The Once and Future Sim

One hundred million copies sold, 36 magazine covers and 100 game critic awards: The Sims franchise continues to thrive ten years after its launch, basking in the uncommon flattery of having no real competition.

The Sims importance and impact on the video game industry as a whole could perhaps be measured by the games created by other developers that tried to recapture its success. But, there really aren't any.

In an industry that thrives not just on innovation, but also on creative derivation, it perhaps speaks even more to the success of The Sims that there has never been anything like it since.

Will Wright, whose unique take on gaming lead to the creation of games like SimCity, Spore and The Sims, points to the lack of competition as another unique facet of the franchise that is an odd amalgam of digital doll house and time-management simulator.

"I think that is one of the unique things about The Sims, that no one has effectively copied it yet," Wright said. "When you look at all the other game genres usually there is a big hit and everyone comes out with their version of the big hit and then it becomes a whole genre. The Sims is a whole genre with no clear competition"

"The Sims was one of the first games to open up gaming to a much wider audience and it rewards and attracts a certain type of player that is more self motivated and more creative," Wright said. "It was based in a world that most everyone could recognize even if they were a non-gamer. Almost everyone when they first got The Sims crafted a representation of themselves and then their family, their house and their neighbors. They then had this test tube, voodoo representation of their life. I think for a lot of people it captured the core of juggling your real life but in a whimsical, cartoon format so it was more fun but still about them and they were the core of the game."

Unlike most video games The Sims, and the 35 sequels and expansion packs it gave birth to, isn't about doing the things we can't do, it's more about doing the things that society or our conscience won't let us do. Like spending all of our money on big screen TVs and coffee makers. Removing all of the toilets from a house and walling someone up inside. Or building a home of nice furnishings, expensive electronics, but no walls or roof.

The core of that first Sims title was based loosely around the psychological theory of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. The idea in the game, and the theory, is that people can only start to worry about morality, creativity and happiness after they satisfy their basic needs, like eating, health, safety and friendships.

To play the game you have to worry over the minutia of a digital person's every day existence, hitting those needs to help them succeed.

Despite its surprising success and longevity, none of the games in the franchise's sequels have done much to change that basic formula.

Instead each iteration of the game digs further down into the concept.

The Sims 2 added aging and made the game 3D, said Tim LeTourneau, vice president and executive producer of The Sims Studio at Electronic Arts. The Sims 3 expanded the concept from the house to a full neighborhood, he said.

"For the last 10 years The Sims has grown as both a game and a creative experience," LeTourneau said. "Throughout the history of the franchise, we have tried to introduce concepts and content that allow more and more of people's everyday life as well as their fantasies to be reflected in the game. We tried to stay connected to the changing times, and just like we are people continuing to evolve, so will The Sims."

But that evolution will likely never mean tinkering with the basic Sims concept of time management, he added.

"Time management is what we do as humans," LeTourneau said. "We are all on a clock, it's part of what makes us human, that recognition of time passing and its impact on us. The ebbs and flows of daily behavior, or behavior across a lifetime, are all a function of time's passage. We may choose to emphasize or deemphasize it in different situations, but time will likely always be part of how we ultimately control The Sims."

The idea of changing anything in The Sims, even making iterative changes, must be taken quite seriously at Electronic Arts. Despite EA being one of the world's largest producer of video games, The Sims remains "one of the most important things to happen to EA since its founding in 1982," LeTourneau says.

"Before The Sims, for the most part, EA was a sports company but The Sims changed everything," he said. "With the introduction of The Sims ten years ago, it changed the way we looked at ourselves as a company and the way consumers perceived us as well. The Sims turned the equation upside down and gave the authorship to the player. They get to decide what they want to do and then they go do it. There is no real score as a consequence and that is different than anything that had been created in our industry before."

The latest expansion for Sims 3 is a pack of new play things for the game. High-End Loft Stuff hits this month offering players and their digital prosopopoeia the wonders of a high-end loft and all of the slick manifestations of living in an expensive apartment.

It's, perhaps, ironic that a game built around the concept of helping our digital creations achieve self-actualization is itself so focused on materialism, churning out new gadgets, furniture and homes for gamers to tinker with, but rarely offering an upgrade of morality.

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.