In the world of video games, the most interesting development of the past few years has been the success of massively multiplayer online games like Everquest and Ultima Online. These games create open-ended universes that can be explored by thousands of players simultaneously: Players wage war with each other, build homes, learn skills, and barter goods and services. These games are so popular that a bustling black market has developed—in real-world currencies —for virtual items accumulated in them. On hundreds of auction sites around the Web, you can pay cash to buy magic spells, swords, or even entire characters.
Games like Ultima and Everquest are the closest we've come to the William Gibson/Matrix vision of cyberworlds that exist alongside the real one. But there's one thing holding them back from mainstream appeal, and you can summarize it in one word: orcs. If you're not the sort of person who goes for wizards and magic scepters, it's hard to throw yourself into the Ultima or Everquest experience, which is basically Dungeons & Dragons without the 20-sided dice. Building an open-ended virtual world with thousands of other participants sounds like an irresistible project. I just don't want that world to have elves.
A similar anti-fantasy sentiment has fueled a lot of the hype for Will Wright's latest creation, the Sims Online—the multiplayer follow-up to the Sims, the most popular video game of all time. The original Sims is a celebration of the quotidian: Your characters trudge off to work each day, and they clean up the kitchen after dinner. You can even steer them to the bathroom each time their bladders get full. The allure of the Sims Online is having that living-room drama projected onto a broader stage: Instead of managing a household, you're helping to create a living city, with varied neighborhoods and industries, hot spots and slums. You get the fishbowl economies of Ultima and its ilk but without the magic spells and heavy armor. It's a virtual world that, at long last, looks like reality.
At least, that's been the sales pitch: The Real World vs. Ultima's Xena. But the early glimpses of the Sims Online, which began a public beta test last month and is scheduled for release by Christmas, suggest that the game has its own kind of distorted reality. It's as far from everyday life, in its own way, as Everquest's dragons and sorcerers.
The game, in its earliest incarnation at least, has a bizarre high-school-like quality, where every design element encourages more "team spirit." Right now the most lucrative money-making activity for players is a group exercise where four characters make pizza together. Using the game's chat dialogue function, you recruit three other participants, and a successful payout requires that you coordinate your group actions (supplying dough, toppings, cheese, etc.). There are other incentives for players to collaborate with each other, too: "friendship webs" and a roommate system that encourages you to make connections with other players—both of which reward you with cash in various ways. There are also public lists of the most popular players. Wright's games are justifiably famous for their open-endedness, but as far as I can tell, it would be very hard to play the Sims Online successfully as a loner.
The overall effect is a maniacally social and collaborative universe. There's something sweet in this but also something unreal. The Sims Online is the mirror image of 2002's other hot title, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which is all about maniacally anti-social behavior: running over pedestrians, abusing prostitutes, or just crashing into things for no good reason. The test of the Sims' reality principle will be whether the final version lets a little menace into the mix. If the game is going to satisfy our craving for multiplayer realism, you should be able to carjack your fellow Sims, not just make pizza with them.