Sunday, August 28, 2011

This is what I wrote about the sims social before I stopped caring

The sims social is creepy. It’s another layer of simulacra past facebook itself, expressed in a little character who lives their “real life” inside a game inside your fake life on facebook inside of your real life. The sims series has always been kind of odd, being a virtual dollhouse simulator with simplified depictions of the minutiae of daily life. Your most obvious goal is simply to keep the sim alive in their early-oughts-era reality and culture. You could set other goals for yourself though, such as fantastic career choices and earning the highest amount of skill at a creative endeavor or simply bedding and wedding a mate and having children who later go on to grow up and move out and generally continue the inevitable and relentless march of time. I don’t need to describe it to you really, as it’s one of the best selling (possibly the bestselling, but I don’t feel like looking it up) games on the PC and is famous for being immensely popular with the sort of people who would not touch the typical gaming fare (monsters, dungeons, competition, all that).

It’s a game about REAL LIFE which is also one of Mr. Ghetto’s genres according to his myspace. Except, of course, it’s a gamified (now apparently a word. Thanks, bloggers) version of real life where doing the normal sort of things you do in real life fill up certain bars and cause your sim to become more satisfied, at least until those bars empty with the inevitable passage of time. Gamification is the next big trend in everything, if Kurzweilites are to be believed. Already we see a trend of increasing adoption of things like Fitocracy, and foursquare, both featuring rewards for otherwise mundane things performed separately from the software. The concept is that by attaching intangible rewards to certain actions, these actions can be encouraged. Hilariously, this is the principle that marketing has been operating under for the last hundred or so years. The Sim represents the perfectly gamified life, with a visual display detailing exactly what the sim wants or needs and how much. The result, which is an angle that many critics of gamification take, is that the sims live out their lives bouncing from need fulfillment to need fulfillment, with nary another thought in their heads than to fill the simplified and reductive bars.

But all that is a separate essay. I just wanted to talk about how weird it is to play characters in a game that are capable of forming romantic relationships with one another without respect to the players behind the game. Since the barrier to entry for being able to interact with another sim is to be friends with facebook, there has to already be some kind of acquaintance with the person whose sim your sim is interacting with. The interactions themselves can then lend themselves to some degree of awkwardness between the two of you. My sim shared a romantic kiss with my cousin’s sim, for example. It then asked if I wanted to date her, with of course a message asking her to confirm. Given that dating is entirely separate from relationship status on your facebook this leads to a lot of potentially weird “you’re cheating on my through a virtual character in a virtual space” problems down the line. I do want to praise the game for supporting homosexual relationships (even better, technically bisex cause you’re not really locked either way) but it does proscribe a pretty rigid definition of a relationship otherwise. My cousin (the hussy) ended up dating her female friend shortly after I declined to try dating her (kiss and run the fuck away, that’s me) and when I returned to suck face once more, I was stopped by another prompt suggesting that I suggest to her that she break up her relationship with her friend. Hilarious, but disappointingly rigid. I would much rather I could romance all the people I know at once, because that is not awkward at all. I understand there’s a bunch of other potential relationship types you can get into with people (saw “frenemy” on a list of requirements for an action somewhere. Totes gonna do that) so we’ll see how it goes. Seems the only way you can express any real affection (well, beside hugging) is through dating, though. So rigid.

Of course the game itself has all kinds of other problems. Food is free and limitless and always stocked. Your sim in the sims social can’t even get a job, it just spends all its time painting, cooking, musicing, or writing (or weeding. Mine is weeding) like some kind of awful trust fund hipster. Also alcohol and parties are off limits, though you can dance one on one with other people. Cohabitation is also out, but that’s okay because you live in a rent and mortgage free house. I’m sure a lot of people would tell me “It’s just a game, it’s not gonna be perfect” but I feel that’s missing the point. This isn’t just any game, this is a simulation of real life, except the simulation is not really of real life, but of an upper-middle-class suburban consumerist modern western idealized life. I’m not going to be as crass as to ask for a “living in a roach infested crackhouse with two kids and your dealer” mode, but I am going to challenge any even remote claims towards realism. This is of course now three games removed from the original concept of sims, developed by Maxis under Will Wright, a man known for creating relevant and fairly realistic (under certain theories, of course) simulations. It used to be back in the day Sid Meier and Will Wright were big names precisely for these sort of games, which sold pretty well and were emblematic of PC gaming as a whole. This is the era of Rollercoaster Tycoon and SimAnt and Civilization and SimEarth. What’s interesting about these games is that they almost completely collapsed as an economically viable genre with the advent of 3D gameplay. With the booming development cost and time, weird side projects like what the Sims was back in the day became liabilities for the companies that produced them. They wouldn’t sell because they catered to a relatively small audience to begin with. Costs outstripped potential revenue. The Sims is essentially a holdover from that era, an exception to the rule. After the Sims sold as amazingly as it did, EA bought out the developers, Maxis, and started putting the franchise through the modern product cycle concept (releasing a version for all potential platforms, cheaply producing new content for large profit margins, etc.) and essentially milked as much as it could out of The Sims. With the Sims 3, EA actually took Maxis entirely off the project (they went on to make Spore, and after that was out the door Wright left to start his own new company thing, currently producing a TV show call “Bar Karma,” which is about a bar at the end of the universe that helps people fix their karma.) and assigned a new team named “The Sims Studios” to create the game. They are responsible for the game I am currently playing.

SimCity doesn’t have much of a better story. SimCity 4 was the last real SimCity, and the last one produced by Maxis. The Sims was meant to be a spinoff that integrated with SimCity 4 (you could move your sims to your city! And then do very little with them. Booo.) but ended up vastly outselling SimCity 4. Later, EA, who now own the rights to SimCity, decided that the series was just in need of a reboot and not just a graphical update and extra features, so they put another developer (Ea is a publisher, first and foremost) whose name I don’t recall on a project to create “SimCity Societies” which was billed as “the first social engineering simulator.” It was complete shit. Actually, it shares a lot of similarities with “CityVille,” or CityVille’s true progenitor, “Social City.”

So has been the narrative for the recent history of the games industry. In the nineties and especially in the eighties, production costs for a video game were incredibly low, though sales didn’t start ramping up until the mid nineties. As time has gone on, the graphical quality and inherent complexity of these games has ballooned development costs to the point where companies will spend more than Film budgets creating their triple-A top billing, guaranteed sell titles. I understand that between advertising and development, Modern Warfare 2 cost over 200 million dollars. Of course they made over a Billion in revenue, so it was totally worth it for the studio. However even spending a fraction of that, say 20 million, to produce a game for a niche audience is not likely to bring back any real returns. The average video game sells between 50,000 and 200,000 copies. At $60 each, that’s only $3-$12 million in revenue. So the games industry ends up being ruthlessly egalitarian and endlessly creative in finding alternative revenue streams through things like downloadable content packs (which are often produced right alongside the game, so as to potentially net another $10-15 bucks off of people who buy the game.) and pre-order bonuses.

That’s all I really have to say.

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