It's no small understatement to say that The Sims have had a lot of expansions. A LOT. But there are so, so many that haven't been made. Some ideas never make it past the drawing board, because they'd be too ambitious, too mad, or just too damn outrageous. We caught up with executive producer on The Sims 3, Ben Bell, to find out how Sims expansions are chosen and developed, and to offer a few ideas of our own. Will we ever see Sims 3: Modern Warfare? Read on to find out.
PC Gamer: Are all those pictures on the office caricature wall of you?
PC Gamer: Which is your favourite?
Ben: Any of them that aren't me.
PC Gamer: Your co-workers obviously think you can take it.
Ben: I take it out on my family.
PC Gamer: Your virtual family or real family?
Ben: No comment. I'm kidding!
PC Gamer: Are you one of these deviants I've been told about?
Ben: It's funny, now that I have a real family, all I ever do in the game is model out different scenarios for my family, trying to figure out what to do with my real life. When we were working on the Sims 3, my wife was pregnant, the game was in different states of development and my life was in different states of development and I was trying to figure out what my life would be like with a kid. There's the fertility trait in the game, so I gave it to my sims to make these gigantic families and figure out if it's hard to have lots of kids. And guess what? It's hard to have lots of kids.
PC Gamer: Do they not sleep lots with large families?
Ben: They don't sleep a lot and you can never make everyone happy. That's the biggest takeaway I got. We did tune the game as a result to be easier. It's easier to have more kids in the game than it is in real life.
PC Gamer: You'll have to start sending them to work to pay their way.
Ben: We haven't introduced child labour to The Sims, but any moment now. My friends are crying out for it.
PC Gamer: The Sims: Child Labour?
Ben: The Sims: Sweatshop
PC Gamer: The Sims: Workhouse. Anyway... I understand Rod Humble's moved on and you now have several studios. How is the Sims franchise managed?
Ben: My job is to look after the Sims 3 line of games. That includes the PC and console games. We report back to Redwood Shores. We moved some folks here from the team there.
PC Gamer: What are your plans with the different studios going forward? Or is that not something you're talking about?
Ben: We're only talking about Showtime right now. The team is split up between the two locations, which creates all kinds of challenges and lots of cool opportunities too.
PC Gamer: How do you pick the expansions?
Ben: It's a pretty organic process. One of the fun things about working on The Sims is that you can reflect on your own life and the ideas you find are totally relevant to the game. Very few people have fortunately been at war, so there aren't that many human beings who can relate to that experience. Everyone can relate to the idea of wanting to be a star or basically to being a human being with basic human needs, so the first step is we look inward, at ourselves. What kind of things we want to explore.We look for the absolute ideas, the things that encompass human truths within them, like the desire to be recognised is and have your worth reaffirmed, that's at the core of showtime. Everyone wants to be noticed and be told that the person they are is valuable. That's why celebrities do what they do. There's a little bit of our intuition. The fans of the game have the same intuition and they're pretty involved in the game. It's pretty easy for us to look at the kinds of things that fans are creating on the web and they're saying on the forums and the things they say to us directly, and get what they'd be interested in. We also look at pop culture, those human truths; what are the themes that are interesting on a perenial basis, that people really want to explore more of. All of those things inform our priorities for themes. I would say, we're just scratching the surface of the range of possibilities, I love it.
PC Gamer: Well, it's not restricted in anyway is it?
Ben: Everything's on the table. As long as we can make it funny and personal, it's ours.
PC Gamer: The only other series that's even parallel is the Lego: Film series. They take these franchises and make them accessible to people, no matter the language barrier, location age... quirky slapstick communicates.
Ben: Humour is a great emotion to play with in games. It's really hard to make people laugh every day.
PC Gamer: You've tried a huge amount of different things in your expansions; what have you learned does work and what doesn't?
Ben: We've talked about trying to deal with the absolute truths for people; when we build things that are too esoteric, that are just self-referential, it's hard for people to understand. When we try to tell the joke, it goes over less well than when we give people the three ingredients to make the joke and create the punchline. The Sims contains a lot of ingredients and rarely do we include a recipe.
PC Gamer: How are the changing payment models introduced by social and mobile and MMO games affecting the franchise? Is something like The Sims Social ever going to be integrated into the main platform, do you think?
Ben: So, you know that we have the Store, which is what we call our downloadable content product line. We've been working really hard to introduce downloadable content that add gameplay to the game. We've created objects that add magic and light fantasy to the game; over the summer, we introduced a piece of DLC called the Spellbook, which allows Sims to cast spells that make life easier and allow them to play mischief on other sims. We also launched some gameplay objects that let you accelerate parts of life, so we recently launched a Science-Fiction themed sleeping pod that allows you to train your Sims while they sleep. We're using DLC to add new kinds of stories to the game and really push the boundaries of the game. It's a fun way of doing these small creative experiements and kinda help the fans to unlock parts of the game they might not have enjoyed before.
PC Gamer: Do you think there's an aspect here, not of social engineering, but of social testing. Here you have what a family or community is like and here we introduce a genuine near-future item and see how it affects people.
Ben: We definitely see it to see what our fans are interested in. Like I said, we can take these small creative bets. The kind of benefit for the audience is that there's this huge diversity of content we can do through DLC, we can take the brand into a lot more places. We only do a handful of expansion packs, but we're doing new DLC every few weeks.
PC Gamer: Okay. The question I was asking was more about computer games as social science Petri dishes; with this life simulation, by changing one variable you're producing a 'what-if' scenario for our future lives. Is that something you go out of your way to do?
Ben: What is fun about the game is that any one of those objects can redefine what happens in the characters' lives. If you look at the kind of stories people make in the games, they share stories, they make movies, they tend to gravitate around small portions of content. We have this huge array of possible stories to tell and then people, living like human beings with their personal interests, gravitate towards specific objects or specific ages in life to focus on. So when we add these objects, we create a part of the game that people get sucked into and find uniquely compelling. It is a pretty cool Petri dish for human behaviour, a way to model out things in your own life, this sounds clichéd, to express yourself. I feel it would be interesting to see what would happen if people used The Sims in the same way that they use art therapy. It's a bit of a Rhorshach test. You can put a person with the game and figure out what sort of person they are. They could tell a story about family, career, romance, sexuality... they can really take the game all over the map, do anything I just mentioned or just one of those things.
PC Gamer: It's interesting that because the Sims is so liberated, because you have things in there like homosexual relationships which is taboo is so many countries, allows you to explore all these different aspects. It's not limited.
Ben: Absolutely, it's completely open as a canvas for you to make your impression on it. That's intentional, we really hard to make sure that we address people not a single person or demographic. When we talk about it, we talk about it as both a fun game and a product, but also as a self-expression tool. It's really important to us to make sure that who you are can be found inside the game. You can poke around in there and go “hey, look that's me in there, I just made me, I can relate to that, that's the kind of story I want to tell.”
PC Gamer: So basically, therapy, storytelling, art, science... anything it can't do?
Ben: There's not a lot of violence in there.
Cindy Lum (EA PR Manager): In fact, Charles London chose to work on The Sims because of a moral judgement he made regarding killing.
PC Gamer: Death in it is still a rare thing, like it is in everyday life.
Cindy: It's interesting because you,as a player, can kill a Sim, but a Sim cannot kill another Sim.
PC Gamer: I once brought an expansion back including a voodoo doll home for my much-younger half-sister to play. Now, I wasn't getting on with my Stepmother. My sister created our family perfectly, put the voodoo doll in the house and immediately my Sim walked over and used the doll on the Step-Mum Sim. Cue fist-fight, the break-up of the house and a little sister in tears. She still plays it though.
Ben: I'm sorry! I'm sure it was therapeutic.
PC Gamer: I'm sure it helped her to come to terms with these things.
Cindy; there's nothing like it out there. It's not an avatar game, but it has a reliable predictability, much like life does. You can express yourself but it also takes on a life of its own.
PC Gamer: People don't really grow out of it do they?
Ben: I don't think so. That comes back to the personal relevance that we really strived to enable through the game. It was striking; I worked in the world of action and role-playing games (EverQuest, Gun) a long time before I joined the left-track guards and was initiated into the Sims franchise. It is such a personal mission for so many who on the product and it is infectious. Once you get your head wrapped around the idea that it'sokay to make a game about these subjects, it's infectious. Everyone here is incredibly passionate about the subject matter. It just doesn't get tiring, we keep finding new things to do, new ways to represent the world. I'm really enjoying it.
PC Gamer: Now I'm going to give you the titles of some Sims 3 expansions and you can tell me why you would never do them. Let's start with... Sims 3: Foreclosure.
Ben: It's the next product. It's a big deal here in the states. Lots of family turmoil, short sales...
PC Gamer: Sims: Modern Warfare. Bob Newbie signs up for the army, comes back in a box.
Ben: That's a great idea. Grenades.
PC Gamer: Cindy: Might get sued.
Ben: Is it about what happens after the war?
PC Gamer: A bit like Rambo: First Blood? Bob Newbie comes back from war, can't come with the fact that he's the only Sim who knows how to kill a Sim.
Ben: He's the only one? I love it.
PC Gamer: Sims: Gridlock. They spend all their time in their cars, never leave.
Ben: That would be a true-to-life experience.
PC Gamer: Sims: Sims. They spend all the day spending The Sims. The Sims-sons?
Cindy: What did we talk about at lunch?
PC Gamer: Sims: Salt Lake? Where you never leave the temple and have as many wives as you like?
Ben: You mean you can't?
PC Gamer: Sims: Politics? Where you have to adopt the most extreme policies to get selected as candidate, then refute them to get elected.
Ben: Then you need to have some adultery options.
PC Gamer: Affairs're mandatory, not options.
Ben: Everybody has a sex-scandal in their life. Are you following the US election? Is it like Pop Idol? Do you follow it as an artefact of a strange culture or...?
PC Gamer: We do, yes. The primaries are amazing. I think I'm running low on offensive expansions here.
Ben: There's a lot more.
Cindy: Ben, are you writing these down? The Sims: Modern Warfare I've got.
PC Gamer: Oh, my editor, Tim Edwards, from the UK is just messaging me with an important question; he asks “Can you make girl sims kiss?” That's the only question he wants to ask?
Ben: Yes, you can. You can do it in the Sims 3. Ask him how many copies he's going to buy now.
PC Gamer: Thanks for the time!
Find out more about the new Sims 3 expansion in our Sims 3: Showtime preview.