How did the conversation for making The Sims 4 begin? What prompted it?
Well I think a lot of it reaches back to where we want to take the franchise and what we want to do with our sims. Realistically, when you look at it, being a life simulation, it’s all about injecting life back into our characters. So you see a lot of that come through in the main things that we’re talking about at Gamescom, so the way thay emotions drive a sims behavior really brings them to life in realistic ways.
Our new technology that we’re calling ‘SmartSim’, it allows us to do a lot of things that make them act realistically that we simply couldn’t do in the past. Stuff like multitasking, things like being able to have real group dynamics where you can have a conversation and it looks believable and we just couldn’t accomplish that in the past. I think some of it almost seems subtle, but when you see it all brought to life within the game, you instantly get we’re delivering a life simulator that’s better that any that we’ve ever built before.
So is it a case of now the technology is at the point where you can incorporate these things? Was that the driving factor behind making The Sims 4 now?
That’s a big part of it. Technology is constantly marching along and just as a studio, we want to be able to deliver these new experiences. I think developers are ultimately their biggest critics. We can look at a game and say ‘this worked really well’, ‘this is something we can do better, ‘here’s something we want to scrap and re-imagine completely’ and we use those internal metrics to say, ‘okay, we’re at a point now where we can do cool things that just where not possible and let’s give it to players because we know they’re going to love it’.
What was one of the things fans were asking for The Sims 4, because I know you’ve got a huge, passionate fanbase, what was one of the things they were really asking for?
Well I think a real key part of that was getting back to what people really loved about the The Sims franchise as a whole. So we’re focusing back on the sims themselves and we have brand new sims, those emotions, the way they tie into things and really bring them to life.The way that you even create your sim with the direct manipulation and really tactile movement and management in create-a-sim. We compare it to building with clay, because it is so much more simple and intuitive than anything you’ve seen before.
I think in our past games, we had to rely on a lot of UI and menus and that doesn’t instantly register with people, especially if they’re not already a hardcore gamer. We wanted to make a lot of sense to people who just think, ‘why can’t I just click on my sim and directly manipulate?’. We’ve been trained to think about things a different way, but that’s how things should be.
There’s been a lot of coverage recently about fans on Twitter, Call of Duty fans and so on, and here you’ve got Sims Camp and it’s the quietest place I’ve seen at Gamescom. How do you think The Sims’ fanbase compares to the fanbases of other high profile games? They seem to be a lot calmer!
You’re talking to the right guy about that because I have lots of opinions about fans and honestly, I love interacting with our fans.
It’s interesting that you bring that up because you do see those conversations in the industry, developers getting abused by people on Twitter and all the nasty comments thrown back and forth and I think as creators we have to understand people are going to throw out vitriol about things that they don’t like. But we need to be able to see what their message is and what they’re really saying and then execute on what it is that they’re really trying to get across. Somebody might frame it in a nasty message, but what they’re really saying is, ‘I’d like this game to work this way’, and what can we do to come to a middle ground and give them something that they want?
Sims fans in particular, I do think we get less of that! You’re mentioning first-person shooters, maybe those gamers are pretty agro, jacked up, but The Sims fans are fantastic. I love chatting with them. I’m always on Twitter interacting with them, I reach out to different Sims fan sites and on our official forums and everything.
I just like having discussion with them because I think it really informs a lot of the decisions that we can make internally and we should be so lucky to have that kind of feedback that’s just given to us. We don’t have to go out and run a focus test because we’ve got this huge fanbase across the world that want to connect with us, they want to talk to us and they know what they want. They’ve been with our franchise 15 years, they know what they want to see in the next iteration of The Sims. We can take a lot of that feedback, put it right into the game and they see their ideas come to life.
Do you think the wider problem with the industry at the moment is that it’s struggling to adapt to things like Twitter and really understanding how to deal with fans where communication is a lot more direct?
It’s hard to say because I’ve just made it a personal mission of my own to go out and be very open and transparent with our fans because I want to have those direct discussions because I think it makes me better at my job, frankly.
I think you’ll see more of that as time goes on. The internet is certainly not going away. People are going to have to learn how to relate to their fanbases and their communities, because they’re our consumers, they’re our players. I want to deliver a fantastic experience for them. I can’t do that if I’m not communicating with them.
Speaking of fans, The Sims fans are famous for creating somewhat depraved scenes in The Sims, like walling a certain sim into a room and seeing what happens. Is that still possible in The Sims 4, that sort of behaviour?
Yeah, of course. We’re going to support all the classic, traditional stuff that players love. I can’t really go off the beaten path too much beyond what we’re showing at Gamescom, but if you’re more of a deviant player, we’re going to have a lot of fun things in there for you to be able to mess with other sims, control their lives, manipulate them, make them have a miserable existence. If you want to do that, it’s going to be there for you.
What’s the strangest story you’ve heard about what a sim’s been through?
I’m trying to think of one that I can frame that’s appropriate in terms of The Sims 4. I think a lot of it comes out of how sims die because people really like to mess with sims and their lives and have them just die in horrible ways.
It’s funny because then we go back and we add tools later on that give them more abilities. One example from the Sims 3, we added this meteor that could fall out of the sky onto a sim and it would kill them and people loved that. It came on early in the sims, it was extremely rare, and you heard the most incredible stories come out about it. One person was holding this outdoor wedding and both of the families had come over the wedding, they were actually under the wedding arch about to kiss, and the meteor fell on top of this hold crowd of people, wiped out both families. It was the most awful thing! We didn’t program anything especially for this, but this kind of emergent gameplay comes out. Somebody had it at their school graduation on the steps of City Hall. Bam! Meteor. Took them all out.
The most recent one I heard, this poor player, they were throwing a holiday gift party – we added these festivals and parties you could have in Sims 3 Seasons – and they had this party, it was outside, they’re opening their gifts. Bam! Meteor! We love when those stories came out, so we’ve actually gone back and added more functionality – you can actually trigger your own meteor strikes now. It’s part of that fan feedback.
People love that stuff, but sometimes it was so rare that they could just never see it in their game, so why not give them the tools to have that sandbox to experience? If they want to generate stuff and make situations happen, we want to put those tools in their hand to have that kind of experience that they want.
Will there still be those rare events that can’t be triggered?
Oh yeah, absolutely. You’ll see some of that. A lot of that goes in terms of gameplay and things will just come about through emergent gameplay, situations that you don’t expect and we’ll full support that. Being a life simulation, I think you have to have some of that.
In a game where you can build the kind of game you want to make, where your imagination is the driving factor, how hard is it to give the player freedom, but at the same time define some sort of boundary so that it still works as a game?
It’s an interesting topic. Actually, just one week before coming out to Gamescom, I was reaching out to our fans and I was very curious in terms of what they felt about a sandbox experience between more kind of linear gameplay where it’s scripted or sending you down a path. I was curious because I hear various feedback from them. Some people really want that sandbox experience, some people are more into deeper gameplay options that they progress through. I wanted to know, how do they think a sandbox experience collaborates with this gameplay that you have to progress through, and people started sending me all sorts of feedback immediately.
What I found out is that the way we think of sandbox – you know, this open world filled with tools that you can go in, manipulate, play with, set up scenarios exactly how you want – that’s different than how our players think of a sandbox. Really, to them, sandbox is another word for life simulation and what they want is more tools, more freedom to play out their lives in any variety of ways that they want. They think sandbox, they just want more gameplay options, more ways to do the same thing. It’s really about going back there, adding more depth into the gameplay, giving them the ability to tell stories in ways that relate to them.
During development of The Sims – obviously expansion packs for Sims 3 were released such as Sims 3 Pets and various others – did the feedback from any of those expansion packs help inform development of Sims 4 in terms of how they were received?
Yeah, there’s a very good example of that actually, that we are showing here at Gamescom. We’ve shown off some of our new build mode tools and one of the things that we’re doing is called magazine mode where you’re able to get these fully furnished rooms out of a catalogue where you’re looking through, like you might see in a magazine. You grab the room, you can place it on your lot, pick it up, move it, pull it along, drag it. All the furniture comes with you and as you’re rearranging stuff the furniture will actually move to help form with the shape of the room.
It’s a very intelligent system and what that really is, is building off a feature that we added in Sims 3. We added the blueprints in, I believe, the eighth expansion pack, Sims 3 Seasons, and blueprints were kind of a rudimentary idea that we took and fully shaped in The Sims 4 based on a lot of positive feedback from fans. They loved the blueprints. It gave people who weren’t as familiar with our build tools the ability to go in there and actually create something without just being starstruck when they look at the tools and they don’t know what to do. We really want to make our tools more accessible and that’s a direct example of how what we did previously influenced things in Sims 4 to make them much better.
Even though we’re only on Sims 4, the series has been going for quite a while. How do you think the average Sims player has changed during that time?
That’s a very interesting question because our audience ages with us. I think with a lot of other games you see people age out of a franchise and I don’t think we suffer from that problem. Really, we bring in new players as they age into the franchise. It’s kind of interesting because you start to see the mix of people amongst the community. The people who have been there since The Sims 1 are a lot different and have different opinions on what The Sims 4 should be compared to people who’ve just started The Sims 3.
As they continue through life – we have middle-aged players, we have older senior players – they don’t leave us, they just add another wrinkle into what we’re thinking about when we’re developing the game.
When the original Sims was made, it was like nothing else anyone had ever seen. Now with Sims 4, there’s a lot more competition in terms of games that, don’t necessarily copy The Sims, but have those similar elements. How do you think The Sims can stand out now? Where’s its place in the gaming world versus increased competition?
Well I think the challenge for us is really in terms of messaging because there’s so much going on behind the scenes in the game engine and the life simulation that we’re driving that it can be difficult to see those subtle changes on the surface. But I think when you really get in there and start to see the gameplay, see how the sims are interacting, how they’re moving around their home, how they’re conversing with other sims, for players who have been with the series it becomes instantly apparent what we’ve changed and how we’re bringing them to life in much more believable ways. When we talk about stuff like the SmartSim technology, we say our sims are going to have these realistic group dynamics now where we can be sitting and conversing and then if Nicole joined in the conversation, I can turn to look to her, I’m addressing her and if she starts talking we both turn and look at her.
We have these great dynamics where we simply couldn’t do that in past Sims games, the technology base wasn’t there for us. Bringing those realistic interactions to life, it makes for such a compelling experience in a life simulator because you want your characters to be believable. Just being able to do things like that or being able to multitask, so you can sit and eat a meal and converse at the same time, its so much better for a life simulation. We really just need to drive across the point that, ‘hey! We’re doing things that are amazingly new, let us tell you how it’s awesome!’
Maxis had Sim City recently as well and although that’s not a one-to-one comparison with The Sims, there are similar elements. Was there anything in Sim City in terms of how it was received, or the design, or the tech that helped with the design of The Sims 4 and how you guys went about that?
It’s actually entirely separate and I know that a lot of people went into The Sims 4 announcement with this assumption that we were using Glassbox technology and we’re not. We’re on our own completely separate proprietary engine that we built just for The Sims 4. So in terms of what we’re taking from that project, there really isn’t a whole lot there. As a studio we have a collective knowledge as we release things, collect feedback, see how things are done and so one of the important things we say is,‘hey! We’ve got a very compelling single player offline experience’, and we know that’s important for our sims fans. We’re going to deliver a fantastic single player title for them.