Keeping up with the Simses

Ron Humble is tasked with making sure one of the most successful PC games of all time remains on top. With that legacy come advantages--and pressure.

The original SimCity, which came out in 1989, was the brainchild of the now-legendary game designer Will Wright.

The game, which gave players god-like powers to create their own cities, was a huge success and, after several sequels, eventually led to The Sims, a game that some at EA didn't believe in.

But as is now well-chronicled, The Sims became the most-successful PC game of all time, vaulting Wright into a level of celebrity and power he still maintains to this day.

However, Wright is no longer involved with EA's Sims studio. Instead, he is working on a new game, , which, though it has been termed "Sim Everything," has nothing whatsoever to do--in a practical or business sense, at least--with the franchise he created.

These days, The Sims studio is headed by Rod Humble, a three-plus-year EA veteran who previously ran Sony Online Entertainment's EverQuest studio.

Now, Humble and his team are tasked with maintaining The Sims franchise's vastly important place in the EA empire, even as they must continually come up with new expansions to The Sims 2 or even whole new releases like .

And while the new SimCity hasn't gotten quite the reception the company might have liked, Humble and his team are still riding an almost unprecedented wave of success and gamer good will that should allow them to continue doing what they're doing and getting the budgets they need for the foreseeable future.

Recently, Humble sat down with CNET News.com for a wide-ranging interview covering the new game, the history of the franchise, the culture at EA and much more.

Q: Explain your role as head of The Sims studio?
Rod Humble: I'm involved in the creative process for every The Sims game that comes out, or at least at the concept stage, just to make sure that it aligns with our label's vision and has a similar vibe.

Can you explain how The Sims studio came to be?
Humble: It happened around the time Nightlife, The Sims 2 expansion pack shipped. The feeling was that by organizing us as a separate division, which is really a pilot program for the label structure that happened later, we could really focus on our game and unlock a new audience and sales. We've doubled our business, so it worked.

Talk about how you've evolved the franchise.
Humble: We believe in unlocking people's creativity. So, with our products, at the center, you can show me your game and it can be totally different from mine and that's really cool. Another central tenet is that we don't really care that much about challenge and a lot of other things that core gamers really focus on. Our audience is looking for a way to relax and a way to enjoy a really different entertainment experience, which is primarily about creativity, humor and community.

Can you talk about examples of emergent game play being incorporated as features later on?
Humble: We try to design them in, as a matter of playing catch up. So, for example, we noticed that with the Open For Business expansion pack people really enjoyed being able to make a business and the number one thing they said was, "Hey we want be able to make everything in the business field. We want to be able to make furniture. We want to be able to design our own houses more in depth." So when we were designing MySims, that was right at the top of things we wanted to do. Also, my favorite feature ever in The Sims is where your Sim can make a painting of something in the game. I love that level of creativity.

The original The Sims was the most successful PC game of all time. As head of the studio, do you feel...?
Humble: Incredible pressure? Yeah, the bar is raised every single time and that's a pretty big legacy to live up to. It's also a huge advantage. You get brand recognition. So when you take a design leap you know that it's going to be looked at by people. Sadly, that doesn't mean everyone is going to buy it. That just means that you get a shot at an audience. And you can flop pretty hard as well. So, it's incredibly daunting, but also it's a very nice place to be.

One of the things I love about Spore is what Will Wright calls the massively single player concept, where the content users create in the single player game can be used by other players. Is that something that will ever be incorporated into The Sims?
Humble: We haven't announced anything with The Sims when it comes to that space. But that principle is the way a lot of people play MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games). I was one of them. I played EverQuest that way: I played it as a single player game with other people around me. It was like, I just I'm glad that I'm here. So I think that is a very important play style to embrace. I don't think forced grouping or forced socialization is a good path to go in. Let people come to the party and if they want to hang out in the kitchen, that's fine.

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