EA PopCap on taking social games to a hardcore games audience at PAX East

Though broadly accepted by mainstream consumers, social games have only recently started targeting “hardcore” video game players. EA PopCap made a bold move to reach that audience this week at the Penny Arcade Expo video games festival in Boston, setting up Solitaire Blitz direct marketing campaign.

Inside Social Games spoke to PopCap Director of Editorial and Social Media Jeff Green on the decision to invest in the campaign — especially when no other social games developer had a serious presence at the show (with the exception of Tencent’s Boston studio, which set up a recruiting booth in the expo hall).

Inside Social Games: PAX is a hardcore gamer audience. Solitaire Blitz is a Facebook game — and a casual one, at that. Why bring the game front and center at this show?

Jeff Green: PopCap loves PAX. We were going to be at PAX no matter what because we like connecting to players one-on-one. Is a casual Facebook card game the best fit for PAX? We mulled it over… would people laugh at us or throw things at us? But it boiled down to the fact that we really like the game. Yes, it’s a card game on Facebook, but it’s a really good card game on Facebook that we’re proud of. It evolved out of one of our [internal] game jams and the idea was so cool, we wanted to make it a real Facebook game. Once it crosses over into “we’re taking this seriously,” we go all out. Which is why there’s a symphony orchestra playing the [in-game] music instead of a keyboard. Facebook games don’t have to be crappy; they can have a Triple-A presentation within the confines of that platform.

ISG: So how do you bring the game to the PAX audience? We see that you have a booth in the entrance hall of the convention center and you’re passing out goodies — otherwise known as “swag” — to passersby. At the same time, dancers dressed as zombies are promoting an older PopCap game, Plants vs. Zombies, right next to the Solitaire Blitz display.

Green: We know it’s a new IP and no one really knows it yet — not this crowd. Our earliest talks were having the zombies promoting the game. As it talks went on, the Solitaire Blitz team said they wanted the game to stand on its own. So we backed off that and let the zombies dance separately. Every year, we have something that people can wear. So for Solitaire Blitz, we have an arrow-through-the-head [headband] with [Otis the worm] on it. It’s not as easy to get them to wear as [last year's] Plants vs. Zombies traffic cone hat. We also worried it would be too phallic looking, so we added the hook — so it’s a worm on a hook. And then we needed to further incentivize with “we’ll give something cool away if you wear it to one random person.” The other thing we’re doing is handing out packs of playing cards that are branded with PAX East and a redemption for 25,000 coins in Solitaire Blitz.

ISG: But you didn’t set up stations for people to play the game?

Green: No. We thought about setting up a bunch of laptops, but the issue of a hardcore gaming show came up. A bank of laptops with people playing solitaire on them just wouldn’t look cool. It doesn’t translate to a booth presence.

ISG: So how will you measure the impact of this campaign on Solitaire Blitz itself?

Green: One superficial thing would be people wearing the hats. But a bigger one is “does our PAX presence drive daily active users,” for example. Do [players] evangelize it more? Do they get clued in and play it and tell their friends? I like being at these shows because I believe in these one-on-one communications.

ISG: Based on how it’s going so far, on how many people are wearing the Otis hats, would you do this campaign again? Maybe at the PAX Prime show in Seattle this summer?

Green: It depends on the game. I have to know I can represent this game in public and feel OK about it. If the next Facebook game comes along and I’m iffy about it, I wouldn’t bring it here.

ISG: What about other social game developers? Should they be here at PAX to speak to the hardcore gamer audience directly?

Green: It’s stupid not to be here. These are the most passionate gamers and this is who you want evangelizing your product. If you believe in your game, you should be at this show. At E3, you’re talking to the press and retailers. The Game Developers Conference is developers talking to other developers. PAX is gamers. Even if your game isn’t for “gamers,” I would say the best advertisement you could have is even gamers playing your game.

Solitaire Blitz currently has 2.5 million monthly active users and 600,000 daily active users, according to our AppData traffic tracking service. PAX East concludes today at 6pm EST.

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