We're concluding our five-part series of features on The Sims franchise with the second part of the GamesIndustry.biz interview with Rod Humble. Over the course of this week, which has seen The Sims 3 launch worldwide, we've covered the background to the franchise, examined the impact of ideas such as Simlish, and looked in-depth at how one of the biggest ever game franchises has been marketed up to release - and beyond.
Here, the EA Play boss talks about his first involvement with the game, looks at how the expansions changed the industry, explains why he's deeply disturbed by the 'Sim Taste' tool, and gives us one of his favourite moments from five years of development.
Q: What was your first involvement on The Sims franchise?
Rod Humble: I joined in 2004, and The Sims 2 had just launched, so I was thrown into the deep end. We got used to the expansion packs, and I remember that we did Nightlife, which was a lot of fun. University came straight out of the game, then we went into Nightlife, where we added cars.
And the first one I really enjoyed, because we had some time, and did a good job, was Open for Business. With that one I just wanted to take The Sims in a whole new direction, so we literally made a gamble that you could make any kind of business - it was like a business editor.
Of course, the first thing the beta testers did was make a house of ill repute... human beings are pretty predictable... but you could do anything. I made a house that turned into a rave, and I charged people to come into the rave. But you could run a restaurant, all of these different kinds of houses and businesses. I was really happy, because I thought we'd fundamentally added with to the gameplay.
Then we got into a pattern, with the summer expansion pack was basically a theme that the players wanted, and then the spring expansion pack was always going to be something brand new, that put the franchise out there. We did that with Open for Business, Seasons, etc.
So that was my first involvement, and it sort of set the tone of how we were going to do the business, which was serving the core and then making sure that we had at least half of our product portfolio really innovating as much as we could, and pushing the boundaries.
Q: The Sims pretty much invented the expansion business, and EA came under a fair bit of stick for the whole monetisation of a franchise idea... which was a bit unfair wasn't it? Looking at any franchise now and expansions, DLC, sequels - it's all an assumed part of the business.
Rod Humble: I've heard it over the years - when we opened the Store, which enables you to buy selected items of furniture, and now with Sims 3 I hear it a bit as well.
My perspective is that first of all, this is additive stuff - so if we weren't making the expansion packs or the extra content and charging for it, we wouldn't be building it. It's not like anybody is losing anything if they're thinking they could have gotten it for free - I assure you, I've seen the profit-and-loss, we just couldn't afford to do it from a business perspective.
The second thing is, from a player perspective, I've always been in the opposite camp and I just don't get it. I just wanted more stuff for my game that I loved. I like my extra Burnout cars, I like the extra content I get in the games - I like the extra content in Fallout, I like the game so much I want more stuff.
So to me, I like it, and I think that for a lot of our core players they'd say they love it. I just think that for the players that don't have it, they feel like they're falling behind if they don't have all the expansion packs, and to help serve them is over time we put out a value price compilation - say the first two expansions bundled for a lower price. There's a significant proportion of players who wait for that, they know it's coming and they can afford to wait a year or two, get the whole lot in one go.
The majority of Sims 1 sales, for example, happened after The Sims 2 had launched. It just kept going, and going, and going. With the Sims 2 sales we still see the same thing - they're still tracking incredibly strong, and this is happening the week before the launch of The Sims 3. There's just so much value in those games - if you bought The Sims 2 compilation now it would keep you busy for a very, very long time, and I think that value is recognised.
Q: One of the things you've added for the new game is virtually unlimited colour and pattern customisation to objects and textures in the game - does that not endanger possible sales of expansions or items in the online Store?
Rod Humble: It did come up during development, and as always we just favoured... if there's one mantra we've got in the studio it's: "If you can build a tool that puts us out of business, do it and put it in the game."
That bet has never, ever let us down - because what happens is, players love making stuff, and they will make thousands of objects, and share them, and yet they'll always want stuff that's built by us. So far the bet has paid off, and I think that'll pay off again.
But part of what players want is more creativity options - they want to be able to do this stuff. So - put ourselves out of business? Great. All that means is that we can then figure out different ways of putting stuff in the expansion packs, and different editors out there.
When it comes to the colour patterns, by the way, if you look there's an option that can pick colours that match each other. That algorithm blew me away... that was one of the most disturbing and wonderful moments in The Sims 3 development - one of our programmers found this algorithm in the public domain, and tweaked it, and it actually simulates taste!
So before, you'd pick a colour and you'd match it... and it would look awful. With that algorithm, turn it on and it actually makes colours that match the colour you picked. I just find that disturbing, that it can identify those colours that are tasteful to the human eye - I wanted to put that under the 'free will' part of the human mind, and I find it extremely disturbing that it works... I pass on to you that nagging fear and dread that perhaps computers can do more than we thought they could...!
Q: Maybe it's a tool that can save us all from endless DIY programmes on TV, then... So The Sims has story elements, house-building elements, but it's also got the RPG elements too - the levelling up of the characters, so to speak. How hard is it to balance all of those things at once, yet still make it possible for some players to ignore one or more of them if they want to?
Rod Humble: We deliberately, in The Sims 3, added a large amount of RPG-feeling depth to the career path, the moodlets and the career goals. But also, we kept with our philosophy that if there's a challenge in any Sims game, then we make sure we include the ability to skip it.
So all of that depth is there for players who want it, but we also make sure there are cheats in there that give you infinite money, or put you to the top of the career ladder any time you want it. We actually publish those when we launch, so that people don't get frustrated.
That's just part of our philosophy - people will generally choose to have a challenge, but we never want to force them to have a challenge. I've seen that myself, with my wife - she loves racing games, so when I buy her a game that, let's say has a Ferrari on the front of it, she can't understand why she has to start off in the Fiat to begin with and work her way up. She's like, "What?! I don't want to drive a Fiat, I've got the game so I can drive the Ferrari."
So in The Sims, if you don't want to have to earn the money, just type in a cheat and you can get it all. We would hate to have people frustrated.
But yeah, we did add a lot of depth to the gameplay, for people - like myself - who just love that element of tweaking your way up the career ladder.
Q: Let's end with one of your favourite memories from playing The Sims down the years?
Rod Humble: I've got a bunch, but one of the ones that comes to mind - I was beta-testing Open for Business, and I was playing a family. Both parents went to work, and one of the kids had gone to school, but the teenager was left at home. I suddenly thought of something and wondered if it was possible, and sure enough - I bought the cash register and the kid ran a business where he sold all of the parents' furniture while they were at work. Then, when they came back, he'd use that money to buy himself a brand new toy.
I thought, "You know what, if a game can do that... then we're in great shape." It was one of those wonderful moments - I didn't expect it, and we didn't design it, but it actually worked, so it was kinda cool.
Rod Humble is Electronic Arts VP and head of the EA Play label. Interview by Phil Elliott.