We sat down for a chat with Michael Cox, producer on The Sims 3: Showtime, who was worked on The Sims for many years and has been at EA for 14 years, at a recent event for The Sims 3: Showtime in Stockholm.
What goes into planning and deciding the themes for the various Sims expansions?
We're very fortunate to have a very active and vocal community. We get a lot of feedback, ideas and inspiration from listening to our community. We also do a lot of market research to make sure that our fans are correct. By that I mean they've got a lot of ideas and we really want to deliver what people want to play. And at the same time we want to make sure that what we do has broad appeal, not just for the hardcore fans, but in addition we want to make sure that we're doing things for the more casual users. We have such a variety of people playing this game that we really want to resonate with, and be relevant to all of them so we'll do market research as well.
That takes us to Showtime, how did that idea come up?
Again it's something that the community was really excited about. They've asked for different things that the Showtime expansion pack delivers on. And market research validated the direction we wanted to go and I think also with Showtime it's quite relevant at this time.
There is a lot in the world about the average guy, average girl, someone you've never heard of, having a chance to reach stardom through some sort of competition or that sort of thing. So it seemed like a very relevant theme. It's also a theme that plays really well for the Sims. These career tracks, these great moments for success and failure, the extension of building your own stage and all the props that go with it, the ability to sing your own songs or have a variety of songs to sing and that sort of thing. So there are a lot of aspects of Showtime that seemed like a rich area for us to play in and gain inspiration in, and offer up in this expansion pack.
So there has been no road map since The Sims 3 launch where you go, now we want this kind of expansion and then we want that one...
It's definitely a bit more flexible than that. With The Sims 3, when that launched we offered a bunch of new things - this open world. This world in which Sims could go across town and share their experience with other Sims across town. So it's a really rich and fertile place to expand upon. And we've been able to take that into different areas with each expansion pack and Showtime is a good example of that.
You touch on the Sims audience, obviously with a game that's so popular you pretty much have every type of gamer out there playing it. So do you try and satisfy all of the audience with each expansion or do you tend to focus on hardcore and casual users with different expansions?
We try and offer a broad and deep experience and we've been doing this a long time. The Sims are going on 12 years, 140 million units sold and in that time we've really been able to break down our players into different categories. The builders - I want to be able to build my Sims and build my world, build my houses. The achievers - I want to unlock everything, it's a very deep game so I want to experience every career or get as much money as I can, own every object. There is experimental types - I want to put the sloppy Sim in the same room as the neat one and lock the door and see what happens. And then there are those storytellers - you saw me tell a little story during the presentation and I'm using the game as a vehicle to tell a story to someone. That's how we think of our players and we really try to offer up an open ended experience that empowers all those play styles.
Recently The Sims Social launched and it's a huge success. Has that changed anything for the main Sims team, have you gotten any inspiration from that or are you trying to stay clear of that?
We're doing our own thing. I think the experience as you saw with The Sims 3: Showtime on PC. You know, it's a different experience and it's a different platform. We're focusing on what makes sense in the area that each team, each group is working on. In a bigger picture it has validated the beauty and the joy of the Sims - it's successful there, it's successful here, so I think that validates the value of the brand and the value of that type of gameplay.
Do you think that at any point all of these things will merge into a sort of Sims service at some point?
Oh, I don't know. I can't really think beyond Showtime.
So there is no grand vision of where the Sims will be in ten years?
Uh, in ten years. If you asked us ten years ago where would we be today I don't know.
(PR chirps in: "Good answer.")
Is there anything in particular that you're pleased you managed to pull off with Showtime?
Gosh. A couple things come to mind right off the bat. The crowds. You saw the big concert at this big venue, and there was this massive crowd of Sims, taking photographs, cheering, interacting with the person on stage. To me that's exciting. That's something that we've wanted to see and do for a long time and it's not easy to do that sort of thing. And we're doing that now and I'm really excited to see that it adds so much more life. And it makes sense, if I'm going to be a superstar... What makes a superstar but lots of people coming out to check them out.
I love building so seeing the ability to build these elaborate stages, I think that's really quite nice. I'm also particularly excited about the online features say with the Simport - being able to share my Sim with my friends or have their Sim come and perform on my machine. That's really exciting as well.
You mentioned Simport and I feel as though that is something that a lot of games these days are trying to do. Is that something of a hint as to the future of the Sims, perhaps?
Well, it certainly makes sense with Showtime. If I've got a superstar, they're going to tour the world and perform beyond this town of Starlight Shores that we have. So it was a really natural thing to do and you know, The Sims, it's my game, my world, and it's not an experience where I think our fans would want someone else to come in and wreck my house or do dastardly things to my Sim. But at the same time our fans love to share, if you look at our community and the things they publish it's astounding. This is another way to do that within a theme that it makes sense. It's a sensible vehicle in which they can go out into the world and perform.
Maybe we've already touched on this, but are there fundamentals that need to be there for every Sims product for it to be a proper Sims experience?
Well, I think that's a great question. It's really important for us as developers to empower the player to do what they want to do with our game. It's an open ended experience - we call it a sandbox - and it's your sandbox to play in. So it's important for us not to make choices for you. Not to take decisions away from you. So if you want to play your game in a certain way we want to empower you to do that. We try to hit on all those play styles I mentioned. Are we providing things for the builder? The story teller? The achiever? The experimenter? It's important for us to see that one, we're not taking decisions away from them and two, providing you with lots of choices so that you have the option to play it like you want to.