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?