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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 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.

Since SimCity and The Sims, there's been lot of competing games in the genre. How do you keep The Sims on top?
Humble: No. 1 is listening to our community. Number two is learning from our mistakes. So if our competitors do things that our players respond to, don't be too proud. And I think listen to your customers and make changes accordingly. It's very important that the customer's always right and you can't let your own internal design religion get ahead of the customer. So that's the answer. Steal ideas where appropriate.

You've got 14 expansions for The Sims and The Sims 2. Is each new one aimed at capturing new demographics?
Humble: There are a few things we do. We have several constituencies within current Sims 2 players we have to address. So, for example, builders who just like build houses. Or people who want to tell stories. So we make sure those constituencies are addressed. When it comes to the pack itself, it's a lot of, "Hey, what would we think is going to be fun?" We usually pick four or five ideas and then go to our players and say, "What do you think is cool?" We had a lot of feedback during the early development process of The Sims 2: Pets. We'd focused a lot on dogs and cats and some users said, "Well, no, I really want hamsters." We said, "It's just going to be a hamster in a cage." And they said, "No, I really want hamsters." So we had to make sure we addressed that. Pets sold more than 6 million copies.

Tell us about SimCity Societies?
Humble: We wanted to follow a similar strategy that we did with The Sims 2, which is, "Hey how can we broaden this? How can we make it less challenging, easier to use, and make it more into a creativity tool?" We've just launched, and we've had a series of really mixed reviews. Our job now is to deliver to our customers who are giving us feedback (and we're giving them) free updates to make sure they get what they want. We're going to stand by them and add that challenge that they're looking for and add that extra depth. We got the (general) accessibility bit down and now we need to address their concerns, "Hey, I want more push back. I want more challenge." It's usually been the opposite: "Hey, your game's too complicated. Make it easier."

How has The Sims franchise changed video games?
Humble: I think it has been extremely healthy for the games business as a whole. I think that whether you're associated with The Sims or not, you could point to it and say, "Hey! They're different." No matter what criticisms you have of the games industry, you can always point to The Sims for a counter argument. I think it's a very, very healthy franchise for the business. It's a legacy that's been built up by a lot of people.

Is there anything different culturally at Electronic Arts between The Sims studio and others, like EA Sports?
Humble: Oh, yeah it's huge. One of the strengths about EA is it lets each studio have its own culture. So, we're known as the hippies on the second floor. That's our rep and we like that and it's nice to be thought of as different. I think every game studio has its own culture. If you're working on an action title, you don't want The Sims vibe. You really don't. It's not going to be good for your game. So if you walk around The Sims studio, for example, the posters on the walls will be home furnishings and the latest fashion and that's very different from most studios that you walk through. So you have a totally different vibe and it's a credit to EA for allowing that level of diversity within its studio organization. I mean we really feel totally free to make our own culture.

Do people who work on The Sims team tend to have different backgrounds than those in other studios?
Humble: Yes. So we've got the highest percentage of women developers out of all of EA. We get a lot of people working on Sims games who simply wouldn't be in the games business otherwise. So if you've got a Ph.D. in computer science and you want to make a Sims game, you may not be interested in most other kinds of games. So we do have a different vibe. And I'm not sure why this is the case, but as someone pointed out to me, one out of three people's names in The Sims division you won't be able to pronounce correctly because it's really international.

Will there be a Sims 3?
Humble: Well, who knows? Yeah, of course, there will be. We are looking forward to talking about it in the future, but not now.