Every sequel faces a challenge of living up to whatever came before it. The Sims 4 struggles with this more than most video games because the series has such a distinctive and successful history.
The shadow that The Sims 4 lives under came up in an unexpectedly candid way yesterday when I was speaking to Rachel Franklin, an executive producer on the game. We were talking about the new stuff that the game's getting over the next few months. Most of these additions — swimming pools, ghost Sims, new careers — seem to address specific complaints that fans have had about where they find the new game lacking. Hearing Franklin describe the new ways that, say, ghosts will function in The Sims 4, I kept thinking back to the main criticisms I've seen bubble up online before the game had even been released. Given the intensity with which many fans have aired their grievances, it's tempting to see anything that EA now does with The Sims 4 as a defensive, or reactive, gesture.
Towards the end of our conversation, I asked Franklin if the developer's plans for future Sims 4 updates and expansions had shifted at all in response to the game's... complicated reception. Her response was: yes and no.
"We always had a plan to have some paid and some free content," Franklin said. "For these next three months, these will all be free content updates. So that's always been our approach."
"That said, we absolutely listen to our players," she continued. "And we want feedback from our players, and respect what they're saying. We try to incorporate that as quickly [as possible] and to the best of our abilities."
So what does that mean for The Sims 4? I told Franklin that I notice a flurry of comments about one seemingly essential feature or another people think the new game is missing every time I peruse a forum for the game or write about it here on Kotaku.
"You know, you're right: we are hearing some people saying that there's a lack of content," Franklin responded. "And then we have other people tweeting at us saying they have been playing for 300 or 400 hours. You've been playing a ton, so you know how deep this is."
She was referencing the fact that I said I'd put 41 hours into The Sims 4 for my review of the game. I enjoyed it, obviously — otherwise I'm not sure how I would have managed to spend almost two out of ten days in my virtual life without losing my mind. I can tell that many other Sims fans don't feel the same way, however. It doesn't take that much googling to come across exhaustive takedowns of what's "missing" from The Sims 4. When it comes to Sims fans, a schism has formed between players who either don't notice or don't mind its absent features because they feel the game's Sims are new-and-improved enough on their own to warrant playing with, and others who feel they have been denied a proper sequel because the game, as it stands, is fundamentally incomplete. Is this just a matter of perception and personal preference, more than anything else?
One point Franklin kept emphasising is that she sees The Sims 4 as it exists today as "the base game." As with past Sims games, it's currently a bare-bones foundation upon which other things can be built. Even then, however, she insisted that she's confident The Sims 4 can stand on its own.
"Even the amount of clothing items and objects to play with are very much on par with our base games, if not bigger as far as just sheer objects," Franklin said. "But the depth and how it plays out with the emotions, and the personalities, and the relationships... it's not as in your face as the other games have been, so it takes time to reveal."
It takes time to reveal. I have to admit: I love that idea. But I'm also the kind of gamer who's willing to spend 15 or 20 hours just trying to figure out how to play a game like Wasteland 2in a remotely effective way — either because I'm too stubborn or too stupid to ask other people for help. I also enjoy The Sims 4 as a "base game" enough that I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, so to speak. And, finally, as a critic I feel that I'm inherently sympathetic to artists who stand by their work — especially when they do so in the face of an intense vocal backlash. That, and the idea of emphasising something new and unique rather than delivering yet another round of fan service. Will everybody have the patience to keep playing The Sims 4 when, again, it sounds like its missing so many things at face value?
"We challenge ourselves with figuring out how to expose the depth of the game to our players," Franklin said. The developers have even started to put on their own Sims 4 live-streams on Twitch to try an explain more about the game to current and prospective players.
"We had one today where somebody said she'd already been playing the game for 70 hours and she learned two new things," Franklin said. "She'd been playing in build mode specifically for 70 hours — she's a builder. And she learned from the twitch stream today."
"So we clearly have the job of revealing the depth to our players, but we truly believe the depth is there," Franklin concluded. "There's so much to play with in this game."
That was last night. Franklin spent part of today tweeting and retweeting excitedly about the new Sims 4 content that just arrived. As of this writing, the last two messages she reposted came from two players who sound like legitimate Sims 4 fanatics in their own separate ways. One had started messing with the new Star Wars costumes and ghosts practically the minute they arrived. The other had accomplished something else entirely.
"Successfully starved my husband to death #TheSims4," she wrote.