Entertainment Technology

The Sims turns 20: why the social simulation game is more culturally relevant than ever

Who knew that The Sims, often deemed a ‘toilet game’ — yes, a game you play while passing time on the throne — would become a global sensation? It is somewhat ironic that the biggest social simulation game out there is observing a 20-year milestone in times of mandated isolation owing to COVID-19. But this works out in the gaming community’s favour. If people cannot and should not go out, then why can’t their Sims? Why not hang out at the club built a couple of hours ago? How about working as a mailman or a pilot while everyone is really working from home? The Sims has opened up avenues for people who have also not played the game in a long time to live vicariously, even for just a moment, through the nonsensical lives of their Sims.

Big-time gaming

  • Since the beginning, The Sims franchise, having sold over 200 million copies globally, has generated more than US$5 billion in revenue with The Sims 4 alone generating more than $1 billion.
  • Over the past 20 years, a total population of 1.6 billion Sims has been generated through the game.

According to the Electronic Arts piece ‘Behind Closed Doors: A Brief History of The Sims’, “In 1991, Will Wright, creator of open-ended world-building game SimCity, suffered an unfortunate turn of events during the Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm. Losing his home to the firestorm left him assessing both his losses and material needs. Having always been passionate about architecture, Wright began to develop an idea for a game where players could simulate daily activities and building homes from scratch.”

This idea germinated to become The Sims, which was launched on PC in February 2000. The Sims soon became a pioneer for sandbox gameplay, in which gamers are given minimal limitations, placing emphasis on the roaming potential of the game.

The Sims turns 20: why the social simulation game is more culturally relevant than ever

In an email interview with MetroPlus, Lyndsay Pearson, General Manager of The Sims, and Mike Duke, Senior Producer for The Sims 4, unravel the prevalence of The Sims as an evolving entertainer.

The Sims have soul

Lyndsay admits that picking just a few key turning points from the storied history of the video game is difficult. She still shares some major moments: the first being a kiss between two same-gender Sims before the launch of The Sims at the 1999 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, California. Lyndsay explains, “The team believed from the beginning that The Sims should be a game in which the players drove the story and our role as developers is to provide creativity tools. Our second moment was the launch of The Sims 2. Introducing a completely 3D world and lifetimes changed the game significantly, opening up new stories, play styles and look at the Sims’ world. The last major moment I will list is the update for Create A Sim in The Sims 4 to provide even more powerful tools to customise Sims including their gender expression. This was a moment that unlocked a new level of play and power for Sims fans around the globe, and further emphasised The Sims’ commitment to creativity and self-expression.”

Expression was always a big part of Sims’ lifestyles, their garbled language Simlish becoming a trademark of the games’ collective design. In this case, Simlish was created by accident during a voice recording session while developing The Sims. It eventually developed with thought-out lexicon for base vocabulary as a starting point. Across the world, gamers now endeavour to learn Simlish in real life.

The Sims turns 20: why the social simulation game is more culturally relevant than ever

Though social simulation games date back to the ’80s, The Sims garnered a traction like no other game of this subculture. Despite a surge of well-loved games such as Singles or Facade, The Sims frontlined this genre without looking like they were trying too hard. Mike, who agrees that one of the most important things is to keep The Sims relevant, says, “As the world changes, we want The Sims world to evolve too. The vision was to create a simulator where you could experiment with life (style, build, and tell stories) and observe how Sims responded to your choices. We have never left that path, but we will continue to evolve the game.”

So, the secret formula is ‘stay on par and listen to the community’. When designing a game like The Sims, it seems there would be a knack for designers to go overboard but how does EA know when to draw a line and leave the rest to the players? Mike points to Maxis, a game developer studio founded in 1987 by Will Wright. The studio brought The Sims to life and was later acquired by Electronic Arts in 1997. “We do not have some documented line or rule we apply,” Mike elaborates, adding, “We rely on the team of people at Maxis who have been bringing The Sims to life for over two decades to know when it is right. I think it is fair to say it is instinctive.”

The Sims turns 20: why the social simulation game is more culturally relevant than ever

Dual creativity

The Sims gamers out there would be well familiar with the excitement of the release of a bundle pack, which adds a layer of experience to the existing foundation of gameplay. Some of the most popular bundle packs for The Sims 4 are Discover University, Island Living, Cats and Dogs and Get Famous.

Ask Mike about what it takes for a bundle pack to be brainstormed, conceptualised, approved and brought to life and he responds, “Ideas come from everywhere. Team members send pack ideas to the design team whenever the idea hits them. As we get ready to kick off a new pack, we typically hold a brainstorming session where many pack ideas get suggested (50+ ideas). We also brainstorm about locales we want to create and we discuss systems that we are excited about building. We then start looking for combinations that go well together and have us excited.”

Various bundles for The Sims

Then there is the creativity of the gamers. The Sims team is well aware of the collective imagination of the massive modding community. Modding usually sees tech-savvy players accessing the back-end of games to modify or ‘flip’ respective softwares. This is unique and also integral to PC games. Some modders add benefit to the game, often improving graphics, fixing console ports or even just adding new features, which is quite common in The Sims’ universe.

Looking forward

One can only wonder about the future of The Sims; when it has got this vast, what is left to do? Lyndsay affirms that there is still a long journey ahead, but does not divulge details. “One area we have embraced in the past few years is integrating a wider variety of cultures into The Sims 4. It has been so exciting to work with our partners and co-workers around the globe on bringing Diwali or Day of The Dead into The Sims. Just as we want to create a canvas that allows players to create anything they can imagine, we want to include content and details relevant to their lives. Rather than being intimidating or overwhelming, we relish the challenge and chance to delight our players with experiences they could never have expected.”

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