The Sims Online should have been a sure thing. The premise reads like a gaming executive’s dream sheet. A popular, long-lived franchise loved by casual and hardcore gamers alike; a game that sells at Wal-Mart as well as it does at EB Games and developed by Will Wright, one of the most famous names in game design. The launch window picked was close to perfect: December 17, 2002, just in time for Christmas, virtually assuring millions of sales. In-house predictions called for an ongoing active subscriber base of up to 1 million people, but The Sims Online launched out of the gate and promptly fell flat. Six months after launch, Wired reported 125,000 retail copies sold and 97,000 active subscribers – not bad, but not enough to justify the game’s $20 million budget. By April, 2004, their subscription rate peaked at around 55,000, and has now stagnated near 35,000.

The “sure thing” is now an “also-ran,” an embarrassment to all concerned and an eyesore on the balance sheet of the world’s largest game company.

“The game we shipped didn’t actually have the complete feature set that Will and I envisioned,” says Gordon Walton, Executive Producer of The Sims Online, who called the task of transplanting the wonder of The Sims to an online environment one of the “real challenges. We just couldn’t get everything built in the time available, even with great resource support from EA.”

“Not enough time” is a common refrain among developers of failed games, but gamers and reviews alike have also laid blame for TSO‘s stunning failure at the feet of its a boring, repetitive skill system. One that even the hardest-core MMOG players considered tedious. There were also significant problems with the target Sims audience.

“Will was really interested in the social and gaming possibilities bringing the Sims audience together would offer,” according to Walton. Fans of The Sims, however, didn’t seem to agree. The series’ core audience, in hindsight, had little interest in playing an online game at all, but if they were to play an online Sims game, they’d much rather play one that was more like the rest of the series.

Instead, players logging into The Sims Online found themselves in a strangely familiar, yet incredibly unsettling place. It was like The Sims, yes, but here they were expected to create and micromanage one Sim, rather than a family of them. Moreover, they were expected to raise her up in the classic MMOG model: Doing repetitive things for a meager amount of money to raise numbers that make doing the repetitive thing slightly easier which would then enable them to possibly get more money. In TSO, however, once the player clicked on an object, all there was left to do was watch and chat.

“Not having a fully functioning economy and more fun activities to entertain players made the game less appealing than we wanted,” according to Walton. Those brave few who tried TSO would seem to agree.

The flashy bits, all the furniture and gadgets that made The Sims what it was, were very, very expensive in The Sims Online. It was possible to build a rudimentary house with a few moneymaking objects with the initial grubstake, but the rewards were meager. Rewards scaled up proportional to the number of people playing, which meant to accomplish anything, it was necessary to attract other players who were disinclined to show up to some new Sim’s house when they could just as easily work for more popular players who would then collect the rewards for all the stuff going on in their house. It was a backward system which punished latecomers severely.

Yet, as with any desperate economy, many TSO players (the majority of which were female) soon discovered that the world’s oldest profession still had a place in the world’s newest boomtown. Whorehouses soon sprang up, as did freelance child prostitutes and the inevitable nude patch.

“The most exciting major feature that the team wanted was player-generated custom content,” says Walton. “It was also the most involved to implement and administer.” Meaning EA had launched the game with no clear guidelines or tools for players wanting to creatively express themselves. Players filled the void themselves by injecting their own ideas of what might make a good game great. The result was, of course, an avalanche of explicit content and activity, and since the T-rated title had no outlet for adult content, it went everywhere.

Hardcore online gamers, raised with one eye on the game and the other on an image of goatse have come to accept the “porn-ification” of an online community as a matter of course; the inevitable entropy of an anonymous virtual hangout. However, the majority of Sims players, new to online gaming, were unaware of the den of iniquity that awaited them. The initial reaction many had to the game wasn’t that it was a massively multiplayer virtual dollhouse. It was “My god, it’s full of whores.”

“We really wanted to make something the majority of the Sims audience would love to play online,” says Gordon Walton, who now heads BioWare’s Austin studio, and is working on an MMOG he hopes to announce at next year’s E3. What he and his team at EA created was the online world’s first great social experiment. The underground has largely moved on, as it’s far more exciting to play one of the many other MMOG offerings, and the launch of Second Life gave the adult elements a playspace all their own. What remains is the ’til-the-lights-go-out crowd and the faint, but distinct, scent of disappointment at a 20 million dollar failure.

Shannon Drake likes commas and standing out in the rain.

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