Wednesday, 11 June 2014

How Maxis is simulating more of what makes us human in The Sims 4

verybody knows that The Sims expands. It’s one of the most continually iterated series in history, each main title receiving more add-on packs than the last.

What is less obvious about The Sims is that, at key intervals, the series contracts. Next year, Maxis will release The Sims 4 – and all that accrued expansion content will reset back to zero to allow the studio to make fundamental changes to the way its life simulation operates.

Producer Lindsay Pearson has been working on the series since the original game. “We hit a point during The Sims 3 where we wondered where the Sims were going to go next – what was the next evolution of what a ‘Sim’ means?” she says. “For The Sims 4, that was going back to the Sims themselves. [The decision to create a full sequel] is triggered by an idea, and then we have conversations about whether it is the technology that has to change or the content. This time it was both.”

Pearson began work on the sequel almost three years ago. Individual groups of developers move from the previous game to the new one as they become needed, starting with the engineers responsible for the base-level simulation and moving up through concept artists and content designers.

For The Sims 4, work has been done to rebuild the game’s pathfinding and animation engines from scratch. Previous Sims games have given the impression of being tile-based, with characters moving in stiff, fixed patterns between context-specific actions. In The Sims 4, characters dynamically adjust their positioning relative to what they’re doing and the social environment they find themselves in. Maxis has studied footage of crowd behaviour – filmed in EA’s Redwood City headquarters – in order to accurately represent the way, for example, a group of people chatting will respond to a new person approaching their circle. In The Sims 4, a character’s awareness is visible: their head and upper body move to acknowledge the new person, and they smoothly step back to create space in a way that is far more fluid than in the series’ past. The new animation framework has reaped other benefits, too – Sims can now pass each other on the stairs and walk through doorways as a group without causing a logjam.

These may sound like small changes at first, but they’re significant in practice: the experience of a Sims player is predicated on details like this – on the believability of the world that the player creates in tandem with the game. Furthermore, more fluid animation has a knock-on effect on game mechanics. In The Sims 4, a character can multitask, performing several actions at once as long as they don’t contradict each other on a physical level. This could mean running on a treadmill while watching TV, filling up Entertainment and Exercises meters at the same time. It could mean eating dinner around a table while telling a joke, or washing the dishes while having a conversation. At its core, The Sims is a management game with a heavy veneer of wish-fulfilment fantasy: in allowing for more flexible use of time that also happens to be more true to life, The Sims 4’s new animation system promises to serve both masters.

That said, Maxis is also overhauling the Sims’ internal lives in an attempt to create a greater sense of autonomy and personality. “People have always extended their emotions onto their Sims,” producer Ryan Vaughan says. “Now, Sims have their own emotions and they’re going to be pushing back against the player. They’re living beings, they have feelings, and the gameplay evolves from that.”

At any given time, a Sim will occupy a particular emotional state, from the relatively neutral Fine to the self-explanatory Elated, Depressed, Angry and Romantic. There are 14 in total, and rather than existing on a spectrum (Angry to Content, for example) they each exist as a separate state, experienced with varying degrees of intensity. A Sim’s emotional state affects everything from their posture to their walk, facial expression and voice.

Moods also grant positive and negative status effects, and unlock unique interactions with objects in the environment. Interestingly, emotions themselves aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at a mechanical level: they all have their uses, and players interested in micromanagement will be encouraged to experiment.

An inspired Sim might be more likely to paint a masterpiece, for instance, but a depressed Sim will gain access to a unique set of sombre artistic, writing and musical styles that have a greater emotional impact on the Sims around them. Likewise, an angry Sim may be more likely to get into a fight but also exercises more effectively, gaining the ability to ‘Rage Run’ on a treadmill or take out their anger on a punch bag.

Players can game the emotion system by directing their Sims to consume specific drinks, watch certain types of entertainment and occupy particular environments. Furnishings and architecture act as amplifiers – a dark, candlelit room, for instance, is more likely to result in a successful dinner date.

Overhauled building design tools look set to reduce the frustration of configuring an ideal Sims home. While superficially similar to the grid-based toolset of previous games, a smart set of new features makes tweaking homes on the fly much easier than it has been before. The game now recognises closed-off spaces as rooms, which can be picked up and moved elsewhere, with doors and windows automatically reconfiguring to make sense of the new layout. If you’ve ever had to painstakingly move every item in a kitchen simply to extend a wall by a single tile, you’ll appreciate the new system.

The game recognises intent far more intelligently than before, too. A gap between two balustrades on a terrace will be understood as a potential new location for an extension or a staircase, and the relevant pieces will resize accordingly. This ties into a broad shift in architectural style away from New England towards Louisiana and the gallery houses of the American South.

Maxis is staying quiet about the big picture at present; there’s no word on which careers and life stages will make the transition, nor how many towns will be available at launch or what form the game’s online features will take. The latter point will be especially key given the problems that plagued Maxis’s previous outing, SimCity, at launch. Nonetheless, a renewed focus on the finer details of human experience – and the tools that allow Sims players to reenact them – bodes well for the future.

“Building an expansion pack is very much about what we want to add,” Vaughan says. “Going back to a base game is about how we want to evolve the experience into something new that’s not been done before.”

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