Interview – Graham Nardone, Associate Producer of The Sims 4
Mor goobida bibso neb neb? Nar harmy glarch! I remember a household I made in the first The Sims game, way back when it was released. While most of the family were spending their days earning money, making friends and trying to get ahead in the rat race, there was Uncle Bob. Uncle Bob was eccentric. Thanks to mods from the time, he dressed like a King. Bob liked to make life difficult for the others in the house, and would frequently interrupt them and impose his wild indulgences on them. With The Sims 4 due to be released next week, people have a lot of questions, like, will Uncle Bob be making a comeback and why aren’t you talking about the release of the new game?
Well, good news everyone! As part of the excitement surrounding the imminent release, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Graham Nardone, better known to some as SimGuruGraham, Associate Producer of The Sims 4.
The Sims 3 came out five years ago and was an enormous success. It’s still being played today and has a thriving online community. Did the development team feel any pressure to make The Sims 4 live up to the legacy of its predecessors?
Graham: When we look back at what we’ve done with The Sims previously and where we’re taking The Sims now, it’s always been such a popular franchise so there is always that expectation of ‘what we deliver next has to satisfy our fans‘, because we feel a deep loyalty – there’s fans that have been with us for fifteen years now. A lot of what really drives development of The Sims is what our fans want, and what they’re telling us they want us to do next.
For The Sims 4, because we’ve created this real wealth of content over the past fifteen years, it was our decision to go back and refocus on The Sims themselves. You know, make them more expressive, give them deeper personalities, and allow people to really connect with them via their emotions and how they’re feeling. I think that really changes a lot of how you feel when you’re controlling your Sims and it’s going to be really interesting to see how players respond to that.
One of the main selling points of The Sims 4 is that we’ll be able to bring our Sims to life in deeper and more personal ways. Can you elaborate on that? What systems have you put in place to make The Sims 4 a richer experience for the player?
Graham: Sims move in and out of different emotions now. In the past it was a very binary thing- they either felt good or they felt bad, and when they felt bad, there wasn’t much they could do. You always wanted them to feel good. Now we have a wide range of choices: fifteen different emotions that your Sims can feel and being able to be in control of moving in and out of those emotions. You no longer treat any of them as a dead-end for gameplay.
No matter if it’s a positive emotion or a negative emotion, there’s interesting ways to explore that, and when you’re in those different emotions, clicking on different objects in the world or socialising with other Sims, it surfaces new and different interactions that you only have while you’re in that emotion. You can either lead them further into that emotion, or use positive ways to channel that emotion to help your Sim out of it. That adds a lot more depth to the gameplay and to the way that you play the game.
The Sims 3 enjoyed a very long life thanks to numerous expansion packs. Is a similar roll-out planned for The Sims 4? Are there any hints you can give about what we can expect in future expansions?
Graham: I can’t really discuss too much in the way of future content yet. We’ve got The Sims 4 releasing next week and we’re focused entirely on that at the moment. I think if you look back at the Sims franchise, it’s a pretty good indicator of where we might go. There’s always popular themes that fans are demanding, but I think what’s really interesting this time around is because of the new options with the Sims and how they play and they interact together, I think we’re actually going to get some interesting new requests out of players in terms of how they want those interactions to really impact not only some of the popular themes, but even new themes we could explore that maybe we haven’t touched on previously, so I’m interested to see where there feedback takes us.
There has been some controversy due to the removal of swimming pools, toddlers, and other features. For the lifelong Sims fans that might be hesitant to dive into the Sims 4 because of it, what changes might convince them to dive in, and could those features that not come in be added at a later time?
Graham: The pools and toddlers are obviously a big discussion point in the community and I think when you look at a Sims base game in general, there’s a few different decisions that we make when we’re deciding what goes in the game. With The Sims 4 for example, you can look at it a few different ways: there’s a number of new features in the game that have never been in the Sims franchise before, there’s returning features that players love and are still there, there’s features that were previously only available in expansion packs that are now in the base game, and there’s some additional features like the pools or toddlers where they’re not in the game anymore.
If we’re balancing what content goes in, it’s about making the right features that focus on the core experience that we’re building. Because we invested so much time into making our believable new Sims, that was a big aspect of development for us. We also put a lot of time into our creative tools. If you have the chance, try the Create-A-Sim demo. It’s completely different to anything we’ve had in a past Sims game and the same is true of our build tools. We wanted them to be a lot more inviting to new players, or even players that just felt intimidated by those systems in the past because they just threw a ton of different buttons and if you weren’t already familiar with it, it was quite intimidating.
Taking all of that content and encouraging people to branch out into other areas they might not have wanted to get into previously and allowing them to share all that content back up through our gallery (which is entirely in-game now), those were all really big focuses for us. If you’re looking at the feature-set of the game as a whole in terms of features, it’s entirely comparable to what we’ve had in past base games, but the depth and the gameplay possibilities in each individual feature gives us more content than we’ve ever had in another Sims base game, so I think we actually come out pretty favourably in that.
I did have a chance to try out the Create-A-Sim Demo and everyone in the household has. How has the reception for it been?
Graham: It’s been actually incredible. We released it to the general public about two weeks ago at Gamescom and in that short span of time, there’s been over a million households of Sims already uploaded to the gallery. Even on top of that, players are already creating mods and custom content and the full game isn’t even out yet so to see the player response to that has been just tremendous.
You mentioned just a moment ago that there are new gameplay features. What’s one of those that perhaps hasn’t been talked about, but that you think players would really enjoy?
Graham: For me personally, I’m a builder. I love getting into build-mode and we’ve put a ton more stuff in there that hasn’t been available in past games, with some long-term fan requests in there as well. Things like being able to change the height of your walls on each level has never been in a Sims game before but that offers a lot of new architectural styles that you could never accomplish previously. Lots of little details that haven’t been in past Sims games: being able to dynamically resize the height of foundation, adding floor trim, roof trim, friezes, spandrels are in the game for the first time ever. Everywhere you go in-game there’s little detail like that that expand on the experience in ways that you just couldn’t do in the past games.
I’ve read that The Sims 4 was apparently optimised to perform better on lower-end PCs, more so than The Sims 3 was. What sort of challenges are there in targeting such a wide spectrum?
Graham: One of our programmers could probably answer that better than me but I would say in general, we have a pretty wide range like you mentioned in terms of the specs that we support, and I think a lot of that was accomplished partly in thanks to our art style which was kind of an interesting direction to take things. As we progressed from Sims 1 through Sims 3, with each release you saw the graphics getting more and more realistic, and we’re at the point now with Sims 4 where with the technology that we have today, you can start getting into this weird uncanny valley area with the Sims and especially when you’re doing a life simulation, that starts to feel a little creepy and strange when you’re playing a game like that. We wanted to take it in a different direction and by doing that, it also helps support this wide range of computers. I think it was really a win-win for everybody.
The Sims 3 Generations expansion added a movie-maker cheat. Is there a similar thing in Sims 4?
Graham: Sims 4 has some nice options for players who are into Machinima, so we still have the free camera or camera-man mode – some people call it different things – but essentially where you can press Tab and go into this completely freely controlled camera that gives you different options for tilting and rotating the camera and zooming in and changing the field of vision. For players that are interested in recording movies, a lot of those controls are still available and will let them explore that creative side of the game.
If someone has never played a Sims game before, do you think that The Sims 4 is a good place to start?
Graham: I think it’s probably the best time to start that we’ve ever had in The Sims, especially because of the focus we made this time around on making it more intuitive for players who are a little intimidated by past Sims games. We’ve talked about the creative tools but even if you look at the basic user interface of any of the past Sims games, at any given time there’s probably fifty different buttons on screen and they all have their own little icons. For somebody new jumping into the game, they have absolutely no idea what any of that means or what the relevance of it is.
We’ve streamlined a lot of that and this is really the first time in almost fifteen years of The Sims where we’ve made drastic changes to the user interface and the way people initially interact with the game. How we present our information and how instead of clicking on buttons, you’re now clicking on exactly what you interact with; being able to grab onto a Sims shoulder and make them broader or thinner just by dragging your mouse. Simple changes like that really help people ease into the experience, and then the depth is still all there on the back-end for advanced players or players who want to grow into that over time.
During the lifespan of The Sims 3, a standalone game ‘Sims Medieval’ was released. Could there be future iterations of it or similar standalone Sim games, and was The Sims 4 development at all affected by The Sims Medieval game?
Graham: If you look back at the history of The Sims, Medieval is just one example of a number of splinters of the core idea of The Sims. Obviously there’s a bunch of MySims games, stuff like The Urbz and Castaway, so those are always ideas that we’re tinkering with, and if some particular theme grabs us, usually it comes from the sense that it doesn’t entirely feel appropriate for the main game in the series or a franchise expansion pack, so instead we splinter it off into its own theme and explore that content further. I think there’s always a chance or possibility of more like that in the future – we’ll just have to see where fan interest is.
In terms of Medieval impacting The Sims 4, I wouldn’t say there’s any direct correlation between the games but certainly as a studio, all of our resources and individuals working on other Sims games have really funneled directly into The Sims 4. As a studio, we’re entirely focused on The Sims 4 development. We have a nice mixture of people from Medieval, from MySims, from The Sims 3, and we’re all one big team for The Sims 4 right now.
Can you tell us what your favourite thing about The Sims 4 is, but in Simlish?
Graham: Oh boy. You want a Simlish sentence from me, huh? We have our voice actors who come into the studio and I have to say, speaking in Simlish is a very acquired skill or talent which I do not possess too well, but I’ll give it my best shot.
Ah goopy gock weeba joola hershna tot. How about that?
Sounds pretty authentic to me.
The Sims 4 will be released on September 2 in North America, September 4 in Australian and the EU, and September 5 in the UK.