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Controlling 'The Sims'

Mental breakdowns and warped childhoods add to the fun in "The Sims 2," creator Will Wright explains.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
covers games and gadgets.
David Becker
8 min read
The game industry can be forgiven for originally doubting the prospects for "The Sims."

Instead of genre staples such as lobbing grenades or casting spells, the game asked players to get excited about tasks such as personal hygiene and interior design. Yet such seemingly mundane activities combined to create a sensation, with the original game and subsequent expansion packs selling a combined 40 million copies to rank as the most popular computer game ever.

Intrigued by the virtual dollhouse aspect that allows the game to be used as a vehicle for creative design, storytelling, social experimentation and more, "The Sims" has also created the biggest and most fertile online community to revolve around a game. (That success hasn't fully spilled over to the sparsely populated "The Sims Online," the multiplayer version of the game.)

Will Wright, who made one of the first breakthroughs in computer games by creating "SimCity," had to develop "The Sims" on the sly after co-workers at Maxis, a development studio at leading game publisher Electronic Arts, nixed the idea. But there was no such hesitancy about "The Sims 2," the highly anticipated sequel that goes on sale today.

You really establish a much deeper emotional connection with these Sims.
"With 'The Sims 1,' all we could do was succeed, because nobody really expected anything," Wright said. "If you come out with a sequel after a successful game, though, everybody expects it to be at least as successful as the original. With 'The Sims 2,' it felt like all we could do was fail...But I think we really have improved the experience. After four years of living with it, we have a much better idea of what parts of the game people really enjoy and how they use them, and 'The Sims 2' really benefits from that."

Wright talked with CNET News.com about the new game and beyond.

Q: Start out by telling us what's different in "The Sims 2."
A: Basically, the set of possibilities in the game is much larger. There's a 3D engine, which lets you zoom in closer and get a much deeper immersion in the Sims' lives. You pretty much feel like you're in the room with them.

Their personalities are far more fleshed-out; they're really three-dimensional characters now. They have aspirations, memories, a much more detailed social landscape and knowledge of their social relationships with other Sims. They have tactical goals; depending on the aspiration you set for them, they have intermediate things they want you to attain for them.

Primarily, the game allows much more interesting stories for the player. It is really about the player telling the story, not the computer. In "Sims 2," the computer has more recognition of significant events. The Sims grow and age, from a toddler to an elder. They have very different approaches to life at different stages; different kinds of success and failure. Basically, we made it so that the Sims feel in your mind to be much more like real people. You really establish a much deeper emotional connection with them.

So the consequences of your actions are more cumulative?

We end up with a smorgasbord of various bits and pieces of psychology theory that help clarify parts of the game.
Yeah, the consequences are much deeper. The causality in the game is much more believable. The Sims have much more awareness of things going on around them, of social relationships, of where they are relative to their aspirations. In some sense, they have self-esteem now. Primarily, this is all so that the player can be much more creative--in developing a character, a story, elaborate social situations.

You've talked before about what you call the "Calvin factor"--players building things just to destroy them. What's the Calvin factor here?
We did find with "SimCity"--and later with "The Sims"--that players really enjoy exploring the failure side. They want to experiment with all the different ways they screw up the Sims' lives, from having a bladder failure and soiling the carpet to losing a job or being spurned in a romantic advance. The failure states in "Sims 2" are quite a bit more elaborate than in "Sims 1." And you've got a deeper emotional connection, so when the Sims fail, you really feel guilty. You feel as if you're dealing with a pet instead of a robot.

So if I really mistreat my Sim, does he end up in a clock tower with a sniper rifle?
Not quite, but they definitely will go loony. We try to make the failure side more humorous. But at some point, they'll start to see imaginary people; just go totally bonkers. If you give them a screwed-up childhood, they can go in that direction, or they just might develop very particular phobias. They have memories, both good and bad, and they can develop positive or negative associations in connection with those memories that carry through into adulthood.

It seems as if there's a lot of psychology behind this. How much of an education do you have in that?
Enough. We found that it's a lot easier for us to research a topic than it is to take experts and teach them about game development. When it comes to psychology, we looked at hundreds of different theories, and the thing is that none of them are right. They all capture some little element of the truth. So what we end up with is a smorgasbord of various bits and pieces of theory that help clarify parts of the game. The basic needs are coming from Maslow, the personality side is roughly Myers-Briggs, the childhood-to-adult transitions are more Freudian.

There are so many different psychological theories, each one of them trying to explain a particular aspect of human psychology, but none of them is formal. None of them lets you come in and assign numbers to people to predict their behavior.

At some level, we have to turn this into a very formal science, because we have to describe it to a computer, which is actually crunching through numbers to decide what the person is going to do next. So we mash together all these theories, but 50 percent of what holds it together is our internal duct tape.

One of the big success factors for "The Sims" was the support for user-created content, which also turns out to be a pretty good business move--having your customers do your continuing development and testing. Was that fiendishly clever thinking on your part?

It feels like we're still a few years ahead of the competitors.
It was very deliberate. We invested probably an extra year developing "Sims 1" to make it as customizable as possible. We could have gotten the game out a lot sooner if we hadn't gone to that trouble. We took a risk, because we didn't know how successful the game was going to be. We knew that if it were successful, it would represent, potentially, a lot more upside to be able to expand it. But if nobody played the game, it would be all wasted effort.

At the time, I was looking at the "Quake" community. I was very impressed with all the stuff people were doing with mods, but within a fairly small group of hard-core gamers. I wondered what would happen if you could bring that dynamic into as wide a community of people who tended to be a bit more on the creative side to begin with, who didn't approach games purely as a competitive medium. But I never foresaw the level to which a community would grow around the game. I've just been blown away with what people have done with the customization.

Do you have a favorite piece of user-created content?
There are so many. Some of the stories are amazing--especially the really personal ones. There are a lot of very specialized sites--sites for Christian Sims, 14th century Sims--just about any kind of weird specialty you can imagine. There's a great one called 7 Deadly Sims, where the content is all based around the seven deadly sins--kitchen appliances for gluttony, comfy sofas for sloth.

The game industry is as imitative as any part of the entertainment business, yet there haven't really been any Sims knock-offs. Why do you think that is?
I've been kind of surprised; I would have expected to see more of them by now. There's a few, but they aren't anywhere near the level of polish and detail as "The Sims." We went through an extraordinary amount of effort with "The Sims" to make the game simple to play...but that belies a very deep complexity under the hood.

The hardest things for us in developing the original game were getting the behavioral engine so it could handle a wide variety of situations and getting this complex set of behaviors accessible through an extremely simple interface. We wanted anybody to be able to play the game. In terms of building an emergent simulation, in which a huge number of possibilities can be simulated with behavior--that's still a very tricky technical challenge. So it feels like we're still a few years ahead of the competitors. I kind of wish there were more at this point, because I think it would be good for the category to have some more socially oriented games on the market.

You achieved a number of things the game industry wants--attracting female gamers, bringing in more casual players. Has the industry learned anything from that?
I like to think that when a creative new idea comes out and does well, other companies think, "Maybe we should find more creative, risk-taking projects." But companies look at the success of a game like "The Sims" and say, "OK, let's make our version of 'The Sims,' instead of stepping out and doing something creatively different.

What lessons have you learned from "The Sims Online" experience?
If you look at "The Sims Online" and "The Sims," they look like very similar games. If you play them, though, they're completely different. A lot of it has to do with having a persistent world--you can't speed up time; you've only got one avatar. It's a much less creative experience than "The Sims" offline.

Probably the most important thing I've learned is that we need to find different business models for online games. I'm a pretty hard-core gamer, and I generally won't spend $10 a month to subscribe to a game. Getting a casual player who's played maybe one game in their life to spend $10 a month is incredibly hard. I think we need new models for online games that don't require subscriptions and allow more freedom than persistent-state worlds do.

Did you envision that the online world would require the level of policing that it has?
It doesn't really surprise me too much, based on what I've learned about other games. It involves pretty much the same issues the Internet has in general. When you have shared communities, there's always going to be a group of people testing the system, trying to hack it or mess with people--what we call "griefers." The griefer problem has been around since online games started. The issue is how you deal with it. With from-the-top, police state-style, or do you let the community self-police?

So what's next? Is there going to be a "Sims 3," with Darwinian evolution built in?
Right now, we're working on "Sims 2" expansions. We've made this game even more expandable than the first. But I'm sure there'll be another generation. It's important, though, when you have successful franchises like "The Sims" and "SimCity," that you don't stop trying to create new ones. So that's going on, too. We're trying to figure out what else we can build outside the box.