Domestic mischief continues with The Sims 4

Electronic Art’s latest simulation game places the attention back on the Sims.

After a slew of expansion packs for Sims 3, Electronic Arts is making a clean start with Sims 4. This time around the game returns the focus to the Sims themselves, introducing more intelligent behaviour and reactions for the virtual inhabitants. The game also comes with a new and improved look thanks to the latest PC hardware.

We sat down with Maxis producer, Graham Nardone, to talk about what’s new for the Sims the fourth time around.

What became the key focus of Sims 4?

Maxis producer, Graham Nardone (GN): One big piece to focus on in Sims 4 was the Sims themselves. It is the fourth iteration of the franchise and we’re coming in on our fifteen year anniversary in February, so when you start thinking about the wealth of content you have built over so many years, the Sims were always there. At some point you are building all this stuff, and you can kind of lose focus on what the core of the franchise really is, which is the Sims. We wanted to make sure when we were building Sims 4, we are creating a big focus on those characters, making brand new ones that feel really alive and believable.

What role does expanded emotions play

GN: Things such as emotions really add a lot of depth to the gameplay, depending on what emotion your Sim has, and the way they socialise with other Sims. It is very contextual and is completely different from one set of behaviour to another, same with interacting with other objects. Depending on the way your Sim is feeling, they have different interactions on all sorts of things throughout the world. Adding that not only gave some depth to the gameplay, but also made them much more believable. So you can start to empathise with your Sims and feel things along with them, see it really come to life in their faces, and in the way they express themselves. All this builds into making the Sims as a great foundation for the game.

Why introduce an integrated gallery download system?

GN: Being able to share content between each other is a great feature, and empowers people to create really cool stuff. We brought that entirely in-game, and we call it the gallery. One of the things we really looked at with Sims 3 was the way we let players share content. You would create something in-game, save it, and then have to go to an external web site and upload it there. Other players who wanted to browse that content had to go to that website and find, download, and install it through a launcher before relaunching the game. It was a cumbersome process, and it’s really crazy when you hear about something like 500 million downloads from this exchange. When we looked at the number of players who were actually using it, it was a small percentage of our overall player base, something like 12 to 15 per cent.

How easy is it to access user-created content?

GN: It really is there throughout the entire experience with the Sims 4, so you can open it at any time and download another Sim, home or individual rooms if you just want to add them to your existing home. Being able to share content that quickly and easily, and have it anywhere in your game so you can instantly pull something in, is really going to empower people to start using that more often. The greatest reward of building something is seeing somebody else enjoying it, and that is going to continue to grow as we move along and see what players want out of it.

What inspired Sims 4?

GN: When people ask about that, it seems natural to want to take pieces from elsewhere. But honestly I feel the Sims is an established brand and we really have our own sense of style and the way we approach gameplay and humour, and how we have this optimistic take on life. There is a lot about the franchise that is very important to our long-time fans, and that’s part of what hooks people into it. So we have this great wealth of knowledge in our studio, people have been here since the original Sims. I joined right when Sims 3 was released, and even though I didn’t have that same background, that knowledge of what a Sims game is just gets passed down because those people are in our studio. So we really don’t look externally too much in terms of other games. Certainly we look at what’s going on in culture or what’s popular right now, or what our fans are interested in, and that all influences the game more than any other video game does.

How did Sims 4 benefit from some past features being cut down?

GN: It is hard to say one-to-one, such as “we don’t have pools so this one chunk of time was devoted here.” It is an overall thing where you’re looking at the game budget, schedule and release date. We also had to decide what’s important to us and what’s going to build the foundation of this game. The largest single investment on this project was the Sims themselves, and it is a really difficult conversation to have with people. When you talk about past Sims games, in your head you imagine the fun you had with it, the ways the Sims interacted, and you don’t think about the weird technical things with them. If you go back and play those games, you see the Sims are very robotic in the way they interact and the way they position themselves. There is always a neutral pose, for example. If I were to go out and start conversing with another Sim, I would have to walk and turn in place to face them and then start interacting with them. All of that has changed in Sims 4.

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How has that improved?

GN: That is now natural and fluid. That requires a really large investment in our underlying base to change that, because it is very different from past games. When you are playing, you don’t immediately notice it. It’s a very subtle thing in the background, but the game feels so much better for it. When you go and look at individual features, what’s there and isn’t, it is always an interesting mix for us. We have new features that have never been in a Sims game before, and have features that have only been in expansion packs before. Every time we make a new game, it is always an interesting mix where not everything makes it. Some things that weren’t there before gets in there, and I think that just how we have to play it out. Certainly fans have spoken up and said certain features are very important to them and want then. We take all of that feedback into consideration and have our ears open to what our fans are saying. That helps us guide where we take the game in the future.

Was backward compatibly considered?

GN: In terms of taking Sims from Sims 3 and dropping them into Sims 4, we’ve had some discussions about that. In terms of what that would realistically be, I think the difficulty is it would never quite live up to player’s expectations. It’s because the assets are not one-to-one. I could take my Sims from Sims 3 and his hairstyle does not exist in Sims 4, so what does he look like when he comes in? Maybe we can find the one that is close to it, but is still not going to be the exact same Sim.

How do you decide if a feature like this is included?

GN: If it is not going to ultimately satisfy the player, there is no great incentive for us to build it. We want to spend those resources of great features in the game, things players can appreciate and have a good time with. I don’t think the expectation is really there at the base level for people to think their content will carry over from one game to the next. Because of the different set of features and way to play the game, I think it is natural to have a fresh starting point with Sims 4.

What’s the most interesting thing to come out of development?

Read more: The Sims 4 (PC)

GN: One thing I saw one of our developers do actually led to a feature that we put in-game. There was this testing command for developers where you could attach objects to a Sims head. We were having fun with it internally, so we turned it into a cheat for players as well. What the developer did was take this dinosaur object and they scaled it up to be really huge, and then they attached it to a Sim’s head. That Sim started to walk around the neighbourhood, but it was so large that you could not see the Sim anymore. You just saw this huge dinosaur stomping around. The creativity in the way you can mix and match features in a Sims game means there is unlimited potential for the things you can do.

Have you seen anything unusual when playing?

GN: I always think it is really great the way death interacts with people when he shows up. I ran into this situation recently where I had the mum at home with her kid, dad was off at work, and a fire started. The mum burned the house and the kid is still there, so the reaper shows up. He collects the mum and she’s gone. The baby can’t be home by itself though, so the reaper goes over and decides to take care of the baby. So he starts changing the diaper and waits for the dad to come home. Once the dad does finds out what happens, that’s when the reaper takes off. Funny moments like these, where unexpected things happen and play out in-game, are always the best fun in the Sims. It’s always interesting to see how that AI starts to think about the situation and apply itself to it.

Want to read other video game interviews with key figures from Sony, Microsoft and more? Then check out Good Gear Guide's complete interview archive.

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