Playing virtual God: The Sims

Playing virtual God has proved to be appealing. "The Sims 1" was already the world's best-selling video game when Electronic Arts sold more than a million copies of "The Sims 2" within 10 days after its September release, the biggest video game launch in the 22-year history of the Redwood City, California-based company.

That's a lot of success for a video game that is not a gore fest, has no real plot, no score, not even a real way to win. In fact, "The Sims 1" almost was never made. The game studio doubted the prospects for a game that consists solely of letting players direct the lives of virtual people as they complete everyday tasks, such as eating, furnishing a house and using the toilet. There are no winning or losing players in the Sims -- no points to rack up. It's essentially a virtual doll house.

"I was describing a game that involved going to the bathroom and taking out the trash at a time when most games were about saving the world or slaying the terrible dragon," Sims creator and acclaimed games maker Will Wright told the Sydney Morning Herald in August.

It took five years and a team that grew to 120 developers at its peak to create "The Sims 2." It was a major effort to meet the expectations set by "The Sims 1," which was released in February 2000 and has topped the PC game charts since, despite the fact that its core engineering team consisted of only four people.

"'The Sims 2' was a much bigger endeavor," said Tim LeTourneau, senior producer of "The Sims 2." "Think of 'The Sims 1' as kind of an independent movie and of 'The Sims 2' as a Hollywood blockbuster." Four years ago, LeTourneau worked on international versions of "The Sims 1."

The long-awaited sequel is based on the same principles as the original game. The Sims, the virtual people in the game, still have needs that have to be fulfilled, according to social scientist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. However, the game was completely rebuilt and Wright played only a limited role as he is busy with a secretive new project.

Maslow's theory of human motivation originated during the 1940s and 1950s. He argued that human behavior can be best explained as a quest to satisfy primal needs, such as hunger and safety, before other demands, such as love, self-esteem and self-actualization. The Sims are programmed in this way, so if they are hungry they won't enjoy a computer game, for example.

In "The Sims 2," the Sims have much more complete personalities. Players for the first time can control their Sims over an entire lifetime and play with different generations of Sims. Like in real life, an adult Sim is shaped by childhood experience and genes. Traits will be passed on from Sim parents to children and Sims can now be traumatized: If a kid, for example, has a miserable youth a player can end up with a screwed-up adult and may have to call a psychiatrist for therapy.

While "The Sims 1" took place in a two-dimensional environment, the sequel offers a three-dimensional world to get players up close and personal with their Sims as they take them from cradle to grave. Players can even record the soap operas they create out of the lives of their Sims, a step into the modern age from the photo album option in "The Sims 1."

A new Create-A-Sim tool lets players build their own Sims, homes and neighborhoods. Some use The Sims mainly to play with the design tools. The Sims already spawned a large online community of players sharing their designs. Web sites offering movies and designs from "The Sims 2" are already appearing.

"The Sims is a form of artistic expression for these players," said LeTourneau.

Sims developers closely watch the community for feedback on their work and also contribute. For example, after finishing work on "The Sims 2," Object Engineer Ray Mazza built a replica of the Overworld Map from "Legend of Zelda," put out by Nintendo Co. Ltd., for use in "The Sims 2."

Mazza brought "Zelda" into "The Sims" in his time off, and said the freedom in development is why he enjoys his work. "With other types of games you're pretty much always doing the same thing. With 'The Sims' we can do anything we want: program cooking, swimming, a burglar coming to your house. Since it is based on life and the whole world, it leaves us a whole lot of possibilities," he said.

Development on "The Sims 2" started before "The Sims 1" was released. A small group of developers worked on the foundation of the game and the team was expanded to 120 people through the years. Most of the development work is done on the second floor of a large building on Electronic Arts' campus in Redwood City, a small city in Silicon Valley. All workers sit in screened off areas called cubicles placed around small common areas. Conference rooms carry names familiar from Sim games.

About half of the designers and producers who worked on "The Sims 2" and are now programming forthcoming expansion packs are women. That's much more than on other games, said LeTourneau. Maxis -- the game studio within Electronic Arts responsible for "The Sims" -- also has more women in creative leadership roles than other parts of Electronic Arts, the world's largest video game company, according to LeTourneau.

The average age of the development team is late 20s. Mazza joined Electronic Arts early last year, straight out of graduate school. Others, including fellow Object Engineer Matt Goss and Producer Hunter Howe, got on board at around the same time and were also fresh out of school.

"I had no idea that I would ever work at a company like this," said Howe. "I think back to the time when I was playing 'SimCity 2000' and discovering all these weird Easter eggs in the game and just imagining to myself what kind of strange people made this game." Now he is among them.

A rule for Easter eggs, or fun nuances in the game, is that developers have to work with what is already available, said Mazza. So, when he had a bit of room in his schedule, Mazza programmed the game so players can spoil their Sims by letting them watch TV while using the toilet.

"It is not something that was designed to be put in to the game, but something I was able to do in a short amount of time in between my other tasks. I knew that nobody else would disapprove," he said. "There is a small window of opportunity where you can click on the TV and watch it while you're sitting on the toilet."

In "The Sims 2," the Sims age and die. A typical Sim life lasts about 100 Sim days or about 25 hours, since there are four Sim days per real life hour. But a Sim life can end prematurely. "The Sims 2" has more accidental deaths than the original game, something players love, according to the developers.

There is weirdness galore in "The Sims 2." For example, lonely Sims may get a visit from an invisible social bunny. There are also alien abductions, which can result in pregnancies, so a Sim may have alien children and pass those genes through the Sim family.

Object Engineer Goss is especially proud of the reaction system he helped create for "The Sims." If a player tells a sloppy Sim to clean the bathroom he'll be upset. "I put complaining in 'The Sims'," Goss said.

"The Sims" is Electronic Arts' biggest game franchise and its most important intellectual property. A closely guarded secret is Edith, the proprietary scripting tool used to bring "The Sims" to life. Only about 20 people at Electronic Arts know how to work with Edith.

"It is the one unique element that we have always held close," LeTourneau said. "It is the thing that is very special about what it is that we do. It is how we control the Sims' behavior."

Edith is not very different from other scripting tools, but has been designed for "The Sims" and allows programmers to work very quickly, LeTourneau said. "It has been one of the linchpins in our ability to quickly add to 'The Sims' world. There is no way we could have made all the extension packs on The Sims 1 in the time we did without Edith."

"The Sims" is all about objects. The Sims themselves have very little data associated with them. The data is limited to their needs and desires.

All the objects around the Sims, such as the television, refrigerator, telephone, bed and computer, advertise what they can do for the Sim so the needs and desires can be satisfied. When a player moves the mouse over an object, balloons pop up to give options of what can be done with these objects

While some people maintain that "The Sims" is a game for girls, part of an Electronic Arts marketing strategy to expand beyond the teenage boy market, "The Sims" developers say that's simply untrue. "This is not 'My Little Pony'," said Brian Deppiesse, director of development for "The Sims 2," referring to a children's book.

"I almost think that it was made the game so successful because it is not targeted at anyone in particular. It is targeted at people," seconded LeTourneau. "If we ever stopped and said let's make a game for girls, we'd be dead. We would be doing the wrong thing."

The next game in the Sims line, "The Urbz: Sims in the City," was released last month, and brings the Sims from suburbia to the big city. The Sims team is also working hard on the first expansions packs for "The Sims 2."

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Joris Evers

IDG News Service
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