Taking The Sims from PC to consoles and handhelds has been a significant design challenge for EA. Sinjin Bain, VP and EP of The Sims 2 (released this week) talks about lessons learned along the way.
The Sims 2 is as much a lifestyle toy as a traditional game, so moving it from PC to console and handheld is no small undertaking. "There are lots of challenges in bringing the Sims to consoles," says Bain. "This is the fourth console release for us with the Sims franchise and each one of those iterations has been a learning experience in terms of design."
He adds, "What we've done is try to move the franchise's core gameplay to consoles over time. We didn't do it all in one move. Design challenge number one this time around was focusing on controls. The second design challenge was how to address console game sensibilities. What I mean by that is that we've taken an open-ended strategy game with an open sandbox and moving that into a level-based, objective reward-based game.
"We had to take this very large gameplay experience and construct a series of story-based goals that gradually opens up the full game that's available on the PC. It's just too much to dump on a console player all at once.
"So we cut the game, deconstructed it in a design sense and then put it back together in what we hope will be fun gameplay slices. Anyone who plays through the first two or three locations in the game, will at that point then have all of [the game mechanics] opened up for them. It's like being able to play in the shallow-end of a swimming pool before you hit the deep water."
Step by Step
At each step, EA has attempted to apply lessons previously learned. "This really opened up some cool areas for us to hinge our game design on," says Bain. "We also added 'direct control' which is our new control feature for consoles. This means you actually drive your character around the world. It's no longer point and click. It's something we've wanted to do for more than two years, but it took a major rewrite of our technology and engine.
"We've really been pleased that console players are excited by the ability to walk and run their Sim around the world and we've also got a very positive reaction from core PC Sims players who are used to experiencing the Sims franchise from a more strategic standpoint. We also left in the traditional mode for those players who want to stay more strategic. We're excited to see how that will be received by the broader market."\
Compared to Bustin' Out and the original Sims, the Urbz was the least successful iterations of the Sims series, with Gamerankings.com scores of around 70%.
"What didn't work [in the Urbz] was that we changed almost every aspect of the game," Bain explains. "We changed the way careers were handled. We also put in direct control button-mashing mini games. We changed the way motives were experienced and reduced their number by combining a few together. I think we bit off too many design changes in too short a cycle and as a result, we didn't quite nail each one. When you don't nail every aspect of a new game design, players notice that.
"This is part of the reason that we try to stick to three new features and no more than that. With the Urbz we tried to bite off five. That was the biggest lesson learned. To be fair, it wasn't the most successful Sims offering, but it was still a very successful product."
When the game hits this week, it will be shipping on a slew of platforms (both console and handheld and eventually mobile). According to EA, individual teams have looked at each platform's specific strengths and audience and tailored a different Sims 2 experience for each one.
"I give the company a lot of credit. They were willing to back us in treating each platform as its own specific game design, using the core fundamentals of Sims 2 PC as the foundation. So if you're a 13-15 year-old kid and you've got a Game Boy Advance and DS and a PS2, you could buy the Sims 2 for each of those platforms and you'd get a unique gameplay experience from each one."
The handheld versions are likely to be particularly important to EA. Historically speaking, The Sims Bustin' Out was the best selling handheld title in the company's history, beating out the likes of Harry Potter and other major sellers.
On the Nintendo DS the gameplay is designed around the use of touch screen and to some extent, the microphone. "With the Urbz, that was our dry run playing with [the DS]. We learned a lot about how to do mini-games that took advantage of the microphone and the recording capabilities. The Sims 2 DS is an extremely open-ended gameplay experience that maximizes the touch screen. As we've gone through the press tour this year, because of the uniqueness of the platform, it gets as much, if not more attention than the version on the PSP. This is despite the fact that the PSP version is just so gorgeous visually, that you don't expect on a handheld.
"Visually, the PSP version looks like the console versions, but it's much more story driven. There is a deep back story with a lot of unique characters and 'culty' figures. It's very goal and objective based."