In the year 2000, kids could do chores and frustrate their parents at the same time. An addictive video game called The Sims made it possible. Washing digital dishes and mowing pixilated lawns might not seem like the way to create a pop culture sensation, but creator Will Wright didn’t do things in a conventional way. This is a man who once won a cross-country car race by donning night-vision goggles and turning his headlights off so no cops would notice he was driving over 100 miles an hour.
The Sims is one of the most successful video game franchises ever made, but its road to PC popularity was as unconventional as its creator. It includes digital ant farms, a brief period when it was known as “the toilet game,” and a real-world house fire that would prove pivotal in The Sims’s quest to redefine what gaming could be.
The Wright Stuff
Growing up in Atlanta, Will Wright dreamed of becoming an astronaut. He didn’t just want to suit up for NASA, though—he wanted to colonize outer space to relieve overpopulation problems on Earth. He was also fascinated by architecture and engineering. Wright started attending Louisiana State University at the age of 16, transferred to Louisiana Tech, dropped out, and eventually studied robotics at the New School in Manhattan. He entered robot fighting tournaments and won by having his robot wrap the other combatants in gauze, rendering them immobile. A clever strategy, but one also quickly banned in competition. Coupled with his knowledge of economics and military history, Wright’s eclectic background was laying the groundwork for a singular career in gaming.
After getting married and moving to Oakland, California, Wright decided to try his hand at programming a game on his Commodore 64. The result was Raid on Bungeling Bay, a helicopter simulation that tasked players with destroying enemy strongholds on an island. It was a big hit, selling well in the PC gaming market and even moving over a million Nintendo Entertainment System cartridges, mostly in Japan.
It was while programming all this mayhem that Wright discovered something about himself. While the airborne attacks were fun, he was much more interested in writing the code for the buildings that players would destroy. That got him thinking about a simulator that would allow users to erect buildings and then entire cities, acting as a kind of virtual urban planner. Wright was inspired by works like Urban Dynamics, a 1969 book by MIT professor Jay Wright Forrester that argued urban development would be better suited for artificial intelligence than humans so it wouldn’t be compromised by intuitive biases.
The game, which he called SimCity, allowed players to build roads, erect schools, and fret over crime rates. They could adjust over 100 variables, but those adjustments would each have a consequence. If you had a rise in crime, for example, your population would go down. Occasionally, an unforeseen occurrence like an earthquake or meteorite shower disrupted things.
Wright took the idea to Broderbund, the company that had released Raid on Bungeling Bay, but they weren’t interested. They wanted to market games that people could win—games that featured helicopters launching missiles. Fortunately, Wright had a chance encounter in 1987 with Jeff Braun, an entrepreneur who made font software and wanted to get into the video game industry. While at a pizza party thrown by a mutual friend, Wright and Braun hit it off and later co-founded the Maxis software company, which released SimCity in 1989.
The game was a slow seller at first. For months, Wright was reportedly doing all the tech support out of Braun’s apartment. But the game started picking up steam thanks to word of mouth, and in June of that year, it was featured in The New York Times with professors of urban planning praising the game and pledging to introduce it to their classrooms. By 1992 it had sold an estimated 1 million copies and was the vanguard of an entirely new genre of computer game, designed around building something rather than destruction or battle. As successful as SimCity was, though, it was Wright’s next project that would make him a gaming celebrity. But in order for that to happen, his house apparently had to burn down.
SimCity resulted in a number of spin-off titles for Maxis, including SimAnt, which allowed players to oversee a prospering ant colony in a residential backyard. While Wright was designing SimAnt, he was somewhat amused to realize that the game’s ants were seemingly smarter than the lumbering humans who sometimes threatened to step on them. That got Wright thinking about artificial intelligence in games and how far it could really go.
At the same time, Wright was also tinkering with a concept that he named Doll House. As you might expect, it revolved around building a domestic existence with virtual occupants. If SimCity was about citywide planning, Doll House narrowed the scope even further to a single residence.
Then disaster struck. Wright woke up one morning in 1991 to the smell of smoke and an encroaching wildfire near his home in Oakland. Gathering his wife and a few neighbors (his daughter was visiting a friend), Wright fled the scene, driving through the spreading flames. When he returned a few days later, his house was destroyed. His other car was just a melted puddle of metal.
There were two bright spots in this stressful event. For one thing, Wright had taken his code for SimAnt out of his house and into his office two weeks earlier, saving that game from destruction. More importantly, as he began purchasing new household goods like dishes and furniture, he started thinking about the concept of material goods and property and how they related to a person’s happiness. Losing so many possessions made him realize what he valued most: relationships.
Maybe the Doll House game could be made better if the people inside it became the focus rather than the buildings themselves. How a player designed their environment and nourished their social interactions would determine their satisfaction. These were principles Wright got from works like A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, Sarah Ihsikawa, and Murray Silverstein, which argued that certain patterns can create satisfying living spaces. Wright also drew from psychological research that stated physiological needs were less important than things like safety, love, and self-esteem. He actually intended the game, on one level, to be a satirical take on consumerism.
As time went on, Wright continued to build out his world. The virtual people, dubbed Sims, would be able to spend currency called simoleons, and their purchases could have a material effect on their happiness. If they got a cheap mattress, for example, they might not have much comfort or energy. But if they sprung for an expensive bed, their quality of life would improve.
It sounded like another hit for both Wright and his Sim franchise. Even better, he co-owned a software company, so distribution wouldn’t be a problem. But the genius of Will Wright is not always easy to communicate. Not long after he pitched the idea to the executives at Maxis, his Doll House game got a new title—The Toilet Game.
Wright may have been a co-founder of Maxis, but he still had to convince his colleagues that a game in which players bought spoons and hung out in their homes was a good idea. It was a hard sell, even for a company whose flagship title involved laying water pipe and dealing with zoning issues. The game quickly became known as the one Maxis property where players would be expected to clean toilets. Aside from that, executives were afraid a virtual doll house wouldn’t appeal to what they perceived as a male-skewing video game audience.
Wright pressed on. When focus groups arranged by Maxis also vetoed the idea, he focused on projects like SimCity 2000. In 1996, however, Wright decided to enlist a programmer to work on the Doll House game covertly. While he continued his SimCity spin-offs, like SimGolf and SimIsle, Wright never stopped pursuing what would soon be referred to as The Sims.
His big break came in 1997, when Maxis was purchased by video game giant Electronic Arts. EA was a powerhouse thanks to their sports titles, including the Madden NFL franchise. Despite their reputation for action games, EA was more receptive to The Sims and gave Wright permission to continue working on it.
The Sims flourished at the developmental level. Wright assigned a number of key traits like hunger, hygiene, and even bladder relief that would be factored into how happy a Sim could be. While commerce was important and Sims should work for their money, Wright also liked subverting the commerce-driven nature of the game by building in cheat codes that granted the player thousands of free simoleons.
Wright also wanted his Sims to converse with one another. Originally, they were going to speak a language that would be unfamiliar to most players, like Navajo or Ukrainian. But when audio engineers recruited actors from the Bay area to record the dialogue, they had trouble getting through the unfamiliar words. Instead, the actors, who had an improv background, suggested an improv exercise where they used nonsensical words to tell a coherent story.
The resulting babble became a language known as Simlish. It has a number of word-for-word translations—sul-sul means “hello,” for example—but it’s largely gibberish. Simlish later became so popular that musicians like Katy Perry and the Black-Eyed Peas re-recorded some of their hits in the language.
Wright spent years developing and refining The Sims to be as immersive as possible, with many of the activities available in real life available to his Sims. But the game’s programmers were still hounded by rumors that Maxis and Electronic Arts could kill it at any time. The SimCity franchise was so successful that they worried the so-called Toilet Game could damage its reputation. It would take an unlikely expression of affection during an electronics convention to fully allow The Sims to move full speed ahead.
When it came time to showcase the game during the 1999 Electronics Entertainment Expo, or E3, in Los Angeles, California, Electronic Arts didn’t offer much support. Amid all the pageantry of the convention, The Sims was tucked into a small booth and hardly registered with those in attendance.
That changed with the kiss.
Some background: When Wright was developing the game, there was a lot of internal discussion at Maxis over whether it should depict same-sex relationships. Sims could date and show affection, and even get married, but LGBTQ advocacy had not yet reached the video game industry at large. In fact, Maxis had received some unwanted attention after firing a gay programmer in 1996. The man had inserted some scantily clad “studly guys” into SimCopter without authorization, leading to his termination and speculation in some corners that Maxis was an anti-gay company. When it came to The Sims, the company didn’t want to provide fodder to its critics, but there was concern that gay characters might draw criticism from politicians or other watchdog groups, and so the decision was made to leave it out of the game’s code.
Then something unexpected happened. A programmer named Patrick J. Barrett III was asked to work on some coding related to the game’s social interactions—essentially the rules for its artificial intelligence. By this time, Maxis had decided not to pursue same-sex relationships in The Sims, but the document Barrett was given was an old version. So he went to work, not realizing the guidelines he had been given were out of date.
A short time later, Barrett was told to prepare three scenes from the game to display at E3. These sequences would be pre-planned, meaning the game would run them independently of any player. One scene consisted of a wedding between two straight Sims. There were so many attendees at the wedding that programmers didn’t have time to prescribe every background character’s actions, including two female Sims seated next to one another. In front of a gathering crowd at E3, these digital women decided—via the game’s artificial intelligence—that they enjoyed each other’s company enough to start sucking major face.
Despite being showcased in a small booth, The Sims quickly became the talk of E3. The kiss also dismissed any talk of Electronic Arts canceling the game. It was now on the radar of a video game industry that was developing a real curiosity over what exactly Will Wright was up to.
Prior to The Sims being released in February 2000, Wright thought it might be popular enough to sell 1 million copies. On the other hand, he believed it might only sell 50 copies. There wasn’t much precedent to try and figure out how the PC gaming market would respond to a game that attempted to simulate a typical American life.
The Sims quickly exceeded all expectations, going on to sell 16 million copies and becoming the best-selling PC game in each of the four years following its release. It was eclipsed only by its sequel, The Sims 2, in 2004.
Rather than damage an existing franchise in SimCity, The Sims built a brand-new one. Expansion packs started being released at regular intervals, which opened the world of The Sims to include house parties, dates, vacations, and more. The Sims 3 followed in 2009, and The Sims 4 in 2014. Players started sharing custom houses and characters with other players, building online communities on top of their virtual communities.
So why did The Sims work? For Wright, it was a matter of people seeing reflections of themselves. It was captivating to watch this human ant farm unfold on computer screens, with behaviors dictated by how well players took care of their characters. There was pleasure to be had in the virtual pursuit of their happiness. And unlike a lot of first-person shooters popular at the time, The Sims was full of regular people. Being silly and spouting babble, they had charm.
That E3 kiss may have foreshadowed another important aspect of the game. The Sims world was inclusive. The series introduced gay marriage with its third installment in 2009— a time when only a handful of states in the U.S. permitted same-sex unions. And in 2019, the first pre-made non-binary character was made available.
The Sims franchise has now sold over 200 million copies worldwide. It’s also found itself as part of a Museum of Modern Art exhibition and regularly releases expansion packs to broaden the scope of The Sims universe, which effectively began with ants. As for Wright: He went on to develop a game titled Spore that was released in 2008 and followed a single-celled organism to world domination. Wright once said if the entire game was explored to its fullest, it would take 79 years, without rest, to complete.
But his best-known creation remains The Sims, which is interesting. The kid who once dreamed of solving overpopulation wound up contributing billions of virtual members to society. Then again, they do take up less space.
This story has been adapted from an episode of Throwback on YouTube.