I absolutely love this "rise of the social single-player game" sort of mini-march I'm seeing occur in the industry right now with games like Spore, Fable 2, and Animal Crossing. With the announcement of The Sims 3 came a great deal of information about what EA Sims felt were the important parts of the Sims 2 and, thankfully, it seems they truly understand what was important about The Sims as a franchise. When it comes down to it, the Sims has never been about house decoration nor has it been about treating your Sim as a digital Barbie doll. These are things that players took and ran with to an extent that I'm not sure Will Wright had intended and, due to this, the franchise ends up with expansions pack which add more accessories and things to add to the Sims' living quarters than they do to enhance the single most important aspect of these games: the player-Sim bond in a world inhabited by other bit-breathing, digital-living Sims.
Casting aside the unnerving amount of joy the player-base gets from torturing Sims -- putting them in a house, making them drink water all the time, and never placing a toilet -- or letting Sims into a new room and then removing the door, the thing that sets the Sims apart from any other franchise is the bond that develops between the player and the Sims he/she controls. Whenever I first started playing a Sims game for the first time my only goal was always to experiment with all of the tools the game offered me. I'd see what kind of things I could design -- houses and Sims -- and I'd see what I could exploit in the game world to test the reactions of the Sims. This generally results in a very poorly-played game, unhappy Sims, and serial-killer levels of dead Sims. Playing the game like this fails due to one simple fact about it: at its core, The Sims 1 and 2 are actually fairly complex strategy games. And one of the reasons the games work so well is that there this weird little bond that the player can develop with the Sims within any given household throughout, as the Sims 2 introduced, the lifespan of an individual Sim from its teeny-tiny diaper-wearing days until it died of, if you maintained its basic needs well enough, old age. And with the Sims 3, the game will now have all members of a neighborhood age together, so that numerous generations of Sims within one household will no longer always be haunted by that tramp Betty who has, at this point in Timmy's life, made out with both Timmy, Timmy's father, Timmy's grandfather, and Timmy's grandfather's friend Jim (who, as chance has it, is also Timmy's current best friend).
One of the smartest decisions that the original game made was to never have any of the Sims speak even a single line of identifiable language. The inability for a Sim within the game to utter the same tired catch phrases, one-liners, and "you clicked me!" bits of dialogue allows the player to continually think of the Sims within a game as far more identifiable and lovable versions of Tamagotchis. Their inherently humanlike appearance and behavior further solidifies the ease of which a player can feel "closer" to their Sims in a way that, say, a particular unit in an RTS can't. The reason that I still maintain such an absurd amount of excitement for The Sims 3 is that, in their announcement for the game, the need to micromanage the aspects of Sim behavior that no one really likes dealing with has been eliminated. There is no longer a need to try and save time by finding an ideal moment in the "Bladder" gauge of a Sim so it can relieve itself without disrupting whatever you have planned. A player will still have to allow a Sim a bathroom break but, now, the player won't have to be consistently reminded that a Sim will, at some point in the future, reach critical mass. Obscuring the more trivial aspects of a Sim's life while maintaining the basic gameplay mechanic should, so long as additional micromanagement reminders aren't added in its place, should make the overall game so much more enjoyable.
The absolute coolest thing about The Sims 3, though, is going to be the way that character designing portion of the game is going to handle the creation of a unique personality for a given Sim. Gone is the pseudo-RPG stat management that went into creating a personality for Sims in the first two games that had a certain neatness value that, for the most part, had no place in a game like this. The Sims 3 is introducing a trait-based personality system that will have players choosing five traits from a pool of ninety-plus total traits. Using these five traits, the game will define the entirety of a Sim's base personality. So, let's say I wanted to create Sim Trent, I'd choose the Workaholic, Talkative, Enthusiastic, Opinionated, and Creative/Logical depending on the mood Real Trent was in when making Sim Trent. These five traits would then define the base personality for Sim Trent and, along with his physical make-up, allow Real Trent to go into Sim Trent's life and play the kind of game that he, er I, think(s) Sim Trent would most enjoy. It's a fantastic way to handle what, before, was an unnecessarily confusing system that had entirely too many gameplay ramifications attached to it.
I wish Games for Windows had the various prototypes that EA Sims had their designers make before starting any serious development on the game up on their website (as it is, it's "coming soon") as that was the primary motivation for this column and for my next design/development project. When I notice it's up I'll certainly cover it if the prototypes end up being as interesting as the three they had listed in their magazine.