How Electronic Arts resurrected its DOA Simpsons game

Five months ago, EA pulled "The Simpsons: Tapped Out" from the App Store after critical connection problems and bugs. An executive talks about its return.

EA had pulled the plug on "The Simpsons: Tapped Out" before bringing it back last week. Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Don't call it a comeback.

"The Simpsons: Tapped Out" made its quiet return late last week after suffering through one of the more embarrassing meltdowns in app history when Electronic Arts pulled the game from Apple's App Store just a few days after its first launch in March . Simpsons fans had overwhelmed the server, causing connection problems, while massive bugs made for a terrible playing experience.

The incident is a lesson for any developer looking to launch a game with any amount of anticipation: be sure you're ready for the demand. Also, don't rush a product if it's not finished; the launch was timed near the 500th episode of "The Simpsons."

Tapped Out, which is a city-building game in the same vein as Zynga's Farmville, is one of EA's more ambitious projects and represents one of its biggest pushes into the burgeoning realm of the freemium model, where games are available for free but premium items and levels are available for an additional fee.

At the time, EA served up the hype heavily, and as a longtime Simpsons fan, I was eager to try it out. But the shutdown was a big disappointment, and the game largely faded from memory as the company worked to fix things. This time around, EA was understandably more understated with its push. Still, Tapped Out's early issues don't seem to be hurting demand; the game is the top free iPhone and iPad app in the App Store.

I spent a good chunk of the weekend playing the game, and found it to be a mixed bag despite the improvements. I really appreciated the humorous tone, the improved Retina Display-friendly graphics, the use of the voice actors, and the idea of rebuilding Springfield in your image. But the game wasn't particularly fun to play, and felt slow and boring relative to other social city-building-type games.

Other freemium games tend to get players involved early with quick missions and upgrades and new buildings before they get to the point where players are hooked and seriously considering paying for extra features. Tapped Out practically starts asking for your money off the bat, with drawn out construction times and a lack of things to do -- unless you start spending "donuts," the game's currency that can speed things up but that you pay actual money to get.

Still, that the game remains so popular is a testament to the enduring appeal of The Simpsons, and I'm sure there will be plenty of people willing to fork over that extra cash.

EA certainly hopes so. Nick Earl, vice president of the company's mobile and social studios, spared some time to answer a few questions in a virtual interview with me. The following is an edited transcript:

Q: First off, what happened?
Earl: When we launched The Simpsons: Tapped Out on the App Store in March, we had an immediately overwhelming response from fans, which took our servers out. We bit off a bit more than we could chew and had to pull the app from the App Store. At that point, we uncovered connectivity and corruption issues with the app that needed fixing. We kept the game off the App Store so that we could limit the game's server capacity while we made the fixes that were needed. It'd be an understatement to say that we're pleased to return The Simpsons: Tapped Out to the App Store.

What took so long to bring the game back? It's been nearly half a year since the game was pulled.
Earl: We discovered some fairly deep connectivity issues that led to in-game corruption. This required us to rebuild some of the server infrastructure and make some key changes in the way the game was communicating with our databases. Freemium games are very complex creatures, and this game was the most advanced freemium game we had released to date, so we were learning as we went.

There were a lot of complaints about the bugs in the game -- what have you done to address that?
Earl: We took the app offline so that we could get in to make the fixes we needed. We put the best people from across the company on the project and constantly tested through each major stage of development. And we listened to our fans who had first downloaded the app and were still playing the game to understand what sort of issues they were encountering. This helped us isolate causes.

What have you done to ensure it can handle the traffic?
Earl: Many things.... After making the client and server fixes, we did full end-to-end testing and load testing to ensure that it ran at high daily active usage. It's a very data-rich game based on the depth of content that is true to The Simpsons universe. Ensuring that this content moved seamlessly between players' devices and our servers was an essential checkpoint before relaunching the game. We staggered the launch of the game by region to make sure it ran perfectly in real-world conditions.

Ultimately, why was the game pulled? Was it the capacity issue or the bugs?
Earl: First it was capacity and then we uncovered connectivity and corruption issues. We kept the app off the App Store to limit server capacity so we could fix the bugs -- both with our server code and the game itself. By gating access for new players, we also protected the game experience for existing players as we worked through fixes.

What are the biggest changes to the new game?
Earl: Fixes to overall gameplay and stability, enhanced HD graphics for the new iPad Retina display, and a multitasking capability that makes it easy for fans to switch in and out of the game quickly. Expect more updates later this year that will expand the gameplay experience.

Is the central premise the same? What remains the same?
Earl: Yes, the premise is the same -- the adventure begins when Homer accidentally causes a meltdown that wipes out Springfield. It's up to you to rebuild it and help him find his family and friends. There's still the type of quests to earn virtual money and experience points so you can customize and expand your Springfield. If you're a Simpsons fan, you're going to love this game.

How will you try to earn back the goodwill of users who likely felt burned by the first experience?
Earl:Our fans were extremely patient while we made these fixes. We conducted a make-good of 60 free donuts for all those who stayed with us and compensated all those who lost in-app purchases as a result of connection issues. From there, it really comes down to whether we are delivering an entertaining experience that is going to keep people playing. If you're a Simpsons fan, you're going to get a lot out of this game. We're working with The Simpsons' award-winning writers to bring new content in future updates that ties back to the show. Nothing official to announce yet, so stay tuned.

Do you feel like the first attempt soured gamers on the Simpsons game?
Earl: We hope that they come back, but as I said before, it's up to us to deliver that entertainment experience that makes them want to play. We took the time we needed to fix the game because we wanted it to be top quality. We're now going to be focusing on listening to fans and providing updates that respond to their interests.

There are obviously a lot of games in the App Store, how will this one stand out? Are you relying purely on the Simpsons brand or doing your own marketing?
Earl: The game also has a dedicated marketing campaign, but more than 6 million people tune in to watch the show each week, so there's already a very healthy fan base out there. This is also the first time that The Simpsons has been offered as a free experience on mobile, and the first time you can actually re-create Springfield exactly how you want it. We think fans will appreciate the fact that they're able to customize this legendary town that has been around for more than 20 years.

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About the author

Roger Cheng is the executive editor in charge of breaking news for CNET News. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade. He's a devoted Trojan alum and Los Angeles Lakers fan.

 

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