The Sims burst onto the PC game scene back in 2000, and for a time, nobody knew quite what to make of it. It wasn’t exactly a game so what was a player supposed to do with it? Previously, we’d been introduced to Sim City — which was in a similar vein — but this was different. In Sim City there were little scenarios — in-game challenges you could play and win. With The Sims, all we had were people in houses in a tiny little neighborhood.
Some gamers didn’t get it and found little of interest in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. They set the game aside and moved on. Others, however, saw the freedom and fun of a gaming experience that had no real rules to follow, no pre-scripted storyline, and no pre-ordained end conditions. We realized, in fact, that there was no end to the game. We could play as long as we wanted.
And, for the most part, we could do whatever we wanted. Sure, there were certain limitations. We’re talking about a computer program. In the early days, our sims couldn’t do a lot, and our choices in creating sims or building houses was somewhat limited. Yet within the structure of the game, we could make our own choices. We didn’t have to follow a pathway through the game. We didn’t have to “level up” or amass experience points. All we had to do was have fun. And we did.
Today, we look at Will Wright — creator of The Sims — as a creative genius who knew what we wanted before we did. How did he conceive of this “virtual doll house” as it’s often been called? The story behind The Sims is a fascinating one, so sit back and enjoy this look at how it all came to be.
I won’t go into all of Wright’s life story here, although it’s an interesting one, to be sure. I’ll pick it up in 1986 when his daughter, Cassidy, was born. Will spent a lot of time caring for his daughter, and that’s when the idea of an “interactive doll house” first came to his mind.
I went around my house looking at all my objects, asking myself, ‘What’s the least number of motives or needs that would justify all this crap in my house?’ There should be some reason for everything in my house. What’s the reason? – Will Wright
The story took a disastrous turn in 1991 when Wright awoke and smelled smoke. The family grabbed what personal possessions they could and evacuated the house. They returned three days later to find that everything had been destroyed. The only things left were a few lumps of melted metal — the remains of a second car they’d owned.
In the following months, as the family set about to replace their belongings, Will began thinking about the different things people need in life.
I hate to shop, and I was forced to buy all these things, from toothpaste, utensils, and socks up to furniture. – Will Wright
Little by little, these life experiences coalesced into the beginnings of a game. As the idea developed, three books helped Wright with his design ideas.
- A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander which identifies 253 building “patterns” and shows how these patterns are used to create comfortable and satisfying living spaces. Alexander promoted the idea that the value of architecture could be measured by the happiness of the people who lived in it.
- A Theory of Human Motivation by Abraham Maslow. This paper, written in 1943, introduced “Maslow’s Pyramid” to explain the hierarchy of human needs.
- Maps of the Mind by Charles Hampden-Turner which compares dozens of theories on how the human mind works.
Gradually Will Wright formulated a model by which he could quantify happiness for the people in his “doll house” by evaluating their status, their popularity, their career success, and by the quality of their environment. And thus The Sims was born.
I don’t believe any one theory of human psychology is correct. The Sims just ended up being a mishmash of stuff that worked in the game. – Will Wright
When Wright took his idea to the Maxis board of directors, they thought he was crazy.
The board looked at The Sims and said “What is this? He wants to do an interactive doll house? The guy is out of his mind.'” – Jeff Braun
Later, in 1997, Electronic Arts bought out Maxis. They were much more enthusiastic about The Sims. The game was released in 2000, and as they say, the rest is history. The Sims went on to become the best-selling PC game of all time. It’s been released on many other platforms now, and we’re currently in the fourth edition of the series.
Are there problems? Yes. The game in its latest iteration lacks a lot of what made The Sims so successful, but let’s not lose hope yet. Simming has become much more than a game for many of us. It’s a creative outlet, a satisfying hobby, and most of all, a lot of fun. It might not be perfect, but there’s nothing else out there quite like The Sims.