'The Sims,' born from fire

A large fire blazed through the Oakland Hills in 1991. In its path, the fire across the bay from San Francisco destroyed many homes, including that of Will Wright, co-founder and chief designer at game studio Maxis Inc.

Wright drew inspiration out of the tragedy. Having to rebuild his home from the ground up, furnishing and decorating it gave him an idea for a game where players could do the same. Development started in 1993 on a game that would be about much more than building houses and that would become a blockbuster hit for Maxis.

A development team of about four people, including Wright, worked on a prototype of "The Sims." Once the developers realized "The Sims" could be a people simulator, they took it beyond an architecture-and-building application.

With "SimCity," "SimEarth," "SimAnt" and "SimFarm," Maxis in 1993 already had significant simulator experience. Wright founded the company in 1987 with Jeff Braun, whom he met at a pizza party, after being unable to sell his original idea for another Sim game, "SimCity," to existing game publishers.

There is not much tangible history behind "The Sims." There are hardly any design documents and Wright did not keep notes. He is not the type of person to say that coming up with "The Sims" was a great moment in his life, people who work with him said.

In 1997, four years after "The Sims" was conceived, Electronic Arts Inc. acquired Maxis in an all-stock deal then valued at US$125 million. "The Sims" team worked in isolation from the rest of Maxis, in small offices in San Mateo, a city that is part of the suburban sprawl between San Francisco and San Jose on the San Francisco peninsula.

"There was a lot of unrest at Maxis, post-acquisition. There were a lot of staffing changes and the company culture was being changed dramatically. Will wanted to make sure 'The Sims' in its embryonic state was protected from the craziness that was going on," said Charles London, who joined Maxis in 1997 as a designer on "The Sims."

Work started late in the morning and typically ran into the evening. The team had to keep wowing executives at Electronic Arts and Maxis to justify their existence. The executives felt that "The Sims" had potential, but did not think it was a guaranteed hit: Who would buy a game without clear objectives, about going to the bathroom and doing housework?

"It was an uphill struggle," London said.

In his first week London felt some of that. The first piece of art he was asked to create for "The Sims" was the puddle the Sims would leave behind if they did not reach the toilet in time. "I made a very realistic puddle of brown and yellow material. It was disgusting, complete with chunks and somewhat transparent on the floor," he said.

His work was not well received by a committee at Electronic Arts. "They were outraged. One of the quotes was, 'What the heck is going on with this game, all they do is eat shit.'," London said.

Development of the game went ahead without toilets and bladder or bowel movements. When such functions were added later, all the Sims produced was a blue liquid, taken from the example of TV commercials where blue liquid is often used to demonstrate the absorbency of diapers. "That is why, to this day, Sims pee blue," London said.

After the storm of the acquisition settled, "The Sims" team in late 1998 moved in with the rest of Maxis in Walnut Creek, California. Several other people were added, expanding the crew to about a dozen people, all with various backgrounds and ranging in age between 25 and 40.

Development of "The Sims" moved ahead more rapidly. The team transitioned from research and development into a product development effort. The game was created out of many small contributions from the people working on it. Some parts were even developed by accident: the scrap book, for example.

"We had developed the scrap book as a debugging tool. We wanted a way in the game to take pictures and show those to each other. Almost immediately we realized that this was a fun toy and it ended up being one of the features in "The Sims" that helped our player community band together," London said.

Wright continued to work on the game and was an inspiration to the others. He brought a sense of playfulness to the work floor. At meetings, Wright would take whatever office supplies were in the room and craft together some apparatus. Also, he held regular "stupid toy days," where he would go around with a bag and let team members pull out a silly toy.

Meanwhile Wright also told developers to keep the player in mind while building the game. "The times that we had the most difficulty is when we fell in love with our own designs and were trying to tell our own stories, instead of focusing on the player's ability," London said.

After seven years of work, Electronic Arts in February 2000 released "The Sims." The first in series of expansion packs, "Livin' Large," followed in August of that year. Development of "The Sims 2" had already started.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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