The Evolution of The Sims 4: An Interview
Since the first base game of The Sims 4 released over one year ago, there have been countless fans who have either fallen in love with the game, or sometimes disliked it. Most of the complaints that fans had in the initial phases of the game have now been cleared up, of course. However, Game Central recently snagged an interview with developer Rachel Franklin to talk about the Sims 4 and how it has changed over the year, as well as what its future will be like.
GameCentral talks to the woman in charge of The Sims, about the future of the franchise and the difficulties of dealing with fan unrest.
It may seem like it’s in a unique position but The Sims suffers from exactly the same difficulties as any other major franchise, from Call Of Duty to Pokémon. How often should you make a sequel? How import are cutting edge graphics? What features have the fans been asking for? And will it actually work when it’s released?
To one degree or another The Sims 4 ran it all of these problems when it was first launched, but in particular complaints from fans that it had purposefully removed features that were present in the older game; with many imagining that they would be reintroduced at a later date as paid-for content.
But that didn’t happen and although not all of the more controversial features have been reinstated most of them have, as free updates. Since we’ve always enjoyed The Sims games, including The Sims 4, the recent release of the Get Together expansion pack gave us a chance to meet with Rachel Franklin, the vice president and general manager of The Sims Studios.
We talked to her about the future of the franchise and also the ever-increasing difficulty of releasing open-ended games… and of reviewing them.
GC: So I have to admit I really liked The Sims 4.
RF: I’m glad to hear it!
GC: I was quite addicted to The Sims 2 for a while, but then I didn’t really like the open world element in the previous game – and I know that fans are divided on that issue.
RF: It’s been a contentious issue. But my feeling is that with the open world it’s harder to feel as connected with the town and your sims.
GC: It’s like it stopped being a virtual doll’s house and started turning into GTA without guns or something. Which for me started to miss the point, because it’s not like it was all supposed to be hyper real – you’re not supposed to confuse it with reality.
RF: I think you’re spot on, right? We went for… how can we get that personality to come across, and the best way to do that, we felt, was to have it feel more intimate – more relatable. And that’s gonna come through playing even more close up, it’s gonna come through the environments playing out more richly when you’re in an enclosed space, and the way to do that is how we did it in Sims 4.
And not having that open world allows us to create… for example you’ll see in the Get Together expansion pack, that when we have something like a cafe it’s gonna feel rich and it’s gonna feel like there are sims around and they’re in groups and their doing things and having activities. And it gives that intimate feel, and that’s purposeful.
GC: Were you surprised by the initial fan reaction to 4? In terms of either the nature or the volume of complaints?
RF: I would say I was, yeah. I mean I think we took a really hard look at, ‘OK, what are they saying and what’s happening?’ And I think that a little bit of it, frankly, is that if I say something like, ‘Hey, we’re building a foundation with the base game that we’re gonna continue to build on and continue to expand’, that’s just me talking.
But then when you actually do it and you add content in, and you add pools and you add ghosts and you add some career updates, and you add a Game pack and a Stuff pack, and all of these things adding up to each other that we come out with every month… all of a sudden I think people clued in. And it really hit me when we had a fan at an event and they said, ‘We get what you’re doing now, we get that this is truly something that will continue to grow over time. And I thought, ‘That’s what happens!’ Is that I said, but it doesn’t really mean anything until we show it.
GC: I think it’s an industry wide problem now that gamers are just less trusting of publishers, that they no longer take their word for anything.
RF: Yeah. Yeah.
GC: I know if someone tells me that a bug will be fixed or that content will be added just after launch, I can’t trust them anymore. We’ve all been bitten too many times. And even if that’s not your fault you, and every other developer, has still got to deal with it.
RF: Right, right. And I think of it as two-fold, I think that we didn’t do a great job of exposing the content that was actually in the base game already. And The Sims is kind of funny that way, in that it’s a game that unfolds as you go through it and it takes a while to kind of really get into it and see, ‘Oh yeah, there could be this kind of reaction, that kind of reaction, the other kind of reaction’.
It is kind of like life, it unfolds out in front of you, instead of giving out to you all in one go. And if you’re just doing an evaluation at one point in time you don’t really get that, you don’t really feel that until you’re really into it. And I don’t know if you found that when you’re playing it?
GC: Reviewing games is a lot more difficult than it used to be!
Both: [laughs] I know, right?
GC: So where are you in The Sims 4 life cycle? This is the… second expansion pack?
RF: That’s right. We’ve had two Game packs, we’ve had two expansion packs, we’ve had three updates as well. So there’s been quite a lot of content, and what I like about it, is that with the Game packs we can really be quite niche and really focused. If you look at something like Spa Day it allowed us to be really rich with one thing.
Expansion packs are bigger and they can’t necessarily be so specific, as we’ve got to cover all of the different play styles. And so it’s important that we make it really broad-reaching. Get Together has a whole new world, called Windenburg, which I love because it’s European-inspired. And also we have this cool mix of old architecture and kind of modern culture mixed together, that mash-up together is really interesting. I don’t think we’ve ever done that before.
GC: One thing about The Sims though, and SimCity, is that it is obviously very, very American. The architecture, the layout of the roads… it just doesn’t look like anything in the UK or Europe. Instead you get things like strip malls, which mercifully don’t exist in the UK.
GC: Do fans complain about that aspect, is that something they ask for?
RF: We don’t get complaints, exactly, but I think it’s important for us to have both the aspirational – ‘Oh, this feels like American and I haven’t lived in America before!’ – and the familiar. And so it’s important to have that relatablity as well.
GC: I think many American creators, and this goes for movie and TV as well, don’t necessarily realise how there’s a level of abstraction to how everyone else is watching and interpreting things.
GC: When I see the Chrysler Building getting blown up in Independence Day, that’s so far removed from what a European city looks like, you don’t get a sense of everyday reality being interrupted, that the director was presumably going for. And yet in a way I think that actually helps The Sims.
RF: It does, and I think that’s a really interesting point.
GC: When you see Big Ben get blown up you think that’s exotic, but that’s our everyday reality. Minus the blowing up.
RF: [laughs] I think it’s important for us to go for the relatablity factor as well. Not in the sense that it’s exactly how you would see it at home. But it’s funny, there’s that balance even in the art style…
GC: The Sims 2 looked really good, and I remember thinking at the time, ‘This is going to look photorealistic by the time it gets to 4 or 5’. But of course it doesn’t, you wouldn’t want that because it would look creepy and wrong.
RF: Exactly, exactly! You don’t want that. So what’s really important in the balance of the art style is you’re gonna get those facial reactions, you’re gonna get those little things that a sim might do, like in the sauna they’ll [mimes being overcome with heat] ‘Oh, it’s a little bit hot!’. And you think, ‘Yeah, I do that’. But you don’t want them photorealistic because that’s creepy, that’s just weird. So that level of abstraction is really important for us to do.
It’s the same with the architecture as well. It has to be the same level of, ‘Oh, that does look like a little cafe that might exist in my town but it’s not a perfect replica of anything. And so it allows you to play with it and get bonded to it emotionally, without it being so close that either it just ceases being fun and whimsical or it gets creepy.
GC: The other technical issue though is the artificial intelligence, which is an even more difficult balance. And there I’m tempted to think it should be as realistic as possible.
RF: Our little sims are pretty sophisticated, their traits are definitely integral to how they react and the things that they chose to do. If you look at the club system that we’re now introducing, that introduces a whole level of group activity to it. Their aspirations, they have all of these parts of their personality, and what we have to be careful of is that we’re not exposing so much of the simulation to the player that it becomes a math project instead of a game.
And so I think it’s about choosing the things that we’re exposing to you as the player. Like the emotions, it’s very important for you to understand how a sims is feeling but if we share with you all of the different layers of trait management that would not be fun anymore. But those traits play a really big part in the choices they start making and the reactions they’re having, and then we bring that together into the emotions.
GC: So what are your medium and short term priorities for The Sims 4 at the moment? I was trying to check last night, and you still don’t have toddlers?
GC: Is that something that’s going to come later, in maybe the next expansion? Since that is one of the main things fans are still asking for.
RF: You know, our fans ask for a lot of things! [laughs] And here’s the thing, we look at a lot of different factors. We look absolutely at things that are being said in public forums. We also have groups of fans coming in, but we also have telemetry to tell us what people are actually playing with and using.
GC: It almost reminds me of a Kickstarter project, where you have all these ideas and demands coming in and you have to push back against some of them.
RF: I think it gets factored in. I would say it’s less of a push back and more of a,’How are we taking that into account and weighing it against all the other influences?’
GC: So you’re satisfied that not having toddlers was the right choice?
RF: That’s the decision that we made based on all of the information that we had at the time. So absolutely, I feel like it’s the best decision for the game to date. I’m not talking about future stuff. But I do think it’s important to know, that players play in very different ways. We see all kinds of different play styles and family players are very passionate, so are players that play other ways.
And I want to make sure that all of those voices are considered when people are thinking about whether or not we’ve included the right things. Because we do, we take it very seriously about whether or not we’re approaching all of those different play styles. We take it just as seriously as the players do that are asking for the things that they want.
GC: I guess you’re not going to answer the question of how many more expansions there are to come?
RF: You know what, all I have to say is that The Sims 3 lasted for five years of content and still has lots and lots of fans. We have been improving and growing and building on The Sims 4 month after month after launch, and we will continue to do that until it doesn’t make sense.
GC: How do you decide when to make a new sequel. Is it just when your five years are up, or are you sitting there waiting for new tech?
RF: I think there has to be an impetuous for us to do a whole new sequel. It’s a matter of when the current tech can’t do what we feel is necessary to expand, on where we would like to take The Sims. So when we were building 4 we did make it incredibly robust, so that we can build on it in a lot of different ways. And so I don’t have a concrete answer for that because we’re not even a year into it.
GC: Was there never any thought to make the whole franchise subscription-based? There are a number of games I can think of that seem suitable for that and I’m always surprised it’s not introduced as an option. Especially given the success of EA Access.
RF: You know, we talk about it all the time. For The Sims 4 it’s nice for people to pick and chose what they want to buy. Especially when we’re introducing new concepts with the Game packs. And our Stuff packs are very different from Sims 3. Sims 3 didn’t have gameplay in the Stuff Packs, our Stuff Packs actually have new scripted objects which have gameplay in them.
So, it was important to introduce these monthly updates, which like I said I don’t think people really believed in at the time, and the new Game packs and Stuff packs already add a lot of new ways that we’re doing things. And so we definitely felt at that time that the ability for people to pick and chose exactly what they wanted to add was important.
GC: And just finally, have you any plans to try and make a console version again?
RF: We don’t have any plans right now but we are always looking at ways that we can make that work. It’s a challenge getting the game onto consoles but we’re always trying to figure it out.
GC: OK, thank you. That was very intersting.
RF: No problem, I like that you really get it.
Source: Metro UK