Traditional Postmortem: How Maxis prevented sequel-itis on The Sims 2

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In honor of the thirteenth anniversary of the discharge of the one of many best-selling PC video games of all time, we current this basic postmortem, which first appeared within the January 2005 challenge of Sport Developer journal. This in-depth have a look at what went proper and what went incorrect throughout improvement was written by Lucy Bradshaw with contributions from fellow Maxis devs Matt Brown, Tim LeTouneau, and Paul Boyle.

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Sequels to profitable video games could appear apparent—possibly even too apparent. And with The Sims, we at Maxis had quite a lot of content material to work with and lots of leaps in know-how to benefit from for the reason that first recreation was shipped again in 2000.

Even so, sequels pose a novel problem. The Sims 2 crew needed to perceive what led to the success of the unique and devise a method to evolve (and in the end methods to innovate) whereas juggling colossal expectations from followers, critics, and the corporate.

Maxis has at all times been a serious proponent of speedy prototyping when kicking off a brand new recreation. We used early prototypes to resolve feel and look points, to assist perceive the important thing emotional connection, and most significantly, to check out the brand new gameplay ideas. Constructing these prototypes through the idea and pre-production phases as a substitute of through the full steam manufacturing part simply is smart.

Many of those prototypes considerably affected the ultimate design of the sport. The look-and-feel prototype, for instance, established how The Sims look, significantly within the grownup and teenage years, and set the tone for the brand new 3D environments.

The HeadToy prototype helped evolve the Create A Sim instrument. Later within the challenge, the “aspiration, desires, and fears” prototype guided the way in which we created the brand new gameplay. All of those prototypes had been executed as separate purposes, utilizing current instruments, similar to Maya and .Web, and executed by one or two engineers or artists.

Our key to success is being speedy, staying centered on what we’re making an attempt to unravel and transferring shortly. We intention to indicate progress and iterate ceaselessly. If somebody engaged on a prototype has not proven us one thing every day of the week, it is most likely going sideways.

Every of those prototypes was completely different in its implementation. The visible look-and-feel prototype was merely a film, however it set the bar for the lighting, digital camera, surroundings, and characters.

The HeadToy prototype gave us an opportunity to discover some quite excessive potentialities within the new Sims’s appearances. It additionally impressed Sim DNA, the digital genes which might be handed alongside to Sim descendants. One of many core design ideas that got here out of this stage of the challenge was that The Sims 2 would develop up in The Sims 2.

The prototype not solely nailed the varied ages and the artistic potentialities, but additionally validated the Sim DNA idea. This influenced the consumer interface, modified the way in which we talked concerning the recreation, and in the end turned a part of the advertising marketing campaign: “Genes, Desires & Extremes.”

We used the “desires and fears” prototype later within the challenge, however it was essential in offering the most important innovation in regard to participant focus and gameplay pacing. The prototype, constructed by Matt Brown and his crew, let the designers and the engineers play via the desires and fears timber and set up the logic concerned.

Our challenges in making a sequel to The Sims was to intrigue the at the moment energetic gamers in addition to recapture gamers who had uninstalled way back. The viewers of The Sims has modified quite dramatically for the reason that unique—they’ve developed from hardcore gamers to ones who’re very informal or new to video games all collectively.

We centered on what we felt had been a few of the key elements of success in The Sims. We labored with our publishing companions to get an image of our participant base.

We additionally spent quite a lot of time on the boards in our website online, in addition to different fan-sites and bulletin boards. We got here to a number of conclusions. One was on the subject of The Sims: a recreation about folks is one thing that almost all people can join with.

Different elements that we felt had been essential had been the creativity, the open-ended nature of the expertise, and the sense of irreverent humor. We spent quite a lot of time brainstorming methods to enhance these features of the sport. We enhanced the creativity by bettering the Create A Sim module, refining the constructing and designing choices, and by creating a brand new technique of storytelling through moviemaking.

We bolstered the open-ended nature of the sport by maintaining the identical depth and breadth, and by making the lives of the Sims really feel richer via additions to the social panorama. Lastly, the important thing to this viewers was the addition of rising Sims and taking part in via the generations of their households.

We acknowledged that we would have liked to draw our earlier gamers via innovation. A serious lure for these lapsed Sims gamers was the transfer to full 3D. This gave us an instantaneous leg-up on the unique, however we additionally parsed quite a lot of suggestions from opinions, participant strategies, and focus teams.

From these retailers, we heard that gamers had been bored with managing the mundane features of their Sims’ lives—they needed a brand new focus and pacing. One other factor we recognized from listening to focus teams and participant testimonials is that an amazing many gamers had not found a few of the loopy issues that would occur in The Sims and its expansions. Gamers had merely not put collectively the proper mixtures of actions and objects to find these bits.

We boiled this right down to the necessity for brand spanking new pacing and rewards in addition to a must refine and keep the open-ended gameplay. We needed to discover a higher method to information gamers and expose them to extra of the probabilities that we had created.

The whole thing of those observations drove a lot of our brainstorming about options and rewards, and led to the composition of options that we finally included.

Use as soon as, throw away. Kleenex testing, in our vocabulary, means utilizing disposable testers all through the design course of—from alpha to launch candidate. The important thing to recent suggestions is utilizing every tester solely as soon as: identical to Kleenex. Since a lot of our recreation hinges on gamers instantly understanding the gameplay and the interface, and that the rewards hit with good pacing, we elicited suggestions and acted upon it often all through the event course of.

An important a part of Kleenex testing is discovering individuals who can play a recreation with somebody trying over their shoulders and whereas voicing the ideas that undergo their heads. Not everyone seems to be minimize out to be a bit of Kleenex.

We fully iterated the Create A Sim interface 3 times due to suggestions acquired throughout Kleenex testing. This testing allowed us to higher categorize the steps and make the circulation of Sim design extra pure and clear to gamers. There’s fairly a little bit of depth to making a Sim, and since a Sim’s look will be crucial to the participant, that is an space wherein we needed to provide each complexity and ease (ease of use).

At Maxis, we consider that quite a lot of the success of The Sims got here from the wealth of content material and characters created by our user-base and fanatic communities. After we initially shipped The Sims in February 2000, we had already created and launched instruments that enabled followers to create Sim skins. We continued to foster this neighborhood by including extra instruments to a ceaselessly up to date and neighborhood oriented website online.

After we embarked upon The Sims 2, our philosophy was: In case you might see it on the display screen, it’s best to have the ability to customise it. We additionally needed to combine this functionality extra seamlessly into the sport, making it simpler for gamers to handle the content material they gathered or created.

We designed the consumer interface for knowledge administration to understand this aim. We additionally built-in our website online instantly into the sport via an in-game browser that enables gamers to obtain skins or objects and use them instantly.

Along with this, we continued to maintain an open dialog with the followers and site owners supporting The Sims. We requested their opinions, received their suggestions, and even saved up a weekly mailing on the progress of The Sims 2. We maintained this mailing checklist for a full 12 months earlier than we shipped.

One very profitable occasion was the launch of The Sims 2 Physique Store, our instrument for creating The Sims 2 skins. We made this accessible to the neighborhood on the opening day of E3 2004, once we premiered the sport on the present flooring. We had greater than 80,000 skins on the location by the point we shipped the sport.

One drawback we encountered with this simple-to-use instrument, nevertheless, was that we made it straightforward for customers to model the work of others as their very own. We constructed some options into the transport product and website online to ensure the creator id is seen (if desired) and made certain we created sturdy neighborhood ethics for our website.

At this time, the neighborhood is flourishing, and player-created content material made with The Sims 2 Film Maker is one thing we’re very pleased with.

SWATs are small, cross-discipline groups throughout the bigger improvement crew that sort out key options and technical points. SWATs (some name them pods or cells) helped The Sims 2 crew give attention to a number of fronts, because of sturdy management in every group answerable for selections, communication, and duties, similar to pushing for the completion of their crew’s initiatives. On a big crew similar to ours, this requires a necessary tactic. These SWATs developed over the course of the challenge, coming collectively and disbanding as their aims had been initiated or met.

We had a neighborhood SWAT, which was answerable for all of the visible options within the neighborhood: all the pieces from the on-the-fly creation of home imposters to the panorama and results. There was additionally a neighborhood story SWAT, which constructed all of the completed neighborhoods. This crew created all of the prebuilt content material, relationships, and ephemera so gamers might soar proper in and expertise the sport.

The Create A Sim SWAT was the crew that created the workflow and know-how behind the Create A Sim module. The Sims 2 Physique Store SWAT shipped a “product” twice through the manufacturing of The Sims 2. The Physique Store needed to undergo Q/A, CQC, localization, and all the opposite processes a stand-alone product should climate. This was an incredible crew of individuals.

Some of the distinctive groups on the challenge was the consider SWAT. They had been saddled with the responsibility of adjusting the habits of our Sims to match the brand new, extra detailed aesthetic.

This crew labored collectively to actually put our animation engine, which was designed by David Miller, via its paces. Human beings know the way human beings behave.

One of many main challenges we confronted in The Sims 2 was matching the movement to the meat. We needed to experiment with utilizing the animation engine to its fullest, which prolonged all the way in which to including a breath channel and a really delicate however efficient facial motion channel (earlier than we put this in, Sims simply regarded too noticeably mechanical and creepy—see Steve Theodore’s “Uncanny Valley,” December 2004).

As for habits, the problem was to create new routing, consciousness, moods, and personalities which might work autonomously, be eminently interruptible by the participant, and supply clear suggestions about what was occurring with the Sim in query. We knew we had it proper when our testers did not discover it. After we received to that time, we figured we had plausible Sims.

There have been many different wonderful SWAT groups on our challenge, and so they all contributed to the ultimate function set in ways in which couldn’t have occurred with out this particular compartmentalization.

Gamers want to have the ability to learn how their actions have an effect on the sport construction. Suggestions, due to this fact, have to be easy and intuitive. The consider SWAT crew needed to experiment an amazing take care of the habits and actions of the brand new Sims so as strike a profitable steadiness. Certainly one of these experiments was a bust, which ate up quite a lot of effort and time.

We had been experimenting with bringing the persona dimensions of every Sim to the forefront by enabling gamers to have an effect on this space to a larger diploma. We experimented with animations and behaviors that had been meant to indicate off the extremes of the 5 persona sliders: neat, good, outgoing, playful, and energetic. What we ended up with had been loopy trying Sims that had been tough for gamers to learn. We discovered a number of issues from this experiment that in the end helped us make sharper selections later within the challenge.

First, the participant actually does want easy UI gadgets that tie properly to the Sims’ habits. Within the case of the persona sliders, having 5 that each one labored on the identical time did not clearly reveal to the consumer what was taking place.

Second, extra habits and angles of interplay should not essentially higher. Ultimately, we did hold a few of these animations and behaviors, however we made them operate as additions to Sim characterization quite than one other entire dimension of Sim administration. The educational from this experiment gone awry additionally got here to bear once we applied the desperation habits of our aspiration-challenged Sims. Once they exhibit desperation, the habits is tied to at least one dimension of the UI with a really clear technique of affecting it positively.

When it comes to whole quantity of content material, we bit off so much. The aim of getting old Sims meant creating three separate Sim skeletons and designing a wealthy number of skins in for 5 age classes—toddler, youngster, teen, grownup, and elder—and two sexes. As well as, we needed to execute distinctive animations for every age, in addition to distinctive behaviors and voices for every age and intercourse.

There are greater than 11,000 animations, 1,200 pores and skin meshes (textures enhance the variability by re-using the identical mesh), 40,000 voice samples, to not point out the fashions, design modes, results, cinematics, sounds, full textual content in 21 languages, and music.

In the course of the improvement, we felt like we had been continually taking part in catch-up. Getting all of the content material executed, tracked, and reviewed took quite a lot of course of invention. Initially, our monitoring was not as detailed because it wanted to be to observe every asset via the pipeline and switch the data to the varied sections of the crew. Even the design specificity wanted to be tremendously enhanced.

We needed to repair these issues after the content material era had already begun. Creating construct processes, databases, and pipeline instruments that helped validate the accuracy of this content material ought to have been applied proper firstly. Some distinctive work by our improvement administrators, engineers, configuration administration crew, and technical artwork director actually received us on monitor.

For sure, producing all that content material required dedication from a incredible crew of artists, engineers, audio specialists, and producers.

Whereas we had been nonetheless studying the capabilities of the brand new animation engine and placing collectively our pipelines, we had been concurrently breaking down design components, for instance the animation timber. Early on, some assumptions had been made primarily based on information of how issues used to work within the unique The Sims engine as a substitute of how issues would work in The Sims 2 engine.

We had to return and re-work content material to higher make the most of the capabilities of our system. We additionally discovered that we actually wanted to coach our new hires higher—there have been many technical methods and steps to grasp, and coaching them on these duties would tremendously enhance the pipeline. This was not insurmountable, however it definitely made for higher execution as soon as we invested the right consideration to coaching and reviewing content material in not solely the content material viewer however the recreation as properly.

Pursuing options that add complexity to current gameplay is a lure that we nearly fell into early within the challenge. There was an amazing ardour from a few of the crew members to enhance programs that they’d lived with for therefore lengthy. In case you learn a few of the fan boards and our BBS, you’d assume that this path would have been met with nice success. It’s truly a pure factor to wish to do.

An instance of this was an early design inclination so as to add to the Sims’ motives, that’s, their primary wants. Quite a few posts on our boards extolled the virtues of this. For some time, we experimented by including thirst and stress to the combo of wants that the participant should handle. I believe we realized this was the incorrect path once we noticed mockups that confirmed how additions to the Wants Bars would look: too overwhelming.

One other issue was that we re-read the opinions and participant suggestions that indicated gamers had been tiring of caring for their Sims’ extra primary wants. They needed a brand new strategy. Since we had been already pursuing the growing-up angle, we as a substitute centered on distinguishing the completely different age ranges by the way it affected their wants. For instance, teen Sims crave social interplay, a necessity that decays quicker than that of non-teen Sims. 

By the mid-production part, we had about 100 folks on the crew, and by the latter a part of the manufacturing part, about 140. It was a giant crew to handle and we had been engaged on a number of fronts concurrently. Our SWAT groups had been unfold out throughout the map, each tackling new issues and duties as they arose.

It is true what they are saying about how rising a crew from 25 to 35 can require main re-thinking of processes. At 140, we had plenty of challenges in key areas: ensuring we communicated and had a shared imaginative and prescient, giving folks a way of possession, and enabling decision-making on the most acceptable ranges after which speaking these selections. Establishing workflow procedures between teams was essential. This was a extremely robust facet of the challenge to maintain up with.

Some ways we developed helped to curve these issues. The SWAT groups helped people get a clearer sense of how they formed the challenge, giving them a way of possession too. Having a seasoned lead on every SWAT crew was essential.

We labored on the communication channels and challenge administration visibility all through the event. Parts of the work circulation included: crew conferences, partitions on which we posted milestones, lead conferences (to remain synchronized), coaching, dailies, content material opinions, and even taking part in the sport on a projector display screen within the crew space. I can not say that it was a totally rosy state of affairs, however we did our greatest. 

We shipped the sport Sept. 17, 2004, and we’re all very pleased with the ultimate product. The Sims 2 crew actually got here via on the aims we had for the sport, when it comes to evolving the weather of the sport which have made its predecessor so profitable, and persevering with to contain the gamers in ways in which transcend the product that shipped, via films, tales, and unique content material.

It’s totally rewarding that The Sims 2 has met essential success. We’re happy that it is promoting so properly and that gamers are actively sharing and creating through the online. Many people breathed a little bit simpler once we noticed the primary week of gross sales and the primary posts on the internet from gamers who had spent all the night time taking part in.

The Sims 2 crew overcame some very huge challenges on a challenge that was huge in scope. We have adopted an amazing follow of instantly capturing suggestions in self-discipline and challenge postmortems after which reviewing and performing upon it. There is a crew working away as I write this, constructing the primary The Sims 2 growth, profiting from this studying, and making the actionable enhancements occur.



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