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As a designer at Maxis, Chris Trottier has the distinction of helping develop the biggest-selling PC game of all-time, The Sims, and its expansion packs while also working on creating the online world of Will Wright’s creations, The Sims Online. Among other topics, Trottier talked to The Armchair Empire about how the original Sims title got the nickname “the toilet game” and where the gaming universe of The Sims both online and offline is headed next.

 

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Chris Trottier (Sims Online) Q&A

Conducted by Lee Cieniawa / Omni

 

You have been on the development team of The Sims from its genesis. The Sims has always seemed perfectly suited for online gameplay. Was it always the plan from the very beginning that The Sims would eventually wind up in an interactive cyberspace environment? Or when was it finally decided to finally focus on taking The Sims online?

Honestly, the focus during The Sims was getting the stand-alone game to market. At that point, we really didn't know whether we were going to have a big hit or a big flop on our hands. As we were doing usability testing, we got a few comments like, "I wish the Sims were real people." or "I wish I could have people come over into the house I've made." But not enough to really indicate, once the game shipped, the huge desire there would be for an online experience. We designed a quick expansion pack (and thought that was a real risk—were we milking the franchise too much??) and then moved directly onto The Sims Online.

 

On paper, a game where you simulate daily life doesn’t sound that interesting. Yet The Sims is really fun to play, so much so that it is now the biggest-selling PC game ever. Although any development team working with Will Wright has to feel confident in the product they are creating, has the unbelievable popularity of the franchise shocked even the development team?

Absolutely. When I was first assigned to The Sims, it was not-very-affectionately-known within the company as "the toilet game." Will Wright had tremendous stamina for the risk involved with trying something very new, but there were certainly a lot of head-scratchers both on the team and outside of it. In all honesty, the gameplay didn't start to really come together until a couple of months before ship. Being involved in that tuning process, and seeing the game take shape from what had previously been a mass of separate components, was one of the most powerful experiences of my career.

 

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What makes The Sims massively popular with female gamers, who traditionally don’t make up a big number of gameplayers?

It's so hard to answer that question without making broad, sweeping statements that anyone of my gender would probably resent. But... I can say that there are several untraditional forms of gameplay in The Sims. For instance, there are many people who spend most of their time decorating and redecorating their homes. 

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Since there's so much user-created content being posted on websites, they spend a lot of time collecting more looks to add to the game. There are also a lot of people who enjoy having a fantasy life where they get to call the shots... for good or for bad. I've heard a lot of stories of people creating their own family in the game and then making it do what they want. Or "marrying" a crush in-game, etc.

 

As a woman on The Sims development team, what feminine touches have your fingerprints all over it that the men on the development team might not had thought of (like possibly romantic elements, for instance; you know how bad most men are with romance).

Well, first off, two of the three designers on The Sims Online are female. And the same was true of The Sims. And the majority of our producers have been female. On The Sims Online, the women were the ones who generated ideas for theater-supporting objects, wedding props, costuming trunks, a vast array of dancing, more satisfying decorative objects, etc. And on the Sims, the women were the ones who pushed very hard for developing the character of The Sims and giving them a greater variety of social interactions with one another. I could go on and on. But at a certain point, we don't really keep track of whose idea was whose. I think the "feminine touches" are just a natural by-product of having women on the team, not a conscious effort to address female players.

 

The Sims has received its fair share of expansion packs. Will we see the same with The Sims Online? Or will new material just be added on a continuous basis? (Like theme weeks, super powers, etc.).

Yes, that's my favorite thing about working on The Sims Online: the fact that we'll get to make it better and better as we go. At the moment, we've got maybe 2-3 years worth of updates that we know we want to do. As much as possible, those improvements will just be included in weekly patches. There's no current plan for bundling updates into an expansion pack.

 

What elements of The Sims Online were directly affected through the influence of the beta testing that the game underwent before its release?

We've been having smaller tests throughout the development of The Sims Online, so we've had a number of chances to check our assumptions and figure out where we need to rethink. The beta test made it clear that we needed to put systems in place that would more actively encourage diversity in the players' properties. The balance between player properties that are devoted to money or skill-making were vastly out of whack with properties devoted to entertainment, role-playing, or socializing. So we've been aggressively adding features that give more incentives and visibility to the truly creative places.

 

How long is support planned for The Sims Online?

Most massively multiplayer online games have a life of about 5-10 years. As the Sims community is still unfolding, it's hard to predict what its lifespan will look like.

 

What potential is there for a large number of Sims Online players to become so addicted, they’re doing almost nothing but playing The Sims Online in their spare time? Or is this phenomenon, seen sporadically with other games like Everquest, limited to the 0.5% of the gamer population that just doesn't know when to quit?

Our goal was to design a game that someone doesn't have to play 40 hours a week to enjoy. But, like any hobby, people can become obsessive about it. I'm pleased with what a social support network online games can become, but I don't personally believe they ever replace satisfying, functional relationships in real life.

 

After a slow selling start (due to an early problem getting the game into stores), has the development team been pleased with the growing success (and sales) of The Sims Online?

As a designer, I'm more focused on the in-game experience than the numbers. I've seen this development team pick up tremendous momentum behind adding new features to the game. Now that we have basic architecture, scaling issues, and stability in place, it allows us to focus primarily on making the game better. So I'm personally very rewarded to see some of the coolest features coming into the game, with many others right around the corner.

 

Where does The Sims franchise go from here? Are there more plans for The Sims expansion packs, or is the focus now solely on The Sims Online?

Both The Sims and The Sims Online will both remain important focuses for us. We continue to enrich and improve the online world of The Sims by adding new features and new objects to the game. Secure trading, casino objects like blackjack and roulette, and much, much more are right around the corner. As for The Sims, the next expansion pack is The Sims Superstar. Due out in May, players can now realize their fantasies of fame and fortune as they pursue the dream of being a Rock Star, Movie Star or a Supermodel and live the lifestyle of a celebrity.

 

(February 27, 2003)

 

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