Alphaville Herald Interview with Don Hopkins

In this interview, Don Hopkins describes his early days on the Sims development team with Will Wright (back when the project was called Dollhouse) and the difficulties the team had fighting EA's attempts to terminate the project, and then preventing EA from gutting it of interesting content (like architecture tools). Even now, he claims that EA fails to respect Will Wright and his vision by not developing custom content for TSO, and that it has shown no interest in a tool that he (Hopkins) created that would allow users to safely create custom objects that won't crash the game.

Overview of the Interview -- some headline quotes:

"I recall that one of our most difficult accomplishments was convincing EA not to cancel the project, because some of the EA old guard didn't trust nor respect Will's vision, didn't "get" the idea of Dollhouse, didn't think it would sell, wanted to inject it full of their old tried and trusted formula, and wanted to gut out the most interesting parts of the game (like the architecture tools). I think it's a lucky fluke that The Sims ever shipped, and I hope EA has learned enough from their experience to trust the projects that Will is directly involved in, listen to what he's been saying eloquently and consistently for years, and let something like The Sims happen again."

"I don't think the lack of user created content is the only reason The Sims Online is a failure, but I think it's an extremely important one that EA went out on a limb and promised, but never executed on. EA still hasn't officially announced that they're not going to let Maxis support user created content, but as far as I have been able to tell, they've whitewashed the original discussion groups where they made and discussed the promise. I realize that there are some difficult technical issues that have to be solved, in order to support user created content in an online game like The Sims Online. That's why I wrote this proposal for SafeTMog, a tool that would enable users to safely create objects for The Sims Online that could not possibly crash the game:"

"Unfortunately EA was not apparently interested in SafeTMog, which leads me to believe that they're not interested in ever supporting user created content in The Sims Online. I don't know why Maxis never executed on the plan they promised, but I do believe they disregarded and didn't respect Will Wright's opinion in this matter, which he clearly articulated. I don't think the problem was a lack of resources: just the opposite. So much conservative money was bet on the project that it wasn't allowed to innovate. I don't believe it was ineptitude at the engineering or design level, but more likely at the executive management, resource allocation and marketing level. My impression is that some of the people in charge didn't believe in Will's vision, didn't trust him, didn't listen to him, didn't do what he's been saying for years, all along. I wish EA would have taken some of the millions of dollars they made from The Sims 1, and invested it back in fully developing The Sims Online, instead of sucking it out of Maxis to support the rest of EA."

You can read the entire Interview with Don Hopkins in the Alphaville Herald.

Dave Winer Speaks at Microsoft about Standards versus Open Formats

Dave Winer spoke at Microsoft, and discussed the definition of "blog". An important point he explains is why he makes a distinction between "Standards" and "Open Formats":

[28:00 into the video]

Question from Microsoft: How is that different from having a departmental web page?

Answer from Dave: It's not different. In 2004, a personal web site is a web log. And in 2004 in my opinion, a departmental web site is also a weblog.

We've worked on the user interface, and we've worked on the technology, and it's gotten easier, and there are certain standard practices, and that's all sort of boxed up in this concept called "Weblog".

AIML: Artificial Intelligence Marketing Language

Stanislaw Lem writes wonderful satirical introductions and reviews of imaginary books in his real book Imaginary Magnitude. Here's an actual review of a fictional introduction of an imaginary book that I'd really love to read, A History of Bitic Literature:

Un Valor Imaginario (Imaginary Magnitude) by Stanislaw Lem

The introduction to A History of Bitic Literature brims over with startling ideas. The work introduced is a multi-volume survey of literature written by artificial intelligences, such as an extrapolated work of Dostoevsky's that Dostoevsky never dared to write himself, revolutionary books on physics (in this case the content is, I am afraid, rather less shocking than Lem intended it to be--I've read weirder things in orthodox textbooks--the last chapter of Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler's Gravitation comes to mind), and a mathematical work revealing that "the concept of a natural number is internally contradictory." Mentioned in passing is a procedure that can transform great philosophical systems into graphical representations that ultimately end up sold as mass-produced knickknacks.

Here's is an actual review of Lem's real book, A Perfect Vacuum, which fictionally reviews the imaginary book, Non Serviam:

Vacio Perfecto (A Perfect Vacuum) by Stanislaw Lem

The best two pieces, though, are the last, "Non Serviam", and "The New Cosmogony". "Non Serviam" was reprinted in Hofstadter and Dennett's book "The Mind's I". It is supposed to be a paper by a researcher into "personetics", the science of creating artificial personalities inside worlds inside the computer. The researcher has absolute power over his creations; he can bring them into existence, destroy them, and change their world at will. He is to these creatures as God would be to us. His main interest in them, therefore, is having them argue theology. Most of the paper is a debate among the personoids on what should be their proper attitude towards their creator. Their conclusion: "we shall not serve".

Stanislaw Lem inspired me to write some parodies of web pages promoting XML applications that didn't exist at the time. But now they actually do exist, by one definition or another: AIML and BSML!

At the time, I was just making fun of VRML, and the people who push and hype useless standards for questionable political reasons instead of practical technical reasons. But as I read through the contraversy surrounding RSS, RDF, Atom and other syndication formats, somehow I'm reminded of AIML and BSML...

AIML: Artificial Intelligence Marketing Language

BSML: Bullshit Markup Language

I received this request to take down my BSML web page, but I would rather have my constitutionally protected right to free speech, than the appreciation of a company that would seriously use the name "BSML". Are there a lot of people named "Gene" working in the Biological Sciences industry?

From: Gene Van Slyke
Sent: Monday, November 12, 2001 10:37 AM
Subject: BSML Trademark


While reviewing the internet for uses of BSML, we noted your use of BSML on While we find your use humorous, we have registed the BSML name with the United States Patent and Trademark Office and would appreciate you removing the reference to BSML from your website.

Thanks for your cooperation,

Gene Van Slyke
CFO LabBook

BSML: Bull Shit Markup Language

Educational Multi Player SimCity for Linux Proposal

Back in March 2002, Maxis told me they were interested in supporting the educational use of products like SimCity. Earlier, I had developed a multi player version of SimCity, which runs on Linux/X11, and was scriptable in TCL. Educators and researchers from Columbia University, MIT, IBM, Xerox and other educational and commercial institutions were excited about gaining access to this version of SimCity, and adapting it to teach and stimulate students' interest in urban planning, computer simulation and game programming.

So I wrote this proposal and presented it to Maxis, but nothing ever became of it. But recently, Will Wright has been pushing EA to relicense SimCity under the GPL, so the OLPC project can use it. So it may eventually see the light of day!

My Mom Got a Promotion!

Did I ever mention that my mom is a satellite shepherd as well as a cat herder? Congratulations on the promotion!

From: "Richard Cebula"
Date: Feb-Thu- 5 2004 18:58:29 -0500

Dear Colleagues,

I pleased to announce that Ms. Marghi Hopkins has accepted the position of Technical Leader of two SESDA Contract Work Activities: OMI Science Support Team (916-003) and OMI TLCF/SIPS (922-001). Both work activities face significant challenges as we finalize and test the science algorithms and the data system in preparation for OMI's launch this June on the EOS-Aura satellite. Marghi brings great skills, experience, and enthusiasm to her new role. Please join me in congratulating Marghi and thanking her for agreeing to taking on this challenging and important position within the Ozone Group.



Sims Proposals and Documentation

Here are some proposals and documents I've written, describing the work I've done and projects I've proposed with The Sims character animation system, plug-in objects and tools. After four years, a great deal of useful information has been reverse-engineered by independent third-party developers and open source projects like The Sims Technical Library. I hope these ideas will inspire more tool developers to contribute their programming skills to the Sims community.

Will Wright's original vision was enabling creative storytelling, by allowing players to add their own characters and objects to the game, and encouraging developers to program new objects and create tools like Transmogrifier and RugOMatic. Before The Sims was even released, Luc Barthelet sewed the seeds of its success by providing fans with content and tools like SimShow, so they could start making web sites and character skins. By the time it was released, you could already download a wide range of skins from many different web sites!

Four years later, Sims Object hackers have taken it much further than anyone ever imagined. A third-party tool called "iffpencil 2" has taken the place of Edith (Maxis's visual Sims object programming environment) in the Sims object hacking community. Make money, play with buildings and people, or create natural disasters! One mind-blowing example is Slice City, which is an amazing game within a game: SimCity within The Sims! Your Sims can walk around and interact with a live, growing city like a Lilliputian scene from Gulliver's Travels. I'm not making this up: this actually runs INSIDE The Sims, and is ingeniously implemented by plug-in objects!

You start with a power plant, which gradually grows a whole city populated by swarms of insect-sized people. As the city grows, it spawns new objects including buildings (reprogrammed houseplants that the gardener still waters), crowds of people (reprogrammed cockroaches that you can still stomp to death), parks, marinas and monuments. You can go into build mode and rearrange them however you like, place roads (that get extremely busy at rush hour), and interact with the buildings through pie menus in play mode. There's even a tornado that comes through and knocks down your buildings. And you can download add-ons and pre-made cities!

Nothing like SliceCity was in the original design plan, but Will Wright credits all the creative players as the primary reason The Sims has become the #1 selling game of all time.

I believe the starkly contrasting failure of The Sims Online has a lot to do with the fact that it doesn't support player created content like the original Sims. One of the fundamental reasons that original Sims players have been disappointed with The Sims Online, is that Maxis never executed on the original plan to let online players upload and exchange their own skins and objects.

In order to help more fully realize Will's original plan, I wrote these proposals and documents to support the community of Sims artists, tool developers and object programmers like Bil Simser, Judson Hudson, Michael Watson, Rick Halle, Tom van Dijk, Dave Baum and Greg Noel, SimSlice, Paladin, MegaSims, Hacker's Resource, The Sims Basement and SimFreaks.

Details on The Sims Character Animation File Format and Rendering

From: "Bil Simser"
To: "Don Hopkins"
Sent: Tuesday, March 21, 2000 7:17 AM
Subject: SKN format

Hi Don,

Is there any way you can just toss me a bone on the SKN files? Just a quick overview? I have most of it but just trying to figure out how the groups are identified. I know it's the 3rd section (after the faces) but not sure what the 4 numbers are for? Can you give me a quick rundown of the file? Thanks.


From: "Don Hopkins"
To: "Bil Simser"
Sent: Tuesday, March 21, 2000 12:10 PM
Subject: Re: SKN format

The thing that makes the mesh format weird are the blended vertices, attached to two bones at once. Here are some design documents I wrote, about the Sims file formats, and the animation system. It documents the binary file format, while the cmx files are text, but pretty much equivalent, but maybe missing a few weird fields. It doesn't document the far file format, but I can write that up some time, since it's pretty simple.


Sims Character Animation File Format

This is a description of the file formats and structures used by The Sims character animation system, by Don Hopkins.

Sims VitaBoy Character Animation Library Documentation

VitaBoy Documentation

By Don Hopkins, Maxis.

This document describes VitaBoy, the skeletal character animation system in The Sims, written by Don Hopkins at Maxis.

VitaBoy combines several different types of data together to render the animated characters in the game, including skeletons, skills, suits and texture maps.

Artists create the skeletons, skills and suits in 3D Studio Max, and the texture maps in Photoshop.

The CMX Exporter is a 3D Studio Max plug-in and MaxScript user interface, which allows artists to export skeletons, skills and suits from Max files into CMX files that the game can read.

Character Studio is another 3D Studio Max plug-in, that allows artists to animated a Biped skeleton, and to attach deformable mesh suits to it with Physique. The CMX Exporter knows how to support Character Studio Biped and Physique, but it can be used with other kinds of skeletons and suits as well.

The way the CMX Exporter knows what to export from a Max file, is by looking for note tracks on the bones, for keys containing tags that control the exporter. The artist inserts note track keys into the Max file, to mark up the skeletons, suits, skills and events. The tags in the note track keys tell the exporter what to export from the Max file.

The Access database tells the exporter which skeletons, skills and suits are defined, which Max files contain them, and where to export them. The artist can select the name of a skeleton, skill or suit from a scrolling list, and automatically load, validate and export the correct Max file to the correct destination. The exporter can also check the exported files out from and into SourceSafe. The artist can use the exporter manually without the database, but the database is extremely useful for avoiding accidents when there is a lot of content to manage.

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