'Sims' chief marks a virtual victory
"Of course, there are schnoodles," Nancy Smith exclaimed. "I said, `We're not shipping `Sims Pets' without schnoodles!'"
And that's how schnoodles, a cross between a schnauzer and poodle, came to exist in the virtual world of "The Sims," a game in which people play house and make sure their virtual characters are fed, rested and, um, regular.
The petite Smith, who owns two blond schnoodles, isn't the god of Sim land, but she's definitely a powerful being. In real life, Smith is president of The Sims, the 350-person unit of the almighty Electronic Arts game company.
"The Sims" has frequently had a Top 10 seller since its launch in 2000.
It's the best-selling computer game ever in the U.S., according to the NPD Group, which tracks sales of games. It's even bigger than Blizzard Entertainment's "World of Warcraft" series. "The Sims" games have sold more than 38 million copies in the U.S., while "Warcraft" has sold around 12.4 million, according to NPD. EA says international sales are much higher; it expects global sales to top 100 million this week.
"`The Sims' continues to thrive not only on the PC but also on game console and portable platforms," said David Riley, an NPD director. "In fact, a quick glance at the 31 `Sims' titles available for consoles and portables shows that one-third of them are on the most current platforms (a.k.a. `next generation') such as Wii, PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS. Obviously, `The Sims' is showing no sign of slowing down."
As "The Sims" celebrates the 100 million mark, Smith's group is preparing to launch more content for players. It's testing the online "Sims Carnival," in which players create their own games. And they're tight-lipped about "The Sims 3," expected next year.
The franchise is still going strong because "The Sims" managed to appeal to people who weren't typical gamers, said Dave Kosak, executive editor of GameSpy.com.
"It's a very straightforward theme that everyone can relate to. It's like your own life," Kosak said. "Nobody has figured out how to tap into that."
Smith grew up as Nancy Green from Seal Beach, Calif. Her family still lives there.
She played board games and card games. She was very much a California girl who went surfing after school, though she remembers dating surfers more than surfing itself.
But she was most affected by Los Angeles.
"Every once in a while, I'd escape with my friends. One friend had a powder-blue Mustang, and we'd escape to Hollywood and Vine. I've always felt an attraction to Hollywood. Hollywood is where we would escape for our excitement," she said.
After graduating from Huntington Beach High School in 1971, she earned a business degree at the University of San Francisco. Smith later joined the California technology boom in order to stay in her home state. She worked for VisiCorp when it launched the first spreadsheet program, VisiCalc, for the Apple II.
Smith jumped at the chance to work for the startup EA in 1984. Her first job was selling "Pinball Construction Set" to retailers. She worked her way to the top and found herself in charge of North American publishing.
In 2005, Smith was tapped to lead "The Sims" team as an "organizational experiment," she said. EA took the product team and put everything - from game development to marketing and administration - under one "label."
Deemed a success, the idea has since been rolled out to EA's other core groups: EA Sports, EA Games and EA Casual.
The funny thing is Smith doesn't consider herself a typical gamer. She prefers casual games, like "Pogo." When she escapes to her home in Laguna
Beach, there is no sign of her life at EA. She didn't even let her son, now 17, get spoiled.
"I only let him play videogames on weekends," said Smith, who hid the console during the week. "For years, he thought the PlayStation was something I brought home from work every weekend."
Perhaps her sensibility as a female, mother and casual gamer made her a perfect fit for the job.
"I had always been excited by the passion our `Sims' players have. I recognize that they are unique in the world of gaming. It attracts a lot more women. They create characters, design fashions and design interiors,"
Smith said. "It's taken a long time to develop experiences to bring women into gaming. `The Sims' is really one of the franchises that really cracked that open."
Sixty percent of "Sims" players are female, a market that had rarely been tapped before the game launched in 2000. Still, the Entertainment Software Association, the game industry's trade group, says less than 40 percent of gamers today are female.
Recent updates to "The Sims 2" are obviously not targeting the stereotypical gamer. "The Glamour Life Stuff" pack, which includes tuxedoes and ballroom gowns, started in 2006. The "H&M Fashion Stuff" pack came out in June. "FreeTime," which offers characters more hobbies, such as pottery, is the latest. Next month, "Kitchen and Bath Interior Design Stuff" pack comes out. ("Remodel your kitchen for just $19.99," Smith likes to joke.)
"I don't know if I would have stayed in the computer business if I hadn't found my way into the entertainment business," Smith said. "I do love technology, but I love entertainment even more."