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.
The SuperMes is a Channel 4 reality TV show about virtual housemates. The series has been created using the Sims 3, with plotlines based on the unchoreographed actions of the house's four inhabitants. Gamasutra mention that the first episode is online now, and you'll find it embedded above.
It's interesting to see a major broadcasting house using taking advantage of procedural storytelling. Anyone who loves the Sims games already knows how good they are at generating ridiculous tales, and the SuperMes feels like a professionally produced after-action report. Chief creative Paul Brennun describes it as "a true collaboration between humans and robots" over on Televisual, adding "this is one of the most exciting projects we have made yet and points to the future of interactive storytelling." What do you reckon?
Let’s get one thing clear: I’m extremely fond of horses. If I were to list all of the animals in order of objective, intrinsic worth, I don’t think it would be arrogant of me to say that horses would certainly be at the top.
The Sims 3: Pets caters to unbridled hooflust in ways previous Sims pets expansions wouldn’t dare, introducing equine buddies to the already heaving assortment of available canine and feline companions. Dogs, cats and horses are now the three primary forms of petkind, while birds, fish, gerbiltypes and lizards steadfastly remain on the ‘interactive furniture’ side of animal husbandry.
Whether furry, hairy, scaly or feathered, pets integrate seamlessly into the life simulator. They can be inserted into new families from the outset, or adopted from other Sims or the adoption agency. And, because The Sims 3: Pets fills your town to the brim with wandering strays, your Sim can also befriend vagrant woofers, taking them off the streets and showering them in mind-smearing luxury.
Gone are the pet careers of The Sims 2, replaced by more realistic functions: dogs can hunt and dig for treasure. Cats can catch vermin. Horses can be ridden in races and made to jump over things for money. Riding itself is a skill Sims can learn, while hunting and other tricks can be taught and improved. The pets themselves can be controlled exactly as you would a human Sim, allowing you to placate their immediate desires (typically: sniffing and eating things) or attend to their needs without the interaction of a human Sim. And, just as with human Sims, wish fulfilment grants rewards – such as the ability to vomit at will.
The animations and animal vocalisations, are of an incredibly high standard – pumping immense, wet-nosed character and playful personalities into every pet. You’ll want to crawl into your monitor to stroke the things, instead of stoically resigning yourself to proxy in-game cuddles and indirect cooing. Animals age and expire, too, flinging Sims into depressions of such crippling magnitude that, much like real life, you wonder if it’s ever worth forming an emotional bond with a living creature ever again. But don’t worry, you’ll find some consolation in the customisation options in the pet creation suite. Maybe.
The pets expansions for the Sims have traditionally been the most, well, expansive, introducing players to a new emotional vocabulary through the unconditional and universally appreciated love of captive animals. The Sims 3: Pets is the most balanced of these expansions – more pragmatic than the wackiness of The Sims 2 superstar mutts, and… well, I doubt you even remember the awful state of The Sims 1’s autistic, grid-based dogs. It’s the only Sims expansion I’d ever insist upon, and a must for Sims 3 owners.
EA have launched a Sims 3 demo that will theoretically run in your browser. The demo was announced on the EA site, spotted over on Blue's News, and contains "elements from The Sims 3, The Sims 3 Late Night, The Sims 3 World Adventures."
EA's link doesn't seem to work, but we managed to launch the demo from the Gakai front page, the service providing the streaming tech behind the trial. The demo is time limited to 20 minutes. You'll be able to create a sim and lead them to their a gruesome death in an Egyptian pyramid, a haunted house and a vampire lair. Or you could keep them safe and watch them live long, happy fulfilled lives, but where's the fun in that?
The next Sims 3 expansion pack will add a host of new activities for your sims at every stage of their lives. Young sims can build treehouses, teenagers can attend their school prom, and fully grown sims can have a full blown mid life crisis that allows them to change their hair style and colour, and hopefully blow all their savings on a collection of sports cars.
As well as being able to throw new events like expensive wedding ceremonies and teen house parties, The Sims 3: Generations will also add a collection of new hobbies and activities will let you accidentally kill your sims in a series of new and spectacular ways.
Experimental chemistry sets will be a new source of fun and horrible explosive death for your sims, but safer activities will also be available, including the option to throw bachelor parties. Younger sims will be able to pull pranks, plant toilet bombs and have imaginary friends. A new memories system will let you keep track of your sims' major life events, and post their progress on Facebook.
Generations is due out this spring, for more information on the new expansion, head over to the official Sims 3 site.
If you fancy having your mind somewhat blown, try playing the Mass Effect 2 demo in your browser. Unlike most graphically impressive browser games, this isn't a huge download running via a special plugin: all you need is Flash and Java, which you likely already do, and you'll be playing in a few seconds. The only catch is you need a good connection - about 10Mb/s - and the demo won't appear if you don't.
The service is called Gaikai, and it's live in 12 countries right now. The focus is on letting you into the game with no fuss or sign-up process, so it's perfect for demos. At the end of the Mass Effect 2 or Dead Space 2 demos available now, you get a link to buy the full game.
If the Mass Effect 2 demo link doesn't pop up when you visit the Gaikai site, try the Spore one - it has the same requirements but it'll tell you what's wrong if it doesn't work.
The service has actually been running in a low-profile way for a couple of months. There's a slight lag on interactions when playing on our office connection, but performance is generally very good. Since it's web based, it means you can now play these PC games on a Mac or Linux system. It's set to be demonstrated in full at the Games Developer Conference this week.
Unlike the similar game-streaming service, OnLive, Gaikai doesn't charge for its services and allows users to play in their browser right away. At the moment it only offers some choice selections from EA, but is hoping to move onto including a larger catalogue of blockbuster hits from them and other publishers.
Writing on his blog CEO David Perry explains that he hopes to eventually end up with servers in every major city in the world to stream data from, saying that "if engineers work really hard, they can maybe squeeze out another thousandth of a second from our compression but if we set up in a data center two states closer to your house, we dramatically improve the performance".
The creator of Earthworm Jim hopes to eventually expand the service to allow YouTube-style embedding of demos on websites, and the service will eventually work with Facebook. The aim is to have the embedded demos appear on Facebook, and at the end of reviews, so players can hop straight in and play.
Other demos currently available include Spore, The Sims 3 and, after completing a short survey, Dead Space 2.
Let us know if they work on your connection and, if so, how the performance feels to you.
The Sims 3 is now on Steam, bringing interactive soap operas, dysfunctional families and suburban nudist colonies to your Steam account. The game's many expansion packs are also on Valve's digital download service, including World Adventures, which lets you take your sims treasure hunting in exotic and often booby-trapped locations, and Late Night, which lets you take your sims out on the town. There's also a bundle deal offering the Sims 3 and all five expansions for half price. I'm off to build my sims a glorious mansion, and then delete all the doors and watch the carnage unfold.