While Will Wright labours among stars and supernovae, wrestling to force life itself into a manageable shape, back on Earth developers at EA's Redwood Shores studios are struggling to get his most successful creation back on track. Although the cuddly toy domesticity of MySims may seem to be a billion light years away from the world-conquering bacteria of Spore, the projects have more in common than you might suspect. Each necessitates an inward regression to the very purest essence of an idea, and each acknowledges evolution as the key to survival.
Although it remains comfortably the most successful PC franchise of all time, it's hard to shake the feeling that recent Sims titles have seen the series slip both in terms of ambition and, with the charmless Urbz variant, sales. Unfair though such a branding may be, without Will Wright at the helm, The Sims can at times look like just another EA franchise – generally competent, but faintly antiseptic. The series' relative stagnation, along with its continued inability to shift units in Japan, has meant that reinvention has been a prospect for some time. Now, with the DS triumphant and the Wii selling out around the world, The Sims has turned chameleon, rebranding itself almost overnight to fit in alongside cherished Nintendo products.
And perhaps it's an ideal match. Tim LeTourneau, the executive producer of MySims, which debuts this autumn on both the DS and the Wii, certainly seems to think so. "The Sims is definitely a franchise that bridges many demographic boundaries. It's played by young and old, male and female, with each finding something just for them in it. I think that the DS and now the Wii have crossed those same boundaries. This is why MySims has found such a perfect home.
"We learn something new in taking The Sims in new directions," he admits, "whether it is something bold like The Urbz or more classic like The Sims 2 Seasons. I think the thing we learned with The Urbz, though, is that some of the magic in The Sims is definitely tied to the domestic experience, and bringing that creatively to the screen. The more we can relate to the lives of the Sims, the more we can laugh at and enjoy them."
But if that sounds like a retreat to safer ground after its misjudged foray into the concrete jungle, the most striking thing about MySims is how much of the series' more traditional aspects it feels comfortable in jettisoning. The gently caricatured humans and sitcom setting has given way to super-deformed Japanese designs and a blossomy bucolic environment. Both DS and Wii games feature the same basic storyline, tasking the player with revitalising a derelict setting (an island resort in the DS version, a ramshackle village in its Wii iteration), and both have the feel of titles designed from the ground up with the Japanese market firmly in mind.
The most notable departure from the series norm, the appearance of the Sims themselves, played a key role in this transition. "We wanted characters that would look at home on the Nintendo systems, and looked to one of our very talented character artists to reinterpret The Sims to achieve that goal," explains LeTourneau. "Emmy Toyonaga has worked on The Sims 2 PC team for several years. Like most of the MySims team, she is a huge Nintendo fan. When she showed us her character concepts, we realised they were the perfect compliment to a game about building a town from building blocks." The expansive character creation tool, bristling with all manner of haircut, eyeball and tattoo options, amongst many others, seems perfectly in tune with the Wii in particular, but LeTourneau plays down any link with Nintendo's own Mii creation suite. "We began development of MySims in January 2006 when The Wii was still called The Revolution," he laughs, "and when the only people that knew about the Miis were inside Nintendo."
But not all of MySims' references are as accidental. Like the chunky, lovable Sims, the world they now inhabit also calls to mind Nintendo's own toybox legacy rather than the series' traditional Americana – and the patchwork grass designs, along with the flattened and stylised building textures, make comparisons with Animal Crossing somewhat inevitable. "I think all game developers are inspired by all the games they've ever played," admits LeTourneau, broadly. "I definitely reference moments that inspired me – both positive and negative. Ultimately, I think that the important thing is that developers have a vision for what they want their game to be, regardless of genre and those that came before, and that they stay true to it."
But the Animal Crossing comparison, so easy to make, may only be skin deep – a closer look reveals a title with surface similarities but deep philosophical differences lurking beneath them. If Animal Crossing is a game that lets you take part in a wider – and often slightly uncaring – world, MySims wants you to take direct control. On both DS and Wii, this is playtime with firm goals in mind. Once again, success in the Sims universe means being popular, this time by creating and nurturing a community that will lure new characters in and keep them there. Playing down the eating and drinking imperatives that gave the original versions their gloriously self-involved sting, MySims places the focus on character interaction. That's why much of the game is spent interpreting NPC's reactions to your own choices – finding out what they want, and making sure they get it – and an elaborate relationships menu is on hand to chart every fluctuation of mood variation you cause in those around you. "MySims is ultimately about little people in a domestic world, with toys to unlock player creativity and personal expression," summarises LeTourneau. "The magic of The Sims has always been in being able to see a bit of ourselves on the screen, both in the behaviour of The Sims and the environment we create for them."
ImageCreate being the operative word, because – looks aside – the real innovation in MySims, and another major point of difference with Animal Crossing, lies with building rather than collecting. Everything in the MySims world, be it a chef's pizza oven or an entire cottage, is built from blocks. Players are free to build and expand on every item in the game by dragging and dropping pieces, filling out simple wireframes to create any object required of them. Initial tasks are small – building a table or chairs for another character – but eventually blossom into laying out streets and parks, offering real control over the environment.
The building blocks themselves are either discovered through exploration or rationed out as prizes for aiding NPCs. While the game's system, involving not only basic blocks but more complex elements called essences, which can be used in customisation, may be unnecessarily complicated, moving the pieces about using either the stylus or Remote seems simple and intuitive. The item creation menu has an engaging wooden-toy solidity to it, and the wireframe guidance system seems to be perfectly tailored for a title that will need to help younger players along while also giving older gamers room to riff and elaborate. And getting that balance right has proved difficult for the developers.
"That's the hardest challenge," acknowledges LeTourneau. "Approachability versus freedom. You want a system that everyone can use easily, yet you want it to have enough flexibility to allow creativity. This is the challenge of every Sims game – regardless of platform. The Wii has definitely given us the opportunity to unlock your creativity and personal expression, and we have been refining and iterating on the creativity tools for nearly a year."
Surprisingly, LeTourneau rules out any connectivity between the DS and Wii versions, and won't to confirm what, if any, online elements to expect. Even so, MySims is already looking comfortable in the Nintendo canon, and, targeted to specific hardware, provides a nice antidote to the steady tide of PS2 ports that wash up on the Wii's shoreline every month. But while the finished product may eventually duck the comparisons to Animal Crossing already being made, another forthcoming game may be harder to avoid.
LittleBigPlanet, Sony's stealth attack on both Nintendo's heartland and creativity-centered games in general, may prove too disarming and original a rival for even The Sims to take on, and its promised online community will have little competition from Nintendo's cautious approach. But such battles aside, it will still be hard to write MySims off as another cheap and thoughtless cash-in. Charming and ambitious, the finished product seems unlikely to be remembered as just another bead on the licence's necklace, with that hole, by necessity, where its heart should be.