Barnum would be proud of the whole enterprise and is undoubtedly smiling from his grave.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Multimedia: The Sims Online
Number of players: 1
ESRB rating: Teen
US release date: 2007-07
I admit it. I've been a fan of The Sims ever since Electronic Arts shipped the first title way back when. The idea to create a cyber person and/or family with its own house, job, way of life and so forth was actually nothing new. Back in the 1980s Activision came out with a title called The Little Computer People Project in which players could have their very own "person" living in their computer and allowed them to play with it, feed it, and generally take care of it.
Damn... come to think of it, this was way before the Tamagotchi craze, even.
But EA capitalized on the concept and made it an addictive franchise through The Sims and its many expansion packs -- Livin' Large, House Party, Hot Date, Vacation (Holiday outside of the US), Unleashed, Superstar, and Makin' Magic. Each of these packs has expanded the Sims' universe in various ways: allowing players to own pets, have sex in vibrating beds, or open their own techno clubs. It seems that Maxis (creators of all the other Sim titles such as the ever-popular SimCity line) has covered every need that a cyber-person could want. That is, except for other real human interaction.
So it was only a matter of time before the brains behind Maxis and EA combined their hit game with the elements of the good old Internet chat room. Slap on a $9.99 per month fee to play it, and voila, you have The Sims Online, as engrossing an online experience as any that came before it. But, as anyone who has ever had any serious chat room experience knows, what the companies actually have is a Pandora's Box on their hands, the likes of which probably hadn't been seen before online.
Chat room fans will be the first to tell you that more often than not, the online chat experience often boils down to a meat market -- not only for singles, but the married types as well. This has been going on since the groundbreaking days of IRC with its various user-created rooms such as "Married and Flirting," "20s Chat," "30s Chat," and so on. There's something for everyone interested in meeting others for an online (or even offline) romance: from bondage and fetish lovers to those who just want the casual one night stand. Of course, The Sims Online was going to embrace these same groups whether Maxis and EA wanted it to or not. And it does so fully, catering to the consumer with a vast array of kinky leather outfits, user-created "love houses" and more.
Yet the core game itself is rather dull, surprising, considering that the regular offline Sims experience was always engaging to me. This time around, the game players are pretty much forced to make money and excel at the game in groups. The less people doing the same thing together, the longer it takes to become better at various skills. Those character traits are basically the same in TSO as in the previous games. Your character can become adept at cooking, mechanics, creativity, logic, physical strength, and so on. In TSO, Maxis has added skilling objects so everyone can excel at their chosen talent. Once players have bored themselves to death from watching their Sim read books all day long while trying to max out their cooking or mechanical skills, for example, they can then try out their new skills on such things as the pizza making machine (which requires four people), the preserving tables (canning what looks to be like apples), or just going about and fixing broken items which actually costs the player his own Simoleans (the Sims' currency).
But it's that human interaction that keeps players glued. However, the conversations found during the game are as bland and uninteresting as any found in most chat rooms. The users tend to have an annoying fixation with using acronyms, such as LOL, ROFL, and LMAO to name the most popular.
It's ironic that so many are fascinated with such a boring game. Living a "life" in TSO revolves around the same things one has in his or her real life. Cleaning a house, working, eating, dancing, watering plants, scrubbing toilets, having real arguments with so-called friends. The offline games at least had a sense of bewildering amusement in their original, novel ideas that this wasn't real at all but a fun diversion. But TSO seems to drain the real lives of the players and injects it into the game. A bit creepy and surreal, truth be told.
There are other games sprouting up in the wake of The Sims Online. There.com is offering an online gaming experience in which the players have their own characters and live out wacky lifestyles. Then there's the whole Star Wars franchise by LucasArts whose An Empire Divided has embraced a lot of TSO's mechanics.
The Sims' Online's slogan is "Be Somebody. Else." Be yourself, instead. Stick with the offline games, and keep your sanity intact. Maxis and EA promise even more fun for the future. It seems that they are knowingly pressing the already-addicted Sims fans into giving up even more of their real lives in favor of... a strange facsimile. Barnum would be proud of the whole enterprise and is undoubtedly smiling from his grave.