The Sims 3: EA Maxis' Ben Bell Interview

Huge interview with the executive producer of The Sims 3 at EA Maxis, Ben Bell.

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We're going to come right out and admit that we haven't got a lot of time for The Sims. It's a franchise we've long admired from a distance, but not one whose brightly-coloured, mass-market waters we've ever felt compelled to dip our callused toes in. Attractive as the idea of creating, clothing and nurturing a household of highly complex AI personalities undoubtedly is, in practice it's all a bit slow-burn for our adrenaline junkie tastes - after a long day at the "office" we'd rather just shoot Helghast, set fire to sword-wielding Imperials and chainsaw the Locust. Takes all sorts, etc.

Kikizo's mild apathy notwithstanding, The Sims games have done rather well for themselves over the years. In fact, we're not sure any franchise has done better. From its inaugural isometric appearance in 2000 through numerous expansion packs to the fully 3D trappings of The Sims 2, Emery, California-based Maxis' definitive simulation has clocked up over 100 million unit sales worldwide, making it by far the most successful PC series ever made. Proud publishing parent EA gave The Sims its own internal label (recently merged with the company's Casual division) as tribute last year.

Such accomplishments command respect, and when we were invited to interview Ben Bell, Executive Producer of The Sims 3, there was nothing for it but to gird our pop culture loins, get a trendier hair-cut and sidle on down to the swanky apartment EA had booked for that purpose, caps very firmly in hand. Read on for details of what Maxis learned from its muddled attempt at a Sims MMO, free launch-day perks and what it would be like to live next to Tony Soprano.

Kikizo: What for you really separates The Sims 3 from previous games in the series?

Bell: So in the Sims 3 like in previous games, you create a family of Sims, and you control those Sims one at a time. Really the first thing you'll notice when you play Sims 3 is that the game takes place in this seamless, living neighbourhood, whereas in the past if you wanted to play at home you could do that - the game was really good at simulating domestic life, giving you complete control of that - but if you wanted to go somewhere, you had to hit a loading screen.

In The Sims 3 you can just pop out to [town view] and go somewhere else, or you have complete control to move you camera throughout the town, and look at anything you want, any time. So you just have incredible freedom. And what that does is it opens up this whole other half of life that was missing before. So what would happen if your Sims could enjoy life outside, hang out in the park, go to the beach - things would be totally different for them.

Kikizo: And the Sims themselves have "needs", "traits" and life goals as before?

Yes, take the characters I have in my household, for example. I've got Styles who is kind of like a trippy guitar-playing guy; Emma, who's the emo rocker girl; Blair is the goodie two-shoes know-it-all; and Tamara is the flirtatious, out-going girl in the family. Ever Sim has a unique personality that you create by combining traits when you create them.

The game really starts when you create your Sim. So you choose these personality traits - so Tamara, she's "Friendly", Blair is" Inappropriate" and he's a "Genius", and Styles loves the outdoors, he's a "Loner", and he's very frugal. The characters are very, very different unique people, and depending on the traits you choose for them, they're going to play differently, and they're going to have different goals in life.

So, for example, Cyclone... had gotten a little too heavy when I was playing with him, because I kept having him eat too much, so I sent him to the gym to work off the pounds. He's a nerdier character - his "Lifetime Wish" is to become a Grand Chessmaster, whereas his room-mate Styles has a very different Lifetime Wish, which is to be swimming in cash.

Kikizo: Can you choose a Lifetime Wish at the start?

Bell: You can. When you create your Sim, depending on the traits you've chosen, a set of different Wishes will be available. You can change your traits and get different Wishes. You get one, and then you can change that later on or when you achieve it you can then pick a new one. So the characters are very different in terms of their traits and also in terms of what they want in life.

Kikizo: You have two traits to start with, right?

Bell: You have two traits, yes, and then as you develop you can take on more traits, and it depends on how good a job you do developing... If you're a good parent, you get to pick your traits, if you're a bad parent the traits get applied, and they're generally something you wouldn't necessarily want... So there's definitely some strategic gameplay there.

Kikizo: And we're right in thinking that all these different relationships across the map - both those of your Sims and those of the townsfolk - are taking place in real-time?

Bell: Yes. You can see everybody else who lives in this town going about their life. So when you first start the game with your family, the other households in the town are filled with people, and over time as your Sims change and grow older, they'll also change and grow older. Everyone will go through the motions of life.

Every Sim in the town has their own AI that's as deep as your own characters. So they'll go out and act according to their traits, they'll get married, have kids, grow old, die, new Sims will move in... So the town is just constantly reinventing itself. The other thing you can do if you want to is take your own characters and place them in the town, and reshape it the way you want.

So you could take the cast of your favourite TV show or of your favourite book, and if you want to test out what their characters are like, you can sort of put them in here, design their personalities, and play with your ideas that way.

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