Many years ago, in 2002 to be exact, a friend of mine sent me a link to the open beta announcement for The Sims Online, thus starting me on an irreversible path to online gaming. I can’t believe it’s been six years, and while I’ve played most MMORPGs our there since then, I’ve never forgotten my TSO roots, nor the incredible online community I discovered there.
A week ago, someone I hadn’t spoken to since I quit TSO but who has remained on my Yahoo buddy list, posted a link to ea-land.com on her Yahoo IM status message. Clickety-click and to my surprise, I found out that since March 2007, the old Maxis developers have been working on a re-engineered version of the game. Based on the announcement at their website, it looked like they had just retired the old game and were now migrating all the old cities - Alphaville, Interhogan, Calvin’s Creek, etc. - into one giant world called EA Land. There was also a special offer to old subscribers that caught my eye:
Former Members Of The Sims Online: You can come back for FREE right now by just downloading the game and REACTIVATING your account. If you do so before March 2008, you will get your earned ‘account based’ privileges back (gifts, skill locks etc…) when we run our ‘amnesty’ program. So make sure you are in game before that event!
Well, I don’t know if any of you can relate to this but I happen to be rather fond of my “Simmy”. It’s a rather innocuous-looking decoration piece that looks somewhat like a lamppost but nevertheless means a lot to some of us. It was given to all TSO beta testers when the game was first launched. [NOTE: For some reason, I happen to have a copy of this precious video made by a fellow founder (I only knew her by her sim name Jade Blue Afterglow) who didn’t immediately get her founder’s icon due to a bug. I would have asked for permission to post it but I have lost contact with her, so I hope she doesn’t mind me displaying it here.]
Download Simmy Song by Jade Blue Afterglow
In any case, I wanted to make sure my Simmy would survive the move so I clicked on the REACTIVATE link and downloaded the (new and improved) client program.
Not having played the game for at least 4 years now, it’s a wonder I even managed to remember my account name and password. Well technically, I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t written all my old gaming account names neatly at the back of an old notebook. Sometimes it pays to be an organization freak.
So what’s the new TSO like?
Culture Shock Number One: My old sims are gone! I fully expected to see all my old sims on character selection, so the blank screen came as a surprise. Unfortunately, I think I was about a week too late to save my Arwens (yes, all my sims were named Arwen something-or-other). The last train had left Interhogan, and my Arwens and all their worldly possessions were gone. Now, I’m not sure how the amnesty program is going to work but I certainly hope it means I get the silly old icon back if nothing else. Anyway, in spite of the initial disappointment, I still wanted to see what EA Land has to offer so I created a new sim, Trinity Divine.
Culture Shock Number Two: Trinity didn’t have a simoleon to her name! Well, making money in TSO was never too hard so thinking it was going to be the same here, I brought up the list of “money houses” and tried to get into one so I could start building my fortune all over again.
Culture Shock Number Three: You can’t get into a money or skill house if you’re not a paid subscriber! Ok, now I’m beginning to understand what they’ve done. After a little bit of digging (reading ddidn’t hurt either), I found out that although the monthly fee ($9.99) is optional, there are severe restrictions on free accounts. 1) You are restricted to a lot size 0 (6×6 grid) should you decide to buy property; 2) you can’t enter skill and money lots; and 3) you cannot earn money from money objects or jobs. On the other hand, if there’s any great advantage to being a subscriber, I certainly haven’t found it yet.
Culture Shock Number Four: It’s MUCH much harder to make money even as a paying subscriber. Payouts from jobs and money objects have been greatly reduced. Also, in TSO, homeowners used to get an occupancy bonus based on how many hours other sims visited their lots, but that bonus has been taken away, which means those who run establishments other than stores now have to depend on visitors’ tips to survive.
Culture Shock Number Five: Buying simoleons with real money is okay. Well, after experiencing all of the above, this didn’t really come as a surprise. All players, subscribers and non-subs alike, can now buy simoleons (the game currency) from EA by withdrawing money from an ingame ATM machine. Eventually, the plan is to also allow players to cash out their simoleons. Quite apparently, EA is slowly but surely moving towards the business model adopted by Linden Labs with Second Life.
Apart from the economy-related changes, the game now lets you install widgets to your Google and Yahoo pages that allow people to see which of your sims/lots are online. It even has a Facebook counterpart called AvatarBook - social networking for your sims! Also, players now have the tools to upload custom content to decorate their homes with. I have yet to experiment with this myself, but I’ve seen quite a few paintings and sculptures being sold ingame and it really opens up a lot of possibilities. While the custom content is purely decorative, combined with the right interactive objects, you could potentially create very interesting themed lots. I think the biggest hurdle will be getting people to see the potential and believe in it enough to invest real money.
While the changes are welcome in a lot of ways, and perhaps sorely needed in this online game that never became as popular as its offline counterpart, I’m not so sure how the new economy will work out. Not having had an active subscription for years now, I may be out touch but as far as I can remember, the “economic freedom” we used to enjoy helped us to be more creative. All the rich sims from TSO got to keep their possessions and their lots but not their money so basically, the game is starting over with a clean economic slate.
There’s no reason why it can’t be as successful as Second Life has been, but I think initially, EA has to loosen the purse-strings and allow the new players to build the fun stuff - art galleries, zoos, themed restaurants, ball parks (yes! sim-ball!).
If you don’t build them, no one will come…