Every gamer who was alive at the turn of the millennium has either played, or at the very least heard about The Sims games, which let players create virtual people and boss them around their own houses. Moreover, the houses themselves could be customized in almost every imaginable way, adding an artistic value to the games.
With over 200 million copies sold across all platforms, The Sims is one of the most popular series in history, redefining what's a game and who is a gamer.
Alongside four main entries in the series and many spin-off games, the series has become infamous for its world-record number of expansion packs, when those were still sold as physical copies.
Yet, videos featuring the endless possibilities offered by the games and their expansions have gained millions of views on YouTube, a phenomenon that even became a reality show.
Prologue: A City Without Sims
The city whose suburbs are home to the Sims predated The Sims games by more than a decade. SimCity was developed for several years under game designer Will Wright, then published by Maxis and Broderbund in 1989. The game let players assign residential, industrial and commercial zones in a map, construct buildings such as power plants, fire depots and airports, and watch the city grow. It even included real-life natural disasters such as floods, tornadoes and monster attacks.
Without SimCity, neither Sims nor The Sims would exist.
The game wasn't expected to become a success as its main game mode lacked any preset goals, which was unheard of in popular genres from the era, such as platform, shooting or adventure games. Yet, by 1992 it had sold 1 million copies and had several spin-off games where the players could control the development of a planet, an ecosystem, or even an ant colony.
SimCity 2000 was released in 1993, and sold even more copies than its predecessor. The first game that actually showed Sims was the smaller-scale SimTown, released in 1995 and aimed toward kids. Spin-off games continued to follow, like SimCopter, released in 1996, it was the first game to display Simlish: the language of the Sims.
Electronic Arts purchased Maxis in 1997, and under this new direction, EA's board of directors was more open to the idea of The Sims. SimCity 3000 was released in 1999, again selling millions of units and setting the stage for a revolution in gaming.
Chapter I: Early Expansion
While SimCity games didn't include specific goals, they at least provided an intuitive direction as they were based on a real-life job. If Seinfeld was "a show about nothing," then The Sims, released in 2000, was a game about nothing, in the best possible way.
The behavior of the Sims was based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but you still had to tell them to find a job or pay their bills, for example. By reading or exercising, the Sims could improve skills that would gain them promotions at work. With the money they saved, you could buy furniture or renovate the house.
Create-a-Sim has come a long way.
The game took a hybrid approach to graphics: the actual Sims were rendered in 3D for natural-looking movement, but the houses and other static objects were 2D to save system resources. The in-game screen capture tool became a hit on its own, and was used to create image-based stories and even adventure games that were shared over the internet.
The Create-a-Sim mode looks simple compared to more recent games in the series: it only included 2 ages (child and adult), 3 skin colors and 5 personality traits on a 1-10 scale. You could also choose the Sim's zodiac sign, which would set its personality automatically. The Sims did look different thanks to many hairstyle and clothing options.
Babies would be created as a result of "passionate" kissing (yeah, makes sense), and become children after several virtual days. Other than that, Sims didn't age, but they could die (one popular way to do it was to tell them to swim in the pool and then remove the ladder).
In the original game, Sims didn't age, but they could still die.
Same-sex relationships were possible in The Sims from the get go. That option was supposed to be removed from the game, but was returned due to miscommunication among the development team. A live demo during E3 1999 included an unplanned lesbian kiss, which became the hot gossip of the expo. Sims weren't created with a sexual orientation, but lost the ability to form romantic relationships with one sex after exclusively doing so with the other sex for a while.
The Sims was the best-selling PC game in 2000 and 2001 in the U.S. with more than 3 million units combined. In early 2002, it became the best-selling PC game in history with over 6 million copies. The reasoning behind these numbers was simple: in a world filled with competitive games that appealed mostly to men, it was estimated that about 40% of The Sims players were women, a number that grew to 60% with succeeding games.
The success of the game gave birth to 7 expansion packs: Livin' Large didn't have a specific theme, but added many new options to the core game. House Party had a more obvious theme, and Drew Carey, then the host of "Whose Line Is it Anyway?" would arrive at your party if it was good enough. Carey must have liked the game, as in one scene of "The Drew Carey Show" the characters speak Simlish, and another was seemingly created within The Sims.
The Drew Carey Show's April Fools' Day episode foreshadowed the trend of creating movies within The Sims.
Hot Date was the best-received expansion pack, with the ability to travel to downtown SimCity and more complex relationships between Sims. Vacation (a.k.a. On Holiday) added another off-house location in the form of "Vacation Island," which included beach, forest and snowy mountain lots.
Unleashed added two types of family members missing from the original game: dogs and cats. Superstar let the Sims travel to "Studio Town" and try to make it, while Makin' Magic introduced charms and spells, including one that turned pets into Sims.
The first attempt to turn The Sims into a multiplayer game came in 2002 with The Sims Online, which was met with mixed reviews claiming that the interaction between different players' Sims didn't contribute much to the game.
Games that were influenced by The Sims but built with online interaction in mind from the ground up were more successful in that regard. The most prominent example of that is Second Life, launched in 2003, even though its developer Linden Lab says it's not a game as it has no set objectives (much like The Sims). In 2013, Second Life had more than 1 million monthly users.
This was the closest thing to The Sims on the Game Boy Advance.
In early 2003, The Sims was released for the PlayStation 2, the original Xbox, and Nintendo GameCube. About a year later, The Sims: Bustin' Out was released for the same consoles, as well as the Game Boy Advance and the forgotten N-Gage phone. The home-console versions offered the objective-based "Bust Out Mode," and the Playstation 2 version also included an online mode.
In the handheld versions, the Sims' movement was controlled directly rather than with a point-and-click system, and the player had to complete tasks to unlock new houses. A sequel, called The Urbz: Sims in the City, took the series in a different direction, but didn't sell as expected and a PC version was never released.
Chapter II: Growing Up
The Sims 2 took better advantage of faster hardware to give The Sims fans the game they had dreamed about for years. The game reached 1 million sold copies within 10 days. It was rendered in full 3D, allowing players to rotate the view or zoom in and out as they wished.
The Create-a-Sim mode was hugely improved, with the ability to customize almost everything about a Sim's face. Skin tones could also be set more specifically. Not less importantly, you could choose a group of life goals for the Sim, called an "aspiration." The Sim's personality would affect not only its behavior, but also its short-term "wants" and "fears." Those additions made the game more appealing to hardcore gamers, who were used to clear goals in games.
The Sims 2 allowed much more control over the Sims' looks.
A Sim could be created at any of 5 ages: toddler, child, teenager, adult or elder. Regardless of which age you chose, the Sim would move up the ages and eventually die. Newborn Sims (this time you'd need a bed to create them) would remain babies for a few days before becoming toddlers, and their mothers would be pregnant for a similar amount of time. The game also introduced a genetics system, so the biological children of Sims would look and act like their parents.
The launch of YouTube in 2005 was the best thing that happened to the game's video capture tool, which was used to create short movies and alternative video clips for famous songs.
This video from 2006 is way better than Avril Lavigne's official clip.
The game received 8 expansion packs. Some of them were similar to those of the original, while others introduced new mechanics: University added "young adult" to the list of ages, while Open for Business included elements of business management games.
Pets was uniquely released as a standalone game for Sony and Nintendo consoles, including the PlayStation Portable, Nintendo DS and Wii, which didn't receive the base game. The DS version even got a sequel called Apartment Pets.
Seasons introduced changing weather and PlantSims: humanoid plants whose only needs were sunlight, water and "love." Apartment Life let the Sims live in apartment buildings with non-playable roommates. In addition, the game got 9 "stuff packs," including ones in collaboration with H&M and IKEA.
MySims was a hit on Nintendo's consoles.
Like the original, The Sims 2 had a console-only, story-based spinoff called Castaway, which was seemingly inspired by "Survivor." The game was available for Sony's and Nintendo's latest consoles, as well as phones with physical keys. The Wii and DS also got the story-based MySims series, with a unique visual design.
In 2007 and 2008, EA released three simplified versions of The Sims 2, meant for younger players or for those with less powerful PCs. Life Stories, Pet Stories and Castaway Stories each included the usual open-ended mode in addition to linear "stories," like the console versions of the original game. In early 2008, EA announced that the Sims series combined had sold more than 100 million copies.
Chapter III: Breaking Boundaries
The most prominent change The Sims 3 introduced in 2009 was the open-world nature of the game: players could view the entire neighborhood at once, and tell their Sims to visit other Sims' houses or public places with no load screens.
Create-a-Sim was improved with the "young adult" age included in the base game. While The Sims 2 only offered two body shapes to choose from, its successor included the ability to change the Sim's weight, muscular mass, and breast size. The old personality system was replaced with the ability to pick five traits out of a long list. In addition, the Sims' clothes and the objects you bought in the game could be customized with a tool called Create-a-Style.
Create-a-Style was a defining aspect of The Sims 3.
The game was released for PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, Nintendo DS and 3DS, and mobile phones. Not surprisingly, it sold even faster than its predecessor with 1.4 million units within the first week.
The game received 11 expansion packs, including some innovative ones: Ambitions let the player control the Sims during work. Supernatural included new Sim types, such as zombies, werewolves and ghosts. Into the Future let the Sims travel in time and meet their descendants. Once again, the game had 9 stuff packs, including one based on Katy Perry's music videos, and the nostalgic '70s, '80s and '90s Stuff.
The Sims: Medieval was released for iOS in 2011, combining a different setting and a story-based gameplay with RPG elements. That same year, the freemium game The Sims Freeplay, which still gets updates, was released for iOS. An Android version followed shortly after.
Chapter IV: Give and Take
Building was easier than ever before with The Sims 4.
The Sims 4 was released for PC in 2014, and it was the most controversial main game in the series. It was criticized for lacking features that were present in The Sims 3, such as open-world gameplay and Create-a-Style, and general lack of content at launch.
On the other hand, the game offered improved (albeit more cartoony) graphics, easy-to-use Create-a-Sim and building modes, the ability to perform certain actions (such as eating and watching TV) in parallel, and the Gallery feature, which could download content made by other users from within the game.
Over time, the game has improved thanks to the Gallery and many free updates alongside 12 expansion packs (Eco Lifestyle, anyone?), a similar number of medium-sized "game packs" and 18 stuff packs. In 2021, The Sims 4 was estimated to have 36 million active players, and grossed more than $1 billion in revenue.
This had to happen eventually.
The game was only released for the PS4 and Xbox One in 2017, and was criticized for its many bugs and lack of the Gallery feature at launch. The following year, EA released a second freemium Sims game for iOS and Android with The Sims Mobile.
In 2020, the popularity of Sims-related content on YouTube has finally turned into a reality show with The Sims Spark'd on TBS. The show had 12 YouTubers split into 4 groups, each including a builder, a stylist, and a storyteller trying to create the best video on a given topic.
How long do you think it took to recreate "Titanic" in The Sims 2?
This article has no epilogue because the story of The Sims is far from over. Several players have used the games to create or recreate Hollywood-length movies, and if anything, future games and expansions will make it even easier to do this. Recent interviews indicate that The Sims 5 is in the works, and we can only guess what that next game will bring to the table.
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