Janet Hetherington chats with MJ Chun about how The Sims 3 offers more customization, more animated emotion and more virtual drama in this never-ending life-simulation game.
If you're stressed about your life and feel you have no control over what happens to you, consider the "lives" of the Sims. In this now-classic life-simulation game, the Sims virtual characters have all the problems of you and me -- except they're created and controlled by you and me.
That's the appeal of Will Wright's award-winning game. Since it was first released in 2000, The Sims has become a gaming and cultural phenomenon. More than 100 million units have been sold since its launch in February 2000, and the game has been translated into 22 different languages and is available in 60 different countries -- with more than 6.3 million copies selling worldwide.
In The Sims 3, which streets today from The Sims Studio and Electronic Arts, new goal-oriented game play enables players to choose the Sims' destinies in life.
This third incarnation of The Sims franchise offers more customization to create unique Sims, more animated emotion and more virtual drama, as well as online and movie-making components.
"The Sims 3 Create-A-Sim, or CAS, is a deeper level of customization than ever before," says MJ Chun, associate producer, The Sims 3.
"You can create a rail-skinny Sim or athletic and heavy Sims," Chun says. "You can control the color of the Sims' roots and pick a different color for their highlights or the tips of their hair. You can sculpt their features with sliders, as well as use Create-A-Style to customize the color and patterns of their clothing."
From rock stars or world leaders to expert thieves, players create one-of-a-kind Sims and also choose whether or not they will pursue their Lifetime Wish. Players determine whether to fulfill this destiny, giving the Sim a lifetime of happiness and rewards -- or not.
"For the first time, you start playing the game before you leave CAS," Chun explains. "Players can choose up to five Personality Traits that influence the Sim's Lifetime Wish—the long-term goal of your Sim," she says.
Chun notes that Personality Traits also influence how Sims interact with each other and with other objects in the Sims world. "Sims with a Good Sense of Humor will find it harder to get along with Sims who have No Sense of Humor," Chun adds. "Evil Sims will be able to Steal Candy from a Baby, while a Computer Whiz can use their skills to hack on the computer. Some Personality Traits can help or hinder game play. Loner Sims do not like going to work with lots of other Sims, as it stresses them out."
Jazzed Emotions Stressed or happy, this new generation of Sims will show their emotions more. "The animations in The Sims 3 convey much more emotion, especially the facial animations," Chun continues. "The Sims are unique, and this means that how they move in the world or how they animate in social situations is often reflective of their Personality Traits. We also allow for a greater variation in animations as Sims can range from the super-skinny to the overweight."
Artists working on The Sims 3 had to be mindful of the "Uncanny Valley" aspect of creating computer-animated humans.
"We have an amazing team of talented, passionate, and patient artists and engineers as they worked together to make it the best-looking game as possible," Chun suggests. "There was a lot of concept and modeling art work that went into making sure that the Sims were alive and based on reality, but not creepy.
"There were a lot of sketches and prototypes to hit the right visual target. Then all the pieces had to come together, and there were a lot of iterations."
The Sims 3 team used different programs to achieve the facial and body visualizations. "We primarily use Maya to deliver on animations that are realistic but also humorous," Chun offers, adding, "we also create a lot of internal tools for our artists, and for our animators, they had jazz."
In addition to people in The Sims 3 game, there are ambient birds, insects and fish, but no pets.
While the customized Sims humans are unique, there is a structure upon which the game play is based. "Each family in Sunset Valley and in Riverview (the free downloadable town) has their own back stories for the players to discover," Chun adds.
"The future of Sunset Valley is in the hands of the players, as The Sims 3 does not have a linear plot. Each decision and action of the player can change the town."
The Sims game runs on an agent-based artificial life program. The presentation of the game's artificial intelligence is advanced, and the Sims respond to outside conditions on their own -- although often with the player's intervention to keep them on the right track.
As for The Sims 3, Chun notes, "The Sims 3 engine is new and created by our internal team. The town is simulating in realtime. "
While the new game was being developed, The Sims 3 team peeked in on another Will Wright-originated virtual world creation game: Spore.
"We love seeing what other teams are creating and we often have cross-team presentations of technology or processes," advises Chun. "We also find a lot of great feedback from different perspective. On The Sims 3, we had people who were not team members play early versions of the game and solicited their hands-on impressions. It gave us insight into what needed more work or what was working."
Despite similarities of "playing god" in both games, Chun says that there are no immediate plans for a Spore/Sims crossover.
Scoring the Drama While the original Sims game gained some notoriety for appealing to female gamers as well as male players, Chun says that for this version, no one specific demographic is being targeted.
"The Sims 3 appeals to many different types of people," observes Chun. "We design the game keeping in mind that people play the game in different ways. Some players are into the game play and strategy, others focus on storytelling and movie-making, some build amazing buildings and Sims."
"And then there those who like to push the envelope and grief their Sims," she says.
The ongoing virtual life drama of The Sims 3 is scored by Steve Jablonsky, the award-winning composer for Transformers and Desperate Housewives, among other projects.
"He created the theme music for the game as well as the music for key moments like when you are in Create-A-Sim," Chun says. "Different areas of the game use sound and music to convey atmosphere. What you hear at the beach will be different than the being in the gym."
This edition of the Sims also offers a movie-making component. Any moment in The Sims 3, players can take video capture by clicking on a button. They can upload all their clips to TheSims3.com and use the Create-A-Movie tool.
"It's all drag-and-drop to string clips together, to add transitions or effects or even a caption," Chun continues. "Players can use their own clips or what other players have uploaded. And you can add a soundtrack. When the movie is ready for prime time, you can share it with the Sims community or with your friends on sites like YouTube or Facebook, etc."
Considering that The Sims 3 features a virtual world populated by avatars, it seems a natural fit for online connection and social networking.
The Sims 3 players are able take their Sims into town to interact with other Sims in the game and capture the action on video to show off online. Players are also encouraged to visit The Sims 3 online community (www.TheSims3.com), where they can show off their creations -- Sims, houses, objects, movies and more—as well as download exclusive content and hear Sims news.
Online content even preceeded the game's release. "Our teaser experiences of SimSocial was a Facebook Flash game about making strategic choices to achieve your Sims' Lifetime Wish," Chun says. "Players see their friends' Sims in their town and see how well everyone is doing.
"As for The Sims 3, players can send the movies they create using our online Create-A-Movie feature to their social networking sites or their blogs, etc.," Chun notes.
Adapting the Sims The Sims 3 is being offered on Mac, iPhone, iPod Touch and mobile devices as well as for PC. The game retails for $49.99 and $69.99 for the collectors' edition in the U.S. It's an international game, sold in 60 countries. It can also be purchased at the EAStore.EA.com as well.
Adapting the game to these different delivery systems posed new challenges for The Sims 3 team. "We wanted to make sure that the game design fit for each of the multiple platforms," Chun says. "There is no difference between the PC and Mac versions of the game."
However," Chun says, "for the iPhone, the design leverages the intuitive touch feature of the iPhone. The game does focus on taking your Sim to town as well as the goal-oriented game play of Wishes."
Chun notes that the mobile versions take the essence of The Sims 3 and adapt it to the shorter nature of mobile gaming. This is somewhat of a departure from the Sims concept, because the game is designed to provide never-ending play.
"There is no 'end' to the game, so how long you play is completely up to the player," Chun says. "You can save pretty much at any point and return to continue playing your Sims."
While Chun herself dreams of "one day gallivanting around the world," her work on The Sims 3 has immersed her in a virtual world instead. And just what kind of Sim would Chun design for herself?
"I would be a Bookworm, Friendly, A Natural Cook, Excitable and a Heavy Sleeper," Chun admits. "Bookworms learn from reading faster than other Sims."
Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer, cartoonist and screenwriter who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada, with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.
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