Playing God & The Sims Online

Gamespot has published The Endless Hours of The Sims Online by Geoff Keighley, and if you are interested in the future of simulation, you must read it.

Will Wright's latest creation, due to be released in a week or two, is not a game so much as an environment. This massively multiplayer online world will be populated by real players who pay $10 a month for the privilege. (Gratutitous ghouls with machine guns need not apply.)

The scale of The Sims Online is unprecedented. We're talking several years and hundreds of designers, among them the top game designers in the world.

I've worked with physicians who thought they were "playing God," but they were only messing with one character at a time, not an entire society. Chief designer Will Wright worries about the moral and psychological aspects of The Sims Online:

    ...what mattered most to the team was the metagame, namely the social interactions and how players were spending their time in the world. While The Sims Online is an open-ended experience (there's no linear "end" to the game), the team wanted to make sure the trophy-seeking players didn't overpower those more-creative types who were just looking to chat and build.

The only way to test something like The Sims Online is to release it to thousands of players to test. Last month the programmers had to delete and restart the alpha version. Players were shook up.

    All the Alphaville homes were destroyed, and the Sims Online message board was littered with posts from players desperately trying to reconnect with friends. In many ways, it felt like a tornado had passed through the virtual village.

Its developers expect The Sims Online to live forever:

    ...the concept of "finishing" an online game will still be an oxymoron. "Online games are released, but they are never finished," says community manager Kyle Brink. Indeed, The Sims Online will constantly be patched and updated as it evolves over time. Simply put, there are no final hours of development on this game. That means there will be no euphoric moment when the game is finished and the team can jet off on monthlong vacations. "It's a big mental shift for us," suggests Brink. "For us, the end of the boxed product development isn't the finish line--it's the starting line."

    As Wright walks the halls, you get the sense that he is just beginning to realize that The Sims Online is a project that may never be done. Ask him whether the official release of the game is just the starting point, and he smiles. "Yep, that's right," he says. "Welcome to my hell. I'll be observing and working on this game for the rest of my life."

Obviously, The Sims Online is a radical departure from the typical closed-end simulation we are accustomed to. Professionals in the learning industry are having a tough time wrapping their heads around eLearning where the learner is in charge. (I think of learners as the ultimate "learning management system.") The Sims is the ultimate expression of gaining control by giving control.

    Wright... cautions that he wants to let players decide how to evolve the world. "All of this political stuff has to come from the bottom up," he posits. "We can't do it from the top down and dictate structure." Instead, players need to build covenants with each other and establish the conventions of the world over time. "Totally planned cities don't work," Wright explains. "It's sort of like the Utopian society movement, where there were these guys who went off and started building planned cities. For the most part the cities were total failures."

    With The Sims Online, Wright believes the community will form in a way similar to the one formed around, the popular technology news site. "There's no central editor on Slashdot, but it's a collection of readers who have evolved it into a great site for news." Ultimately, The Sims Online could turn into a similar self-governing world, and Wright and his team could sit back and watch it evolve over time. "I can't wait to be surprised by what people do in the game," says Trottier.

Here's Jay's snapshot of online learning circa 2004:

Monolithic Corporation has started a clean copy of The Sims Online on its intranet. Among the game objects are its product line and that of its competitors. Monolithic's ERP has generated a working input/output model of the company online. The cityscape is peopled with customers and competitors.

Monolithic's employees learn by doing -- in the game. Players can run "what-if" scenarios for various behaviors. The sim environment supports experimentation with different courses of action in the same way that the spreadsheet made what-if financial tinkering viable.

Instead of dumbing down reality to program specific interactions, tomorrow's instructional designers will build artificial environments and delegate the heuristics to the humans.

I won't be surprised if, like in Stephen Wolfram's construct of reality, a few simple inputs generate complex, lifelike behavior.

Posted by Jay Cross at December 7, 2002 07:06 PM | TrackBack

Hey man the sims rock and all but i wanted to known if there was a "Sims Bustin Out" for my own pc??? E-mail me asap on the info you have!! Maybe we can be penpals er somthin so we can talk about the sims er somthin like that...

From a gurl that talks in short hand

P.S. Can u tell me where i can go to play sims online????

Posted by: Someone at May 22, 2004 10:17 AM

30 Poppy Lane
Berkeley, California 94708

1.510.528.3105 (office & cell)

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