With The Sims 3 due for release in June, we caught up with the game's associate producer MJ Chun to get an update on the next instalment in the hugely popular franchise. Read on for info on character traits, console Sims games and the ever-pressing issue of piracy.
VideoGamer.com: Where do you begin when it comes to deciding what you'll do with a new Sims game?
MC Chun: One of the things that happens is that you start with a small team. When Sims 3 was a twinkle in someone's eye, it was like five people, maybe? It was really a tiny team with ideas everywhere. How do you get the Sims to co-operate, and how do you get the custom content in? One of the things I really love about Sims 3 is that it takes things back to the Sim. It's a game about little people, it's about them being smarter and having these personality traits. One girl might be a brave computer wizard who's a hopeless romantic and light sleeper, who likes to mooch things off of other people and who likes to borrow money. That's already a story, already gameplay. It's definitely an iterative process. The games will go in one direction, and we'll work-work-work and implement, be "this is what the game is!". Then we play it and think, "ah, this is not the game". The different features just come together. "Wait! This is so cool! We need more of this." So there's a lot of iteration, a lot of pull-and-push between something new and keeping it 'The Sims'. It's pretty messy.
VideoGamer.com: While there have been lots of Sims games for other consoles, the core game has always been for the PC...
MC:... And Mac! It's going to be the same game on the same disc. I'm a Mac user myself.
VideoGamer.com: That's good! But what I was going to ask was, will that always be the case? Will we ever get to the stage that we have the same game on PC and console?
MC: Personally, as a gamer, one of the coolest thing about having different consoles is the different experience on different platforms. It's one of the reasons that I really like The Sims: Castaway. That was a great Sims experience on the Wii and DS. I loved finding new foods and reading the text and just travelling around the island. But I think it's really important that a game lets you utilise the platform that it's on.
VideoGamer.com: As opposed to trying to shoe-horn something in?
VideoGamer.com: Right. So the core game will probably stay on PC, then?
MC: If we ever do a Sims 3 console product it will reflect the console that it's on. I worked on My Sims, and that was one of the challenges there: what is a Sims game on the Nintendo platform? And that conversation started when it was called The Revolution, rather than the Wii. All of our folders were titled, "Sims Revolution", then the name changed and we were like, "oh, okay!". It's hard to rename things once you start building code on top of something. But it's the same sort of existential question. It's like being an angsty teenager, and being like, "I want to be new and special and unique!" - but you come from some place.
VideoGamer.com: The core Sims game seems to get more complex with each instalment, and yet it's something that is played by a very wide audience. How do you balance the increased levels of detail with the need to keep everything accessible?
MC: Because there's so much going on behind the hood it's really important to enable reverse engineering by the player. They should always be able to work out what just happened. That's a really fine balance, another moment of tension: making things transparent for the player without pushing a particular story down their throat. You want to explain what happened without saying why it happened. They can supply the whys. When I play the game I start telling stories even though I should know better. "This Sim did this because they don't really like that other Sim". It's amazing, but our brains are just wired to fill in the gaps, to tell stories. Whether it's a Facebook status update or a blog or playing The Sims, there are little moments of creativity and story-telling that happen. All of those things take inspiration from real-life.
VideoGamer.com: What can you tell us about the new trait system?
MC: With the trait system, being a vegetarian has as much weight, in terms of its importance, as being evil. You have five slots, and they impact your gameplay, they impact your Sim and they impact the different social interactions and objects you can use, and how you use them. So evil Sims control forums when they're using the forums, but good Sims won't be able to do that. Charismatic Sims will be able to make charming introductions, and things like that. But it's five slots, so if you want to make your Sim a loner, you're making a statement about the kind of Sim you want to make.
VideoGamer.com: Piracy is still a big issue for PC gaming, so what is the attitude going to be with Sims 3? People tend to get irritated by too much DRM.
MC: Absolutely, and it's one of those things where... the game development process is messy. I think The Sims 2 and Spore were the number one and two pirated games in Eastern Europe.
VideoGamer.com: Yeah, that's kind of a back-handed compliment.
MC: I had a conversation with a custom content creator in Korea, and she was referring to people who downloaded the game. I asked if it was hard waiting for things, and she said, "No". Then I realised that when she was talking about downloading, she didn't mean from the EA site - she was referring to pirated games. I was like, "nooo!", and she goes, "oh yeah, that's right! You guys don't get paid for that!".
VideoGamer.com: So what's the plan for this game?
MC: So because of that we had a strong DRM thing. And then we got such good and such vocal user feedback, so now we're getting the final pieces together. It's not going to be the crazy, manage-18-accounts or count-the-number-of-times-you've-installed thing. But it is going to have copy-protection.
VideoGamer.com: So will there be limited installs?
MC: Um... [to PR] do you know the answer on that? I used to know that information, and then we changed it. EA subsequently told us there will be a press release about this in the near future. The engineers have been amazing, because to change the DRM strategy this late is something that's asking a lot of an engineering crew who have already put a lot into it. But they were willing to be flexible, because as gamers themselves they were like, "yeah, it's a pain in the ass".
VideoGamer.com: What's been the most difficult thing to work on with this game?
MC: I can't speak for the engineering crew, but I think one thing, where players don't appreciate how important it is, is routing. If your Sim doesn't get some place, it's not going to happen - whether it's an object or a social. Especially in an open world. Not only are we saying, "hey player! You can build anything pretty much, put anything anywhere, oh and it's an open world", you've also got to be able to have Sims route. And all the different NPCs in town have their own AI, and they're off trying to get places. But it's just one of those things where without it, we wouldn't have the game.
The Sims 3 is due for release on PC and Mac on June 5.