The impact that The Sims has had on the games industry can't really be underestimated. First released in 2000, the franchise has now sold over 100 million units and, arguably, created the lucrative expansions business.
Looking ahead to the release of the game this week (June 5 in Europe), we'll be taking a look back at why it's become such an iconic title with a series of features over the next few days. Here, head of the EA Play label that is responsible for The Sims, Rob Humble, talks about user-generated content, cross-gender appeal, and why Simlish as a language is so important for the game.
Q: What's your first memory of The Sims?
Rod Humble: I can remember, I was working at Sony when number one was announced. I saw the preview for the game and I think like a lot of core gamers I just thought "What the hell is this? That doesn't make any sense whatsoever!" I was so negative on it, I just couldn't believe anybody would be releasing this - it was from the guys that did SimCity, which was one of my favourite games, and it seemed to be a game about watching other people sitting around the house, on a computer. It just seemed so lame.
But then a friend of mine bought the game when it came out, and he was a super-hardcore player. He showed me how he was playing it, and where I was going wrong, and then I was hooked - that changed my mind.
Q: The way you said that - "watching other people sitting around the house" - strongly reminds me of what countless millions of people do every day, which is watching soap operas. At what point did you look at the game and recognise it was going to be a big deal?
Rod Humble: You're right, it is like soap operas... I think it was when my friend, and then others I knew, started telling stories about what they'd done in the game. That's always been the magic of it for me - you get these amazing stories, but they're all emergent. None of them are scripted.
The other day I was playing The Sims 3 and I hit the random button, and the Sim came up as a crook. Then later, when he went shopping, he bumped into a girl, they fell in love... but as he got to know her it turned out she was a cop. They moved in together, and eventually he went on the straight and narrow.
That's a pretty good story, but the fact that it was generated within the game, that none of it is scripted, is amazing. So when these stories - and obviously they weren't that detailed in The Sims 1 - but when they were starting to be told, that's when I thought there might be something to it.
But full disclosure: I was amazed at how successful it was, absolutely blown away. PC gaming back then - it was a different time, and it would never had occurred to me to get a game that brought in half the population. Amazing.
Q: The art of telling stories - I guess in a way it was a pioneer of user-generated content?
Rod Humble: Yeah, I think it was. A lot of the elements in The Sims, from talking to the original team, they just put a lot of stuff in that felt good. Various bits took off, and to this day we're very wary about taking away elements, even if we think they're useless.
The way I describe it, if you're familiar with the Terry Pratchett books, is his description of magic: Magicians know that 90 per cent of what they do is utterly useless - sacrificing goats, waving hands, saying chants - but they don't know which is the 10 per cent that works... I feel a lot like that with The Sims... I think, "Maybe that's the magic source, better leave that alone!"
So there's a lot of stuff in there that we keep in, and is there because we love it, we're not entirely sure that's the secret source, but I don't think there's any single thing that's the key to success.
Q: The franchise has been about evolution rather than revolution, but essentially part if its success is that different elements appeal to different people?
Rod Humble: Yeah - the game itself started... the hallmark of the franchise is the ability to build your own house, and make your own environment. That just never goes away - that was the starting point, and it carries through. The people came later actually, and although I think they ended up being the focus of the game, the starting point was building your own little house. So we'll always do that.
When you look at our players, they tend to be cut up into three broad categories. One is builders and creators - they love making stuff, they love the editors, they love sharing content. Then there are story-tellers, who like playing stories and living out different lives. And the third category is deviants, who just love messing with this stuff - they're the guys who like doing disasters, they love watching Sims die, they just mess up the whole thing and do the weird, outlandish stuff.
All three of those audiences have stayed throughout the evolution of The Sims, and we have to cater to each one with every single extension and version we do. Because they each love the game in their own way.
Q: These days, in the post-Wii era, we've started to take cross-gender, multiple-demographic gaming for granted, but the way that The Sims pulled in a roughly equal split of males versus females was a huge deal back then.
Rod Humble: You've very much put your finger on it, which is that the reason The Sims is so successful in selling copies is that it is half male, half female. It actually starts off a little bit majority male at the launch of Sims 1, Sims 2 and presumably Sims 3, and then over time it gets a little bit majority female as we release the expansion packs.
But the fact that it represents the population is a real sweet spot. It's a game for all - I know it's a cliché, but it happens to be true of The Sims because I've seen the demographic data - it really is a very broad age range, and balanced between both sexes.
It's a really hard trick to pull off, but with The Sims I think it's like a warped mirror on life - any human can look into it... first of all they can put themselves into it, which is a huge draw, because we're all interested about ourselves. And secondly people are inherently interesting - we like watching human beings, and the one thing we deliberately do is keep the camera angle, and keep the language barrier, and we make those interactions feel a little bit like they're pet animals, and a little bit like it's a real life simulator.
Internally, within The Sims group, we referred to the Sims as 'hamsters with jobs' for a while, just to really reinforce it to ourselves that we have to keep up this flipping back and forth - you're looking at the Sims, but you're role-playing with the Sims. They're people, but they're not quite people.
And if you listen to Sims players talk, they'll change perspective mid-sentence, and it will go something like this: "I got my Sim a job at the library, but he messed up and he got fired."
It will literally change from first person to third person mid-sentence, and I love that. I think we need to keep that balance that you're flipping in and out. It's a really hard trick to pull off, but we do a lot of work internally to make sure that balance is maintained.
Q: I guess you know you're on to a good thing when, like Star Trek and the Klingon language, Simlish becomes something of a recognised language in its own right - songs recorded by major artists, and so on. That must be quite flattering, I guess?
Rod Humble: Yeah, it is - we get popular singers to come in and do Simlish versions of their songs. I was giddy as a schoolgirl when Depeche Mode did their song in Simlish. We deliberately keep Simlish, because if we were to do a recognisable language, technical challenges aside, it would actually reduce the storytelling.
That comes back this question of whether the Sim is you, is it a pet, is it a person? We need to keep that in balance, because it's much more powerful if you're looking at and reading icons, or you can put into the game whatever you want, rather than hearing people saying it.
Simlish isn't just only a phenomenon, it's a key hallmark of the game.
Q: How was all that designed? It's authentic, but not real...
Rod Humble: There's actually a little dictionary that we do... I remember talking to Charles London, who's a friend of mine and the original art director on The Sims 1 - he helped with it, and they picked up a lot of intonations of Navajo and some Latin, and deliberately went in and looked at how words were founded.
Interestingly it works everywhere except Japan and China, where they think it's English most of the time...
Rod Humble is executive VP at Electronic Arts, and head of the EA Play label. Interview by Phil Elliott. Part Two will follow later in the week.