As a regular contributing editor to Next Generation Magazine, the authoritative sounding-board for the game industry, I had the opportunity to preview games-in-progress, sometimes years before their release. This particular story was an exclusive interview with the creator and a preview of The Sims, a game that went on to garner every major game industry accolade and award.
"Will The Sims do for People What SimCity did for Urban Planning?"
Will Wright's SimCity series was the foundation upon which Maxis built its reputation. The franchise has spawned a number of in-house projects (SimAnt, SimIsle, SimCopter to name a few) and copycat games from other publishers. None of these games come close to having the impact and longevity of the original. However, Wright's latest project, The Sims, could very well overshadow the gold-mine that is SimCity. The Sims started seven years ago as a home architectural simulation and evolved over the years into a complete behavioral simulation of individuals in a neighborhood. At its core, The Sims still contains the architectural simulation, whereby players can choose a lot and design a home. But, players must also design the home's inhabitants-and that's where things get interesting. Wright purposefully avoided creating human simulations until now, but he feels it is an idea whose time has come.
"With SimCity it was easy to put up plausible traffic patterns. I mean, it's hard to argue with statistical layers. But when you watch a person walk around on the screen, we are so attuned to human behavior that it is very easy to pick out an inappropriate decision."
The key technology in The Sims is what Wright calls a "behavioral engine." Ditching the classical AI approaches where the emphasis is on creating smart characters, The Sims uses a distributed behavior model where objects and environment have behavior embedded in them--the file for the model of a TV, for instance, contains all the instructions for watching it, and the conditions under which a Sim would want to. In addition to creating believable interactions, the side-effect benefit of this model is that new objects can be dropped into the mix without the need to make people in the game any smarter.
Wright explains, "I can drop a soccer ball into the game and it will contain all the rules for soccer, along the associated sounds and animations. People could, say, download the soccer ball from the web and their Sims would automatically go outside to play soccer when they become bored."
From the get-go The Sims is a unique game with clever concepts. Its Load/Save screen is a ten-lot suburban neighborhood, and each family that occupies a house is the representation of a saved game. Once you build a house and create a family, you can actually invite your neighboring saved game families over for dinner.Not unlike an RPG, to create people in the game, you must choose the sex, skin color, and age in addition to distributing points to five personality traits: neatness, extrovertedness, playfulness, laziness, and niceness. Wright suggests balancing out your families for best results. A skin-editor is already available and eager users are creating customized Sims by the hundreds. In an unlikely twist, the editor will enable users to import Quake II skins directly. Characters in the game will initially need to be babied, fulfilling basic needs such as hunger, comfort, hygiene, and bladder-yes, you will need to potty train your fledgling Sims. But as you provide a better environment, their autonomous decision making improves. At that point you can work on higher needs such as careers and relationships. Wright wants to leave the game open-ended like SimCity, but the measure of success in the Sims is prosperity. You are going for the big house on the hill, a flock of friends, and a successful, fulfilling job. That doesn't mean that you must be a doctor or lawyer to win…in fact you can choose a life of crime and retire as a successful criminal mastermind.
The Sims turned a lot of heads at E3, and if it continues on its current path, some Business Acquisitions guy at Electronic Arts who scored the Maxis deal will be telling his boss, "I told you so."