How '90s interior design software laid the foundation for today's life sims

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(Image credit: Broderbund)

In 1994, my mom, a working interior designer, decided to jump on the home computing bandwagon and get 3D Home Architect. The Broderbund program was part of an awkward, curious wave of computer-aided design (CAD) software adapted for the burgeoning home market—the average joe looking to redecorate and remodel in an exciting new digital world. I was already familiar with floor plans and architectural drawings from watching my mom at her drafting table. My mother made a valiant attempt to get used to the program, but as a diehard traditionalist, she eventually returned to working with her trusty pencil and paper. Suddenly 3D Home Architect, which my parents didn't consider a videogame (and therefore not something to worry about), was all mine.

It was a cultural appeal, asking users to imagine one's life as available for expansion through computing.

Dr. Laine Nooney

Decades later, I've sunk oceans of time into arranging furniture in Animal Crossing and laying out my free company room in Final Fantasy 14. In games, especially life sims, interior design can be a dangerous road to a place where time stops. But in the beginning, the world of digital home design was a very different animal: easy-to-use consumer CAD programs that shaped a generation of home computer users. 

(Image credit: Broderbund)

"When these products first came out in the 1990s, people wanted to play with them because they literally allowed you to do things on a computer that were impossible before… it felt like being part of the 'future'," says Dr. Laine Nooney, who specializes in the historical, cultural, and economic analysis of the videogame and home computing industries. Like me, Nooney has strong memories of their mother playing with 3D home design and landscaping programs in the mid-to-late '90s when their family was going through a period of upward mobility. 

"Even into the mid-90s, only about a third of US households had a computer. Journalists, investors and innovators put tremendous effort into convincing people a home computer was something you should want or not," Nooney explains. "The idea of home computing was not simply about having a computer at home. It was a cultural appeal, asking users to imagine one's life as available for expansion through computing."

Even with its blocky, unsophisticated graphics, in my eyes 3D Home Architect was a gateway drug to the pure uncut idea of a fantasy home. Some of its software siblings, like Sierra CompleteHome, had cost estimation tools, which I blithely ignored. After all, I was a kid, and if I could build a vast and physically impossible mansion with the finest materials available, by god, I was going to do it. It was the first time I could experiment with a digital space without limits—a far cry from the physical limitations of my Barbie Dream Cottage, which never seemed to have enough room. 

In the realm of games, I'd already blasted through 1991's Jones in the Fast Lane, Sierra Entertainment's bitterly funny social life sim where you started off in a crummy, run-down apartment and worked up to a luxury condo. It offered a basic screen showing your home, replete with hard-earned furniture and electronics, but there was no control over where to place items or modification options.

While 'playing' 3D Home Architect, I treated it as a freeform game to envision hypothetical homes of the future for myself and fictional characters. Maxis began trotting out more focused Sim games that took a more granular approach to life simulation on a smaller scale, like SimTower—the first Sim game that really prompted me to get psychological about how and where I placed different amenities in the titular skyscraper. 

Unlike SimCity 2000, it was both a literal and figurative close-up of modern life, exemplified by the glitz and futurism of the high-rise format. There was also a much more visceral, emotional connection between the inhabitants pictured on-screen and the environment—for the first time I had to really think about where I was placing restaurants and entertainment amenities, as well as the elevators in the building (if the residents waited too long or got too impatient, they would simply blip out of existence in a red rage). 

(Image credit: Maxis)

The psycho-spatial, psychogeographical aspect in social/life sim games really came to a head when Maxis released The Sims in 2000. It was, admittedly, a bewildering time for grown-ups struggling to parse this new cultural phenomenon, including the idea that you had to make a comfortable space for computer people to thrive in. For kids like Sophie Mallinson who had grown up with home design programs, it was a no-brainer.  

It's funny to think I used to play with interior design software, and now I'm using a videogame to plan out my own home

Sophie Mallinson

One of Mallinson's earliest computer memories were the free CD-ROM demos of home design programs that came with her mother's home decor magazines. "While these products were obviously aimed at adults, with bland aesthetics and built-in cost estimates, at eight years old everything on the computer was a game to me," says Mallinson, who now works as a simulation game designer at Maxis. "I remember being bowled over by the ability to navigate a realistic 3D environment, my imagination running wild as I created rooms for imaginary characters and invented a backstory for each home."

Designing a home in The Sims (2000)

(Image credit: EA)

In 2000, drawn to the allure of home-making and the imaginative power of home design, Mallinson decided to get The Sims, which quickly became her favorite game. "Not only could I design homes using a wide catalog of furniture, from heart-shaped beds to inflatable chairs, but everything was interactive," she says. "I could see my Sims use each item I'd thoughtfully picked out and live their lives in the space I'd created for them." 

Mallinson, who recently bought her first home, recreated the floor plan in The Sims 4 to play around with renovation ideas. "It's funny to think I used to play with interior design software, and now I'm using a videogame to plan out my own home," she says, adding that she constantly thinks about better, more accessible ways to integrate The Sims' core components—architecture and home design—into gameplay. 


(Image credit: Witch Beam)

Now, concepts of home, home decor, and customizable habitation have become familiar features in everything from fantasy RPGs and chill puzzlers to dedicated interior design mobile games. The role of 3D home design programs in cultivating this standard, as well as their impact on a generation of game designers and simulation fans who grew up fascinated with things like 3D Home Architect, remains largely unexamined. While there hasn't been much research in this area, Laine Nooney believes there are some "interesting resonances" between the way games approach room or unit composition, and the way 3D home design programs presented us with homes as units of divisible space. 

"I think we seriously misunderstand videogame and computer history when we draw very firm lines between games and other types of software," says Nooney, who suggests that these programs might be considered one of the first "sandbox" 3D rendering tools available to the average home computer user. Ultimately, in our search to understand human fascination and the cultural appeal of computers, early novelty software like 3D Home Architect hasn't received nearly enough credit for their influence in modern game design. "Interestingly, I do think we are seeing a return of these kinds of tools in the form of augmented reality provided by furniture and home decor retailers," adds Nooney. "In its own way, novelty never seems to get old." 

Alexis Ong
Contributing Writer

Alexis Ong is a freelance culture journalist based in Singapore, mostly focused on games, science fiction, weird tech, and internet culture. For PC Gamer Alexis has flexed her skills in internet archeology by profiling the original streamer and taking us back to 1997's groundbreaking all-women Quake tournament. When she can get away with it she spends her days writing about FMV games and point-and-click adventures, somehow ranking every single Sierra adventure and living to tell the tale. 

In past lives Alexis has been a music journalist, a West Hollywood gym owner, and a professional TV watcher. You can find her work on other sites including The Verge, The Washington Post, Eurogamer and Tor.