Q&A: Sims executive producer Rod Humble

The head of the Sims talks about why there isn't an Xbox version of Sims 2 Pets, how Will Wright sees the Sims staff as his own Sims, and next-gen plans.

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This week, Electronic Arts announced the latest Sims project, The Sims 2 Pets. It will be released as an expansion for the PC, and as a full Sims game on consoles and handhelds--the second Sims 2 game for such platforms.

The Sims games have done very well on the PC side, but the console counterparts haven't exactly broken the bank. GameSpot had a chance to sit down with Rod Humble, executive producer for The Sims, and talk about the obstacles the developer faces in trying to market the console editions to gamers, as well as plans for The Sims in the next generation.

GameSpot: How much of the decision to go with Sims 2 Pets was due to the voice of the Sims community?

Rod Humble: An awful lot. We realize that an easy trap to fall into would be to retread old ground that we did on Sims 1. So we really like to push in a new direction for one expansion pack and then give players what they're asking for with another expansion pack.

The spring one is usually where we try and do something new creatively or try a new life experience. And then in the fall [expansion] we give everybody what they're asking for. So last year was Nightlife and this year is definitely Pets. And we had a lot of fun with it.

GS: How is The Sims 2 Pets going to be different from the Unleashed expansion from the original Sims?

RH: Well, you can create your own pets, which is really kind of awesome. So you make little tiger dogs and cats and you can modify just about every aspect of the animal. Also of course, it's got the more advanced personalities of the Sims 2 core product and it's pretty much improved in every way. Also, your pets can have these really fun careers, where you've got the career ladder. They can actually keep you as a pampered human.

GS: You decided to put out full console versions for The Sims 2 Pets, but you didn't do it for Nightlife or other PC add-ons for the Sims 2. What was it about this one that made you decide to go with the consoles again?

RH: It's such a strong theme that we wanted to have a unified launch. We've never done that before--PC, and console, and handheld--and we really wanted to invest in consoles going forward on the franchise. And this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

GS: Okay. Why isn't there an Xbox version? I mean...there's a GameCube version!

RH: Well, it was a long decision and obviously the Xbox 360 is having a fantastic year, and we just looked at how it would be this holiday season, standing up against what is going to be a great holiday season for the Xbox 360, and given our current-gen focus it didn't quite make sense. Obviously we look forward to making 360 versions in the future.

GS: All of the PC versions of Sims games do really well in retail. What have you added to the console versions of the Sims 2 Pets to try and lure in consumers from the consoles market?

RH: Well, we went nuts again. As you know, we don't like to make life easy for ourselves--so we made different designs on several different platforms. So the Game Boy Advance and the DS versions, although they have a pets theme and they have the core gameplay, they're very different from the rest of the lineup.

On the DS you're running a Sim as a veterinarian, and you run a little pet hospital, which is kind of cool because you get some structure to the gameplay, which was missing before. And the Game Boy Advance version is actually a fairly deep role-playing game. The PS2 edition is the more advanced version of what we did last year. It's got a bunch of extra features--they're in the build mode, which is looking really cool. And the PSP is similar to the PS2 version, as is the GameCube.

GS: Relative to the PC, why do you think that the Sims games have had difficulty cracking the console market?

RH: You rightly point out, they don't usually break the top-five weekly best-seller list, but over time they do sell very well. They're very, very strong back-catalog sellers for us. Which is great. They've also had more success on handhelds than consoles. And I think some of that is to do with the private-versus-public experiences that are fun about the Sims.

So there are some stories that you tell in the Sims that you don't necessarily want in the living room in front of your family or friends. And that probably explains why handheld does well as does PCs, because they're used in the study. But on the other hand there are many experiences in the Sims that you do want public and they're usually creativity based, so here's the house I built, here's the amusing situation that I've set up, or here's something cool that's happened.

So we tried to turn the dial this year on the PlayStation 2 and GameCube designs more in that direction. So the build is a lot more robust and the housing lots are just beautiful, and there's a lot more going on that you can enjoy as a spectator and point out to your family as well. So those are the measures we've taken to address that.

GS: What are the plans to bring the Sims to next-gen systems? It seems really well suited for microtransactions, and maybe the ability to make movies and share them online.

RH: Yeah, we are looking at moving to a whole bunch of platforms in the next year or so. We like the transactions, we're very mindful that we want the game design to drive any kind of business model, not the other way around. So we're always very, very careful of that. We don't just want to force things in for the sake of forcing things in. We are doing it in the future, though we're not announcing it yet, but we will for sure.

GS: Do you think with microtransactions you'd be doing it in packs, or would people be able to buy just one chair as opposed to a whole living-room ensemble?

RH: Well, we've looked at both methods. What's working for us right now on the PC is [stock] packs, which we deliberately chose not to do those by microtransactions, and instead we just wanted a nice bundle of stuff that you could go into a store and pick up, because there are a lot of people who weren't online, who weren't going to the exchange and downloading items. And it's been very successful for us.

It was a lot of fun looking at the top 10 PC charts this spring and seeing, you know, kid's furniture ranking up there at number one. And then number two. So that worked well for us. I mean, really, we're customer focused. We're not going to be driven by a particular business model that may or may not make sense for our customers.

GS: I'm a cat person. And I noticed a lot of it seems to be dog driven, and there's some cats, but what other kind of pets can the gamers expect to play with?

RH: Well, you and me both, actually. I always do the same thing, I always talk about cats first. But you can have cats, dogs, birds, and caged animals, including the guinea pig, who's amazingly adorable. And then obviously you can also make your own pets as well. So there's a nice variety. Also you get stray animals coming onto your lot as well, who can cause some trouble.

GS: How much involvement does Will Wright have in the series now? Is he just too busy doing his Spore thing now or what?

RH: Will Wright is dead to me. [Laughs.] No I'm kidding. Will Wright is a very creatively, very generous man. So if ever we have a question or we want to involve Will, he will always, always get involved. He enjoys watching what people will make out of creativity tools.

You might want to ask him, but my hunch is he gets kind of the same kick out of watching game developers take his original idea and see what they do with it. I think he gets a lot of pleasure out of it. But you know, Will will answer any questions we have. We do try and respect the fact that he loves to focus on whatever his current baby is.

GS: Almost five years have passed between the Sims and the Sims 2. What do you think are the sort of lifecycles for different Sims games? What I mean is, when do you see Sims 3 coming out, or Sims 4?

RH: I don't know if there's any fixed lifecycle for the Sims franchise because I think that it can go a lot more places. Part of the mandate that I had when I took over the position is to really break this franchise out into a more mainstream audience. So the way I like to look at the franchise is walk into a bookstore and take every video game you know and just place them on a shelf in the bookstore. And I think you'll find they tend to cluster a lot in certain areas in the bookstore. And I want the Sims to fill up the rest of the bookstore.

In drama, romantic comedy... the whole bookstore I want to fill up with the Sims because it's a game, it's a franchise that can take in all of real life. So, in the future years you should expect brand-new and original game designs that in no way are linked to the original game systems, which will just deal with different aspects of life. So, it's going to be pretty exciting.

GS: Thanks, Rod.

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