How Reinventing a Franchise Works - A Sims 4 and EQNext Case Study
I’d like to say that my interest in The Sims 4 is purely academic. I’m doing research about how to reinvent a beloved gaming franchise, since the game that I cover in-depth for EQHammer—EverQuest Next—happens to also be reinventing itself. After all, the Sims has been around almost as long as EverQuest—it launched in 2000 while EQ launched in 1999. It is also beloved by many avid fans. The Sims (and the entire Sim franchise, which kicked off with Sim City in 1989) is to simulation games as EQ is to MMOs. And The Sims 4 doesn’t just upgrade The Sims, it pretty much stands it on its ear. EQNext will do the same for the EQ franchise.
So, I waited impatiently last night for the midnight Eastern launch of The Sims 4 (11 PM in my time zone.) I had preordered the Digital Deluxe Edition (I spare no expense in the name of research), and pre-downloaded it, so all I had to do was wait for the countdown timer that’s been sitting on my desktop for the past few days to register zero. At that time, I was able to undertake my studies, and I played until 4 AM because I needed to dedicate some serious time in order to write this article, and...
You’re not buying any of this, are you?
Okay, okay, so I cheated on Landmark and SOE with a game made by Maxis and published by (yes, the name makes me shudder, too)... EA. I went off the reservation and played a game that isn’t even remotely an MMO. (Cue my coworker Kevin’s merciless taunting in 3... 2... 1.... ) But seriously, what did you expect? I’ve been manipulating the lives of little pixel people (and occasionally offing them in really creative ways) for nearly 15 years. I was nostalgic! Is that so wrong?
While I was waiting for launch, I may have made Benedict Cumberbatch in the Create-a-Sim Demo.
What Reinventing Means
This might redeem me just a little bit, lest I come off as an unabashed fangirl or, worse, an EA apologist. (Forget the fact that I own nearly every Sims expansion ever made. Shhh! You heard nothing.) Although I stumble into the temple of the Cult of the Sims every now and then to worship, I’m not a full-time resident of the commune. I wasn’t actually following the game that closely, although I do admit to having watched a number of promotional videos and to downloading the (free) Create-a-Sim Demo when it released prior to the game’s launch. I only vaguely caught wind of the furor that surrounded the changes Maxis made in The Sims 4. From what I gathered, there was some community drama about TS4 eliminating two things that have come standard with every previous Sims game—pools and toddlers.
I’ll admit, I was confused myself as to why TS4 would leave out pools. I mean, how the hell am I going to drown— er, I mean, exercise my Sims without pools? And skipping a life stage so that my infant Sims would grow directly from infant to child seemed a bit odd, too. (I don’t actually mind it, though, because toddlers are annoying. There, I said it.) I figured the change was due to EA being EA—they were withholding toddlers and pools in order to release them in an expansion pack or two. (The Sims 4: Family Ties and The Sims 4: Splashy Splashy, perhaps). It seemed like a cheap move.
But now I see that’s not the case. Toddlers and pools may well be added with an expansion pack later, but they weren’t withheld for nefarious reasons. When it comes to game development, I’ve learned from watching Sony Online Entertainment (EQ’s developers and publishers) at work that sometimes the most legitimate answer to, “Why didn’t you do this thing we fans wanted?” is “Because it’s really difficult,” and occasionally, “Because we changed everything, and now it’s unnecessary.” Of Landmark (EQNext’s predecessor and idea-factory), I’ve heard Dave Georgeson, Director of Development for the EverQuest franchise, say, “Just trust us. It will all make sense once you get your hands on it.” And I’ve learned that, by and large, he’s been right.
I’m not denying that EA is innately evil when it comes to milking money out of The Sims franchise. I think that’s a given. But in this case, I believe Maxis had the game’s best interests at heart when they made the omission. There simply wasn’t time to build entirely new systems for The Sims 4 and include certain functionality. Some things had to go. Rachel Franklin explained it on the official Sims 4 site like this:
The fact is, we owe you a clearer explanation for why pools and toddlers will not be in The Sims 4 at launch, so here goes. It begins with new technology and systems that we built for this new base game for The Sims – a new AI system, new animation system, new audio positioning tools, new locomotion logic, new routing intelligence and much more are all entirely new in this game. The vision for The Sims 4 is a new experience that brings your Sims to life in deeper and uniquely personal ways – through emotions, personality traits, behaviors and interactions. To do that, our technology base needed a major upgrade.
So the bottom line is that when we sat down and looked at everything we wanted to do for this game, all the new tech we wanted to build into it, the fact was that there would be trade-offs, and these would disappoint some of our fans. Hard pill to swallow, believe me, but delivering on the vision set out for The Sims 4 required focus. Focus on revolutionizing the Sims themselves. So, rather than include toddlers, we chose to go deeper on the features that make Sims come alive: meaningful and often amusing emotions; more believable motion and interactions; more tools in Create A Sim, and more realistic (and sometimes weird!) Sim behavior. Instead of pools, we chose to develop key new features in Build Mode: direct manipulation, building a house room-by-room and being able to exchange your custom rooms easily, to make the immediate environment even more relatable and interactive for your Sim.
The Play Test
So, the big question for The Sims—or for any gaming franchise that reinvents itself and changes or loses important elements of the core game in the process—is this: is it still fun? Does it hold up in a play test? When a developer says, “Wait and see—it will all make sense,” in response to the ire of its fan community, is that promise ever fulfilled?
Hey, it may be a shotgun shack by the rail yard, but we're happy, okay?
Here’s my bottom line. I’ve played The Sims 4 for... ermnth (that was an incoherent mumble—I’m loathe to give the actual number) hours now, and I have not once said, “Gee, I miss pools!” or “Damnit, why can’t my Sim have an adorable toddler to ignore?” I don’t miss them simply because the game is so different, and in mostly great ways, that it never occurred to me to mind that they were gone. There are a huge number of improvements to the basic functionality of the game, so I’m more blown away by what’s new and what works than sad about what’s lacking.
This isn’t a review of The Sims 4 by any stretch, so I won’t get into the mechanics of the gameplay. What’s interesting to me, though, is that a game as big as The Sims can succeed at making everything new again. The latest iteration of The Sims retained all the nostalgic familiarity of the franchise while dusting off and reworking the archaic functionality from the ground up. My initial response is a resounding, “Huzzah!”
Reinventing a franchise isn’t easy. There will always be fans who accuse developers of doing bad things to their beloved game in the name of progress. But for my money, the real evil would be to stay stagnant and continue selling a polished and repackaged version of the same 15-year-old game. The Sims franchise, at least this time, has not done that. And neither will the EQ franchise with EverQuest Next. I say, bring it on.