The Sims 3: Showtime preview

Once upon a time, PC gamers weren't known for our affection for mainstream culture. It's significant then that the Lead Producer Corey St John tells me the Sims Showtime was “totally inspired by performance reality shows” like X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent.

In Showtime, you take an aspiring acrobat, magician, singer or DJ from small-time busking for change to their first paid gig and onto performing massive concerts in arenas (or as near as the Sims 3's engine can produce to an arena.)

When these performing Sims take up their new career, they start out at a pretty lowly level – singers start as candygrams, complete with a bellhop outfit, whilst acrobats can start by juggling batons. Magicians, we presume begin by stealing a top hat and some rabbits.

As they level up their skills, they perform more reliably and get access to more difficult activities. Notably, compared to earlier Sims 3 careers, where your characters levelled up off-screen, these are very interactive and visual; you see the Magician putting the sword into the cabinet containing a volunteer Sim. Other sims can also take part, throwing cabbages or roses, heckling and praising.

To get the big gigs, your Sim has to somehow make contact with a venue owner and persuade them to let them have a try-out. Once this happens though, the game really ramps up. From here on in, players can start building their own custom stage sets, complete with themes, special effects, fireworks, light shows and so on.

The DJ career is notably different from the others. Aaron Conners, Lead Designer; “lots of DJs moonlight. We thought it would be really cool if you could be both a celebrity DJ and businessman or politician.” Hence DJs learn their trade by using a home DJ booth and training it as a skill, though like the other careers they can still perform at a huge venue eventually.

Possibly more important than the actual expansion is the way it expands The Sims 3 into social networking. Firstly, EA has introduced a new achievement system which provides the player with in-game rewards and badges. Then EA allows players to set their game up to tweet or put on Facebook these special moments. On top of that, there's also an in-game social network, complete with walls and partially integrated with EA's Origin download system, alongside a new system called SimPort. Sadly, automation is only restricted to achievements - we wish each Sim had its own wall so her or she could post banal updates about wetting themselves.

SimPort allows you to send your Sim off to another player's world. The way the team described it, initially it's intended to allow your Showtime Sims to go on tour in other towns. While out there, they may get rewards. Sadly, they can't die or get pregnant on tour (too realistic), instead suffering a “near-death” experience. Or a near-pregnancy experience, I guess.

Of course, there's all the usual stuff that expansions add as well; new outfits, new gadgets (including a pool table, jukebox, arcade machines and a mechanical bull), new venues, new lot types and a whole new town, Starlight Shores, that's a cross between Los Angeles and San Francisco, complete with Simlish Hollywood sign.

Showtime has the same hook as trashy war films or gung-ho sci-fi, with you as the hero, the focus of attention, with thousands screaming your name. It may seem more grounded in our everyday world than those, but it's a fantasy for many more people and equally unattainable.