In a week when Sony has announced yet more delays
(another in a longer series of gaffes that has spawned endless humiliation)
in the development of their much hyped virtual space, Home, and when even the roar from
WoW’s success seems to be fading into an echo, a reminder about the incredible success of
a little game that could... Like All in the Family or this year's indie darling Once (or the Aeron chair, for that matter), it almost never got made 'cause people making decisions about such things didn't believe Will Wright (who doesn't believe Will Wright?!) when he said it would be the best thing ever. Cause after all, who the heck would want to play in a virtual dollhouse?
The Sims franchise has now
sold 100 million copies (in 22 languages and 60 countries) since 2000. From a recent NYTimes article
sent to us by Tripp Robbins (who also notes how strange it is that videogame
articles appear in the television category):
All told, the franchise has generated about $4 billion in sales or an average of $500 million every year for the last eight years, placing the Sims in the rarefied financial company of other giants of popular culture like “American Idol,” “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter.”
I’m in love with Will Wright,
I am going to confess (though there’s no chance for me as his fiancée is way
more beautiful than even my best avatars). I saw
him speak at the Game Developer’s conference a couple of years ago: not about games, nor game design very specifically,
but rather an exploration of his intensely nerdy passions for astrophysics and
exo-biology and how they relate to game design (Spore, of
course). He’s a game designer that gets
underneath the covers, really thinking about what makes the game experience
unique from other media experiences, and how he can design games that provoke
and inspire. Pride, accomplishment and guilt, for instance, are emotions that videogames have the power to evoke in
spades (I had to stop playing Age of Empires because I felt guilty for burning
the little digital peasants out of their houses), but that are rarely present
in other media (except perhaps if you’re watching An Inconvenient Truth, I suppose). As a relatively new medium still struggling
to find ‘its language’, reminders like this are important… in the game designer’s
rant at GDC this year, for instance, several of the talks explored the idea
that there is still so much more to be done with videogames in terms of
engendering emotions that are positive (as Clint Hocking said, why isn’t Medal of Honor about honor, or Call of Duty about duty?), and fostering experiences that are a step beyond the videogame equivalent of B-movies and T-and-A fests.
Now as much as I like to talk about videogames being more
meaningful, I know that Terra Nova is a
blog about virtual worlds. And I believe in the social power of virtual worlds. I have often
pronounced to audiences that gaming has
traditionally been a social activity, and once computer networks evolved sufficiently people
gravitated towards playing with one another in a variety of time-tested
ways (do you know people who still play Solitaire once they have an Internet connection?). I have even ventured to say that
once people have the experience of gaming socially, they are less inclined to
go back (I backed this up with the assertion that people even play single
player games socially, as I did with all my single player games back in the day).
But maybe I’m wrong. What is it about the experience of the single-player Sims game that surpasses all else?
“What we’ve discovered is that the Sims is a very private experience for a lot of people,” Rod Humble, head of the Sims studio, said in a telephone interview last week. “It’s private because it’s set in real life. Rather than on a console in the living room where everyone can see, you generally play on a handheld or on a PC in the study, where no one can look over your shoulder. You get to tap into this wonderful childhood imaginary game, which is ‘What if I could create my own little world and all the people in it and watch them go through their business and jump in and change things when I want?’ That is a pretty personal fantasy.”
Okay, but won't people want to share their personal fantasies? I mean people do already. So why then did the Sims Online fail so miserably? Our own Mia Consalvo has a theory or two, all neatly documented in her chapter From Dollhouse to Metaverse: What Happened When The Sims Went Online (in the Player's Realm anthology). She notes that she enjoyed the Sims much more than the Sims Online, for instance, because she tends to be a more solitary player. But why? One reason is that solitary play allows one to construct a magic circle (for lack of a better metaphor) that doesn't have to look like a Venn diagram where players are constantly constructing, reinforcing and arguing about the boundaries between those two play circles. It is precisely the necessary overlp of the circles that creates so much conflict in MMO environments (more on this here and here). A truly satisfying game experience allows one to construct whatever type of circle they want, unfettered by gameplay or other social norms that might otherwise influence their freedom of expression:
Given an artificial situation, players can experiment, allowing them to see ‘what happens’ when a Sim nags another Sim for too long. There are no real consequences involved. Yet when the other Sim is a real person, even if it’s a person I do not know, my feelings change. I can nag a computer easily—another person is more difficult. And likewise, even if I really wanted to have my Sim slap that other Sim (or just peck her on the cheek), the other Sim now has the opportunity to refuse. Not that the computer AI couldn’t, but it was different somehow. These changes in my expectations for what is acceptable behavior are perhaps my own, not shared by others. ...It is possible that because TSO is so similar to ‘real life’ that I have transferred my behavioral norms—just as I wouldn’t expect to be able to slap a stranger on the street IRL, neither can I do so in TSO. That norm is not so pronounced in other types of online games, where situations are more fantastical, and different behavioral norms already more established. But the underlying point seems to be that players either bring with, or invent, expectations for interactions, when other people are involved. And these norms have consequences for how they behave. Whether that is a good or bad thing I can’t say. But it does suggest that the ‘look and feel’ of a virtual world can inspire in players certain behavioral norms, and as we see the rise of more non-sci-fi and fantastical MMOGs, behavioral norms will likely change, as both the environment and player base change as well (Consalvo, 2007, p. 22).
(So this, of course, makes me think about solipsism
(those of you who know me know that I have a
pet theory about us all living in a big virtual world, and we have also discussed it elsewhere here)… is this world I
live in a personal universe? Do any of
the rest of you lovely people exist? Oh, dear, I hate
it when my brain meanders into existential territory that leaves me
depressed. So unfair. And anyway, I don’t
care if all of you really exist or not ‘cause I love you anyway…)
The point is that game experiences can and should be about the stories that people create themselves, not about the stories that others choose to tell them. And what's lovely about this is that there is a huge body of literature amassed in recent years that addresses the possibilities of storytelling and personal narrative for transformational purposes. What it makes really clear to me is why people can find sort of basic and boring emergent environments endlessly fascinating, while many of us are left scratching our heads: what the heck is the appeal of grinding through several tens of thousands of creatures that need killing. Well, of course we know that no one would play WoW if there were no other people involved... but that has more to do with the state of evolution of single player games (the status quo plus people is better than just the status quo), and the fact that videogame narratives can now be constructed on the fly by all sorts of people at the same time. But what about the next evolution? Can it trump the MMO?
Soon (!) I will have the option of designing my own personal Sim universe, designed with lots and lots of love by my favorite Will Wright. What could be better than that? And looks like they might have learned their lesson:
Spore is unique in that while it has multiplayer elements involved there will be no direct live contact with other players. Players' created content gets saved to a master server and will be downloaded by the client-software of other players. In this way, a player will interact with the content created by another player in a non-intrusive manner.
I can show them my sandbox, but they can't mess it up. Is that the best of all worlds? My universe is unpwnable.