If EA’s all-conquering franchise The Sims was a musician, it would be someone like James Blunt or Natasha Bedingfield – impossibly successful, but constantly subjected to critical disdain. In the past, The Sims has been derided as a game for non-gamers. However, if you’re interested in games, then The Sims has been impossible to ignore, as it has developed an enormous fan-base.

Last month, at its Redwood Shores HQ, EA took the wraps off The Sims 3, due to arrive in February 2009, and even at this early stage, it looks certain to transport The Sims to greater heights.

Introducing proceedings, Nancy Smith, the president of The Sims Studio, outlined some of the mega-franchise’s salient points:

98 million units of The Sims games, expansion packs and so on have been sold as of last month,” says Smith. The Sims has the broadest appeal of any game in interactive entertainment in terms of age and gender – for example, it is played by an audience which is 62 per cent female and 38 per cent male. There are over 100,000 The Sims movies on YouTube, which have generated over 200 million views.”

The Sims, Smith reckons, isn’t just a game: We think of it as a creative tool which people use to make characters, tell stories, create fashion and movies.”

Amid the new-found vogue for user-generated content, it’s easy to forget that The Sims users have been generating their own content since the original game in 2000.

Smith chose to highlight that The Sims was the number two franchise in games between 2005 and 2007, despite being PC-based, and despite the last major release, The Sims 2, taking place in 2004, it was the number one PC game franchise in 2007, shifting a healthy 9.8 million units in Europe and US.

These days, it even operates pretty much as a company of its own within EA. Smith says: The Sims label came together two years ago. It was a little bit of an organisational test at the team, with the idea of a single studio with all the development teams reporting to a single creative leader, Rod Humble. The idea was to focus on brand strategies and ways we could extend the property.”

Less a game, then, more of a business. But as a game, how will The Sims 3 differ from its predecessors? How did creative director Rod Humble – a Brit who first achieved prominence with EverQuest for Sony – initially approach developing The Sims 3?

The one thing that I brought into the room as a mandate was: ‘No more hamster cage’. In The Sims 2, the Sims were referred to as hamsters with jobs. I always thought that that was incredibly limiting and we needed an open world. You’re not going to get where this game can go unless you can walk across the street and see the neighbour’s kids playing in the opposite yard, or you can buy a house at the top of a mountain and look down on a town. Then, the next step was to address what was wrong with the sims themselves.”

So what are the gameplay implications? I think there’s a lot more gamer-ness in it – the team have added a lot more challenge and depth for gamers. I became obsessed with book-collecting with my Sims, and you can do things like fishing and gardening: there’s a lot more of that goal-oriented gameplay. I also think that the flexibility of the new Sims character system is a massive deal from a gameplay aspect.”

With Will Wright having stepped back from The Sims to concentrate on Spore, it’s clear that Rod Humble’s MMO past has encouraged him to move The Sims away from its simulation background towards a gameplay experience which will appeal more to existing gamers – while The Sims 3’s increased sophistication and depth will excite current fans who would not otherwise characterise themselves as gamers. The Sims is continuing its inexorable march towards becoming the games industry’s biggest ever franchise.

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