The first thing Pixelle sees as she arrives in Blazing Falls, one of ten cities in the electronic world of the Sims Online, is a warning that all the piñatas are temporarily disabled due to a user prank. Blazing Falls has been touted as a party city, so this is encouraging. Not only is the Sim landscape so detailed that it has piñatas, but its residents have already figured out deviant uses for them.
Let's just say Pixelle was built to appreciate deviancy. Scrolling through the hundreds of Sim bodies, outfits and hairstyles, I skipped the bugs, bears, and werewolves, and passed over the mall fashions and boring business suits. Instead, I gave her an electric-blue bob and matching lipstick, a halter showcasing abs that could cut glass, and jeans that ride low enough to reveal a glitter thong. My Sim was created to be seductively high tech, a Jessica Rabbit for the Snow Crash world. As a final touch, I named her Pixelle -- a pun that will impress no one in the weeks to come.
Still, between Pixelle's glitter thong and my typing skills, I think we should be able to make a serious dent in SimSociety. We will be rich and popular, fearless and clever. We will be wooed by a parade of paramours who will appreciate us for what we are: a blue-haired hoochie who can type really fast. We will "Be somebody. Else." as it says on the box. We will play the game of Sim life. And we will win.
Our hometown exists online, but like all players we pay rent to Walnut Creek software maker Maxis Studios, a division of the video game giant Electronic Arts. The Sims Online is the evolution of Maxis' extraordinarily popular line of simulation games, most notably the Sims, the number one PC game of all time. The Sims was an electronic dollhouse, populated by people whose lives you ran. Players built and decorated simulated houses, while helping their characters water the plants, scrub the showers, or fall in love. Perhaps not surprisingly, given its difference from typical video-game fare, it attracted an audience that is more than 60 percent female, a remarkable achievement considering only 28 percent of the game-buying public is female.
Game designer and Maxis founder Will Wright likes to say the Sims should only have sold one or two million units. In fact, it sold eight million copies, plus another sixteen million deluxe versions and expansion packs. He attributes the additional sales to what he calls the "metagame" -- the social and economic bonds players form outside the game. There are now hundreds of Web sites where players chronicle their Sim lives or download extra home furnishings created by other players; some sites even have subscription fees. By Wright's estimate, 95 percent of the content currently available for the offline game was created by players. As he told an audience at UC Berkeley's Haas Business School in January, "The game becomes this little nucleus, but it's not the main experience."
The idea behind the Sims Online, which launched in December, was to combine the game and the metagame. In the new version, players are no longer confined to a desktop world, interacting with Sims that are essentially preprogrammed robots. Instead, all the Sims in the online version are avatars played in real time by gamers across the country, each paying a monthly subscription fee of $10.
Multiplayer online games are nothing new, but the Sims Online is unique in having no built-in plot or endpoint. Users are meant to create their own reasons to play, whether it's running a business, building a palace, or socializing with their city's hippest residents. The result is a very different social order. In the original Sims, you were a god. In the Sims Online, you are but a cog.
And Maxis isn't alone in banking on the allure of a plotless game -- the creators of other soon-to-be-launched virtual worlds such as There and Second Life are also betting that people will pay to play an open-ended scenario that closely mimics the daily adventures of life in the 3-D world.
The designers of the Sims Online expect players to create their own plotlines, and take the game in directions they can't even anticipate. And indeed they have. Three months into its lifecycle, Blazing Falls and the other online communities have developed many of the same problems that plague us in real life. Even though new players start off with the same amounts of skills and money, there are already highly visible class divisions. And even though half the characters in the game seem to be on the make, it's nonetheless difficult to make meaningful connections. Meanwhile, players whose goal is to build elaborate properties are frustrated by the tedium of the tasks required to earn the money to make this possible.
Will people pay ten bucks a month to live in a fantasy world that provides so little escape from the difficulties of our own? Or is that the precise point?
On her first day in Blazing Falls, Pixelle materializes above a map highlighting the most popular properties now online. She has started the game with ten thousand Simoleans, the local currency, but to be a playa and not just a player, she'll need much more. After I click on a property advertised as a great place to make money, Pixelle is magically transported to its door.
Although the speech balloons indicate that the folks inside the house are calling for Pixelle to join them, I can't figure out how to get her through the front door. Instead, Pixelle ends up in the backyard, near a row of worktables. Cautiously, I click on one. A bubble reading "Make Gnome" appears. Make gnome? Well, fine. Soon, Pixelle is fabricating a garden gnome with a jaunty red hat. This is not what I expected from life in the online fast lane, but I cheer up when she earns thirty Simoleans. She bursts into a little dance, waving her hands in the air. She then moves to a worktable where she can make more money cooking jam. A jam- and gnome-based Sim economy seems bizarre, but I guess it beats a desk job.
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