SimAnimals Interview

   21/01/2009 at 17:58       Richard Walker       5 COMMENTS.
Trudging through the mud on our way to a hut on Camley Street Nature Reserve in the middle of London, we've come to take a look at SimAnimals, the latest in the Sims series exclusively for the Wii and DS.

It's like a cutesy version of The Island Of Dr. Moreau, except without the botched half human, half animal experiments running around. We spoke one-to-one with Sam Player, Executive Producer for The Sims label about the game. Player's excited about his new Sims title, which is why throughout the interview he played the game, showing us all the different things you can do in SimAnimals' world. What followed was a breezy casual chat and a unique walkthrough of the gameplay mechanics. Read on for more on shaking bears to annoy them, fighting horses and more...

AATG: Tell us a bit about SimAnimals.

Sam Player: The idea is to create an environment, and then how you set it up will attract certain species to come visit you. You progress through the world - it's one big continuous world divided into eleven different sections and you unlock a section, one at a time. Essentially, as you experience these new areas, each will introduce you to new species so you'll discover more and more as you go until ultimately you'll have the whole world unlocked and you can go back and forth between levels and interact with any animal you want. The actions are really simple. You use this cursor, which is a 3D hand that exists within the world and the animals are actually aware of it so they'll react to it. You can just pick up and grab any animal, and they'll react to you in different ways depending on whether they like you or not.

As you can see this animal doesn't like me (picks up an angry bear), so I'm going to cheat and make him like me (enters cheat code). So, I've changed his attitude towards me to a positive one, so now he'll allow me to pick him up. Now if I shake him, he'll get dizzy but he thinks it's fun because we're friends. Now if we were enemies that would annoy it, which would make its relationship with me even worse.

Are you familiar with The Sims?

AATG: Erm, yeah. I've played it a few times, sure.

SP: Then you'll know Sims have needs: the need for hygiene, bladder, energy and all that. It's a similar thing for the animals, and these are the five needs that they have: energy, fun, food, mating and security, so they need to feel safe in order to do things like eat and survive. (Drops his bear near water).

AATG: So the objective is to attract new species and build them a nice sanctuary?

SP: Yeah, you'll get presented with...(looks at the bear on screen) know what, he's not interested in that water at all.

AATG: It's a bit like Viva Piñata in that sense?

SP: You could draw similarities between this and Viva Piñata, but the animals are all simulated beings much like The Sims, so they have very distinct needs that you need to tend to. You need to teach them about where things are in their environment that they can use to fulfil those needs. For example, for fun, they can use other animals. You can even have relationships across species, so bears can interact with wolves and create friendships between different animals. Look, we have a horse squaring off against a deer. There's a whole ecosystem that just evolves (laughs), but I don't know what these guys are doing, but you can see they're not friends. You see the heart with the 'X' through it - that shows there's an unfriendly interaction between those two.

The happiness bar at the top (of the screen) is essentially the only score, so all these smiley faces you can see being emitted from things - there's a plant emitting them there - see I can click on it or let's click on this squirrel and see the red frowning face, that's the squirrel telling me, "I'm not happy, because I'm not having any fun." So, if I'm friends with this squirrel - wait, no I'm not - so what I need to do is feed him some nuts. I'll give him some walnuts and hopefully they'll cheer him up depending on what he likes.

AATG: Okay.

SP: Yep. There that heart icon shows that my relationship with him has improved so I should be able to interact with him more. I can find out what any animal likes by just pausing the game, to go into what we call 'discovery mode.' So here we see he loves maple leaf seeds, but that's not the only thing he'll eat, he just particularly loves that. Your backpack is your inventory and you can pack it with stuff. A quick look, and yeah, we have a maple leaf seed. Now I can drag that into the world and if I want to plant it I just rub over the surface where I want it to go. Now it's happiest in moist soil, so I want to move it to the kind of soil that makes it happy. I can change the soil by simply grabbing water to change dry soil to wet soil and if I over-water it I can change it to muddy soil and it'll evaporate over time, so you need to keep an eye on that.

There's some fun stuff that we do with the game like special plants you unlock later in the game. For example here we have the Giant Orpilla (character modeller Krsi Orpilla), which is named after a member of our art team. If I feed that to a squirrel - and I guess you can already imagine what it'll do - it makes a giant squirrel. Of course the opposite of that would be the humble flower, which we'll feed to this bear - just drop it right on him - and, yes! we've made a teeny tiny bear, which would be kinda fun to put next to the giant squirrel and they'll still maintain their predator/prey relationship.

We've basically just created this huge toybox full of animals. Let's dam this river here. Ordinarily a beaver would do this, but I'm going to cheat and show you that if place a dam in a river, it'll cause a different stream to go off another way to an area in the environment that was previously dry, so it'll now be wet. Whatever I did there, I've just unlocked a swan.

AATG: So your actions there unlocked a new animal?

SP: There was a goal associated with building the dam so had the beavers built the dam I'd unlock the swan (without cheats). There's a whole goal system that provides tasks to give the player direction and things to do and also help them to learn the mechanics of the game.

AATG: Well that's the Wii version. What about the DS?

SP: It's the same on the DS; the design is exactly the same. Instead of grabbing with the B button on the Wiimote, you just touch with the stylus. Rather than pausing for your inventory you can just tap the screen and see statistics like how much fun the animal's having, the animal's relationship with me as well as the kind of things the selected animal likes to eat. There's a little overhead map (on the upper screen) to tell me how things are doing, which I can scroll around with the D-pad and I can scroll around the touch-screen with the D-pad and the face buttons. It's the same sort of thing - you've got to keep the ecosystem alive to support the animals.

AATG: Will SimAnimals be available for the PC?

SP: No. Only for the Wii and DS, January 23rd, maybe 30th.

AATG: Any future plans for a PC version?

SP: You may see it in the future, but there're no plans yet. I wouldn't say we've ruled it out.

AATG: How did the idea to do a game with animal Sims come about?

SP: On the Sims label, we have about 320 people or so and obviously our bread and butter is the PC audience. My Sims introduced us to the Nintendo audience and so we're always trying to figure out ways to get more people exposed to the idea of The Sims. The PC game tends to appeal to teenagers and up whereas this game and the My Sims games are more aimed towards gamers aged 8-16 and not all of them have experienced The Sims. They're certainly as creative as our PC players, but they hadn't really had a vehicle to express themselves, so these kind of games give exposure to the toolset you can play with and tell your own stories. The idea behind SimAnimals is so broadly appealing, because you know everyone has a favourite animal. There're 34 different animals in this game to play with, so people will pick out their favourites and tell the kind of stories they want to tell.

The fundamental philosophy of The Sims is entirely based on the player's creativity, having a good time and doing things in a silly way, and hopefully SimAnimals will teach them a little bit about nature at the same time.

AATG: You mentioned SimAnimals will appeal to ages 8-16. Did you set out with this target age range in mind?

SP: We want to make sure it's approachable enough so kids can play it, but we're certainly not calling it a kid's game, especially considering the inherently deep nature of the system that's running under the hood. These animals are all beings that have very detailed AI and we actually hired an animal behaviour expert to make sure the animals behave as real as possible. It's certainly presented in a way that's non-threatening, so kids are going to like it, parents will like it for their kids. But we find for example, girls aged 16-years old are more interested in the gameplay whereas the boys tend to think it's less cool around the age of 13, when they're like, "OK. Give me some guns, give me some cars..." and 18-year old guys will say, " Yeah, I'm sure my kid sister would love it!"

Then we have a secondary audience that's typically adult, female, age 35-50 who like setting up the environments and then watching the action ensue.

AATG: So this is as fully fledged a Sims game as any other?

SP: Yeah. The animals are essentially Sims. Each has their own needs, but you're not constantly dealing with the monotony of making sure they have enough food or making sure they have to go to the bathroom or the shower. They all learn where the food sources are, they gain memories of who their friends are, they'll go find their friends and have fun with them. You can pet them have fun with them or you can just sit and watch it happen because it can be interesting just watching nature ensue.

AATG: The interface looks very simple and intuitive. And you've lots of little spontaneous things happening.

SP: Yeah! It just all happens! There's this world that just evolves and the mayhem ensues right in front of you!

AATG: Cool. Thanks a lot for taking time out to show us the game. It looks good!

SimAnimals is out for Nintendo Wii and DS January 30th 2009.
User Comments:

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HairyArse - on 21/01/2009 at 19:30 wrote:
Now there's a guaranteed seller if ever there was one.

The Wii owning demographic will eat this alive.

And while the game doesn't expecially interest me, if it gives EA more money to make titles left Dead Space and Mirror's Edge then I'm all for it.

Syrok - on 21/01/2009 at 19:50 wrote:
That actually sounds quite good and I'm not even anywhere near the target audience. I should be out there killing space marines.

peej - on 22/01/2009 at 08:29 wrote:
No half human / half animal hybrids? Nahhh it's not for me then.

Sounds distinctly better than Spore at least.

eviltobz - on 22/01/2009 at 18:09 wrote:
sim animals? interest level = none existant

"Read on for more on shaking bears to annoy them, fighting horses and more..."

interest level = high :)

JohnnyM60 - on 27/01/2009 at 19:18 wrote:
I think the sound of this is quite fun.

I'm more looking forward to Sims 3 though. :)

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