The Sims Getting Social – Again
Electronic Arts announced at E3 in Los Angeles on June 6 that The Sims are coming to Facebook. Under the umbrella of Playfish, the social gaming company EA purchased in 2009 for instant entry into social gaming, The Sims Social will be released both in Facebook application and with a companion mobile gaming application to directly compete within the soft social gaming sector dominated in the US by Zynga with CityVille, FarmVille, etc.
For The Sims Social, EA will be releasing versions in multiple languages, apparently intending to reach every single player who purchased one of the 140 million console or PC versions of the franchise released in the past 11 years since the Sims inception in 2000. With no release date yet published, we will have to see how EA intends to monetize within the app to reach the goal of generating more than $1 billion in online revenue in the current fiscal year. The current expectation is that monetization will hinge on customization of characters and locales, with possibly the addition of quest or task enhancements available for purchase via Facebook credits for simoleons, the traditional Sims in-game currency.
For those of us that were fans of the failed MMO virtual world experiment of The Sims Online, the news of a Sims for the age of social gaming has been eagerly anticipated. Inside Social Games interviewed Jeff Karp, the Executive Vice President of the EA Play Label at EA, on the differences between the properties:
“We learned a lot [from The Sims Online],” Karp says. He explains that the PC gaming audience is much larger than what it was when The Sims Online launched in 2002, and now almost everybody has at least heard of Facebook. Therefore, he says, The Sims Social should enjoy a completely different experience from The Sims Online. “It’s like comparing apples to oranges.”
One very noticeable difference in the positioning of The Sims Online versus The Sims Social is in the taglines. TSO used “Be Someone… Else.” The Sims Social’s tagline currently reads: “Play With Friends, Play With Life.” While TSO was an immersive virtual fantasy world, Sims Social seems to understand that on Facebook, your personal identity and your network of relationships is the heart of the game. From EA’s press release:
“The Sims Social is a great addition to the Facebook Platform, as it provides another fun way for people to connect with their friends through an inherently social app,” said Katie Mitic, Director of Platform and Mobile Marketing, Facebook. “What’s social offline should be social online, and The Sims Social brings some of the everyday interactions we have in the real world onto Facebook in a Sims setting.”
In terms of moderation, we are very curious to see how EA/Playfish uses game design to combat or thwart misuse, especially since with the platform being Facebook, The Sims Social cannot be described as a “closed world.” A problem that has plagued both the offline Sims franchise and “The Sims Online” version in years past is that players are intensely curious about their Sims. The convention of the game is to display a blur over “romantic” moments, while providing the players interactable objects like “love tubs” and “love beds” for romantic interludes. People being who they are, numerous patches and mods have been created for the PC versions of Sims to display the naughty bits in all their glory. These “nude” or “clothing” patches have been around for years (unsanctioned, of course, by EA.) For “The Sims Online,” these third-party programs turned a fairly innocent virtual world into something much creepier, as some players were viewing the world as a bacchanalia while others were still trying to play in an authorized way. Virtual worlds released after “The Sims Online” (mostly defunct There, still thriving Second Life) capitalized on allowing adult material within an unscripted, sandbox environment.
Facebook social games have a built-in protection against end-user modification by their very nature. (The game design and feature set change so often, Zynga games regularly keep their “beta” status long after official release.) What hasn’t changed in the leap to Facebook in terms of comparing apples and oranges is that the Sims in all of their incarnations represent a dollhouse game. The simulated people eat, sleep, work, date, etc. with real people at the controls. In the single player games, that one person is the God of the game. In “The Sims Online,” the one person was encouraged to “be someone else” while interacting in real time with other people. Sometimes this lead to collaborative play. Sometimes it lead to real-life marriages falling apart due to Sim boyfriends or girlfriends who became all too real. For the Facebook version of the Sims, a hybrid of sorts seems to be the positioning, where a single player is controlling the fates of avatars and also Non-Human Player Characters while nteracting through the game mechanics with characters representing friends. The part that could be a moderation nightmare is the very part that makes it interesting – the Facebook platform.
As any “hardcore” player of CityVille or FarmVille can tell you, to get ahead, you are going to need friends. Lots of friends. Most social games force the user to engage their social network in order to best advance. Up to the Facebook max setting of 5000 isn’t too many friends for some dedicated players. They find each other via Facebook application pages, through friend to friend suggestions, on message boards and even YouTube. Facebook social games themselves encourage and reward large friend playing networks, as the games rely on the viral spread and network ties to attract and retain new players, increase their DAU and MAU, and enhance their “sticky factor.” Once a friend is in place, unless a user limits what the “friend” can access, then the situation is set for all of Facebook’s communication tools to be used in tandem with the application. The Sims games aren’t designed to be an online dating arena, but the game premise itself lead to that in The Sims Online. The thought of a 13 year old (or under!) and an adult “getting to know each other” through romantic game play coupled with Facebook messaging or chat in The Sims Social is at the very least unsettling.
Presumably, The Sims Social will have some sort of built-in Parental Control toggles. The video shows no in-game chat, so perhaps that is a feature that has not made the transition from The Sims Online to The Sims Social. But with the Facebook communication devices being at-the-ready, in terms of moderation, there is little a gamemaster could do to to intervene in a situation where online courting was being acted out in a sinister way via Sims on Facebook. While a GM could address inappropriate language within character names, messaging and objects manipulated in-game, and a moderator could address the endless call for “Add Me”s and ill-advised posting of Personal Information on the app’s Facebook wall, the public/private world of Facebook and Facebook gaming for now seems to mean that if you allow your children to play a game, you have to also trust that they will show good judgment in the friends with whom they play … or invest in a program that will exchange their privacy for your peace of mind.
With no release date currently scheduled, the only way to know what will happen next is to go ahead and press Like on The Sims Social Facebook page, follow The Sims Social on Twitter, and wait to see what exactly The Sims Social turns out to be once the players get ahold of it.