The Sims
Edge|January 2020
The Sims
On Maxis’ iconic living snapshot of ’90s America
Phil Iwaniuk

The Oakland, California firestorm of 1991 raged for two days across 1,520 acres and destroyed over 3,000 homes. One belonged to Will Wright. In the weeks and months that followed, the SimCity creator involved himself with rebuilding his house, learning the fundamental principles of architecture and asking himself which components of the home were essential, and which could be bought later on.

The experience gave Wright an idea for a new game. After the release of SimEarth and SimAnt in 1990 and 1991, two titles with plenty of imagination which failed to eclipse the success of SimCity, Wright had three projects on his mind. Project Z would be a simulation of the ill-fated Hindenburg airship which would – mercifully – never enter production. Project Y would eventually become SimCopter. And Project X, drawing on Wright’s experiences in architecture and home design, would become the bestselling PC game ever released.

Not that The Sims bore any obvious marks of genius in its early stages. Initially it tasked the player only with architectural input, challenging them to build functional and aesthetically pleasant homes and drawing inspiration from Christopher Alexander’s book A Pattern Language which presented a ‘function over form’ argument in interior design. Once the homes were built, AI-driven characters would enter and examine them, awarding a score based on the player’s architectural prowess. A prototype was developed under the name Home Tactics: An Experimental Domestic Simulator. Everybody, more or less, hated it.

That included the marketing people at Maxis, who had not been reading A Pattern Language in their spare time nor rebuilding their homes. They didn’t understand the merit or enjoyment in arranging walls and furniture and letting little computer people judge the results. Focus groups, too, hated it. Whatever magnetic pull The Sims would eventually have on gaming audiences in its final form, it wasn’t present in 1993 when the earliest prototype was put before members of the public. In an alternate universe, that might have been the end of the story for Will Wright’s odd little idea for a dollhouse game.

Its fortunes changed when Electronic Arts bought Maxis in 1997, and Luc Barthelet was appointed general manager at Maxis. Barthelet recognised the huge potential in Wright’s idea, and was buoyed by a crucial repositioning the internal team had made with the game in the interim. In their efforts to design an AI that could navigate homes easily and interact with objects wherever they were placed, Wright’s team inadvertently shifted the focus of the game. It wasn’t simply about building homes, they realised, but about watching people live in them.

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January 2020