The Sims

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.

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.

-Bil

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.

-Don

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.

SafeTMog: Safe Transmogrifier Plan

Don Hopkins (dhopkins@DonHopkins.com)

SafeTMog will be a version of Transmogrifier restricted to safe graphical and textual modifications of standard objects.

I propose to upgrade Transmogrifier into SafeTMog, whose purpose is to improve the stability of The Sims by supporting only a safe restricted set of modifications to the original objects from Maxis. It will safely import an xml file and graphics into a fresh clone of a standard build-in object. So users and third party tools will be able to import, export and exchange safe, compact modifications to stock objects, without including or modifying any proprietary Edith code or other data.

SafeTMog and other tools (such as a server side content management system) will be able to work together by importing, exporting and validating objects in SafeTMog exchange format (a zip file with xml and bitmap files: pure data, no code). It will not be necessary to distribute any Edith code or other delicate data, just xml and bitmaps. The original objects (from the game, expansion pack or server) will be required in order to import and install them into the game. The SafeTMog xml file format will be simple and extensible, so it will be possible to add new safe content types in the future (like skins, character animations, meshes, custom sounds, midi music, mpeg video, rich text, html, url links, and other content types).

SafeTMog will enable the creation and distribution of safe custom objects, without any possibility of viruses, Trojan horses or stability problems. It will enable the distribution of user created content libraries and third party tools, while protecting Maxis' intellectual property rights and the integrity of the game. The ability for users to safely change the graphics without changing the behavior is an essential step towards enabling safe user created objects for The Sims Online.

Transmogrifier Renovation Plan

Transmogrifer Renovation Plan

Don Hopkins (dhopkins@DonHopkins.com)

Transmogrifier Web Site

Expansion Pack Support

Windows XP Fixes

Installer

Update License Agreement

User Requested Features

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.

Syndicate content