It’d be silly to say that SimCity wasn’t a huge success – Will Wright basically invented a genre with his 1989 PC title, and moved 300,000 copies of the original game (plus a few million more on the SNES). That said, the game was still something of a niche idea. Not everybody wants to immerse themselves in the minutiae of urban planning, and early publishers didn’t want to risk any funding on it, leaving Wright to unsuccessfully peddle it for years until Broderbund agreed to put it out.
Sequels and ports followed, and Wright’s studio Maxis established itself as the home for wonky, somewhat niche simulation experiments, kept afloat by the SimCity franchise. But in February of 2000, a big gamble became a generation-defining hit, simply by zooming in. 20 years later, let’s look at how The Sims came to be.
Before we get into The Sims itself, we need to rewind a bit to examine some similar – no pun intended – sorts of games.
Activision’s 1985 Little Computer People, designed by David Crane and Rich Gold, is probably the closest direct ancestor. The program takes place in a three-story house, seen in cutaway side view. A little AI resident lived there, and they both acted independently and also turned to the player for advice and help. The game was one of the earliest “social life simulations,” and although critical response was positive it didn’t sell well enough for the planned sequels and add-ons to materialize.
Bandai’s Tamagotchi took the idea of a digital life form to a more pet-like marketplace when it launched in 1997 in the States. The handheld devices contained an LCD screen that was a portal to the room of your virtual friend, and you had to carry it around, tending to its basic food, hygiene, and attention needs as it grew and bonded with you. Although the AI was simple, the core loop of caretaking was hugely addictive and Bandai sold millions of units.
But lest you think that Will Wright was just riffing off of already successful ideas, it’s important to note one thing: The Sims took nearly ten years to make it from idea to retail release. Let’s check in on Maxis during this time.
After the success of SimCity, Will Wright started leveraging his core competencies into different areas. EA acquired Maxis in 1997, but left the studio with a good degree of autonomy. The expansive SimEarth and beginner-friendly SimTown were joined by spinoffs like SimCopter, which folded in flight simulation gameplay.
Wright started working on what would become The Sims in the early 1990s. Originally inspired by his life experiences after his house burned down in 1991, the idea was called Home Tactics and would task players with focusing on building domiciles for virtual people and contending with natural disasters. As development proceeded, the game started to revolve around a different metric – the happiness of the little virtual people that lived in these houses.
He once again faced pushback – this time from within Maxis itself. The wonk-oriented company didn’t see the value in the kind of social simulations that would power this new game, and staff began derisively referring to it as “the game where you clean the toilet.” So Wright found programmer Jamie Doornbos to follow him on the journey and put a prototype together.
With a working vertical slice in hand, Wright was able to convince Electronic Arts to publish the new title. At the time, he thought it would be another sideline to the main franchise, an experiment that the team would learn from to inform future work. EA projected sales of around 200,000 copies and kicked the game out the door in February 2000 with little fanfare.
Surprise! The Sims was an immediate critical and commercial hit. It tapped into the very beginnings of what would be called the “casual games” market, as home computers became ubiquitous and owners were looking for something fun to do with them that didn’t require laser-sharp mouse control. The original game moved a staggering 1.77 million units in its first year. That’s way beyond EA’s humble expectations, and a validation of Wright’s unerring instincts for compelling emergent gameplay.
Between 2000 and 2003, EA released seven themed expansions that added props, behaviors and more to the base game. Sims could now own pets, go on dates and do magic tricks. In addition to the official content, the fan community was ridiculously engaged. Wright developed the game with the goal of making modding and skinning easy enough for a non-technical user, and hundreds of thousands of community assets were developed for The Sims.
Console ports were soon to follow, dispensing a bit with the open-ended structure to add goal systems. And then sequels – The Sims 2 took the gameplay into full 3D, letting you rotate the camera more and increasing the depth of the game’s AI models. Sims now had aspirations and dreams, and subsequent installments would continue to refine the base gameplay and add more stuff to do. And EA would profit off of dozens of expansion packs and bonus content released month after month.
The series has collectively moved over 200 million copies worldwide, making it one of the most successful video game franchises of all time. Not bad for the toilet game!
So what made The Sims compelling? It’s a combination of factors that have been captivating gamers for some time.
First off, the game cashed in on the idea of emergence – that in a digital system of sufficient complexity, situations will arise that will be surprising to the player. Instead of marching gamers through a strict linear series of events with observable patterns and responses, The Sims established a rich and robust set of behind-the-scenes rules and guidelines that Sims would follow and let them loose inside the simulation.
Secondly, unlike the majority of computer games on the market at the time, The Sims didn’t require fast reflexes or precise movements to play. It’s important to remember that the era of “casual games” didn’t really begin until the mid-1990s – Bejeweled came out a year after The Sims – but home computer usage was booming well before then. Low-stress interaction models made The Sims something that any age group or skill level could enjoy, a powerful lesson that would ripple out across the entire industry.
The expansion-pack based content model was also key in keeping players interested. Just as the interactions and objects from the base game would start to get old, EA would let you bring in a whole new set. That let each mainline game have a much longer revenue tail, keeping artists and coders employed for years.
We’re six years out from the release of The Sims 4, and it’s still up in the air as to when – or if – we’ll get another sequel. The last game received the worst critical response of any entry, with many arguing that the game had become too risk-averse, content with kicking out the same experiences without any new innovation. That’s ironic, considering how risky the entire franchise was at the beginning.
2015 also saw the closure of Maxis’s Emeryville studios, with the staff folded into the general EA population. Without that individual identity, and with Wright gone from the company after the lackluster reception of the heavily hyped Spore, the conditions that created the bold innovations of previous years were no more.
EA owns the Sims franchise wholesale, and the decisions they’ve made with recent SimCity games have been panned (most notably, the broken 2013 launch that required a mandatory Internet connection at all times). But if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that it only takes one really good idea to start a new chapter in gaming history. All you have to do is look close enough to see it.