On a warm spring afternoon in EA's sprawling San Francisco Bay campus, the Sims is described as many things. It's a commercial phenomenon; it's the PC's most successful game; it's second only to Mario as the world's top-selling game series. It's a business unit; it's a business model. It's a creative tool; it's a canvas for the player's imagination. It's a private form of self-expression. It's a community. As you may remember, The Sims is also a game - one of the most popular, successful and, yes, innovative games in history.
However, it is all of those other things, too, which is part of why The Sims 3 is interesting; EA has spent five years since the launch of The Sims 2 watching and learning, seeing the game's proactive community churn out user-created content ranging from mods to videos. There are 100,000 videos on YouTube made using The Sims 2, and they've racked up 200 million views. Four million users visit EA's community site every month, and they've downloaded 60 million pieces of user-created content. Ford built some car models for the game, and 1.8 million people downloaded them. Pop-stars like Natasha Bedingfield have even re-recorded their songs in Simlish.
To an outsider, it all looks weird as hell - and simultaneously extraordinary, fascinating and progressive. "Where next?" is an obvious question, and no less exciting for it. The second reason why The Sims 3 is interesting is summed up by executive producer Ben Bell: "Imagine if your whole life took place in one apartment, or one house, with one small back yard," he says. "Now imagine how your life would change if all of a sudden you could explore the neighbourhood outside your back door - if, all of a sudden, one day, someone came and opened that door."
Door wide open
Unlike The Sims 2, which faked the concept of having an entire neighbourhood by basically loading up a new household every time you moved around, The Sims 3 takes advantage of five years' technology progress by offering an open world - an entire town in which everything is actually there, actually happening, all the time. This changes the game in a fundamental way. Before, you managed a household of Sims, but now an overview of an entire town - filled with households of Sims, each of whom has a life as complex as any of your own characters - is only a roll of the mousewheel away. Characters, whether they're your own Sims or your neighbours, no longer disappear when you're not looking at them - when they go off to work, for instance, you can follow them as they hop into their cars and drive across town. Then you might track their progress at work like you do at home - or zoom out again and fly back across town to do something else.
It's a headline feature, and it's a very clever way to use the modern PC's extra horsepower. Graphically The Sims 3 is a cut above its predecessor, but it's no BioShock. "We're not in an arms race with other games," explains Sims studio boss Rod Humble. Using the PC's grunt to model a bigger world with more complex interactions means more to Sims fans than having bump-mapped, specular-highlighted, soft-shadowed bathroom furniture in their virtual houses. There's another subtext here, too. In a game where user-created content is a major driving force, the bar needs to be low enough that every able creator can create.
Even after seeing Ben Bell zoom around the rolling hills and idyllic streets of a typical Sims town, though, the potential of The Sims 3's expanded scope doesn't really hit home. It's not until later in the afternoon, when Humble shows us some prototypes that explain what's happening under the hood, that everything clicks into place. In simple 2D graphics, we watch as an entire town of people moves around, each going about their routine, interacting with others and living lives according to their personalities, careers and so on. It's a vast, complex simulation of a community, at this scale looking more like a sociology project than anything.
Later, we see an even higher-level simulation - a screen full of "life stories", characters being born, growing up, entering and leaving careers, getting married, having children, getting rich or becoming destitute, dying and being succeeded by children whose own lives proceed through the cycle. As you play, The Sims 3 remembers all of these life stories. It's like an author who works out an intricate back-story before writing a book; the player will only experience a slice of the information, but the fact that it's all been worked out saves us from inconsistency. This made-up town is real, for want of a better expression.
In a sense, The Sims 3 is now simulating towns like Sim City, but it has gotten here by constructing upwards from people and relationships rather than building downwards from city-planning and zoning. What's less obvious but more eye-catching is that there are no more personality sliders. When you created someone in The Sims 2 you built a personality by sliding five bars - plotting points between sloppy and neat, or lazy and active. In The Sims 3, that's gone. Instead you choose five "character traits" for your new Sim - picked from a list of about eighty. The idea is to replicate how people describe themselves and one another. The team looked at personal ads for inspiration, and realised that choosing adjectives was what people did to sum themselves up.
The resulting system ranges from sublime to ridiculous. Perfectionist, paranoid, genius, schmoozer, daredevil, brave, clumsy, artistic, loner and outdoorsman are options, and there are more extraordinary alternatives. "Inappropriate" is in there; so are "insensitive" and "rude". So too, for that matter, is "kleptomaniac" - not to mention "hydrophobic", which can't bode well for personal hygiene. The point - aside from the fact that the ability to create an inappropriate, rude, insensitive kleptomaniac who doesn't like showers will finally allow Sims players to recreate their student flat-shares - is that most of us can probably describe our friends to a decent degree of accuracy with five adjectives. If The Sims 3's system works, recreating your friends in the game should be more effective than ever. Once they're in there, they should act realistically.
Also binned is the concept of the "mood bar" (applause?). Instead, the game now recognises that people's moods and feelings don't exist on a simple axis between happy and sad. Each character now collects moodlets, little icons triggered by events in their lives that influence mood in various ways. So, for example, a teenage Sim who experiences his first kiss will get a happy but somewhat dreamy moodlet, which lasts for several days. Being fired could render a Sim gloomy and listless for ages, but they might be ecstatic about a payrise for just one evening. The classic example is a Sim going to a party and experiencing that distressingly common Sim ailment - the public pant-wetting. Previously that just notched your mood-bar downwards. Now you'll get a moodlet that not only depresses Sim for some time but also makes them embarrassed, so they'll actively shun company until they get over it.
Come play my game
So, the simulation side is intriguing, but so's the game bit, and Rod Humble lays down "a bit more gamerness" as one of his objectives, having lost gamers' attention with the last one. This time EA wants to play to both sides of the crowd. To accomplish that, it's making your interactions with characters more high-level - and adding more goal-oriented gameplay, with a lot more challenge and depth. "No more hamster cage" was one of Humble's first directives when he took over the Sims studio - referring to the perception that The Sims was a game that emulated a cage with pets and dumb toys in it. Building the openworld model was one way of escaping that. Changing the player's role in the game was another.
Here, again, the moodlet system raises its head. Gone is the old mechanism where managing each Sim was an exercise in keeping tabs on status bars for hunger and the like. Now, Sims will acquire moodlets when things are going wrong (or indeed right) - and for the most part they'll look after their own basic needs unless you've told them to do otherwise. In fact, Humble reveals that the team created a prototype which consisted entirely of frantically clicking on household amenities to keep a Sim's various bodily function bars happy. It distilled everything they wanted to remove from The Sims 3 into a single experience - "putting all the evils of the world into a box," Humble jokes. (Ironically, the designers confide that it turned out to be fun, in a frantic Flash-game sort of way.)
Instead of leading Sims to the bathroom every time they need to go, then, you'll be focused on higher-level things. After all, you'll also have some oversight of the whole town, controlling who stays and goes and shaping the community. For your Sims' lives, you'll be focusing on challenges and goals along the way. Sims now have a host of skills they can learn as they advance through life - some are related to career paths, some are more generalised. Cooking and fishing are examples, and progressing those skills can impact your character and others' perceptions of him or her. Everything is optional; if you invite another Sim to dinner, you can serve microwaved slop out of a can, or you could buy ingredients and use the cooking skill to make something impressive. Your Sim could even catch the fish and prepare it for maximum impact.
How exactly these skills will interact with the career paths isn't entirely clear as yet, but professional advancement will be a more involved process than it was previously. Things your Sim needs to do will pop up as they work - and, with colleagues and bosses now fully realised Sims in their own right, personality and dialogue will play a big role in achieving success. Conversation, too, has changed. As you chat to people, you'll get an increasingly clear sense of what that character's traits are, and how they feel about you - and you'll also get to choose how you behave towards them, switching between options like flirty, friendly and adversarial. Combined with the moodlets system and the large number of interacting personality traits, the promise of more realistic human relationship simulation is certainly there - although whether that means more predictable or unpredictable is really a matter of personal opinion.
Do my little turn on the catwalk
As previously mentioned, The Sims 3 doesn't opt for graphical beauty - instead choosing to focus on the twin objectives of simulating an entire town, and continuing to run nicely on your granny's laptop. That's not to say, though, that it doesn't look nice. One area into which a lot of work has clearly gone is character-creation, with Sims 3 characters vastly more detailed - and more customisable - than before. Faces can be tweaked almost infinitely, but the game doesn't fall into the trap of allowing feature combinations to downright ugly. Instead it works carefully around the sliders you move, creating a believable (if occasionally odd-looking) face from whatever proportions you pick. The version we saw was very much a work in progress, but still the developers were able to drag sliders around and create different but good-looking characters. Body sizes, too, are finally customisable. Right now it looks pretty simple, with sliders for things like weight and fitness, and no ability to customise things like hip-to-shoulder ratio, but it's still a major change and one that will definitely variety to your town. We're not sure whether eating loads of junk food will make your Sim fat, although obviously we hope so.
Characters, however, are only one part of the equation. The Sims 3 also offers customisation for clothes, furniture and homes, which goes beyond anything the series has done before. The game now allows you to create a "fabric" - combining a pattern with colours of your choice - and then apply it to just about anything in the world through a simple drag-and-drop interface. While that will allow players to customise their Sims fairly extensively, it's not quite the same as creating your own content for the game from scratch. On this front, we confess to a little cynicism. Given EA's lucrative trade in selling Sims expansion packs - some of which are really just collections of in-game objects - is the company really going to hand over the keys to modders once again and let them do as they please?
Rod Humble's response to that question is simple: "go for it!" The game will have modding tools built into it, to some extent; it's being designed from the ground up to be open, rather than having tools released as an afterthought. The team's view is that if the community is creating content that beats the content EA is trying to sell - well, EA needs to pull its socks up. It's a healthy attitude, matched by Humble's healthy attitude to previous upsets over nude patches for The Sims 2 and other moral panics. "It's not our job to police the Internet," he says simply, reaffirming that EA isn't going to be cracking down on user-created content or mods. Besides, he adds, the community polices itself remarkably well - mainstream Sims sites won't carry nude patches, and if you're going to scour the wilds of the Internet for naughty stuff you'll find plenty naughtier than Sims mods.
The third place
EA's encouragement of and excitement about user content is palpable. The company runs a "trading post" website for The Sims, allowing users to swap their favourite in-game items, encouraging machinima and so on. But while Sims players are a connected bunch, EA's research reveals that they're not too keen on playing together, so there's no online multiplayer - not even an Animal Crossing style "visit my town" mode. Humble, Bell and the rest of the team feel that this isn't what The Sims is about. Trading items, and even trading Sim characters or entire town layouts, is one thing, but the actual running Sim itself tends to be a very private experience, something that users by and large don't want to share. The lack of multiplayer will disappoint some, but EA seems confident of its decision.
To us, the magic of The Sims is that even a decade later, after countless expansion packs, and after years of PC gamers grumbling about the invasion of "casuals" it brought about, there's still something essentially fascinating about the concept. Even for the boys, the concept of this ultimate doll's house, the living world where you play the voyeur god, holds an innate delight. The Sims 3 promises to be the most elaborate doll's house of all - an entire town, filled with dolls whose physical and psychological features are more realistic than ever. It is a commercial phenomenon, it is a creative tool, it is a canvas for imagination, but most of all it's a great idea for a game, and you don't have to play with dolls to appreciate that.