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Game Design | Don Hopkins

Game Design

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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: http://www.donhopkins.com/2004/02/05.html#a72"

"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.

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!

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.

A Proposal to Develop Third Party Content Authoring Tools for The Sims

This is a propsal I wrote to Maxis after The Sims was released in March 2000, outlining some of my ideas for third party content authoring tools that I could develop. This led to The Sims Transmogrifier, but it touches on several other interesting tools and projects that Maxis never got around to.

A Proposal to Develop Third Party Content Authoring Tools for The Sims
by Don Hopkins, March 2000

Problem Definition:

  • There is a strong demand many from third parties who want to develop their own custom content for The Sims, including characters and objects.

Proposed Solution:

  • Update, clean up and document the content creation tools, so third parties can make their own characters and objects for The Sims.
    • Port the tools to the latest version of 3D Studio Max.
    • Make the tools self contained so they can be run stand-alone, by removing all dependencies on the Maxis environment and expensive software packages: Character Studio (Biped, Physique), Access, SourceSafe, MKS Toolkit (Korn Shell).
    • Document the content creation tools with an overview, examples, tutorials, and a reference manual. Write down the folklore that has been passed by word of mouth. Read over the code and document how it actually behaves.
    • Provide consulting, training and content creation services to third parties who want custom content authored for The Sims, but don't want or know how to do it themselves.
  • Develop a Sims Content Authoring SDK, so it's possible for third parties to create specialized content creation tools, like FaceLift.

XML Pie Menus

Chris, a computer science student from digipen.edu who's interested in user interface design, asked me some interesting questions about pie menus:

First, were you happy with The Sims' implementation of pie menus? It seems as though it doesn't necessarily provide all of the great features of an ideal pie. The targets aren't infinitely 'deep' -- the user needs to click directly on the button. Perhaps more importantly, the targets aren't in predictable locations (they items are dynamic based on a very complex set of inputs.) Don't misunderstand; I loved the game and felt the the interface worked well. I am interested in the design decisions that were made.

The other thing I wanted ato ask was, have you any opinions on the game Sacrifice? I was very drawn to its pie system, and am always surprised that there has really never been much mention of it when it comes to discussion of pies, and pies in games. Thank you for your time,

Chris

Thanks for your thoughtful questions!

I'm glad to hear fasteroids still works after all those internet explorer patches that have come out since I wrote it. I hope the Eloas patent doesn't force Microsoft to break browser plug-ins like fasteroids and pie menus on purpose.

I'm pretty happy with the way The Sims pie menus turned out, considering the time and design constraints. But of course there are several things about them I would change and extend if I had the time.

50% (F) for Epicurean Excess

Here's an interesting Christian interpretation of The Sims from christiananswers.net. One of the reader comments makes a great point about Epicurean Excess! I wonder what people of other religions think about its "subtle teachings"? (Like reinforcing the "Urine Is Blue" myth!)

Sometimes a game comes along that catches you off guard. "The Sims" proves just such a game. I had read about it in the gaming press for some time. Being from the developer and producer of the famous "Sim City" games, the completion of "The Sims" was hotly anticipated. I was skeptical, as the premise of the game involved players developing simulated characters and controlling and manipulating their life. To me, that left too much room for the developers to work in worldly concepts and gratuitous situations. I'm glad to say for the most part my fears were unfounded.

[...] Comments:

"...This game is very subtle in what it teaches and probably a lot more dangerous than a blatantly occult or violent game. Because it is presented as such a normal suburban lifestyle simulation, kids can come to believe that astrology, materialism, and unrestrained sexuality are normal adult behaviors. This Trojan Horse packs a lot more deceit than any other game I have played to date and earns a 50% (F) for Epicurean excess."
--John Gocke, Al Menconi Ministries

Designing User Interfaces to Simulation Games

Designing User Interfaces to Simulation Games.
A summary of Will Wright's talk to Terry Winnograd's User Interface Class at Stanford, in 1996.
Written by Don Hopkins.

Will Wright, the designer of SimCity, SimEarth, SimAnt, and other popular games from Maxis, gave a talk at Terry Winnograd's user interface class at Stanford, in 1996 (before the release of The Sims in 2000). At the end of the talk, he demonstrated an early version of The Sims, called Dollhouse at the time. I attended the talk and took notes, on which this article elaborates. I was fascinated by Dollhouse, and subsequently went to work with Will Wright at Maxis for three years. We finally released it as The Sims in 2000, after several name changes: TDS (Tactical Domestic Simulator), Project-X (everybody has one of those), Jefferson (after the president, not the sitcom), happy fun house (or some other forgetable Japanese placism).

At the talk, he reflected on the design of simulators and user interfaces in SimCity, SimEarth, and SimAnt. He demonstrated several of his games, including his current project, Dollhouse.

Here are some important points Will Wright made, at this and other talks. I've elaborated on some of his ideas with my own comments, based on my experiences playing lots of SimCity, talking with Will, studying the source code and porting it to Unix, reworking the user interface, and adding multi player support.

From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Further Reflections, By Henry Jenkins

From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Further Reflections, By Henry Jenkins

This is an interesting paper by Henry Jenkins that discusses how games appeal to girls, comparing the "Games for Girls" approach of Brenda Laural at Purple Moon, with the "System Simulation" approach of Will Wright at Maxis.

Before I went to Maxis to work on The Sims with Will Wright, I worked at Interval Research. I saw the research and work that Brenda Laurel was doing on games for girls, before Purple Moon spun off from Interval. I found it very interesting and enlightened, and hoped it would be successful. It's illuminating to compare the two approaches, and I think this article makes some great points by doing that.

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