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The Sims - Part 2: Intimidating freedom, and how to avoid it

The producer of a Sims game presents the second part of an analysis of the Sims series. This time it's about what's so fun about the Sims, and how videogames can be fun without being challenging. Part 2 of 2!

Following the first half of this article series, this post is about “fun” in the Sims franchise, and how the game makes the experience fun from a more game mechanical perspective.

There aren’t a lot of nuts and bolts to it, so take off the game design labcoat, put on some slacks (or even a bathing robe), and get reaaal comfortable. Since this is a part 2, let’s skip the formalities, and jump right to a very big question.

What causes fun in videogames? It’s a deceptively simple question, but different folks require different strokes, and it’s not all about challenging game mechanics. I find this a very interesting area to study, so I’ll allow myself to go off on a tangent and list some examples of things that can make a game fun:

  • Overcoming physical challenges, such as pressing buttons with precise timing.
  • Overcoming mental challenges, such as solving a puzzles.
  • Aesthetic impressions coming from audio, graphics and the interplay of features. This can stem from a technical fascination (this tree is so realistic!), an aesthetic fascination (this tree is so beautiful!) or a reflective fascination (this tree has such deep meaning!), a combinations of these, or yet other sources.
  • Excitement, investment and fascination with a game’s story and plot (yes, those are different things), characters, mythology, and interplays between those elements. Interacting with the story (ie. roleplaying) can also be a source of fun.
  • Social interplay, like besting a friend at a game, developing solutions to a problem together, or simply observing the behaviour of other players.
  • The feeling of reward, which is in a sense separate from overcoming challenges. Reward can be given when there is no real challenge involed, like clicking an object in Farmville, or unlocking a hidden achievement.
  • Reflecting on the game’s design (in broad terms) as a form of art.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it does go to show that games can be fun in many other ways than simply overcoming challenges – although that is certainly one of the defining aspects of games.

 

The interesting thing here is that the Sims doesn’t really have a lot of challenge, but it’s still fun. Having said that, I proceed to characterize the Sims (for the purposes of this article) as “an interactive environment which affords a multitude of activities, but retains a high degree of freedom”. By freedom, I mean that the progress of the game is driven by player choices, not designed choices – and this is actually deceptively hard to pull off. This means no linear quest structure, and no increasing in challenge difficulty… so how would we go about that?

The Sims focuses on “wishes” to be fulfilled, rather than quests. These are semi-randomly selected, and thus do not have a linear, rigid progression. They are also optional and not inter-dependant. In short, they are “goal suggestions”.
Another way the player is given freedom is by allowing for many different actions, and many different paths to pursue.
Finally, the game is very rewarding, and there are not a lot of punishments. The player is encouraged to just “do stuff”, because pretty much any action in the Sims universe has meaning and value. Like in my previous article, I’ll divide areas of interest into points, for easier overview. Without further ado:

The Sims always offers interesting actions, spanning many tastes and goals. This is actually quite a mouthful.
By taste, I mean “what the player finds entertaining”, in other words something which is very difficult to define or capture in words. The player might enjoy playing (with) an artistic sim, who has no money, no family, and only a few friends, living in a grey, run-down apartment. Another player might enjoy spreading mischief all across the neighborhood, or starting a family. There are so many different things that could be interesting to explore for a player – which is exactly why the Sims franchise has focused so much on the breadth of the experience (releasing expansion packs with content rather than new mechanics) rather than the depth (introducing more and more complex systems).
An interesting choice here is that the Sims usually deals in the very mundane – day-to-day activities that we all know about. This means that the player will feel right at home in the game, and intuitively know more or less what you can expect to be possible within the game universe. However, as many have quickly pointed out, where is the fun in that?

An apt response to a mundane but unusual situation


There are two points to be made here. For one, the Sims allows the player to act in the mundane setting, but in unusual ways. For instance, you can burn down your house by preparing dinner. Or you can slap your neighbor in the face, and make out with their spouse. The player can explore mundane scenarios that are morally reprehensible, have big consequences or are just plain unlikely in the real world. The contrast between real world and game world is all the greater, because we know what the real world is like, and the Sim world resembles it – if we laserblast someone in the face in a sci-fi setting, we can’t really compare the real world with the game world, because it doesn’t resemble our world anyway. That can be interesting in its own right, but for different reasons, I would argue.
Secondly, the Sims does actually go beyond the mundane. There are ghosts, weird inventions, whacky jobs… you can even have ghost children, if a living sim gets it on with a ghost!

Getting back to the line in bold, by “goals” I am partially referring to the “taste” of the player. It’s a highly subjective form of goal. What I’m alluding to is that the player will very likely start to develop their own goals like “I want to be the most famous sim of all time!” or something like that. This is actually a large part of the game, so let’s go to…

The game offers multiple goals and paths in parallel. This is important because it offers alternatives for players with different levels of motivation, experience and time on their hands. I don’t know if the following was an explicit design philosophy during the development of the Sims for PC, but it might very well be: There should always be a short term, medium term and long term goal available to the player. Those three terms could definitely be sexier, but let me try to flesh it out a bit:

A short term goal might be something simple like fulfilling this sim need so it’s no longer hungry, or taking care of one of the little things that pop up. Maybe a friendship is waning a little since your sim is not keeping in touch? That’s fixable within 5-10 minutes. Great for the player who doesn’t really know what to do, or is just stopping in for a quick session, ie. new or casual players.

A medium term goal might be something like getting a certain job, exploring a certain area, having a child, saving up for a new room in the house, or something along those lines. The player knows they want something, which probably relates to the character that they are developing mentally, and it’s the kind of goal that is attainable within a comfortable timeframe. You can see the reward already when you start working towards it, so it’s not off-putting to players that have invested a little time in the game already. It might keep a player busy for an hour or so.

Long term goals are where the game really opens up. This can span multiple playsessions, and usually relates to exploring a certain mechanic or piece of content (what happens when I max out my job level in this career?), or a big development for a character, even an entire lifetime for a sim. To take something like this on, you need to know that it’s possible, and at least have an idea about how to go about it… and it’s a monumental task, which may seem a little intimidating, but will leave you with great satisfaction when you reach your goal. Here is where the experienced, dedicated player will find hours and hours of gameplay.

Getting a ghost husband takes time and dedication!

The Sims offers tons of goals to undertake and content to explore. Except – where most games have “replayability”, going through the game again with different choices, the Sims does all of this in parallel.
This open-endedness can put off players that are not very invested in the game already, or it can feel overwhelming to players who don’t have a clear idea of how exactly to reach such goals. The neat thing though, is that there is no requirement to ever go these big lengths – you might never get there because it doesn’t interest you, or you might simply arrive there “by accident”. It kind of lures the casual player into a very open-ended, free kind of game, that might otherwise be intimidating to a casual player. The focus of the game is also very casual in some other key respects:

The game focuses on reward rather than punishment, and how you can succeed rather than how you can fail. First of all, the Sims doesn’t have any lose conditions. It’s possible for all your sims to die, but extremely unlikely unless you help them along. If you ignore their needs you will simply lose control over them, which in itself can be entertaining. On the other hand, there are rewards for pretty much anything in the game – working, hobbying, socializing, or really just mucking about. It’s not all “xp” or something generic like that either – you develop relationships, get money, items, job levels, skills, and just plain funny reactions. Humor is a big part of this too! Whether it be a frowny face, suggestive pose or uncontrolled laughter, even events that might be considered “failure” are funny, so you still get a good experience out of it.

The game kind of highlights paths for you – but doesn’t force you down them. For instance, cooking a meal will increase your cooking level. You don’t have to become a master chef because of that, but you are made aware that this is a possibility for your character. And just as importantly, the game tries to surprise you with depth, instead of limiting you before you’ve reached your potential.
For instance, if your house (or any house) is on fire, a firefighter appears to put out the fire. What’s even cooler is that this is a sim you can interact with, chat up, romance with and ultimately have simsex with and / or marry. Pretty cool. But what’s even cooler is that a child with a firefighter as a parent may develop the “pyromaniac” trait, and take pleasure in burning stuff – resulting in a new, hidden trait being circulated in your particular genetic strain of sims. How cool is that?

 

I don’t want to go on forever about this, so I’ll wrap up here. The main points that I wanted to get across are that the Sims is not fun in a challenging way, and that the game gives the player a lot of freedom (which can be intimidating to new players), but structures this freedom in such a way that it becomes easy to handle, without forcing the player’s hand. Consider how inelegant MMORPG’s often handle this, giving the illusion of freedom (you can go anywhere you want!) but constraining the player severely at the same time (…except in areas above your level!). Of course, games like that face some very different design challenges, being multiplayer and competitive (not to mention subscription-paid!), but I still think the Sims approach is food for thought, and is far from limited to a casual, non-competitive design model.

Thanks for sticking it out. As usual it got pretty long. This concludes my miniseries on the Sims! I hope you enjoyed it, and who knows? Someone might even find it useful! 'Till next time.

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