We recently had a chance to chat about The Sims 3 with MJ Chun, associate producer at The Sims Division. Here she tells us how the development team took risks to push PC's bestselling franchise in a fresh direction, explains what's being worked on following the game's three month delay, and lets us in on its new community features.
There are so many Sims expansions and releases that, for non-dedicated followers, it can be a little hard to keep up. What's distinctly new about The Sims 3 and how does it push the franchise in a fresh direction?
Chun: I think it pushes the franchise along. One of the core things about it is that the Sims are smarter and have more depth to them. The personality traits are really powerful because for me it's where the gameplay, the storytelling and the customisation all come together.
So you can make a neurotic vegetarian who happens to be a perfectionist and is a computer whiz, or is childish. The other day I made an evil kleptomaniac who is a genius, ambitious and a hopeless romantic.
One of the criticisms levelled at The Sims 2 is that it focuses more on time management than character development. Is that something you've directly tried to address?
Chun: Absolutely yeah, and I think it came about in many ways indirectly when we considered what's fun about games, and Sims games in particular. It's less about managing needs as much, like I have to get my Sim to work on time or I have to feed my Sim because it's that time and hungry is at 20 percent or something, or I have to queue up six interactions perfectly or whatever, it was more like I should feed my Sim because they're cranky and they're not going to do as well at work if they're hungry. But the flip is, you know what, I'm going to have them do this other thing and be cranky, it's fine, that's a decision I want to make.
The Sims is designed as a family-friendly franchise, but if I wanted to go down an evil path when creating my Sim, how nasty could I be?
Chun: One of the Lifetime Wishes is gold digger and that Sim has a desire to see the ghost of a wealthy spouse. I was playing the gold digger and one of the wealthier Sims in town happened to be married so I became friends with his wife and invited her to my place. I kept my cooking skill low so I set a fire on the lot and she burnt to death, and therefore I got to move in on her [widow]. It's really as creative as you want to be.
There are other things you can do to torture your Sim. The classic drowning is still in effect.
The Sims boss Rod Humble has spoken of the studio's mission to make "games that innovate and take creative risks". What risks have you taken with The Sims 3?
Chun: One of the things that I think is risky is whether or not people will find that the town feels alive to them. I think it's a risk because you control your Sim and traditionally it has been about your home lot and now there's this open world.
I think some people are going to find that it's too much and that they want that level of control back, and that some people are going to be disappointed and want more. That's a little bit of a risk and I'm interested in seeing what the community thinks about it.
Can you elaborate on the geography of The Sims 3 and how it has been opened up?
Chun: Phillip [Chun's Sim] can just walk across the street now and that's actually a really powerful moment. You can peek in and see what you neighbours are doing and then walk over and hang out with them which you've never been able to do before. For me this is like, 'Oh my god, it's the town and it's all connected.' It has impact to whether or not he's friends with his neighbour.
How important are graphics to the franchise?
Chun: It's one of those things that we grapple with on any Sims product, but especially The Sims 3. What does the Sim look like takes the team several iterations. You don't want to cross the uncanny valley, you don't want something that looks creepy and at the same time you don't want too cartoony either so stylisation is, I think, something really important to The Sims.
Also, ultimately, as much as the artists on the team and maybe even producers and designers want everything to look pretty, it's a Sims game and it's really important for people to be able to make ugly Sims.
Why was the decision made not to allow users to bring their old Sims creations to the new game?
Chun: One of the core reasons is that the art is built completely differently. We actually looked at porting over assets from The Sims 2 to The Sims 3, especially because we had such a wealth of content, but then we realised that it was taking as much time or longer to change it to a new pipeline and I think for most people building something from scratch means you think it through, so you're familiar with it.
Trying to take something that somebody else made, or even if you made it but in a different paradigm, and trying to convert it over is a mess. We did bring some of the animations over and it was really interesting because some of them we just ended up remaking and some of them worked and so it was a real trial and error [process].
From a development standpoint, if we'd said, 'You can have your old content,' we'd have loved that because there's only like your nth pair of jeans or nth dining room chair and we were like, 'Do we really need to make that dining room chair again?' but for a base game yes, you need the cheap one, you need the expensive one, you need the frilly one...
How much did community feedback impact the game's development?
Chun: So much. The dev team is actually made up of a lot of gamers and a lot of Sims players and we read the boards and listen to the community.
We brought the custom content community people from The Sims 2 in for a week and showed them The Sims 3 and said play with it. It was an early build so we were like, 'Break it, tell us what you love, what you hate and what you'd like to see' and we got the thrill of watching them use the game to create some amazing stuff that we didn't think was possible.
It was inspirational and aspirational and it's always been that kind of relationship because it's like, 'Wow, that's what the content community can make, they've just raised the bar,' so ours had to be as good if not better.
What can you tell us about the game's community features?
Chun: The core of the community functions is that we made it super easy for people to share. Whether it's just a particular texture... or an entire Sim you can upload it to [the game's] website for everyone to see and download.
One of the coolest features is the Movie Mashup Tool. Your Sims can throw a little performance, you can take video capture of it and upload it to the web. You have your own page, so you have your avatars and friends and everything that you've uploaded on one website.
You can share objects, Sims, lots, clothing, accessories and materials, and the store, the community and the forums are all in one place. The idea with all of that is that we want it to be really easy for everyone to get all their stuff.
The game was initially meant to release at the end of February before being pushed back to June. What will you be able to achieve in that extra time?
Chun: The extra time has been amazing. It's the polish bugs, like it takes too long to reach the top of a particular career or little things like the hint that comes up telling you where to find a particular fish is completely wrong.
[Also] last minute changes to how you edit your town, and that came from custom content creation feedback, so we were like, 'Ok, this flow doesn't really work, well we could do this hacky thing but why don't we just do it right,' so it's been really good.
The game is so huge that you don't get to hit all of it until all of your systems are in, so we've been doing testing challenges that we wouldn't have been able to do any sooner, like seeing how long you can keep your elder alive using life fruit, or the 28 Days Later challenge where you basically evict or kill everybody in town and see what happens to the town
Bice zabave, viim ja.