This week back in the year 2000, The Sims made its debut. I remember firing up The Sims on my PC that first week, skeptical of how engrossing this thing could possibly be. Next thing I knew, it was six hours later and my virtual self was a barely surviving, schlubby bachelor living in a crappy house with ratty furniture. And man, I was ready to lock in for another few hours. It was just that addicting.
The Sims pioneered a new game genre: the life simulation. And that gamification of the ordinary turned out to be massively popular, going on to become the best-selling PC gaming franchise ever.
Prior to The Sims, designer Will Wright had founded Maxis, which released a slew of simulation games that allowed players to be a grand designer (SimCity, SimEarth, SimTower, etc). But the design of The Sims was far more ambitious than its predecessors.
So where in the world did The Sims idea come from? Wright said he was inspired to build his “virtual doll house” after losing his home during the Oakland firestorm of 1991. While rebuilding, he became philosophical, questioning what makes up a life. As he told Berkeleyside: “Rarely do you do that in your real life. When something like this happens, you get a big picture. Where do I want to live? What sort of things do I need to buy? You see your life almost as a project in process.”
The Toilet Game
So Wright set about coming up with what became The Sims. In the game, you play as a customizable person in a virtual town whose mission is to build a home, make friends, fall in love, raise a family, maintain a job, and take care of all your basic needs like eating, sleeping, bathing, and more. In other words, it’s a simulation of all the banal aspects of real life played out in real-time hours. Sound thrilling? Not so much to Maxis’ new owner, Electronic Arts.
“It was a battle, the first few years, inside Maxis,” Wright told Rock Paper Shotgun back in 2008. “It was referred to as ‘The Toilet game.’ It was the game where you clean the toilet. We had a product review meeting at Maxis where we had to decide whether we’d publish this thing or not… and the executive said ‘No, let’s do that.'” And with that, The Sims was effectively dead, until Wright hijacked a bored programmer to work secretly on the game.
Back in 2000, it was daunting to create a game where the player creates the environment, opening up a multitude of complex programming challenges. And even more time was spent on making the game expandable, which of course paid off many times over with the rollout of multiple expansion packs. In the end, they hit paydirt.
According to EA’s Sims site, there are 67 Sims titles to date. Of those, The Sims saw three main series sequels, each of which had multiple expansion packs; and then there were seven spinoff titles. As of September 2013, The Sims franchise has sold 175 million copies, which earned that best-selling title. Not bad for a “toilet game.”
Elsewhere in pop culture back in the year 2000:
- Charles Schulz dies: On February 12, 2000, the legendary Peanuts creator died at his home in Santa Rosa, Calif., at the age of 77. Schulz had terminal colon cancer and passed away in his sleep on a Saturday night — just hours before his last cartoon ran in Sunday newspapers. He famously signed off his final strip with: ”Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy … how can I ever forget them….” It was almost like he knew it was the end. To pay tribute, hundreds of cartoonists the world over drew memoriam comics in his honor, including this mournful one from editorial cartoonist Jeff Stahler.
- Pitch Black lands in theaters: Also that year, the movie Pitch Black was released, kicking off the juggernaut sci-fi series of films, games, and more set in the “Riddick” universe. At the wheel is Riddick himself, Vin Diesel, who has played the titular character every step of the way. After four movies and three video games, the Riddick train shows no sign of stopping; Diesel recently announced via his Instagram that a fourth film is in the works.