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The Game Archaeologist and the Legend of the Sims: Our memories


Last week marked the beginning of a brief foray into the world of The Sims Online -- "brief" because the title is defunct (meaning no hands-on experiences to share these days) and I doubt that any of the game's creators are itching to reminisce about this lackluster entry into The Sims franchise. So chances are that today marks the end of our expedition, but we'll put our chins up and try to do it justice.

Recently in the Massively office, a few of us spent a bit of time chewing the fat about The Sims Online. It's hard to imagine, but when the beta came out for this title, it was actually pretty hot stuff. The Sims had that crack-like addictive quality to it, and a lot of people -- myself included -- thought that the online version would make it exponentially better. Instead of every copy of The Sims being a little island unto itself, now we could connect and build in ways that were limited only by our imaginations.

Oh, and also questionable developer decisions.

The thrill of sitting, the agony of standing back up

Odd as it is to say, The Sims Online was my first MMO beta, a dubious honor to be sure. I've actually grown repelled by MMO betas as the years progress -- what joy there is in being the first to see the content and get a little free gameplay is almost never worth the painful bugs, the constant character wipes and the elimination of Day One "newness" to me. Still, back in 2002 I was pretty geeked to get a TSO beta disc, and eagerly leaped into the community.

As we saw last week, whatever novelty TSO had quickly evaporated due to the repetitive skill leveling and lack of meaningful jobs. There literally was no fun to be had, as everyone spent gobs of time watching their avatar remain in one place, going through animation loops as a small skill bar filled. Really, the most exciting moment came when one of your status bars (such as hunger or fun or social) dipped too low and you had to head to a different part of the house to "green up" as it was called. A full set of green bars meant that you could devote a good chunk of time to either skill training or working, so I guess it wasn't anything to celebrate.

What bothered me the most was that the best part of The Sims was seeing what your virtual creations would do when left to their own methods -- and The Sims Online had none of that. Sure, you could prompt them to do things, but they always had some measure of free will that would struggle to exert itself, even if it wasn't most beneficial for the character. The Sims was a little fishbowl of people milling about, doing their own thing, with you occasionally sprinkling food flakes and placing down a new castle for them to explore.

It was a crucial miscalculation on EA's part to eliminate that free will from all of TSO's avatars, forcing us to take control for every mundane task. If you enjoyed roleplaying, then sure, I could see you having fun walking around a house and clapping with glee at a new radio or plant -- but that's a vast difference from seeing computer characters do it on their own.

Once everyone more or less came to this realization, there was a subtle rebellion in the game as players tried to come up with alternative activities that were certainly outside of the developers' vision. While it would've made a great sandbox game, TSO really wasn't, because it lacked the tools to let players do anything other than create homes and perform a small set of tasks within them. Even so, enterprising players whipped up amusement parks, started organized crime syndicates, and -- yes -- a vast swath of Sims bordellos. It was, as our editor Bree put it, "creepy."

Cybersex has always been one of those frowned-upon and rarely-mentioned aspects of MMOs, mostly because people are either wise enough to keep it on the down low, or take it out of the game altogether. Unfortunately, when you're creating a business in game that revolves around it, it literally pays to broadcast your illicit deeds to the world. About that time, I realized that The Sims Online wasn't heading in any direction I'd want to be a part of, and I quietly uninstalled it shortly after launch.

I know I've bagged on TSO here and last week, and for a good reason, but I have to say that one of the reasons I was so disappointed with the game was that it could've actually worked in another life. You could see that people loved the idea of creating their own online home (it really was the ultimate player housing), and people did try their hardest to have fun and be creative with what they were given. It's just that they were forced to game with one hand tied behind their back as the industry marched on, and better social worlds like Second Life made The Sims Online obsolete.

A second opinion

Blogger Stephanie Morrow (aka Stargrace of was kind enough to write in and share her experiences from TSO back in the day:

"Being an avid
Sims fan, to say I was excited about The Sims Online would be an understatement. I was not exactly a hardcore gamer and had barely just learned what an MMO was, and so of course I dove head first into the game when it came out taking a break from the MUD that I was playing (Redemption being my main game of choice).

The Sims Online was pretty boring, I'll be honest. It was a lot of skill grinding, and arranging for parties of skill grinding. The great part (for me at least) came from what players did with the resources available. There were online radio stations hosted by numerous players, with in-game promotions to try to earn listeners. I happened to come across one such station that was looking for online DJs, and as luck would have it, my application was accepted. I trained with the program used (I have no idea what program it was now, but it was amazing, giving you all the basics of a real station like the ability to take requests and play commecials) and I went by the DJ name "April Love". I had a morning show 6 days a week from 5-7am EST and had on average 100-500 listeners.

I'd log into game, announce where I was, and broadcast the show 'live' on location. Over time other places in
Sims Online would request the DJs come to their location for an hour or so, and we gained a lot more listeners. It was better than listening to the drab music play in game, and it was entertaining (or at least I thought so). We would also accept requests to play commercials during our shows ("Come on out to Chubby's Crab Shack! The best skills for learning are here!") and so on.

I 'met' a lot of awesome people through my little 'job' as an online radio DJ, and got over a lot of my shyness of public speaking. I learned that I actually enjoyed talking to others a great deal, and after doing online DJing for a few months I even decided I was (gasp) good at it. It's something that I remember in great detail even to this day, despite the fact that I barely played the
Sims Online for more then two months before deciding I just didn't have the patience for it any more.

I love the fact that a game doesn't have to be 'great' for you to enjoy it. It really is the people who make it worthy. At least for me."

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