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The secret behind 'The Sims'

Inventor Will Wright talks about the reasons for his software game's smash success.

When Will Wright proposed a game dominated by activities such as municipal zoning and transit planning and with no preset conditions for victory, the gaming industry thought he was nuts.

That was in the early 1980s. In the intervening decade and a half, we have a clearer idea of just who was nuts. Wright's creation--"SimCity"--went on to become a popular-culture phenomenon.

Various incarnations of the game--from early DOS versions to the current "SimCity 3000"--have sold a combined 7 million copies, many bought by people who had previously never considered playing a computer game. The game also spawned one of the biggest companies in the computer game business, Maxis, acquired several years ago by industry leader Electronic Arts.

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Where will the Sims live next?
Will Wright, creator of the Sims
So you'd think that when Wright had a new idea, no matter how unconventional, those around him would listen. Not so. He had to do the early work on "The Sims"--a sort of microcosmic version of "SimCity" in which players control the actions of individual characters--in secret after co-workers labeled the idea a dud.

"Internally, 'The Sims' was a huge struggle getting it released, much more than 'SimCity,'" Wright says. "We had an official product-selection committee, and I gave my spiel to the committee, and they actually rejected it; they thought we couldn't do it. At which point I kind of took the whole thing underground. It became my black box project."

Wright knew what he was doing. "The Sims" has consistently been at the top of computer game sales charts since it was released a year ago. It has spawned hundreds of fan sites where players swap items they've built for the game and stories based on Sims characters. And it has once again brought new blood into the business, attracting almost equal numbers of male and female players, unheard of in the testosterone-soaked gaming industry.

Wright took a break from preparations for Saturday's anniversary party for "The Sims," his keynote speech next week at the Game Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif., and work on the next generation of "The Sims" to talk with CNET News.com's David Becker.

You now have two bona fide cultural phenomena to your credit. What do you think has made "The Sims" connect with so many people?
Well, I think it appeals to hard-core gamers, but yet it's kind of designed for a different audience. In this business, you can't really take off in sales without appealing to the hard-core gamers first, because they read the computer press, and they go play the demos.

Men approach it more as a game or a challenge--something to be overcome, learn the rules, master it. Whereas women are more, 'Oh, I want a palette that I can be creative with.' But in this case, they were spreading it to a lot of their girlfriends and wives and then telling their friends about it. And these were all the people who never touched computer games for the most part. I think "SimCity" was kind of like that, but not quite as appealing to the casual gamer because "SimCity" is a fair amount more elaborate in terms of game play, and it's more abstract, too. "The Sims," you can kind of view it as a (TV situation comedy). Everybody is kind of comfortable with the idea of sitting in front of the TV watching characters play out their lives.

You mentioned wives and girlfriends. Do you have a sense of how much of "The Sims" audience is female?
Based on registration data, it would seem to be about 30 percent, but in fact I think it's closer to 40 percent. Based on all the stuff I've heard from hundreds of people, frequently the man would go and buy it and bring it home; he played it for a while, but then it was his wife or girlfriend who really got involved in it in an ongoing way.

Was the female factor intentional, something you designed into the game?
It was intentional not that we wanted to appeal to females, but we wanted it to be balanced gender-wise. And we were lucky enough to have probably 40 percent of the (development) team members be female, which brought a lot of balance to the project.

To paraphrase Freud, what do women want in a game?
Well, I've noticed in general in software that the things that enable creativity have generally done better with women, something like "PrintShop," where you can actually create something new with it.

Men approach it more as a game or a challenge--something to be overcome, learn the rules, master it. Whereas women are more, 'Oh, I want a palette that I can be creative with.' And also there's a community-building experience that I'd say the men and women participate in equally.

"The Sims" has an unusual degree of user participation, because people can go out and make and share new furniture, clothes, etc. Was that something you envisioned from the start?
We were very interested in that before we shipped the game. So we released a lot of tools before the game shipped, like six months before, so that people could build new things...and built up quite a large library of game content that was available Day One.

And they have just gone crazy with this stuff now. At this point, probably something like 80 percent to 90 percent of the stuff that you can use in "The Sims" is straight from the fans. Just the sheer mass of stuff that they've created on their sites outweighs all the stuff that we've done--and we've done a lot.

Has that changed the game in ways you didn't envision?
Yeah, definitely. In some sense the fans are kind of co-developing the game with us now. We did the original architecture and the original objects and characters, but now they're taking a very strong role in the future of the game and where it goes.

We have this feature in the game where the fans can tell a story as they're playing the game. They can take screenshots and annotate and make a story, kind of like a comic book. And it's a very simple process, like one or two button clicks, and you have it published on our Web site.

We have fans uploading these stories at the rate of about 400 a day. We have about 18,000 stories that the fans had written for the games. And they're fascinating to read. The effort people put into these stories is amazing. And it gives us a sense of where the people want to go with the game by just looking at the stories that they're telling currently.

And do fans sometimes want to go in directions that are too freaky, too scary for you?
Yeah, and that's OK. There are a lot of things that we just cannot do, we don't want to touch, but the fans can. Some of the fan sites go a little bit farther with some of the sex or violence issues than we can go.

There are some sites that are dedicated to finding out how many ways you can kill a Sim. There are quite a few bolted to the game, but they've managed to make up new ones.

With "SimCity," you called that the "Calvin factor," where players build cities just for the fun of destroying them. Is that a part of "The Sims," too?
Yeah, pretty much. Everybody has this streak in them...and it's not necessarily like an evil or mean streak. I think a lot of it is just mapping out the boundaries of the system. It's natural when you're presented with something like this, a model, that you want to kind of explore the boundaries of it.

I think what happens is people go around and say, 'Oh, we want another game just like 'The Sims,' instead of, 'We want a creative a game; let's hear your ideas. And part of that is the failure side. How many different ways can it fail?

More than anything, it's kind of the scientific method. You're experimentally trying things out at the borderline, and you see these little behavior breakdowns.

What's the most striking thing you've seen from the fans?
Well, some of the stories on the exchange I've found very interesting. There was one...it's a woman whose sister was in an abusive relationship, and she actually did a story based on the game, but it's all about how her sister managed to get out of this abusive relationship. It was a very heartfelt story, and it was kind of interesting to see a game used in such a biographical way--almost as a catharsis, as therapy.

It is just kind of interesting that the computing industry thinks games are these frivolous exercises, kind of outside of reality, but they can actually be used for something that real.

The Sims isn't like "Quake" where it's easy to do a knockoff. What effect do you think it's had on the game industry?
It's hard to say. I think you're going to see more games with the social focus where you do something besides kill the other person.

I think what we've done with our community has been very interesting, too. I think a lot of people are looking at that in terms of what we did to enable fans to create content and allowing them to share stories on the Web. We basically have this whole ecosystem that's our playing community.

And I would like to think that because "The Sims" is just a little outside the box that (game companies) might be willing to give more time to get unusual projects off the ground. But I doubt that that's the case. I think what happens is people go around and say, "Oh, we want another game just like 'The Sims,'" instead of, "We want a creative game; let's hear your ideas."

What's next for "The Sims?"
Well, we're doing an online version. That's the big focus right now...It's going to be a persistent online world.

How is that going to change the game, when it's actual people controlling the Sims you interact with?
It's going to be totally different. It's an entirely different game, because all of a sudden the things that you want to be doing are different. People will have much broader bandwidth to interact with the characters now that they know they're real.

So we're focusing the game much more on the social side. It's going to be keeping track of all the things you do socially and all the friends you make. There will be aspects of the game play where one of the things you might do is play a popularity game, where it's keeping track of who has the most friends, and it's kind of a dog-eat-dog, real cutthroat high school popularity thing.

But at the same time we want to keep it very creative. So you'll still be able to create environments and then experience those environments.

It sounds like the interactions will be a lot less predictable.
They should be. From the game design point of view, it's quite difficult. When you're dealing with something controlled by the PC, you can test them, you can spec out they're going to be X, Y and Z. But a human, you have no idea.

All you can do is build kind of reward structures and penalty structures and hope to use that in a stick-and-carrot way and hope that you can keep the tiger from eating you. It's very scary in that sense.

How does the player community fit in?
One thing we saw as crucial with "The Sims" online is that we need to make as much of existing content as possible compatible with the online version, so that this huge library of content that the fans are creating and putting up on the Web sites, most of it should just drop right into their online version. Which means that there's a good reason for these fan sites to keep going.

This is the type of thing where we try to spend a lot of time thinking about the fans and the time they've invested and how much they've helped us.

Will the online version be "The Sims 2," or is there another product in the works?
"Sims 2" is a completely different thing. We're experimenting a lot with that right now. I mean, there are so many directions it could go. I can't really give you a comprehensive answer about what it will be, but I think it is going to focus much more on the story aspects.

We're going to try to find ways to make the game more open-ended but at the same time make the stories that we're coming out with much more dramatic.

"SimCity" got picked up a lot by schools as a way to teach kids about zoning and taxes and whatever. Do you see any of that potential to use "The Sims" as a learning tool?
Somewhat, but not in quite as institutional a setting as "SimCity." "The Sims" is a little less obvious, and it's also a little more of a parody than "SimCity" is. But I think there are things that can be learned from it.

People frequently comment on the materialistic bent of "The Sims," but if anybody has played it in that direction as far as they can, they realize that every object you buy is a potential time bomb. They all can break or have some failure state. And so if you start pulling up your house and buy all the stuff, pretty soon you find that you're spending all your time fixing this stuff and they become a giant time sink instead of time savers--which I think has something to say about materialism.

But at any rate, that's not the type of thing they teach in schools in the first place.