I visited EA's headquarters last week for an event called Blogger Day. This is the second in a mini-series of posts describing my visit and the people I met, places I saw, and games I played. You can read the first post here.
Oh, what Nintendo hath wrought. In the world before Wii, everybody knew who the gamers were. Consoles had wars, genres had definitions (sort of), and grandma stuck to her knitting. No more. Thanks to the Wii (and, it must be said, its dual-screened older sibling), it's hard to know who's who anymore. Casual, hardcore, family-focused, fanboy - the boundaries have been blurred - or at least made less obvious - thanks in large measure to the little white box.
Gamers will debate this point vigorously, but I see no useful distinctions between gamers who spend hours leveling up in WOW and gamers who spend hours playing Wii Sports. Unless we accept the idea that "gamer" excludes people who don't attend PAX or subscribe to Kotaku's RSS, we're living in a culture with all sorts of gamers who want to play all sorts of video games.
If we must have definitions, why not make them about how people play games, rather than which ones they play. As Brinstar put it in my most recent podcast (regarding Animal Crossing Wild World), "People bill this as a casual game, but I played it so hardcore." Makes sense to me. Gamers love playing games; we relish the opportunity to play them. So, the old guy in the retirement home who pwns the competition in Wii Bowling and Boxing three nights a week? Yeah, he's a gamer too.
I've been ruminating on this subject lately because I'm trying to figure out what to think about the games I saw last week at EA. SimCity Creator is the easy one. It's terrific, and I look forward to explaining why later this week. But the others - MySims Kingdom (Wii and DS), SimAnimals, (Wii and DS) and MySims PC - are a bit harder to get a grip on.
In appearance and gameplay, it's impossible not to see MySims as a Nintendo-ized, Mii-esque version of The Sims aimed squarely at the massive Wii/DS market. Tim LeTourneau, executive producer of the upcoming MySims Kingdom, stated it clearly: "MySims is targeted at Nintendo's audience." Emmy Toyonaga, creator of the MySims character designs, has said she equates short stubby characters like Mario with fun, "so these characters kind of came naturally."
EA clearly sees a big opportunity with MySims. The Wii and DS games have sold roughly 5 million copies worldwide, and as producer Erik Zwerling told us, MySims PC - a remake of the Wii version with a graphical boost and online play - is EA's answer to its customers (many of them, presumably, Sims players) who want MySims on their PCs. LeTourneau says the designers think about the MySims universe of characters a bit like the Muppets - a set of recognizable characters with personality traits that carry over from game to game, regardless of the setting or story.
And it is story that most clearly distinguishes MySims Kingdom from the original. LeTourneau says the design team decided to take the new game (which, he insists, is not a sequel) in a completely different direction. Responding to criticism that the first game was long on construction and collecting, and short on pretty much everything else, the designers of MySims Kingdom are trying to weave the 'design and build stuff' gameplay into an adventure story that takes place in a variety of themed locations.
This is where my grip on the game begins to loosen. As a gamer who has often complained about guns as the default means to accomplish things in games, I love the philosophy underlying MySims Kingdom. Construction is the means by which the player advances through the adventure. Combat, at least in the first hour of the game I played, is nonexistant. Townspeople come to you with a problem, and you build or repair something to solve the problem, such as a bridge or an irrigation system for a farmer.
So as a game mechanic, building things, rather than destroying them, feels rather fresh and new. But the adventure itself - the new frame upon which the game is built - felt flimsy, repetitive, and childish to me. Despite insistent proclamations from LeTurneau and others that "we do not target kids," it's hard for me to imagine myself (an unabashed Pokémon and Animal Crossing lover) embracing the "cute aesthetic" that permeates the MySims universe and narrative. Perhaps, as in the case of Zack and Wiki, if the gameplay grabbed hold of me sufficiently, I might overlook the cartoony characters and settings. But too often in MySims Kingdom I found myself fetching and mini-questing my way through puzzles or objectives I've seen too many times. Knowing that I'm doing these things for a wacky, nutty, or otherwise silly NPC helps...but not enough.
MySims Kingdom also suffers from the dreaded Super Mario Galaxy Graphical Inferiority Phenomenon. Veteran Wii players are painfully aware of this condition. Once you've played Super Mario Galaxy and seen what the Wii is capable of, it's very hard to overlook the unrefined jagginess of games that fall well short of that standard. MySims Kingdom is a month from release, so it's possible I was seeing a build of the game that hadn't been optimized. But EA has a poor track record when it comes to graphics on the Wii, and I had hoped this game would suggest improvement in this area.
Despite EA's protestations, I think MySims Kingdom is largely targeted at kids and young adolescents; and for these players the game could provide a lot of fun. It's not a saccarine-sweet or brain-dead kiddie game by any means. The designers expressed pride in the game's offbeat sense of humor, and I can see why. It's a smart, self-assured game with high production values and a cleverly designed gallery of characters and environments. Perhaps game publishers think "kiss of death" whenever they hear "game for kids." If so, that's too bad. We could use a lot more good games for 10-year-olds.
I'll return tomorrow with thoughts on SimAnimals - a game that may have altered my thinking about squirrels in my pants.