[Our Making Of series returns! Since I'm starting to run low, I'm working on another string of articles to mix in with them on Fridays. It's a series of interviews with some of my favourite Indie-game stuff right now - basically, all the RPS favourites. However, in the meantime, here's what I think is good one - Will Wright, on the Sims, in typically expansive and intelligent mood. This remixed version features considerably more matieral than the original which appeared back in PC Format. Oh - and I'm using a mix of Sims and Sims 2 grabs, for decoration's sakes, though this is 100% about the original.]
In our time sitting down with Will Wright, the prime mover behind the Sims games, we talk about many things. The game’s origins, its development, its trials and tribulations and its success… but the one question that we really wanted to know remained unbroached. “So… Will,” we’d grin, “Exactly how grotesquely rich are you?”. You have to wonder. There were 29 million copies of the Sims and spin-offs sold at the time of the interview [And 70 million now - Ed], and you have to presume there’s some serious green in the man’s pockets. But not that he hasn’t had to work for it. The Sims is a game that simply wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for his faith in the project. And its gestation lies well back in the history of a much earlier game. Though probably not the one you're thinking of...
“It was 1993, and I’d just finished SimAnt,” Will recalls, “In the game we simulate an ant colony fairly realistically, with pheromone trails. But the game had a back yard, with someone walking around who could step on the ants or attack them. But he was programmed in more traditional procedural programming, and when I finished the game I’d realised that the ants were smarter than the guy was, because they had a more robust intelligence and able to react to more circumstances. I began wondering whether there was a way we could simulate human behaviour in a more distributed sense in the way the ants do – more hard and robust.”
The other inspiration was Austrian architect Christopher Alexander. “I was inspired by the idea that environment design influenced behaviour,” Will explains, “I started thinking it would be cool to do a game about architecture where depending on how well you design something you’ll see people score it by how efficiently they live in it.”
As the future best selling PC game ever, it was immediately embraced by the corporate culture and… actually, no. In fact, the Sims almost died at birth. “We had a focus group back in 1993. And it tested very badly,” Will remembers, “No-one liked it at all, and was the worst idea out of the four we presented that night.” Will Wright went over to Sim City 2000 to work on that, and the Sims were forgotten until around 96, where Will managed to secure a small team. “I got one programmer and one behavioural modeller, and did a couple other things like SimCopter,” he says, “I didn’t really get back to the Sims until 96 or 97. We had a few guys on it, working on the behaviour.”
“It was a battle, the first few years, inside Maxis,” Will mentions, “It was referred to as “The Toilet game”. It was the game where you clean the toilet. We had a product review meeting at Maxis where we had to decide whether we’d publish this thing or not… and the executive said “No, let’s do that”.” So the Sims was over… except Will Wright secured the services of a tools programmer who wasn’t doing anything and worked secretly on the game. “No-body was using his tools, and they were thinking of axing him,” says Will, “I trundled him into my Black Box – so to speak – and did a little Skunk-works.”
“At that point it was focused on characters interacting with objects in a very open-ended format,” Will continues, “We were very concerned that it was going to be expandable, which was a hard thing to figure out, until we realised we could distribute the verbs in the objects. We could then easily add verbs to the game. It’s normally hard to add new nouns – more objects – but it’s hard to add verbs, or actions. I was trying to figure out a way to make the game more expandable on the verb side.”
Not this was in any way easy to get working. “This is a game where the players build the environments, so there’s a huge variety of situations,” says Will, “It’s real easy to design when you know there’s going to be a guy walking down a corridor with a gun and you’ve got to hide from him… and that’s about it. You can design AIs that are very specific in certain circumstances. Designing a generalised AI which can figure out if it’s sitting on the couch watching the TV, or locked in the bathroom, or throwing up in the toilet or kissing his girlfriend… the wide variety of situations these characters had to encounter was the biggest challenge technically.”
It was worth it. That expandability has clearly been a bedrock of the game’s success, with Sims expansion kits being almost being an industry in themselves. But this was an incredible pay-off from a real self-imposed development burden. “We spent probably close to a year in development making sure that the game was expandable in every possible way,” Will notes, “We probably could have done the Sims a year earlier if it wasn’t expandable. We were putting a bet on it that it’d be worth it. And that bet really paid off, much bigger than I’d expected it. I thought if it did pay off it’ll double the sales – not twenty, thirty times.” Wright lays the success primarily to the fans. “I thought the game would either do a million units or… 50,” he says, “I thought a million would be a hit. It would be a hit or a total dog. I didn’t forsee was the size of the community, and it’s that which took a million to thirty. All the cool stuff you can do with websites, and downloading content and storytelling.”
Not bad for what's basically the world's most glorified Dolls House. “I used to call it Doll House actually,” Will says, “But in one of the focus groups I discovered that it didn’t test well with 14 year old boys. And that was the point which I stopped calling it doll house. In my mind, yes, that’s what it was. It was a high-tech animated doll house with AI.” Which possibly explains the Sims huge female gamer-base? “Not necessarily,” says Will, shrugging off such patronising attitudes, “You can play the Sims as a straight game, and very goal orientated. You can play with it as a modelling system, and just use it to design houses. You can use it for telling stories. Meta-games that live on top of the sims. I don’t think the reason women bought it was because they wanted to play with dolls. I think, if anything, real women have a higher standard of leisure entertainment than men do. They tend to go for entertainment that are a little more expressive. Also entertainment that connects back to them and has some personal meaning. The Sims allows a path where you can play it as a deep personal reflection of yourself. Also, at the same time, there weren’t any games available besides sports and fantasy and whatever. Games are remarkably narrow. For how elaborate the medium is and how many copies we sell, it’s amazing how few subjects we deal with”
Which kind of leads to the question of /what/ they chose to simulate. Life's a big place. How did they choose what was key? “A lot of it came down to the storytelling side,” Wright says, “What I mean is that we have a situation, and within that there are certain stories which come to mind. If you hand someone a gun, you expect it to be a murder mystery. If you give someone a cream pie, you know it’s going to be a comedy. The game suggests certain story spaces. We saw players presented with a game about everyday life, and they gravitated towards them – Can you kiss? Can they fall in love? Can they Die? And a lot of these were just the normal parts of every day life. Bits were more on the fictional side. Can they romance? Can they have sex? And these became the objects in the game. What are the iconic elements which people build stories out of, that exist in this level of life?”
Which kind of leads me back to one of my standard riffs on Wright – that simulations aren't, by their nature, neutral. What does he think of authorial bias? “Any simulation is a set of assumptions,” he says, “You tell the computer every little detail about the system. There’s no way you’re not to get a lot of biases and assumptions. However, as a designer, you want to step outside and ask “What are the different directions I think an average player they might want to go?”. But even the fact I chose to do a game about lives or cities is a bias right there. I could have chose to do a game about something else. It’s a form of communication, like anything – but it’s actually a little more elaborate than that, computer games being a new model and shared communication with a designer communicating a range or possibilities the player are then navigating. In some sense, the player is co-designing the experience with the designer. The Designer gives a landscape, and the player then takes a story through that landscape. And I can design the landscape to appeal in different regions, and disallow others, but in there, the player can head in any direction they want to. We have to think “We’ll put a 1000 people in this space. Where will be the biggest trails?” And we expand that part of the game.”
In terms of the lessons he learnt from the Sims, one thing stuck out. “It really drove home the point that the players in their minds were almost seeing this as an interactive movie, and they were making this epic story as they were playing the game,” he opines, “And we wanted the game to have a deeper recognition of the story that was in the player’s imagination.” So while the player of the Sims could put a man and a woman in a house, have them fall in love and think of them as man and wife, the actual game didn’t recognise it in those terms. “The Sims 2 has a much keener understanding of certain events and archetypes that players have in their mind,” Will notes, “With that understanding we can really turn up the drama in the game, so it realy feels like a story.”
The Sims is also interesting in that it’s a hugely successful game that’s lead to virtually no clones, and certainly none of note. While Doom, Command and Conquer and even Sim City birthed genres, the Sims continues its lonely vigil. Will Wright is also surprised so few have followed their lead. “I thought it’d take a couple of years and we’ll start to see some pretty viable competitors… but it’s been over four, and we’re seeing some not terribly good ones,” he notes, “Which kind of disappoints me, because I wish there were better competitors, because I think it would help grow the genre. Though I think people are underestimating it. The Sims appears such a simple game, but they don’t understand how complicated it is to make the AI model and to get the User Interface just right. We redesigned the UI eleven times from scratch. Total rebuilds.” So, presumably, he must have been pleased with the final results. “I didn’t think it could have got a whole lot better,” he eventually decides, “We were definitely on some maximum. To get any better it’d have to been something radically different. We were drawing on existing conventions – how an existing gamer would expect to do something, plus how someone who has NEVER played a game in their life would expect to interact with something.”
The Sims is the ultimate story of a triumph of a game designer: being proved right when almost everyone else thought him wrong. So what advice would he give to a fellow developer when considering trying to bring their own, unique, dream project into existence. “Never underestimate the value of persistence,” he states, “Even with SimCity, I spent several years trying to convince people that SimCity would be a good game. Around that time it just seemed that it was a battle that could not be won. If you’re incredibly persistent, and you really believe, then persistence can overcome any number of barriers.”
“If you really believe in what you’re doing, don’t be discouraged easily,” he grins, “otherwise you’re in the wrong industry”.