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The history of The Sims reveals a revolutionary game that was doubted time and again. People called it "the toilet game," and it might not have taken off so quickly without a pivotal kiss.

The Sims took the mundane activities of life and turned them into an addictive experience that changed gaming forever.

Erin breaks down the history of The Sims in this episode of Throwback, from SimAnt to SimCity and everything in between.

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Music By:

Franck Bernard Woodbridge
Klaus Oberheim & Dave Odyssey
Clarke Nicholas & Marius De La Mer
Jason Bauer
Loic Farrouk Ghanem
David Habermehl
Nicolas Boscovic & Tom Hillock

Images:
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“Sims” (Dan R. Krauss)
“Sims4” (Juergen Scahwarz)
“Sims people” (Frazer Harrison)“Sims box” (David Silverman)
“Sims scenes” (David McNew)
“SimCity” (Kevork Djansezian)
“Mars colony” (Sylphe_7)
“Fire” (mack2happy)“Robot” (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez)
“Gamers” (Chung Sung-Jun)
“Doll house” (PeopleImages)
“VO” (Nicola Katie)
“Perry” (Imeh Akpanudosen)
“Black Eyed Peas” (Dimitrios Kambouris)

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Public Domain

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“SimCity disk’ (Dulamas)
“SimCity 2000” (Zeartul)
“LSU” (nowhereman86)
“La. Tech” (Stirlingrb )
“The New School” (Beyond My Ken)
CC 2.0
“EA Pride” (InSapphoWeTrust)

CC 2.5
“Commodore 64” (Bill Bertram)

CC 4.0
“Sims Logo” (Urielplumb)
In the year 2000, kids could do chores  and frustrate their parents at the same time.

An addictive video game called The Sims  made it possible. Washing digital dishes and mowing pixelated lawns might not seem like  the way to create a pop culture sensation, but creator Will Wright didn’t do things in  a conventional way.

This is a man who once won a cross-country car race by donning  night vision goggles and turning his headlights off so no cops would notice  he was driving over 100 miles an hour. The Sims is one of the most successful video  game franchises ever made, but its road to PC popularity was as unconventional as its creator. It includes digital ant farms, a brief period when it was known as “the toilet game,” and a  real-world house fire that would prove pivotal in The Sims’ quest to redefine what gaming could be.

It’s all next on this installment of Throwback. Growing up in Atlanta, Will Wright dreamed of  becoming an astronaut. He didn’t just want to suit up for NASA, though—he wanted to colonize outer  space to relieve overpopulation problems on Earth.

He was also fascinated by architecture  and engineering. Wright started attending Louisiana State University at the age  of 16, transferred to Louisiana Tech, dropped out, and eventually studied robotics  at the New School in Manhattan. He entered robot fighting tournaments and won by having  his robot wrap the other combatants in gauze, rendering them immobile.

A clever strategy, but  one also quickly banned in competition. Coupled with his knowledge of economics and military  history, Wright’s eclectic background was laying the groundwork for a singular career in gaming. After getting married and moving to Oakland, California, Wright decided to try his hand  at programming a game on his Commodore 64.

The result was Raid on Bungeling Bay, a  helicopter simulation that tasked players with destroying enemy strongholds on an island. It was a big hit, selling well in the PC gaming market and even moving over one million Nintendo  Entertainment System cartridges, mostly in Japan. It was while programming all this mayhem that  Wright discovered something about himself.

While the airborne attacks were fun, he  was much more interested in writing the code for the buildings that players  would destroy. That got him thinking about a simulator that would allow users  to erect buildings and then entire cities, acting as a kind of virtual urban planner. Wright was inspired by works like Urban Dynamics, a 1969 book by MIT professor Jay Wright Forrester  that argued urban development would be better suited for artificial intelligence than humans so  it wouldn’t be compromised by intuitive biases.

The game, which he called SimCity, allowed players  to build roads, erect schools, and fret over crime rates. They could adjust over 100 variables, but  those adjustments would each have a consequence. If you had a rise in crime, for  example, your population would go down.

Occasionally, an unforeseen occurrence like an  earthquake or meteorite shower disrupted things. Wright took the idea to Broderbund, the company  that had released Raid on Bungeling Bay, but they weren’t interested. They wanted  to market games that people could win—games that featured helicopters launching missiles.

Fortunately, Wright had a chance encounter in 1987 with Jeff Braun, an entrepreneur who made  font software and wanted to get into the video game industry. While at a pizza party thrown  by a mutual friend, Wright and Braun hit it off and later co-founded the Maxis software  company, which released SimCity in 1989. The game was a slow seller at first.

For months,  Wright was reportedly doing all the tech support out of Braun’s apartment. But the game started  picking up steam thanks to word of mouth, and in June of that year, it was featured in the  New York Times with professors of urban planning praising the game and pledging to introduce it to  their classrooms. By 1992 it had sold an estimated one million copies and was the vanguard  of an entirely new genre of computer game, designed around building something rather  than destruction or battle.

As successful as SimCity was, though, it was Wright’s next  project that would make him a gaming celebrity. But in order for that to happen, his  house apparently had to burn down. SimCity resulted in a number of spin-off titles  for Maxis, including SimAnt, which allowed players to oversee a prospering ant colony in a  residential backyard.

I played SimAnt at my friend Melissa’s house when we were, like, 8, along with  another game called Life & Death

II: The Brain, where you would diagnose brain  injuries and simulate brain surgery. I was obviously a cool kid. The Brain taught me that you should never put someone with a pacemaker in  an MRI, an important lesson for pre-teens. Today, you can play both SimAnt and Life &  Death

II: The Brain in an Internet browser, and through hours of what I’m gonna call research,  I’ve discovered that I’m not any better at being an ant or a brain surgeon now than when I was 8. Anyway, while Wright was designing SimAnt, he was somewhat amused to realize that the game’s ants  were seemingly smarter than the lumbering humans who sometimes threatened to step on them. That  got Wright thinking about artificial intelligence in games and how far it could really go. At the same time, Wright was also tinkering with a concept that he named Doll House.

As you might  expect, it revolved around building a domestic existence with virtual occupants. If SimCity was  about citywide planning, Doll House narrowed the scope even further to a single residence. Then disaster struck.

Wright woke up one morning in 1991 to the smell of smoke and an  encroaching wildfire near his home in Oakland. Gathering his wife and a few neighbors—his  daughter was visiting a friend—Wright fled the scene, driving through the spreading  flames. When he returned a few days later, his house was destroyed.

His other car  was just a melted puddle of metal. There were two bright spots in this  stressful event. For one thing, Wright had taken his code for SimAnt out  of his house and into his office two weeks earlier, saving that game from destruction.

More  importantly, as he began purchasing new household goods like dishes and furniture, he started  thinking about the concept of material goods and property and how they related to a person’s  happiness. Losing so many possessions made him realize what he valued most: relationships. Maybe the Doll House game could be made better if the people inside of it became the focus  rather than the buildings themselves.

How a player designed their environment and nourished  their social interactions would determine their satisfaction. These were principles Wright  got from works like A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, Sarah Ihsikawa, and  Murray Silverstein, which argued that certain patterns can create satisfying living spaces. Wright also drew from psychological research that stated physiological needs were less  important than things like safety, love, and self-esteem.

He actually intended the game, on  one level, to be a satirical take on consumerism. As time went on, Wright continued to build out  his world. The virtual people, dubbed Sims, would be able to spend currency called simoleons,  and their purchases could have a material effect on their happiness.

If they got a cheap mattress,  for example, they might not have much comfort or energy. But if they sprung for an expensive  bed, their quality of life would improve. It sounded like another hit for  both Wright and his Sim franchise.

Even better, he co-owned a software company,  so distribution wouldn’t be a problem. But as we’ve learned, the genius of Will Wright is  not always easy to communicate. Not long after he pitched the idea to the executives at Maxis, his  Doll House game got a new title—The Toilet Game.

Wright may have been a co-founder of Maxis, but he  still had to convince his colleagues that a game in which players bought spoons and hung out in  their homes was a good idea. It was a hard sell, even for a company whose flagship title involved  laying water pipe and dealing with zoning issues. The game quickly became known as the one  Maxis property where players would be expected to clean toilets.

Aside from that,  executives were afraid a virtual doll house wouldn’t appeal to what they perceived  as a male-skewing video game audience. Wright pressed on. When focus groups arranged  by Maxis also vetoed the idea, he focused on projects like SimCity 2000—my favorite game  in the Sims franchise, by the way.

In 1996, however, Wright decided to enlist a programmer  to work on the Doll House game covertly. While he continued his SimCity spin-offs, like  SimGolf and SimIsle, Wright never stopped pursuing what would soon be referred to as The Sims. His big break came in 1997, when Maxis was purchased by video game giant Electronic Arts.

EA  was a powerhouse thanks to their sports titles, including the Madden NFL franchise. Despite their reputation for action games, EA was more receptive to The Sims and gave  Wright permission to continue working on it. The Sims flourished at the developmental level.

Wright assigned a number of key traits like hunger, hygiene, and even bladder relief that  would be factored into how happy a Sim could be. While commerce was important and  Sims should work for their money, Wright also liked subverting the commerce-driven  nature of the game by building in cheat codes that granted the player thousands of free simoleons. Wright also wanted his Sims to converse with one another.

Originally, they were going to speak a  language that would be unfamiliar to most players, like Navajo or Ukrainian. But when audio  engineers recruited actors from the Bay area to record the dialogue, they had trouble  getting through the unfamiliar words. Instead, the actors, who had an improv background,  suggested an improv exercise where they used nonsensical words to tell a coherent story.

The resulting babble became a language known as Simlish. It has a number of  word-for-word translations—sul-sul means “hello,” for example—but it’s largely  gibberish. Simlish later became so popular that musicians like Katy Perry and the Black-eyed Peas  re-recorded some of their hits in the language.

Not all language in The Sims is total nonsense. Play the game long enough and you’ll be able to pick up on a few recurring words. Nooboo means “baby.” Badeesh or vadish means “thanks.” Blursh means “get out of my way.” Dooby zession means “detonation.” Awasa poa means “I’m bored.” Minicule means “cat.” Let’s try it.

Blursh! Awasa poa and I want to dooby  zession my minicule. See?

It’s easy. Wright spent years developing and refining  The Sims to be as immersive as possible, with many of the activities available in real life  available to his Sims. But the game’s programmers were still hounded by rumors that Maxis and  Electronic Arts could kill it at any time.

The SimCity franchise was so successful that they  worried the so-called Toilet Game could damage its reputation. It would take an unlikely expression  of affection during an electronics convention to fully allow The Sims to move full speed ahead. When it came time to showcase the game during the 1999 Electronics Entertainment Expo, or E3, in  Los Angeles, California, Electronic Arts didn’t offer much support.

Amid all the pageantry of the  convention, The Sims was tucked into a small booth and hardly registered with those in attendance. That changed with the kiss. Some background.

When Wright was developing the  game, there was a lot of internal discussion at Maxis over whether it should depict same-sex  relationships. Sims could date and show affection, and even get married, but LGBTQ advocacy had not  yet reached the video game industry at large. In fact, Maxis had received some unwanted attention  after firing a gay programmer in 1996.

The man had inserted some scantily clad “studly guys” into  SimCopter without authorization, leading to his termination and speculation in some corners that  Maxis was an anti-gay company. When it came to the Sims, the company didn’t want to provide fodder  to its critics, but there was concern that gay characters might draw criticism from politicians  or other watchdog groups, and so the decision was made to leave it out of the game’s code. Then something unexpected happened.

A programmer named Patrick J. Barrett III was asked to  work on some coding related to the game’s social interactions—essentially the rules for  its artificial intelligence. By this time, Maxis had decided not to pursue  same-sex relationships in The Sims, but the document Barrett was given was an old  version.

So he went to work, not realizing the guidelines he had been given were out of date. A short time later, Barrett was told to prepare three scenes from the game to display at E3. These  sequences would be pre-planned, meaning the game would run them independently of any player.

One  scene consisted of a wedding between two straight Sims. There were so many attendees at the wedding  that programmers didn’t have time to prescribe every background character’s actions, including  two female Sims seated next to one another. In front of a gathering crowd at E3, these  digital women decided—via the game’s artificial intelligence—that they enjoyed each other’s  company enough to start sucking major face.

Despite being showcased in a small booth, The  Sims quickly became the talk of E3. The kiss also dismissed any talk of Electronic Arts canceling  the game. It was now on the radar of a video game industry that was developing a real curiosity  over what exactly Will Wright was up to.

Prior to The Sims being released in February  2000, Wright thought it might be popular enough to sell one million copies. On the other hand,  he believed it might only sell 50 copies. There wasn’t much precedent to try and figure out how  the PC gaming market would respond to a game that attempted to simulate a typical American life.

The Sims quickly exceeded all expectations, going on to sell 16 million copies and becoming  the best selling PC game in each of the four years following its release. It was eclipsed  only by its sequel, The Sims 2, in 2004. Rather than damage an existing franchise  in SimCity, The Sims built a brand-new one.

Expansion packs started being released at  regular intervals, which opened the world of The Sims to include house parties, dates,  vacations, and more. The Sims 3 followed in 2009, and The Sims 4 in 2014. Players started sharing  custom houses and characters with other players, building online communities on  top of their virtual communities.

So why did The Sims work? For Wright, it was a  matter of people seeing reflections of themselves. It was captivating to watch this human  ant farm unfold on computer screens, with behaviors dictated by how well  players took care of their characters.

There was pleasure to be had in the  virtual pursuit of their happiness. And unlike a lot of first-person shooters popular  at the time, The Sims was full of regular people. Being silly and spouting babble, they had charm.

That E3 kiss may have foreshadowed another important aspect of the game. The Sims  world was inclusive. The series introduced gay marriage with its third installment in 2009— a  time when only a handful of states in the U.

S. permitted same-sex unions. And in 2019, the first  pre-made non-binary character was made available. The Sims franchise has now sold over 200  million copies worldwide.

It’s also found itself as part of a Museum of Modern Art  exhibition and regularly releases expansion packs to broaden the scope of The Sims universe,  which effectively began with ants. As for

Wright: He went on to develop a game titled Spore that  was released in 2008 and followed a single-celled organism to world domination. Wright once said if  the entire game was explored to its fullest, it would take 79 years, without rest, to complete. But his best-known creation remains The Sims, which is interesting. The kid who once dreamed  of solving overpopulation wound up contributing billions of virtual members to society.

Then again, they do take up less space. I’m Erin McCarthy. Thanks for watching.

Atohteh!