What we want from The Sims 4
After five years of The Sims 3, Maxis is stepping up a generation with The Sims 4. It was announced earlier this month, and it's due out next year. Details are still very thin on the ground, aside from the fact that it will be possible to play it offline. But what do we want to see from the next step in life simulation/digital psychopathery? We have a few ideas...
The Sims themselves
They're the stars, so they're the obvious starting point. The Sims has always been part-life, part doll-house, and both sides are important. This time though, we'd like to see the scale push a little more to playing with people who actually feel like people, not incontinent husks after an overly ambitious lobotomy. While there should be the option to dive in and take that level of control, by default it would be good to be in more of a managerial role - a puppet master, but not actually using a puppet. Especially if that puppet is as incompetent at life as the average Sim.
Essentially, we're thinking of The Sims as a human story generator, where acts can have long-term repercussions and the complex world can lend itself to emergent narrative. A hostile Sim giving your characters the equivalent of the classic Sims plague hamster for instance, as a Trojan horse type attack on your household for past offences, or where a threesome can become a longer-term issue. Fewer bars. More drama. With the option for pure sandbox play of course, if you'd rather have a more controllable environment to make your own.
Countering that though, we'd also love to see a more direct editing mode, with direct in-game access to recording, photography and scripting, to allow for The Movies style machinima and even potentially social games using Sims characters. Imagine for instance building a mansion in The Sims, and inviting a few friends around to take part in a murder mystery plot, with DM style powers over the environment. Now factor in how much things could grow as the game inevitably expands over time, not simply with packs of new objects and settings, but dedicated tools to effectively allow your Sims into RPG type environments. We're not talking Neverwinter Nights here, with monsters to fight and all that kind of stuff, but the equivalent of a Lego playset taking full advantage of having a PC behind them to offer a few hundred extra hands
The Sims, much like SimCity, has always suffered from a very limited view of where people live, how towns and cities work, and that not every house is a quiet suburb. For Sims 4, it would be good to open that out - at some point, if not at launch - with inner cities, villages, and crazier locations, like a Jetsons style future. The Sims 3 already added locations like Sunlight Tides and Twinbrook as expansions, but this time it would be good to see a more varied map at launch.
A small section of a city offers particularly interesting potential due to the closer-nature and greater number of neighbours to deal with, especially when drama turns everything into a pressure cooker. An annoyed neighbour on the other side of a wall is a very different matter to an irked one down the road, but equally, a close friend is all the closer.
In keeping with the dramatic element, it would also be interesting to see the environment play a greater role in making stories happen - a neighbourhood suffering a natural disaster for instance, or a Project Zomboid type system where Sims have to last during a zombie invasion. The joy of a sandbox environment is that anything can happen, and the more lifelike the Sims become, the more fun it is to see how they react to the unexpected and bridge the gap between game and story. Besides, it's not as if The Sims has ever been afraid to mix things up a little, with the addition of expansions like Supernatural. This would just take it up a level.
There will be expansions. We know there will be expansions. The Sims 3 hit 10 without breaking a sweat, and that's just big things like World Adventures and Late Night, not the likes of "Movie Stuff" or "Katy Perry's Sweet Treats". And honestly, that's good. The Sims 3 will never be able to pack all of that stuff into its initial release, but we'll almost certainly get some of it.
Were this from anyone other than EA, this is the part we'd say "Steam Workshop Integration", but since that has about as much chance as a kerosene covered snowball in the deepest pits of hell, there's no real point. More player-generated content would be great though, ideally with in-game tools to buy and build it, and reward creators within the game's fiction. A complex, well-documented script language on top of this would then allow more tech-savvy players to really dive into the mechanics, and everyone else to easily enjoy the fruits of their work.
(Wouldn't this kill the expansions? Far from it. Expansions would not only be able to tap into a deeper layer of code to add new features and systems players wouldn't, builders using their tools would also be acting as marketing. You want that adorable kitten? You'll still need, say, The Sims 4: Oh Look, Pets Again to give it the hooks it needs to be part of your game. It's always amazing to see what players can create with even the simplest tools though, and few games would benefit more from it than The Sims. I for instance would quite like a huge magical castle in the middle of the suburbs, guarded by a Knightmare Wall Monster. And also in The Sims 4.)
The Sims 3 expansion model actually works pretty well - big, dramatic themed packs that build on the core game. Put the focus on in-game access rather than boxed releases and they could be much faster and more focused. It's hard to imagine EA not doing some kind of Season Pass for Sims 4 content, and that makes sense. Expansion content that we want to see in the core game though include Pets, Generations (with the option to switch off) and the Ikea objects pack. As a gesture of compromise, we're willing to sacrifice the last one if it means getting the other two.
Oh, and please, no Katy Perry.
The Sims Online (Or Not)
(Yes, the picture represents the shambling corpse that is SimCity's always-online mode.)
The words 'Sims' and 'Online' currently go together like two angry cats in a sack, so it's not too surprising that Maxis has gone out of its way to describe Sims 4 as "this single-player offline experience." Honestly? Good. Even if SimCity hadn't beaten the idea of an always-online game around the face and neck with a sledgehammer, always-online and The Sims don't go together.
There is scope for a good online experience though, from the social games mentioned earlier, to more obvious things like being able to send Sims into other players' neighbourhoods to admire the furniture and secretly try to stir up trouble with the neighbours. Again, this plays to the drama element, with lots of scope visitor from out-of-town coming in, breaking up a loving couple, putting the Sims equivalent of the Narwhals song on the stereo as loud as possible and leaving it playing all day while the neighbours scream, or rudely turning out to be a vampire.
They may also bring pie.
A shared online neighbourhood, using always-online concepts if you are online also has potential, for both playing with friends, or setting up polite competitions over who can make the nicest house or get their kids to astronaut school the fastest. Despite its protestations, that's not an impossibility. Maxis needs to distance itself from SimCity right now, but much of that pain will have faded and at least allow for optimism by the time the final game rolls around in 2014.
Those are some of our wants for The Sims 4. What would you like to see added, removed, taken out and shot, or for Maxis' life-weavers to particularly focus on this time around?