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How The Sims navigated 20 years of change to become one of the most successful franchises ever

(The Washington Post illustration; Electronic Arts)

If you could be anyone, who would you be? For two decades, the Sims franchise has answered this timeless question for hundreds of millions of players.

Every time you boot up The Sims, it’s akin to conducting a social experiment on virtual beings. You can build a character and a home from the ground up, form connections and shape generations. Or, you can burn it all down and wreak havoc.

It’s a flexible form of play that has remained immensely popular for 20 years, despite a rapidly changing video game landscape. Through its four mainline games and expansions, the franchise recently hit 200 million copies sold on PC. Today, The Sims 4 has reached 20 million unique players worldwide.

Developer Maxis and its publisher Electronic Arts (EA) made a franchise that stands the test of time. In our conversations with The Sims team, we were told the inside story of how the series evolved through innovation and inclusion and how it’s grown as a community-driven experience. Looking back on its 20th anniversary, that endurance appears to be less about what they did and more about how they did it.

The soul of The Sims

Inspiration for The Sims came to creator Will Wright after his home burned down in the Oakland firestorm of 1991. Wright became fixated with humanity’s affinity toward material things and whether happiness can be bought.

His studio, Maxis, had released SimCity to critical success in 1989, and he wanted to pivot that concept into something new but familiar. In 1997, Maxis was acquired by EA, giving the team funding for another project. Instead of managing an entire metropolis, the team wondered about controlling a singular neighborhood or building.

Mike Duke, senior producer of The Sims 4, has been working on the series for 13½ years. Although he wasn’t employed by Maxis at the time of its acquisition, he’s heard stories of its tumultuous beginnings from colleagues.

“I’ve definitely heard rumors of, ‘The Sims was a game that was canceled and resurrected or, you know, often questioned,’” Duke said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I think developing anything new, especially if it’s not [replicating] something else that’s already successful, there’s inherent risk. And it’s one of the hardest parts of innovation.”

“They certainly had no way to foresee its success,” Lyndsay Pearson, executive producer and general manager of The Sims said. “And while it was certainly against the grain of games at the time, the credit of overcoming those doubts goes to the early dev team and the support from EA to bring it to life.”

Soon, what began as an architectural simulator morphed into an ambitious game focused on domestic life.

“I think one of the things the team realized early on was, you can’t really evaluate how good your space is until you put people in it,” Duke said. “They added these Sims just to help validate if you succeeded or failed with this architectural tool. And I think they quickly latched on to the fact that you start to care for those little buddies.”

In the year 2000, when The Sims came out, the PC gaming market was filled with action games. Diablo II had just released and Half-Life mod-turned-game Counter-Strike would change first-person shooters for years to come. In a period when emphasis was placed on action-heavy gameplay, how did a game like The Sims kick off one of the most successful PC franchises of all time and remain wildly popular?

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“The Sims has always been a game where players can play with life,” Pearson said. “While the settings and themes evolve, at the core this need is still there. The need to explore, experiment, build a life and create — those activities resonate regardless of generation.”

According to vice president and general manager of Maxis Joe Nickolls, what helped The Sims stand out was its “soul.”

“The Sims always had this really kind of hilarious underside of humor, a little bit off and a little bit dark sometimes,” he said.

The Sims’s malleable fiction gives players a blueprint to form their own emergent stories. Sims speak in a gibberish language called Simlish (an idea the developers stumbled upon during voice recording sessions) and there’s a goofy tone to the series with random occurrences of alien abductions, supernatural phenomena, visits from a sociable Grim Reaper, among others.

There’s a darker side, too, with death looming in swimming pools or from something as innocuous as cooking a grilled cheese sandwich. Death could be comical, like being eaten by a cowplant (which is literally a cow-plant-hybrid that lures unsuspecting Sims into its chomps) or cursed by a mummy. You watch Sims react to absurd situations without fear of repercussion.

Nickolls compares The Sims — favorably — to 1950s toy chemistry sets, which were sold with hazardous chemicals included.

“No one actually thought [kids] would a) kill themselves or b) blow themselves up,” Nickolls said, laughing. “But they used to sell these. And you could do whatever you wanted with those things; sometimes in peril. But in The Sims, you can do all the things that you want to do and not get hurt doing it.”

Managing the demands of millions

The Sims 4 community is vocal, and at times, demanding. Thousands are active in Sims-specific subreddits and forums, along with an online library called the Gallery that lets users share or download custom content. (It has over 40 million player uploads.) Sims fans have one thing in common: They’re hungry for more.

“We recently ran a community survey where we asked about future gameplay features, and we let [fans] tell us how much they wanted them,” Duke said. “The reality is, they wanted everything we said.”

Many users have taken to making things themselves. One group of women modded new skin tones, hair and other custom items that better suited black female Sims. Custom content has been added since the original, and the wealth of content and creators has grown tenfold since, as creative tools improved.

“This network of everything from custom content, mods and community-created challenges helps to keep the game fresh time and time again,” Pearson said.

According to Duke, the Sims team always wants “everything under the sun” to be included — even the pools and toddlers that the team didn’t have time to implement at the Sims 4 launch — but that’s not always possible. By the end of a meeting about a future game pack, whiteboards are filled with ambitious ideas.

This ambition can be traced back as far as the first game. When it released, The Sims was ahead of the curve. Although PC expansion packs weren’t new — franchises like Diablo and Age of Empires sold them, too — The Sims took it to another level. Instead of just one or two expansions, the first Sims game had a whopping seven released in the span of three years.

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Concepts like introducing pets, nightlife, exotic getaways and so on are often repeated and reconstructed in subsequent games, but every once in a while, Maxis and EA take a risk.

For the first time, at least in the mainline series, Strangerville introduced a linear story line. For a game that puts player freedom at the forefront, this felt limiting to some. According to Duke, it performed “middle of the road,” but managed to bring in a different audience because of its narrative focus.

The expansion pack business model continues throughout the franchise’s existence, with new content keeping the series alive and giving it a longevity few game franchises achieve. But such consistent production can be a recipe for disaster, as we’ve seen with other studios like Rockstar and, more recently, CD Projekt Red, which stated that crunch isn’t avoidable after the delay of Cyberpunk 2077.

In the past, EA has been in the spotlight for poor working conditions. In 2004, the publisher was hit with a class-action suit after employees allegedly worked 100-hour weeks without proper compensation. A settlement of $15.6 million was reached between parties a year later, but it left a stain on EA’s reputation. Internally, it was a wake-up call.

“We were one of the first companies called out and it also meant we were one of the first companies that really actively tried to figure out how we change,” Duke said. “I think during my career here, we’ve made some really awesome strides in terms of how often it used to happen versus where we are now, which is pretty cool.”

Today, the entire Sims series has over 75 post-launch packs. With such consistent content drops, how do EA and Maxis stave off crunch? According to Duke, careful workflow patterns that put people first — he told The Post that work-life balance is a priority for the Sims team — helps make that possible.

“I believe very strongly in the idea that you can build great stuff without ever needing to crunch. And the key to that is really good planning and foresight,” Duke said.

Advocating for diversity

Lauded as a game of self-expression, The Sims has long been LGBTQ-friendly. Same-sex relationships were possible from the start, and in The Sims 3, gay Sims could marry — a feature added years before same-sex marriage legislation passed anywhere in the United States.

“We constantly question each other about how to make our features or designs more broad, more inclusive,” Pearson said. “We challenge ourselves to learn about cultures besides our own.”

In 2016, Maxis and EA expanded gender limitations, letting players create characters that don’t have a fixed gender and choosing whether they can reproduce. The 2019 Island Living expansion introduced the series’ first premade non-binary character.

Despite the more conscious effort nowadays, LGBTQ representation in The Sims started with a mistake. During the original game’s development, same-sex relationships were added by accident because of a mix-up with old design documents, according to a report by the New Yorker. When two female Sims unexpectedly kissed during an E3 presentation in 1999, the development team decided to keep it in.

Maxis and EA say they’ve taken great care in making a welcoming environment for people of different backgrounds and genders. In turn, this helps build a game that stays relevant to real-world societal shifts and cultures. Last year, for example, hijabs and kufi caps were added to The Sims 4. Maxis has also added content geared toward Caribbean culture, as well as celebrations like Diwali and Day of the Dead.

This diversity is also represented by the Maxis workforce. Nickolls notes that within Maxis, “nearly half” of his leadership team is made up of women. Laura Miele, EA’s chief studios officer, also notes that gender representation has improved within The Sims studios.

Pearson said The Sims “could not be what it is today” if it wasn’t for EA and Maxis “constantly striving” to broaden their perspectives as a team. “That means we need voices from women, people who grew up all over the world and voices of underrepresented groups,” she said.

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In 2019, EA partnered with the LGBTQ nonprofit It Gets Better Project, bringing Pride-themed clothing and flags and options for building gender-neutral bathrooms in-game. And while having a wide range of backgrounds, ethnicities and orientations within EA and Maxis helps bolster its games to be more inclusive, Miele says it also provides a healthier work environment.

“I think [having a diverse team] influences the process and influences how this team works,” Miele said in a phone interview. “That’s what I’ve observed in how they develop strategy and design and how they approach and think about creativity.”

The Sims team has been creative in reflecting real-life trends too. Sometimes this has been achieved by inviting singers like Lily Allen and Katy Perry to make “Simlish” renditions of their hit songs, so that they can seamlessly fit into the fiction of The Sims. More recently, The Sims 4 riffed off phenomena like Star Wars (adding Baby Yoda as a statue in December, for example) and added a pack centered on tiny houses.

“I think that Sims provides an incredible canvas for us to tap into all kinds of relevant trends, whether it be music, fashion, design and architecture, or in TV and media,” Miele said. “And we are going to continue to do more of that. That is the direction we’re headed.”

The future of The Sims

Will there be a Sims 5? Miele told The Post that EA is “having conversations about the next generation” and what that will look like. One of the priorities going forward is giving the franchise an even wider reach.

“We are thinking about how modern media is consumed today, and the significant disruptions we’ve seen in media in the last three to five years, whether it be TV media, movie media, music media,” Miele said. “We’re thinking about similar opportunities to bring content to more people in more places on the most platforms as possible.”

In a financial call in late January, EA CEO Andrew Wilson spoke of plans for the next generation of Sims “across platforms in a cloud-enabled world” and compared the concept of “social interaction and competition” to the late Sims Online.

“We certainly see interactive entertainment going to a place of streaming and being in a place where cross-platform play becomes a priority,” Miele said. “I certainly perceive The Sims to be incredibly accessible, very global.”

When asked whether we’d one day see a “definitive” version of The Sims that is continuously updated rather than one installment after the next, Miele said that it’s something she and her team have “thought deeply about.”

Is there an end in sight? While Duke doesn’t want The Sims 5 to arrive “any time soon,” he said the series will continue to grow and evolve for years, maybe even decades, to come.

“It’s a game about life, and we all have an amazing abundance of experiences and stories we want to tell,” Duke said. “How are we ever going to finish The Sims? I don’t think we will.”

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