
The phone had just shown up one day while Arnold was in a meeting with accounting, just two days after starting the new job. It had rung, with the “tweedle-tweedle”of a factory preset, and vibrated slowly across the shiny glass top of his desk. He had picked it up on the 7th ring, as it was about to drop off of the edge of the desk and onto the floor.
“Uhm…hello? Can I help you?” Arnold had spoken haltingly into the phone.
“No. But I can help you,” the highly scrambled and digitally altered voice had replied. “You don’t have a clue what you are doing, do you? I can see it in your face.”
Arnold looked around the office, looking for a camera, or an opening in his office door. Finding none, he said boldly, “Who are you? How do you know me?”
“Never mind any of that,” the voice snapped. “I am here to help. That is all you need to know. And, you sure as hell better start listening to me.”
What transpired that day was the revelation that the person on the other end of the phone was a hardcore tapper. Someone who had played the game from Day One, including the original ill-fated release that had been pulled, then re-launched in late September 2012. The voice had made it clear that tappers were sick of uneven pricing, game glitches, and they never wanted to see the “WHell” in the game again. Ever.
The voice had gone on to school Arnold in the basics of Simpsons lore, and the fact that as long as the characters were tied in some way to the first 15 seasons, and especially the first 10, known as “DSG,” the Decade of Simpsons Gold, they would be accepted, and willingly bought, as long as the price was within 90-120 donuts…and up to 200 if they came with a building, a space ship, a flame thrower, or boobs. But, the boobs had to come with a motel.
When using this logic, it was clear why the Whale had been a pricing fiasco.
Arnold’s first price point (with guidance from the voice) had been Freedom the Falcon. It was a “can’t miss” at just 40 donuts. It flew. It looked great when it flew. It made a cool Stephen Colbert kind of screech when he took off, and who doesn’t like something named “Freedom?” But, best of all, it was the perfect follow-up to the introduction of “Friendship Points” and “Friendship Prizes.”
Nobody really knew where FPs came from. Most assumed it was already “in the can” when Bob left. But the fact was, it has just appeared in notes to programming, with some minor changes to existing code from the Halloween update, and nobody had questioned it. Accounting was still in complete denial mode after the Whale Incident, and not willing to exercise any of its influence over the “Interim Price Fixer” who had sent them their memo. This sort of thing happens all of the time in companies as large as EA, in that there are often whole weeks that go by without anyone from accounting seeing anyone from programming or support. Why bother with personal connection when emails, memos, memos about the emails, and faceless conference calls will suffice?
And so it was, that a quantum shift in the game was introduced by an “interim price fixer,” that nobody met. But “the voice” on the other end of the Pay-Go phone seemed to know a LOT about FP, and the concepts behind them. They had been pleased to see the huge uptick in player town-to-town activity. Because ultimately, a game like this requires a sense of community to grow and prosper. “You tap my town, I’ll tap yours,” goes a long way in gaming and in life. “The voice” had actually sounded wistful in a garbled, electronic way, when explaining this concept to Arnold.
But now, it was just hours away from the deadline Arnold had been given, and he hadn’t heard from “the voice” in three days. St. Patrick’s day was scheduled to end on the 25th, and that meant the players would be expecting something HUGE soon, especially after enduring a handful of small “Episode Tie-Ins” that had followed.
When the phone suddenly rang to life, Arnold could almost feel the air being sucked from the room in anticipation.
“OK. You’re ready,”the voice crackled. “This one is going to be HUGE. There will be 16 new decorations, nine new characters, and most important, a NEW FORM OF TRANSPORTATION. I have the list for you. Now all you have to decide is which will be Freemium, and which will be Premium. I know you can do this…I have confidence in you.”
At this point, the line went dead, and the phone “twingled” with a text message. Opening up the message, Arnold found the list of the upcoming digital assets, preceded by a “thumbs up” Emoji, and one line of text that read, “I believe in you.”
Jeanene closed her desk drawer, and locked it. She then sat quietly in the deserted office, listening for any sound coming from Arnold’s office nearby. Minutes passed, and she could feel her breath grow shallow, her heart-rate climb as the silence grew deafening. A bead of sweat began to form on a brow that was now furrowed with worry.
Then she heard it. The distinctive “smunk” sound of a weighted, metal dart, hitting the wall.
“Premium” she heard Arnold mumble.
A contented smile crossed her face, as she gathered her purse, and began walking slowly, and quietly away, as the sound faded with each footstep.
And so it goes…another Yale MBA put to good use. Next step? Working for “the Fed.”
Keep on Tappin’
CrankyOldGuy (March 2014)