Join GameSpot as we celebrate gaming history and give recognition to the most influential games of the 21st century. These aren’t the best games, and they aren’t necessarily games that you need to rush out and play today, but there’s no question that they left an indelible impact on game developers, players, and in some cases, society at large.
In 2000, PC gaming was largely a “serious” scene. Counter-Strike, Diablo II, and Deus Ex all launched that year, Valve’s Half-Life had launched two years prior, and id Software’s Quake still had legs four years after its release. They were joined by one very odd duck: The Sims. It was the evolution of developer Maxis’ previous success in SimCity, but on a more personal scale. It was freeform, goofy, and much more “casual” than its contemporaries, and it was clearly something special.
The Sims blended the best of what simulation games could offer with lessons learned from none other than Quake, which laid the foundation for modern game modding and the communities that surround it. With accessible modding tools and a built-in sharing platform, The Sims brought community-made content to a broader audience. Through this platform, it fostered a space to explore games as a passionate and social experience. That had a greater impact on players than it did the development of other games, but it was an important one all the same. The Sims resonated especially with girls and women–for many of them, it was a gateway into a world that was otherwise incredibly hard to reach.
When The Sims arrived, there wasn’t really anything like it. There were Maxis’ own Sim games, the highlight of which was SimCity, and 3D home-design software was popular. But a virtual dollhouse, one in which you controlled the narrative, the relationships, the look and personality of a person and their home–that was novel. The Sims took simulation and scaled it down, not in complexity, but in scope. Rather than managing an entire city, you managed a life. And, unlike most other games at the time, there was no real way to fail. Whether something was a win or a loss was entirely up to you.
As it turns out, that appealed to a vast audience. The Sims was a near-instant best-seller, and critics adored it, too. Common praise included the game’s infectious personality and charm, its great sound effects, and its hard-to-define “addictive” quality. It was even GameSpot’s Game of the Year in 2000, and what we wrote then captures what made it stand out so much:
“Despite the game’s basic strategic elements, one of the reasons The Sims is such a remarkable game is because its central conflict is essentially life itself. Most any other game gives you a concrete objective: You’re pitted against powerful enemy armies, arch-rivals, deadly aliens, or fantasy creatures. The Sims offers a similar challenge, but in the unlikely form of your having to manage the mundane details of an average suburban life. This witty, ambitious premise actually turned out to be a truly impressive game as well.”
In 2002, the Sims surpassed Myst to become the best-selling PC game of all time. More than half the players were female, which surprised people–including Maxis co-founder and Sims creator Will Wright, who had thought of The Sims as a game with broad appeal rather than a game specifically geared toward women. Even more so than in recent years, this was a time when gaming was very much considered a male hobby. But it was women that treated The Sims more like a hobby, and a popular hypothesis was that they gravitated toward its domesticity, lack of violence, and emphasis on interpersonal relationships. However, while the exact demographics were unexpected, the passion with which these women approached the game was, indeed, by design.
The Sims was built from the ground up to be a community-led experience. Maxis released modding tools months before the game itself came out, and player-made content was brought together by an official website called The Sims Exchange. There, players could upload buildings and Sims they’d created and download others’ creations–and these sharing features were accessible right from the game’s menu. That meant even a casual player would have no trouble finding, participating in, and becoming more and more involved in The Sims and its community.
The entire purpose of The Sims Exchange was to enable creativity and storytelling. Custom content uploaded there wouldn’t fundamentally alter and/or build upon what The Sims was, as was the case with some popular mods for other games around that time (and to this day). Instead, you found carefully handcrafted parks and buildings that you could easily fit into your game as it already was. You followed that kind of customization as far as was possible and used your imagination to fill in the rest, and that, too, tied in with the community; The Sims Exchange was home to vast libraries of annotated screenshots that comprised player-created stories.
Even outside the proper channels, it was easy to connect with others through The Sims. Sims did a lot of crazy things, not the least of which was setting themselves on fire while trying to cook, and exchanging those stories was good for a laugh. We also can’t overlook the importance of The Sims as an inclusive experience. It was one of the only games at the time to include homosexual relationships (though that part did and still does get overlooked), and you could, of course, make your Sims look how you wanted. Critically, and likely because of its broad appeal and comparatively normal themes, The Sims didn’t carry as much of the stigma that other games did. For adults and especially for female players, playing and talking about The Sims wasn’t met with the same kind of derision that playing something violent or “nerdier” often incited. If you felt isolated from or unwelcome in gaming before, The Sims was your ticket to freely explore it.
In 2003, one big competitor emerged: Second Life. The MMO-like life simulator allowed you to create and customize an avatar as well as virtual property, and much of the content was user-generated. Because of its online nature, however, Second Life was also at the center of a number of controversies, including gambling and pornography worries. It also suffered from technical problems and security concerns. Compared to the disappointing and short-lived Sims Online–which didn’t have custom content, a key part of The Sims’ popularity–Second Life was a far greater success. But Second Life emphasized role-playing with others over creativity or management aspects, which ultimately made it and The Sims very different games.
For the most part, The Sims cornered the market on itself. Maxis released seven expansion packs between the game’s launch and the end of 2003, keeping interest high. And, of course, the community also gave it legs. The Sims stayed popular and active through the release of The Sims 2 in late 2004. Now, after four main installments, The Sims is one of the most successful video game franchises of all time, ranking among series like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty.
There are other life-sim games out there, some of which most likely took inspiration from The Sims, but the full extent of The Sims’ influence is seen in its players rather than in other games. The Sims 4 has an incredibly dedicated YouTube community, and custom content is still thriving. The Sims doesn’t have many direct progeny in games, but it’s a household name; it’s still the game that even the gaming-averse can pick up and become absorbed in.
For a look at the rest of our features in this series, head over to our Most Influential Games Of The 21st Century hub.