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Will 'Sims Online' alter gaming world?

The last time Will Wright had a bright idea for a computer game, he had to develop it in secret, behind the backs of doubtful coworkers. This time, the whole world is watching.

The last time Will Wright had a bright idea for a computer game, he had to develop it in secret, behind the backs of doubtful coworkers and executives.

This time, the whole world is paying attention as Wright--creator of "SimCity" and "The Sims," the biggest selling computer game of all time, prepares to offer up "The Sims Online."

The multiplayer version of "The Sims," set to debut Tuesday, has been hailed as the first major test of whether subscription-based online gaming can appeal to a mass audience. Executives at Electronic Arts, parent company of Wright's Maxis studio, have touted the game as vindication of the company's substantial investment in online gaming. And the 8 million or so people playing the offline version of "The Sims" have some pretty firm ideas about how the online version should work.

All in all, Wright is starting to prefer obscurity.

"With 'The Sims,' the expectations were so low that anything we did was going to look good," Wright said. "All we can do on this project is fail, because everyone is expecting success. They've told us from the beginning this is the most important project at EA."

To date, the top-selling online subscription-based game has been Sony's "EverQuest," with an audience approaching 500,000 people who pay $13 a month to access the game's huge fantasy world.

The most optimistic "Sims" boosters say the online game has the potential to draw an audience in the millions. EA executives have said they expect to have at least 200,000 subscribers paying $10 a month for "The Sims Online" by the end of the company's fiscal year, next March 30. Executives have since backed off those numbers, as the delivery date for the game has slipped, but EA insiders and analysts still see a clear road for "The Sims Online" to become the biggest thing in the developing world of online gaming.

"To be a success, it really only has to appeal to a fraction of the users that play 'The Sims,' " said David Cole, president of research firm DFC Intelligence. "Whether that's 5 percent or 10 percent, the barrier for breakeven success is fairly low."

Pleasing a different crowd
At least as significant as the numbers is the kind of audience "The Sims Online" is likely to attract. "The Sims" has drawn one of the most diverse audiences in gaming--more than 50 percent female, and broadly distributed across age groups--with a unique style of game play that emphasizes creativity and self-made narratives. Players control a single family of characters, guiding them in tasks ranging from career climbing to interior decorating to forming friendships with computer-controlled next-door neighbors.

"The Sims" succeeded, Wright said, by appealing to people who weren't interested in conventional games that pursue a fixed set of goals.

"The Sims was just an empty cup players pour their fantasies into," Wright said. "People will still do that with 'The Sims Online,' but now it's not just your fantasies...This feels more like a zoo, with a bunch of different fantasies running around."

"The Sims Online" will expand potential social interactions to thousands of other characters, all controlled by real people. Add a complex, free-market economic system, tools for creating in-game items and multiple chat vehicles, and you've got a game that emphasizes creativity and socializing over the swords-and-sorcery dynamics of the fantasy role-playing games that currently dominate online gaming.

"I think it's a good test to see if online gaming can stretch past the hard-core fantasy gamers online," said Shawn Milne, an analyst for investment bank Soundview Technology Group. "With games like 'EverQuest' and 'Ultima Online,' you're dealing with a fairly targeted audience. 'The Sims' is a test to see if we can get a broader population interested in online gaming."

Courting a mass-market audience adds a number of new challenges, however, not the least of which is convincing "The Sims" players that it's worth $10 a month to access the online version.

"The challenge is to educate the Sims market about what online gaming is," said Schelley Olhava, an analyst for research firm IDC. "It's going to take time to educate these gamers and really get them interested."

It'll an even bigger trick to keep those players interested, added Cole.

"Retention will be a much bigger issue; I think the churn rate is going to be pretty high," Cole said. "Just because it's 'The Sims,' I think you're going to have a lot of people signing up not knowing what to expect, and some will drop out. That's the real success test for an online game: how many people stay with it."

A game with staying power
Subscribers will stay around, Wright said, partly because of the relations they build within the game and partly because of continuing improvements to the game. Planned additions range from tools for creating and importing in-game items, economic expansions that allow trading of goods and services and a more elaborate process for a dead character to be reborn.

Mostly, though, it's up to the players to create interesting environments and experiences. A trial version for the game has been running for several weeks now, and the virtual cities already have popular theater groups, game shows and other entertainment venues.

"The goal has always been to facilitate players entertaining each other," said Chris Trottier, lead designer for "The Sims Online."

Newcomers to online gaming also will be less tolerant of the technical glitches that seem endemic to the field, especially during the first few weeks of a game's launch. Wright and his team are confident they've built a stable back-end system that will easily scale to accommodate new players. And they note that "The Sims Online" doesn't require the instant response called for by shooting or hack-and-slash games.

"'The Sims' in a lot of ways is the ideal game for taking online," said development director Eric Todd. "If I'm playing a first-person shooter, my expectations for responsiveness are really high. So as an engineer, I have to figure out ways to work around a half-second latency. With 'The Sims,' people are used to there being a little delay between when they initiate an action and when the character responds."

Inside Electronic Arts, "The Sims Online" is being seen as validation for the significant investment the company has made in online gaming. The company spent an estimated $30 million to acquire casual gaming site and guaranteed at least an $81 million payoff to America Online for an alliance with the Internet giant. Despite the successful role-playing game "Ultima Online," the company's division has posted continuous losses.

" has been a dragging on their earnings, about 8 to 10 cents a quarter," said Milne. "If this doesn't push into the black, they've got a real problem."

EA won't disclose the development budget for "The Sims Online," but industry insiders estimate the company has spent $25 million developing the game, five times the typical budget for an A-list title. And the expenses don't stop once the game hits store shelves, noted DFC's Cole.

"The thing about online games is you can't just ship them out there and wait for the money to roll in," Cole said. "You've got to do a lot of testing, and once it's on the market, you have to keep monitoring it and tweaking. But EA is one of the few companies that can get away with spending this kind of money on development. Most publishers wouldn't have had that kind of patience."

Maybe EA executives learned their lesson the last time they doubted Wright. "That's always been the irony with 'The Sims,'" Cole said. "It's been a great moneymaker for EA, yet they had to really be talked into publishing it. And now it's looking to be the savior of their online efforts."