Rod Humble, the head of EA’s Sims label, is passionate about The Sims. He also has the infamy of actually appearing in one of the game’s expansion packs, FreeTime.
In the game, he visits a new house and drops off a computer that has The Sims 3 installed on it.
“It wasn’t my idea... I objected at the time and it didn’t feel right. One of the top threads (on The Sims forums) was Top 10 ways to kill Rod Humble, then the other was Top 10 ways to have sex with Rod Humble, then they had all these mutant kids they had made with Top 10 ugliest kids you can have with Rod Humble, so I realised it was a bad idea, and why I had objected. It was very disturbing…”
Humble would also like to eventually live in New Zealand, after his brother lived here for a while and told him about the country.
“I have got an ambition to eventually end up in New Zealand living… so one day. My brother lived there for a while, and loved it. It’s got a nice symmetry to it: the first third of my life in Europe, the second third in America and then NZ… I want the quiet.”
Talking about the recent release of The Sims 3 on Windows PC and Mac, Humble said he had been working with The Sims for nearly five years and it was a genre that not many other game companies had tried to copy. “No-one has really tried to clone The Sims because we can take it to different and unusual places. Over the years, we’ve evolved the game, all the time adding creativity tools. And Sims 3 is another leap again using everything we’ve used over the past few years.
“It’s a hard game for most developers to understand and get their head around. The secret sauce to The Sims is that within EA we’re a really diverse development studio, and that shows. Also technically, the game is hard to build. When you are programming things like path finding for people, they sort of have to look like people - although the Sims have had a history of looking a little awkward when they’re turning - they still look like people. To get a person moving in a corridor and sitting realistically is hard, but then you give the player the ability to change the world on the fly and that takes it to a technical level that is really hard. That’s a real challenge."
“We also like to add customisation and add more editors over time. Now, with Sims 3, we have a seamless way to change the world and you can change things in real time, which is adding another layer of technical challenges. I just boggle at it because I know what’s under the hood and am amazed that it all works.”
There is no doubt that The Sims is an incredibly popular series of games, so what does Humble think makes the franchise so popular with gamers?
“I think that there are a few things. If I was to describe a game and you’d never played The Sims, and I said what you can do is make a house, and a world, and make any person you want, and live out their life any way you want, I think you’d be pretty impressed. ‘What is this? The holodeck? That’s amazing.’ I can’t imagine a more appealing fantasy than that - by doing whatever you want in a world that you can control.”
While The Sims 3 is visually a step up from previous versions of the game, there are other differences, says Humble.
“The Sims 1 and The Sims 2 were a little loft of a house, and if you wanted to visit anyone else there was a loading screen. With The Sims 3, it’s a seamless world. You can look out the windows and see neighbours living out their lives. You see children playing in the yard, you can visit the beach and there are no loading screens. It’s a massive leap in terms of a simulator, as each and every person in the town is being simulated and are living out their lives.”
“Plus we’ve added a series of opportunities and dreams and promises, kind of like a role playing thing, and added a lot of in-depth game play to hopefully appeal to hardcore gamers… then there is the advanced customisability options. Our users like to build their own stuff, so is all about letting people make their own stuff and show to their friends.”
Before he started working with The Sims, Humble had been involved with Sony Online’s Everquest studio, and before that worked on some other online games. He now heads EA’s Play label, which focuses on casual titles and attracting new gamers.
Humble admitted that the hardest part for him after a Sims game is finished is waiting for game reviews to appear.
“The darkest moment for me is before the first reviews hit. Every game that I put out, I believe it’s 100, a 10 out of 10, and then I’m always disappointed when people don’t agree with me and it’s not maximum scores from every single person. But with Sims 3 I was really happy, all the reviews were good. Also, seeing the players play it was really good as you never want to disappoint them, so seeing that reaction was a big sigh of relief, so now I can be happy.”
Does Humble think that The Sims appeals to people who wouldn’t normally consider themselves as gamers? “Yes, I think The Sims attracts people that wouldn’t have normally played video games and it’s amazing how balanced it is between both genders - we usually start off with slight majority of male, then end it slight majority of female.
“We allow players to do whatever they want. That goes to careers or relationships and is really interactive story telling. The lack of language helps – ironically because you don’t hear the Sims speaking, it really helps people tell their own stories. Internally, we’ve referred to the Sims as hamsters with jobs, and it’s an idea that it’s half a pet, half a person simulator. We sort of keep that balance that you’re part looking down on them, but part playing as them. Often Sims players will change perspective mid-sentence: ‘I got a job at a store, but he got himself fired’. It’s really weird, everything that went wrong is the Sims fault, everything that goes well is thanks to them.”
Is he bored of The Sims? “So far I’m not bored of The Sims, but I think that’s because when you play it, it’s whatever the player is bringing to it. We’ve got years worth of content planned and going forward.”