How To Eat EA’s Lunch

This post comes with a hidden suffix of “in 2007,” because right now EA’s lunch is FIFA lootboxes and you eat that by getting the FIFA license away from them somehow. You could also set their lunch on fire by convincing enough nations to ban their lootboxes. What I’m really talking about is how to out-Sims EA, which, much like Cities: Skylines out SimCity-ing EA, would be eating such a tiny side dish of EA’s lunch in 2019 that they probably wouldn’t notice.

But I do want someone to make Cities: Skylines but for the Sims, because although the Sims 4 lacks the spectacular cavalcade of failure that was SimCity 2013, its steady decay is just as bad for the series overall. The Sims 3 was already heavily monetized and microtransactioned, and the Sims 4 not only continued that trend, but had the gall to strip away nearly all the expansion content and even some core features of the Sims 3, then tried to sell everything piecemeal again.

The first Sims was released in January of 2000, on the wrong end of the Half-Life gap where video games released around the time of Half-Life 2 look closer to modern day graphics in 2019 than they do to video games released around the time of Half-Life 1, just a few years earlier. Like, sure, you can tell 2019 graphics are a huge upgrade, but the 1998-2004 graphics gap is even bigger than the 2004-2019 gap. All this to say, the Sims 2, released in 2004, could sell itself based on nothing but more graphical fidelity in your virtual dollhouse. On top of that, the Sims 2 was designed ground up to be a virtual dollhouse. It shipped with lots of bonafide characters in its pre-made neighborhood, not just generic-ish families that served as default friends and neighbors for mechanical purposes, but a neighborhood full of existing relationships and personal dramas to interact with.

Then the Sims 3 launched, and had a big ticket selling point: Neighborhoods were now completely open world, interconnected, living towns full of sims who went about their daily business holistically, not silo’d off into a bunch of lots each of which was its own world divided by loading screens. I don’t know how they pulled this off in 2009, because my 2017 laptop gives me 2-3 minute long loading screens when first loading a game and tends to start stuttering under the strain if I play too long. Regardless of how, this was again the kind of leap in technology that justified a new game and selling new expansion packs that were basically the same as the expansion packs for the old game, except they were for the new game. Some people are still Sims 2 adherents, but not many.

Then the Sims 4 dropped, and the fanbase legit split. The Sims 4, by virtue of receiving ongoing support, won the struggle overall, but Sims 3 communities remain intact while Sims 2 communities have mostly withered away to one guy posting content for the odd stray comment from his supportive dog. The Sims 4 was a technological step backwards, returning to silo’d lots divided by loading screens. Basic features like the toddler stage of life and even pools were not present at release for the Sims 4. In fairness to the Sims 4, the real essentials like the toddler life stage and pools were added in free content patches rather than sold as microtransactions (even though the Sims 4 is generally even more aggressive than the Sims 3 with microtransactions), and it did include some engine improvements that made one of the core features of the game – socialization – more believable and evocative. Back on the first hand, though, it also lacked the Sims 3’s incredibly flexible Create A Style system, which allowed for lots of flexibility in coloring wallpaper, flooring and roofing, and Sim clothing. Self-expression took a huge hit in favor of dynamically generated social drama. Those are both core features for the Sims, although they tend to appeal to different people, and I strongly suspect this is why the fanbase split. In terms of overall quality, sacrificing one for the other is a wash.

And just like SimCity vs. Cities: Skylines, EA can’t copyright much of anything that makes the Sims great. They have a few families like the Goths and the Altos and the Landgraabs who are recognizable to the fanbase and have some traction with the audience, but if you shipped your Sims-alike with the Mort family, people would get that it’s basically the same as the Goths and would be happy to pick up playing dolls with your Morts right where they left off with EA’s Goths. Despite having an audience who cares deeply about telling stories, the Sims is an almost purely technology and gameplay driven franchise. Anyone willing to develop the tech and polish to do it better can take over the entire fanbase. Now, that’s no mean feat. Indie devs riding a $100,000 Kickstarter would not be able to pull that off. But although Sims money pales in comparison to what it was back in 2007-ish, it’s still big money, and someone willing to do it right could plausibly see a very large return on the investment, significant upfront costs in developer expertise and literal money notwithstanding.

So how do you do it? How do you out-Sims the Sims?

Firstly, the basics: You need your not-Sims to have some needs like hunger, sleep, social, and fun, which decrease on different schedules, and which can be restored using certain activities. Some of these activities, like eating food, require a bit of money every time you do them. Other activities, like watching TV, require an upfront investment to pay for necessary equipment but then you’re done. Money can also be spent on fancy furniture and house expansions. This doesn’t need to have any mechanical value to the basic goal of keeping your not-Sims happy, although it should whenever that makes sense. Finally, since the ultimate goal is to keep your not-Sims happy, we should definitely copy the Sims 3’s innovation of lifetime happiness points and rewards, where making your Sims happy and keeping them happy serves up some kind of meta-currency that can be used to buy them personality advantages. It’s a bit like XP. The Sims uses a list of varyingly priced rewards that are always available, and the expensive ones are harder to get just because they’re expensive, but you could use a talent tree instead and it would potentially be better.

This loop lends itself to two basic kinds of not-Sims, the domestic and the career, where the career focuses on training up skills to earn promotions to get paid more money to buy more stuff, and the domestic focuses on fixing broken plumbing and electronics, serving meals, and cleaning up in order to free up the career for more training (and, of course, you want both of them to keep their respective mood meters high so that they both accumulate happiness points so that you can unlock talents that help them in their respective duties). A not-Sim can jolly well buy both the “cooks more better” and the “musical talent for becoming a rock star” talents, and there shouldn’t be any hard or soft barriers preventing cross-classing like that, but reasonably robust simulations tend to reward specialization. Also, it’s worth noting that it’s not like 1950s stereotypes got things right here: You want the domestic to be good at fixing cars and cooking meals, and plus, you can have the domestic be the husband and the career be the wife if that tickles you, or make them both husbands, or whatever.

There’s also a third (dynamically emergent, not hard-coded) type of not-Sim: The socialite. A good way to get lots of happiness points and to make professional connections is to throw big ol’ parties where everyone has a grand old time, and in order to do that you need someone who visits neighbors, chats them up, makes friends, and then invites them all over. Just like going to work to make money and staying home to fix and clean stuff, going to visit neighbors to make friends is something you have to plan your day around and doesn’t usually have a ton of skill overlap (the talent for “makes people more likely to laugh at your jokes” is useful to a narrow band of careers focused on comedy and is not useful to your domestic at all), so you want a third not-Sim in the household to handle it. What’s important here is that throwing parties and otherwise making lots and lots of friends needs to be relevant to success at the career and also super time-consuming, making it dependent on the domestic to keep the house running so that they have time to socialize.

In fact, this is one place where EA has kind of dropped the ball, and where we can improve on the Sims 3/4 instead of simply copying them: It’s real easy for a career to socialize at work, totally eliminating the need for a socialite Sim. There is no measure of overall popularity except raw number of friends, with no benchmarks telling you when you’ve become the most popular person in town or whatever. You can throw a party and everyone will have a good time and like you better, but that won’t help you or anyone in your household build a nicer house or get a promotion. I find myself setting challenges for myself to do something like take two households that hate each other and see if I can convince them to have a great time at a party together, but between those objectives, my Sims become very reclusive. The benefits of socialization are just too self-contained, too detached from the career gameplay loop that gives me money that lets me make my house pretty. I’m sure some people play just to make sim-friends and are uninterested in the career wing except in order to put food on the table, but A) those people don’t even get an objective to strive towards like getting to the top of a career track is for career Sims, and B) those people need money to provide food and music for awesome parties which means they’re forced to interact with the career end of things in a way that career-focused Sims aren’t.

The fix I would propose is to have objectives in each neighborhood that have a big happiness XP payout and deal with the family and community dramas of that neighborhood. If the Mezzo Sopranos and the Baritones are feuding, have social objectives that relate to making them get along, like inviting the bitterest of them to a party together and making sure everyone has a good time or helping two star-crossed lovers get married and not commit suicide out of grief for the other having committed suicide, or helping one crush the other, by gaining their trust and then snooping around the house for blackmail information or wheedling secrets out of them while drunk. Nearly every household in an official EA neighborhood has a story, but those stories don’t have any hooks, any reason to interact with them.

Granted, this is partly because aging and random generation of new Sim generations replaces those pre-written vignettes with dream-like mood soup distilled from a weighted RNG knocking around some generic relationship mechanics, but you can find ways around that: Allow player-created households to be made permanently part of the neighborhood even if the player creates a new instance of the neighborhood to start from scratch. Let objectives expire when relevant NPC not-Sims die of old age or move out of town, and let objective-based gameplay be primarily the domain of people who play with aging turned off – some people like to see the saga of a family unfold over many generations, but others like to stick with their Sims (especially ones who created a Sim based on themselves for pure wish fulfillment, and there’s a lot of people who do that). You could even throw a bone to the Sim saga people by officially coding in legacy challenges with pre-set aging speeds. The Sims fan community made a game mode all about following a family through usually ten generations of the game, and nobody at EA thought to code that into the Sims 4. The fans already did half the work! EA’s asleep at the wheel!

Properly integrating the career and social aspects helps throw into sharp relief a dynamically generated arc already present, but muddy, in the Sims 3/4. The game naturally has services you can call upon – pizza delivery, maid service, that kind of thing. If the career is making enough money, the household can rely on these services constantly. The domestic becomes vestigial, and either becomes an aristocrat with nothing to do but build up happiness points constantly for talents they no longer need, or else they get kicked to the curb as their usefulness to the household has expired, depending on how ruthless the other two are. You can also buy properties and collect income from them, which allows you to slowly transition away from the career making money to the household simply collecting rents every week and then spending them to cover expenses, leaving the career similarly vestigial. Eventually, the only one who’s really necessary to the household is the socialite, the one who spends all their times talking to people and throwing parties.

But obviously there are a limited number of properties to go around and they make their profit by, ultimately, getting money from other Sims (in theory – in practice the amount of money they generate per week is probably arbitrary, but the point here is that it isn’t logically possible for everyone to become an aristocrat, because then who do you collect rents from?). Only so many people can become aristocrats, and this aristocracy is constantly available for social calls and partying. Even without programming in envy and resentment, there is a soft push towards a not-Sim ultimately joining an aristocratic class of rentiers whose only purpose is to socialize with one another and try to become more popular than each other.

Which, so far as the celebration of avarice that is the Sims goes, is about the best climax you can have, but hey, we could always release an October Revolution expansion where you can befriend your fellow proletariat until you have enough allies to storm the mansions of the rich, at which point utopia should occur automatically with no further need for planning.

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