Fun with flaws
Spore on trial

I want my software toy

This is my final post on the games I previewed at EA last week.

When you give someone a toy of a system it gives them a new perspective on it. They see that system as a dynamic, organic thing. Living in it in the real world, they don’t notice day-to-day changes, but when that system is sped up over 50 years or more, they see the changes clearly. And they gain a new perspective on it.”[1]  --Will Wright

Simanimals After nearly 20 years of attaching the "Sim" moniker to Ants, Farms, Parks, Refineries, Helicopters, Roller Coasters, Theme Parks, and Golf (I'm leaving out 11 others), EA is poised to strike again with SimAnimals - yet another milk-the-franchise installment in the SimYouNameIt series, due this January.

That came out really cynical, didn't it?

But hoooooold on thar, Baba Looey. I've seen an early version of SimAnimals, and guess what? I can't wait for the game. I'm genuinely excited about it. Of all the games I saw last week at EA, SimAnimals surprised and delighted me the most. If the developers can make good on their promises - always tricky, but this game has rather modest and attainable ambitions - SimAnimals could be the game that best connects with the original Sims Maxis design principles of creativity, open-ended play, and relationship building.

SimAnimals isn't really a game at all. It's what Will Wright likes to call a "software toy." Watching the designers demo it (on both Wii and DS), I was struck by a powerful urge to get my hands on it and play with it a toy. It communicates a tactile feel to the player, inviting you to jump in and interact with the animals and their environment.

The game contains 32 species of animals from North America. There are no humans. You engage with the animals via a floating god-hand (ala Black and White, but smaller). You can feed them, play with them, and earn their trust. If you mistreat them, they will learn to distrust you. Your relationships with the animals and your stewardship of their environment are the keys to unlocking deeper areas of the forest, woodlands, and swamps.

You can pick up and move anything in the forest, including plants, flowers, trees, and the animals themselves; if they like you, that is. If not, they will bite your hand or run away. You are essentially helping the animals create an environment in which they may thrive, and the animals are designed to behave as naturally as possible (with modifications, of course), driven by AI based on four factors: hunger, fun, energy, and safety. They are also motivated by fear, and the designers of SimAnimals see this as a pivotal element in the AI system.

Everything in the game is ephemeral. Plants, trees, and animals all age, decay, and eventually die. The game allows you to grow "rares," which are plants that can bestow special effects, such as reversing the aging process, and players are free to use or ignore these at their discretion.

The developers invested a significant amount of research into the behaviors and habitats of the animals featured in the game. Several natural scientists and zoologists have served as consultants on the project, and the designers have made a clear choice to steer away from anthropomorphizing the creatures, e.g. bunny rabbits with pants and cuddly bears wearing hats. The animals move, react, and generally behave like real animals...animals in a game, that is. Strict adherence to the laws of nature isn't the aim of the game; but if a SimAnimal squirrel wanders into the path of a SimAnimal hedgehog, that SimAnimal squirrel will likely find himself SimAnimal dead.

The Wii and DS versions of the game provide very similar gameplay. The Wii version offers 4-player coop in which each player develops his or her own relationships with individual animals. I can imagine parents playing with their children in this way, with plenty of opportunities for learning about species and their habitats. I can also imagine me tossing your skunks in the creek while you pursuade your beaver to build a dam to cut off my water supply. Ahh, cooperative fun!

I'm a bit worried about the graphics on the Wii, which looked rudimentary at best. I'm hoping the build I saw isn't an indication of what the final version will look like. The DS version, on the other hand, looks fantastic with stylish 2-D versions of all the wildlife; and the stylus works flawlessly. Squirrels, skunks, and hedgehogs - all in your purse or pants. Oh, yes. I want this software toy.