A CNET Gamecenter Preview

Tuesday, November 2, 1999 - 22:00

CNET's GameCenter reports that "...the Sims is the most intriguing game to come around since SimCity." But you already knew that, right? Check out the excellent preview at Gamecenter Sneak Peeks. You can also read the preview by clicking read more below this post.

Inside word: Some might call it SimFamily, but the Sims is the most intriguing game to come around since SimCity. That's no surprise, because it's the brainchild of SimCity creator Will Wright--and it's already one of the most anticipated games of next year.

By Jason Ocampo

The Sims is one of the most anticipated games in years, but when you ask people to talk about it, you'll hear a variety of descriptions, as if no one can quite pin it down. It's a virtual dollhouse, one person might say. It's Tamagotchi, says another. No, says someone else, it's SimFamily. You get the idea. Part of the problem is that The Sims is all of these things--and more.

What we do know is that The Sims is the pet project of designer Will Wright, the man who gave millions of people Guiliani-like powers with the spectacular SimCity games. Now Wright has set his sights on a more intimate setting: the inner workings of a home.

We sat down with Wright in Maxis's offices in Walnut Creek, California, in a gleaming building of the sort found in SimCity (in fact, it made a cameo in SimCity 3000). There, we spoke at length about The Sims and watched as he gave us a grand tour of his neighborhood.

The Sims

Won't You Be My Neighbor?
Wright admits he's fascinated with how people interpret what he likes to refer to as "big piles of numbers" into stories. In essence, he describes games such as SimCity and The Sims as basically mathematical models attempting to simulate something far more complex. Still, people are drawn into these games and give these models personality. He saw it happen with the SimCity games. And he expects to see it with The Sims. "It's more of a structure into which people can weave their own fantasies," Wright said.

The Sims The Sims The Sims

The first step is to create a character. Character creation in The Sims is highly customizable, in terms of both personality and character appearance--you can choose from both genders and a variety of races, for starters. There are approximately five parameters, such as neat or outgoing, that influence the mood of the character and his or her interaction with others.

For his demonstration, Wright created a new male character--let's call him the Bachelor--and started the game. The Bachelor has just moved into a small house, and because he's fresh out of school, the house is quite spartan. So your first task is to buy the basic furnishings he needs to survive. Apart from the actual character creation, this is the first moment when The Sims becomes a wide-open canvas upon which your personality and tastes preside. What kind of furniture should you buy for him? What job should he seek? What relationships should he make? It's all up to you at this point.

Wright showed us that this particular character didn't have any cooking skills, so he usually used the phone to order pizza. He's a bit slovenly and his domicile tends to become cluttered. As a result, he has a cleaning lady come by every few days to tidy up. Because pizzas and cleaning ladies aren't cheap, the Bachelor needs to get a job. So Wright had the Bachelor go out to his front lawn, get the paper, and scan the want ads.

There are a variety of jobs in the game, and depending on which one you want, your character may have to study up in order to get it. Perhaps there's a chef position you're interested in, but your character doesn't have the right skills. No problem--just mosey to the bookshelf and pull out that cooking book. After a lot of studying, your character will improve his cooking skills. Armed with his culinary knowledge, he gets the job, securing some much-needed cash flow. As an added bonus, the increased cooking skill vastly decreases the odds of your character starting a catastrophic kitchen fire.

Taking Wright's Bachelor character a bit further, you might look at the house next door and realize he has an attractive female neighbor. So you could throw a backyard barbecue, invite her over, and see what happens. Sex and nudity are handled subtly. As far as the former goes, the most graphic it gets is heavy making out. If a couple wants to have a child, the game will just fast-forward to the end product, the baby. As for nudity, The Sims uses the amusing television technique of pixeling out body parts. So you'll see someone's head floating above a box of changing pixels, with his feet sticking out at the bottom.

The Sims The Sims The Sims

Though you can give directions to all of the characters in the game, you don't necessarily control them fully. While you're focused on one character, all the others will go about their business. They won't make any monumental decisions when you're not watching, but they won't stand idly about, either. If you give a command to a character, he or she might not be in the mood to obey it. The character could be tired, hungry, or just depressed, so part of your job is to keep your characters' spirits up and make sure you don't push them too far. In many ways, it's similar to your role as mayor in SimCity, in which you tried to foster an environment that kept your sim citizens happy and content, so they would go out and build a gleaming metropolis for you.

Build It, and They Will Come
In 1993, Wright noticed that some of the biggest software applications on the market were home design packages, which are themselves lightweight CAD programs. Although such programs sold hundreds of thousands of copies, Wright figured out that only a small percentage of users were using the home design programs to actually redesign their houses or landscape their yards. "A lot of people buy these things as toys," he said, explaining that such programs allowed people to play fantasy architect. "That's what kind of interested me."

One of the main projects in The Sims is the design and furnishing of a house. The game will offer some standard houses to choose from; however, you can build a house from scratch or remodel an existing one. Expecting a baby? With a little clicking and dragging, you can add a nursery to the structure.

You can build a new house, or tinker with an existing one; the only limit is the amount of money the characters have. The Sims takes place in a neighborhood of up to ten houses, so you can have up to ten households if you want, with the inhabitants of all these homes interacting with each other.

The Sims The Sims The Sims

There's a Trojan Horse in That Monkey
Furniture and equipment usually come in several versions, representing different price ranges. As an example, you can buy an inexpensive but modest television, or you can shell out a small fortune and go for the big-screen monstrosity that's every red-blooded consumer's dream.

Aside from just looking pretty and taking up space in a house, furniture plays an important role in the game. Through furniture, the designers can modify individual behavior, even after the game is finished. Every object, including the ones that Maxis plans to release on the Internet after the game has shipped, will contain all the instructions necessary for the sims to use them. "You can download a tennis court, and all of the sudden they can play tennis," Wright explained. That way, you can extend the life of the game by making objects that broaden the activities and interests of your characters.

Moreover, objects are also the way by which the designers can introduce random elements, such as illness. So if the designers ever want to inject the plague into the game, they might make available a pet monkey for download on the Web site. The monkey would carry a disease that would trigger at some random moment, making the characters in the game sick. Obviously, the designers won't inform gamers that the objects they purchase might have some unintended side effects. Objects can also affect the mental state of your character. If you have a married couple, you'll discover that the husband wants to watch his action movie, but the wife wants to watch her romance movie. The winner will obviously be much more content than the loser.

Take Pictures...Further
As it did with SimCity 3000, Maxis plans to support The Sims extensively through the Web. Besides downloads for the game, one new feature that was added relatively late in development will also take advantage of the Web. The development team decided to add a snapshot feature to the game, allowing you to take in-game photos of what's going on, then crop them to suit your needs. Once that's done, you can add captions to illustrate the image.

What's more, The Sims will feature a one-button publishing feature that will build an HTML page with the photos and captions; and, if players want, it will upload the page to The Sim's official Web site for others to download and enjoy. In this, Wright sees a way for players not only to share their game experiences with others, but to tell a story as well.

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"Some people might approach this as a sitcom director would," he said, explaining that players might want to add clever captions or a punch line to describe a situation. Wright himself described one neighborhood he was working on: it was built around the houses and casts of popular sitcoms. He explained that he created the Gilligan's Island cast and built three huts for them. Then he let them loose, and watched as the Mr. and Mrs. Howell Sims spent their time dancing away.

As for Internet support, Wright imagines that future versions of The Sims will have some form of multiplayer capability. In addition, he forecasts that they might even make it so that players could upload their neighborhoods into an online virtual city, in which the inhabitants would interact with inhabitants of other player-created neighborhoods. Maxis has already released a skin tool, which allows players to create their own customized skin and face textures for the game. The team also plans to release an object editor, which would allow players to create their own furniture objects and more.

Our House, in the Middle of Our Street
There's so much to The Sims that it's hard to touch on every element in a single preview. The range of the game's creative possibilities is almost staggering. Certainly, part of the appeal of the game is its almost voyeuristic view of life. Some people will be drawn to The Sims because they can create models of themselves and play the great game of "what if...." Others will view their sims with the same affection they had for the cities they built in SimCity. Whatever the case, there's no doubt that by the time the game ships in February or March, Will Wright will have once again come up with something that's sure to fire up our imaginations.


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