The Sims is 10 years old this week! To celebrate, we're dusting off our long look back at the series from the start of 2008, prior to the release of The Sims 3. For the full picture, make sure to check out our more recent reviews of The Sims 3 and The Sims 3: World Adventures. What's "happy birthday" in simlish?
Whenever talk turns to the games that have truly broken out of the games ghetto and impacted the world outside, many within our introspective hobbyist sphere seem curiously reluctant to give The Sims its due. The attention instead shifts towards the likes of Halo, and their impressive but carefully presented statistical first-weekend sales victories. Inevitably, this bias is because games like Halo are about dudes in cool armour totally shooting aliens to death, while The Sims is about relationships and choosing furniture and is for stupid gurlz and therefore not a proper game. As much as we moan how society doesn't take games seriously, there's still that counter-productive tendency to cling to the stuff that makes it hard to take seriously, at the expense of games that are innovative, challenging but also undeniably light on shooting aliens to death.
The Sims pretty much epitomises this argument, what with being the best-selling PC series ever, having shifted more copies worldwide than most gurning shooter franchises could ever dream of. Consider this: the original Sims sold over fifty million copies during its lifespan. You can slap at least another twenty million on that figure once you throw in the expansion packs. The Sims 2 and its add-ons sailed over the hundred million sales threshold in three years. While its domesticated structure may leave many boy gamers confused and angry and oh-so-insecure, The Sims is inarguably one of the most important and successful games franchises of the 21st century. And now The Sims 3 is bearing down on us, like an impeccably-dressed steamroller with a green diamond floating on top, so let's see how it all began.
And the answer is...FIRE! Yes, fire. Primeval elemental force! Cornerstone of man's social evolution! Promethean metaphor for the follies of hubris! And, according to popular myth, the catalyst for Sim City creator Will Wright to invent the first people simulator. The story goes that having seen his house burned down in the 1991 by fires which swept Oakland, California, Wright allegedly realised that the process of rebuilding and furnishing his home had gameplay potential. While this yarn serves the brilliant nerd stereotype almost too neatly, the truth is actually much more prosaic. The Sims was just a natural extension of ideas Wright had been playing with since the first Sim City game in 1989. Having incorporated social behavioural models into Sim Ant, and created rudimentary Sims to populate the streets for the otherwise forgettable 1996 effort Sim Copter, crafting a game based around the actions of simulated virtual people was a logical next step.
But while the concept seemed obvious to Wright, it didn't exactly catch the imagination of his fellow Maxis developers, corporate overlords Electronic Arts or even the general public. As Wright admitted in an interview with the strutting peacock of games journalism we know as Kieron Gillen, the core concept was roundly rubbished at focus groups as far back as 1993. "It was a battle, the first few years, inside Maxis," quoth the game design guru. "It was referred to as the toilet game. It was the game where you clean the toilet." With the interactive doll house idea firmly rejected, Wright got sneaky and worked in secret with just one programmer to create the basic engine that would drive the complex environmental interactions The Sims would need in order to make sense. With a working prototype to back up Wright's conviction The Sims was given the go-ahead - though expectations remained low. Wright himself admits that selling just one million copies was his dream scenario, though he was braced for the possibility of an embarrassing flop. Electronic Arts was even less convinced, allegedly estimating sales of less than 200,000.
The Sims finally debuted in February 2000, almost a full decade after the idea first percolated in Will Wright's imagination, and was greeted with almost universal acclaim and boardroom cries of, "Oh, so that's what you meant Mr Wright, we now agree it's a super idea, please make lots more of these." Among the 9/10s being slung in the games direction was one from this mighty oak of a website, then a mere stripling in the Internet forest. "The Sims really does grow on you, and with you," boomed the Eurogamer of eight years ago, its words echoing throughout history. "It's original, compelling, and best of all enjoyable."
As players sank hours into their virtual neighbourhoods, they inevitably exhausted the game's built-in toolset and began to crave additional content. Luckily, Will Wright had predicted this hungry need, and had actually held the game back an extra year in development to ensure that the code chassis would be able to accommodate player modifications and official content expansions. While some free objects were made available from the Sims website, the bulk of the game's evolution took place in commercial expansions. Seven such themed releases popped onto the shelves between 2000 and 2003, usually introducing or reinventing some element of Sims life along with a slew of related objects, items and costumes.
The Sims: Livin' It Up was the first, and allowed players to have five neighbourhoods on the go at once. It also introduced the now-familiar concept of wacky NPC characters, including Sunny the Tragic Clown, who appeared to torment depressed Sims with his crap antics. House Party expanded the social options for Sims, enabling them to throw a party rather than simply phoning a string of friends and inviting them around. Hot Date introduced Downtown, the first external location added to the game, where Sims could go on romantic excursions. Vacation took the idea further, offering various holiday destinations for weary Sims, while Unleashed introduced pet cats and dogs to the game for the first time. With Superstar, it seemed that the expansions were starting to rely more on novelty than necessity, as Sims were able to travel to Studiotown and become celebrities. The final expansion for the original Sims, Makin' Magic, pretty much confirmed this - adding little beyond silly magic tricks, and shamelessly cashing in on the Harry Potter mania that had snowballed since the original's release.
For those who wanted to add some variety to their game, but didn't want to fork out for an official expansion, fans were soon using Maxis-approved tools to clog up the Internet pipes with their own character skins and furniture designs. Copyright infringement on a massive scale inevitably ensued and, as an unemployed layabout in 2000, I can openly admit to spending more time than is healthy painstakingly crafting a street where Dr Zaiuss from Planet of the Apes shared a house with RoboCop, and lived next door to The A-Team. Such are the dreams of modern man.
With these little computer people firmly established, the question became where they could go next with the concept. In 2002 everyone was still awfully excited about the whole information superhighway thing, and so it came to pass that The Sims went online in the self-explanatory The Sims Online. The result was...gruesome. In this pre-broadband era, when downloading a nude JPEG of Marina Sirtis could take many agonising minutes, the infrastructure just wasn't there to support the infinitely malleable persistent virtual world that The Sims required and few felt it was worth the GBP 7.99 per month they were charging to play. "There's no way to give your little Sim the financial and social freedom the whole fantasy is based on," grumbled Baby Tom, then just ten-years-old, in a review that he adorably wrote in red crayon. Bless.
The Sims Online story doesn't end there though. While official support for the game dried up within a year of launch, the game servers remained active and in February of this year the core Sims Online code was reworked and relaunched as the rather corporate sounding EA-Land. Access to the Beta of this bold new frontier is now free, for those who can be bothered to make their way through the rather clumsy registration and installation process. It's still basically The Sims Online so, in other words, it's Second Life except everyone is reading books and washing up rather than running around with sunglasses, angel wings and nine-foot swords. I spent a pleasant hour or so wandering around what appeared to be a sanctuary for Danish internet lesbians, none of whom seemed remotely interested in the pot-bellied ant-headed intruder that had suddenly spawned in their midst. Hey, it's free. Can't complain.
With the Internet remaining an elusive minx, The Sims brand instead turned its world-conquering attention to the consoles, grazing quietly by the watering hole. The original Sims reached the PS2, Xbox and GameCube in early 2003, the first title in the series developed exclusively for console players. Hampered by the lack of a hard drive, the console versions took the framework of the game - building, buying and directing the life of your Sims - and bolted it onto the sort of goal-oriented gameplay that console gamers apparently prefer. While the freeform options of old were still present, most of the gameplay now revolved around adopting a Sim in a specific scenario and guiding them to lifestyle success.
January 2004 saw the series' second console outing, The Sims: Bustin' Out, which once again graced the big three consoles of the time as well as the GameBoy Advance and - good lord - the N-Gage. Yes, EA wouldn't support the Dreamcast, but brought its biggest franchise to the sodding N-Gage (and you wonder why The Kids turned against them). Anyway, Bustin' Out was basically The Sims' previous console version, with the Livin' It Up expansion slapped on as well. Such shenanigans didn't work as well with the console crowd, given that the resulting package cost twice as much as its PC equivalent, and even the year gap between the releases did little to endear this repackaging to fans. Having awarded the original PS2 port an enthusiastic 8/10, that score had dipped to 6/10 by the time Bustin' Out arrived. "I'm bored of The Sims," sulked Tom, who had now gone from precocious moppet to petulant teenager. They grow up so fast, don't they?
A change was clearly required, and The Sims 2 launched in 2004, reinvigorating the fanbase and attracting the sort of loving reviews that had all but tailed off as the original game and its expansions ran out of steam.
Addressing many of the problems that had become apparent over the lifespan of the previous game, The Sims 2 turned its chatterbox avatars into far more complex creatures than the pissing and shouting automatons of 2000. Basic bodily functions were now easier to maintain, while the gameplay shifted emphasis from craven material gain to more lofty emotional goals. The relationships between Sims became more realistic, with emotional bonds forming and breaking, along with hopes and fears tied to family, careers and health. Sims could now grow old and die, while baby Sims would take on genetic elements from both parents, and carry them on down the family tree.
The game also received a visual lick of paint, with a free-roaming camera that could take the player up into the clouds or face to face with their creations. "It's a thoroughly charming package rammed with possibilities," declared the previously Sim-phobic Kristan. "We wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to those that have so far resisted its charms, and for the real fans it'll be a dream come true, but whether we'll stick with it is another matter. Ask us when the inevitable expansion hits..."
Prescient words, as The Sims 2 followed in its predecessor's footprints and coughed up seven expansions in just a few short years, with many of them reusing the same themes as before. University immersed Sims in the drink-and-promiscuity college lifestyle, hopefully spitting them out at the other end with vaguely improved job prospects. Yay, realism! Nightlife juggled ideas from both House Party and Hot Date, focusing on the nocturnal social life side of things, while Pets and Bon Voyage were both updated versions of the Unleashed and Vacation expansions of yore.
Some of the new expansions, however, took advantage of the muscular new algorithms churning away beneath the surface to deepen the playing experience. Open for Business, for instance, freed the Sims from the rigid career paths of old and enabled them to open their own shops in a specially designed commercial location. Seasons, meanwhile, added variable weather to the game - something fans had long been clamouring for - as well as a more nuanced approach to Sim nutrition. Previously, Sims bought food, Sims cooked food, Sims left food to rot on a plate on the floor for no apparent reason. With Seasons, it was now possible to grow organic vegetables and catch fresh fish, store them in the fridge and use those for meals in order to receive beneficial status boosts. Combined with Open for Business, it also meant that Sims could go into the full-time grocery trade which really was very exciting for many players and oh just shut up and go back to your shooty games.
With the Sims back on everyone's lips (including each others) the console players weren't left out. Although they probably wished they were. The next variation on the theme to arrive in joypad land was the atrociously named The Urbz: Sims in the City. As the name suggests, this was a self-consciously hip and urban city-dwelling spin on The Sims, so painfully desperate to impress the fickle youth audience that ended up as a monstrous embarrassment. How low did it go? Pop-rap annoyances Black-Eyed Peas appeared in the game, singing their awful songs in the babbling language known as Simlish. Oh yeah. As Poochie was to Itchy & Scratchy, so The Urbz was to The Sims. "The Urbz finally boils down to you performing the same actions over and over again to impress people," glowered Pat back in November 2004 when the game body-popped into the shops. "As an extension of The Sims as a franchise it categorically fails to engage."
Things took a turn for the surreal the following year as every gamer's favourite headline-hogger, crusading law warrior Jack Thompson, took time out from throwing eggs at Rockstar's bedroom window to have a pop at the seemingly benign world of The Sims. Surely a tongue-in-cheek simulation of exaggerated suburbia could contain nothing to inflame the passions of this most righteous demagogue? That's what most people would think, but most people aren't Jack Thompson.
The Sims 2, it turns out, was actually a "paedophile's paradise" and gaming's "latest dirty little secret". He even declared it worse than GTA: San Andreas, which is rare praise indeed from one so versed in the gutters of gaming. The reason for this outrage? The cheeky blurred pixels that cover up The Sims when they bathe or go to the toilet. Using a "simple code" from the Internet, Thompson alleged, it was possible to view the Sims in their foul unblurred state - "including nipples, penises, labia, and pubic hair".
Absolute poppycock, retorted EA, before going on to insert some asterisks in the bit that said cock just in case. "If someone with an extreme amount of expertise and time were to remove the pixels," said the enormous corporation, "they would see that the Sims have no genitals. They appear like Ken and Barbie." Having confused the work of unauthorised software mods with actual game code, Thompson threw one last jab claiming that EA was "co-operating, gleefully, with the mod community to turn Sims 2 into a porn offering" before resuming the important business of ringing Rockstar's doorbell and then running away.
All of which was almost enough to overshadow the console rejig of The Sims 2, which landed in October 2005 on PS2, Xbox, GameCube, DS, GBA and PSP. And also mobile phones. Once again, the slightly hobbled freeform gameplay was propped up with a mission-based story game, though it wasn't enough to change the general perception that the console Sims was always going to be a poor cousin to the real thing on the PC. "This isn't a conversion per se," we reckoned when we clapped eyes on it, "but rather a console-specific interpretation of a markedly more sophisticated original release. It's a 'lite' version with the basic form and functions of its PC peer, but palpably less substance." Those plumping for the handheld versions got a rather more unusual experience, with an even more heavily mission-based game that revolved around the fictional TV show, Strangetown.
Apart from the obligatory expansions, all went quiet on the Sims front for a few years until 2007 brought the first major offshoot from the series. During the build-up to the launch of The Sims 2, Maxis dangled the tantalising proposition that it was working towards what it hoped would be the world's first user-generated interactive sitcom. The Sims Stories games took the series closer to this goal than ever before, while also openly acknowledging the game's casual audience. Designed for short bursts of play, and optimised to work on laptops, the games shunt the freeform gameplay to the end and instead focus on scripted stories that are advanced by meeting the "needs" of the lead character. Skewing towards the fluffy end of the romantic comedy scale, Life Stories kicked the series off in February 2007, followed by Pet Stories in June, with Castaway Stories rounding out the trilogy in January 2008.
Of course, while The Sims had been busily plugging away getting girls and wimmins and old people and priests to enjoy gaming, the whole "casual" gaming phenomena had cunningly taken over the world. The marriage betwixt Sims and Wii was therefore something of a foregone conclusion, and so it came to pass that MySims, a chibi-flavoured reboot of the series, arrived in September 2007. Given a cute town and tasked with filling it with cute Sims by fixing things up in a cute way, it takes more inspiration from the likes of Animal Crossing than its own ancestors but all the better for its cross-pollination. "MySims is pretty much perfect for what it is," said Keza, after wallowing in its luxurious cute pelt. "At once accessible and complex, kid-friendly and adult-pleasing, and full of personality, MySims is an excellent and original idea that's well-suited to the console." That leaves just The Sims Castaway - released last October on PS2, Wii, DS and PSP - as the final sandwich on the Sims shelf. A well-intentioned attempt to weld a traditional adventure game onto the Sims framework, it floundered because it was "undeniably patchy and full of scrappy design decisions". At least, that's what Dan Whitehead said - and I've always found him to be a remarkably insightful and impressively-proportioned fellow. Great dancer, too.
Which leads us to The Sims 3. What do we know about this impending behemoth? Well, we know that there'll be an inventory system so Sims will be able to carry objects from one location to another. We know that there'll be a "buff" system which will grant mood boosts when a Sim hits certain emotional peaks. We know that, while there won't be a multiplayer aspect, Sims will be uploaded to the Internet so others can sample your creations, Mii-style. And we know that much is being made of the fact that the invisible walls that hemmed in previous Sims neighbourhoods should be a thing of the past, with a seamless Sims world growing through expansion packs the lofty ambition. "You can imagine a Sims country which you could just live your life in," said producer Rod Humble. And he's right. You can.
See whether he was hinting at something in our preview of The Sims 3. We don't look back for nothing.