Simsenfreude

Much as I enjoy gaming, these days I’ve been spending far too many hours writing to get in any serious play time. Oh sure, I’ve nipped off for a heartbreaking permadeath or two in Don’t Starve. I even bought Prototype 2 for ten bucks in the latest Steam sale just for the cathartic pleasure of liquefying a few thousand innocent bystanders for no better reason than they were standing there, irritatingly minding their own business. But on the video-game front, I’ve largely been amusing myself by watching industry developments from the sidelines, reading articles, and trying to answer the most pressing question of the day: Is EA Games about to lay waste to another beloved and venerable franchise?

Since being voted the worst company in America multiple years in a row by an online poll, disappointing everyone with the universally loathed ending of the Mass Effect trilogy, and laying waste to a mighty gaming dynasty with the catastrophuck that was Simcity 2013, EA can do no right. Now, with a September 2nd release date written in stone, casual and obsessive gamers alike are waiting to find out if they’re about to destroy The Sims once and for all.

After nickel and diming fans with The Sims 3 microtransactions for the last five years, it was time to con devoted fans into buying all the same shit all over again for The Sims 4. EA bean counters are rubbing their greedy fingers together in anticipation of all the greenbacks they’ll see from pre-orders, deluxe pre-orders, online store items, and future installments that will roll off the assembly line multiple times per year for the next five years, give or take.

There’s just one tiny problem. The development and promotion of this new installment has, thus far, been an unmitigated disaster. And as a result, I’m getting far more entertainment value for free from watching this slow-motion train wreck than I could ever get for a seventy-dollar sticker price in September. To varying degrees, I’ve played all the past incarnations of The Sims. I don’t know if I’ll ever touch The Sims 4, but basking in the associated nerd rage amuses the shit out of me.

When I say I play The Sims, that’s not entirely accurate. I fart around with The Sims. I while away the hours overdesigning creepy freaks and outlandish buildings and sinister lairs. I micromanage every shade of colour, every texture, every prop’s position, until I’ve created exactly the mood I want. Then I proceed to never actually play the game itself because who really wants to spend all their gaming time reminding virtual people that it’s time to go to work, go to bed, eat something, clean something, or poop?

Well, apparently lots of people want to do that, and have done so for years, through three (going on four) incarnations of the game and more expansion packs, stuff packs and DLC than anyone has ever tried to count (FUN FACT: they once set Deep Blue to the task but technicians had to pull the plug after sixteen hours when it started smoking and stinking of sulfur and burnt rubber).

The big selling point of The Sims 4 is that your virtual people-puppets now come with emotions, emotions, EMOTIONS! Did we mention they have emotions now?

Okay, if you say so. Although I always thought the Sims looked pretty darn embarrassed every time they pissed themselves ten feet away from a perfectly functional toilet because they were too engaged in a rollicking game of chess.

When it comes to the new emotions system in the game, there’s only one emotion that comes to mind: Schadenfreude. From the moment EA minions announced that Into the Future would be the last expansion pack for The Sims 3, they’ve busied themselves laying waste to that future. The franchise now hangs on the success or failure of a sequel that has looked half-baked from day one.

Originally designed to be a multiplayer online experience like its Simcity cousin, the aforementioned catastrophuck necessitated a quick reversal on that front for fear of replicating one of the biggest disasters in video gaming history. Unfortunately, the infrastructure was already there, the engine was already built, and it was too late in the schedule to create the new game from the ground up. So now we have a single-player experience grafted onto a multiplayer design. The results are a massive leap backwards for the series, removing the open world of The Sims 3 in favour of lots and lots and lots of loading screens.

Ah, if only that were the sole setback this game had to deal with. Let us not forget the layoffs when EA cut its Maxis staff to the bone earlier this year. All sorts of beloved “SimGurus” featured in promotional play videos, product announcements, and tweets with the fans were given the unceremonious axe, leaving only two janitors and one accountant on staff to finish coding The Sims 4. As a direct result, the game isn’t ready. It isn’t even close to being ready. If it had another year of development time at its disposal, it might be able to get in the same ballpark as ready. Right now, it’s not even on the same planet as ready. But it’s getting a worldwide release in a little over a month because fuck it! EA gotta eat.

Nearly every single day for weeks there’s been a new announcement about what’s not in the game. EA is doling out the bad news incrementally to avoid a fan-base shock that would see all their preorders cancelled. It’s not really working. Preorders continue to be sluggish, and a lot of the ones they already had dating all the way back to 2013 have been cancelled. No Create-a-Style, no toddlers, no swimming pools, no basements. The hits keep on coming. Stuff that was promised to be in-game last year has since evaporated. Everyone is waiting on the inevitable announcement that cars and other vehicles will not be interactive in the base game. The silence on the topic has been deafening. Which means cars are out.

But did we mention your Sims will now have emotions? Yes, I think you did. Did I mention Sim fans have emotions too? They do. Rage, ire, disdain, hatred and malice. Read the forums sometime. The vitriol is poisonous.

Complicating the matter is EA’s typical tone-deaf approach to dealing with its customers. Videos, convention appearances and promotion for the new Sims title have been a joke. A badly told knock-knock joke with poor delivery, ill timing and no punchline. EA seized upon the opportunity of the E3 conference to provide no new information about the game whatsoever. After fans demanded to see actual in-game footage – any in-game footage featuring genuine game play and a user interface – EA responded with a contrived and woefully incomplete walkthrough identical to what they offered select members of the press back at E3 a month earlier.

SimGuru Graham, owner of one of the necks that avoided this year’s layoff chopping block, has been dispatched to calm fears and break bad news as sweetly as possible via Twitter and endless rounds of nearly identical convention interviews. The new Sim emotions may be garishly overacted and cartoony, but I think I can read some of the more subtle emotions going on just under the surface of those pandering interviews that hit all the talking points and never broach the subject of what’s gone so horribly wrong the game.

I’ve done those interviews myself, I’m been in those meetings. I’m sure many of you have as well. You know, the ones where you’re required to fake enthusiasm for a product you know is a steaming pile of dog shit? You pull your lips back, bare your teeth, and hope it resembles a genuine smile. You raise your voice to an artificially high pitch and volume and pray it sounds like excitement. But the eyes, ah yes, the eyes. Those haunted, soul-compromised eyes can’t hide the fact that you’re dying inside a little every time you present a false positive or nod in agreement with an idea you know is not just bad, it’s stupefying horrible.

Putting on a brave face, dying a little on the inside.

Putting on a brave face, dying a little on the inside.

More transparent is SimGuru Ryan, who continues to be tapped for interviews, announcements and gameplay videos. He’s been a constant frontman for the franchise for years, apparently thanks to his position as lead producer in charge of artificially positive spin. He comes across as so insincere, I worry the poor man fakes his orgasms when masturbating. Every time he opens his mouth in one of these clips, I feel like I’m being hard sold a lemon by a used car salesman. Except, of course, The Sims 4 won’t actually have real cars. That piece of bad news publically admitted to in three…two…one…

Of course there are fans who remain steadfastly committed to the title. Although the ongoing derailment of a fourteen-year-old billion-dollar video gaming cornerstone has sharply divided the community into bickering factions, that’s part of the appeal of watching everyone lose their shit and turn into a talkback troll. Stubborn supporters are very much needed to turn a critical panning into a lively boxing match. Without them it would be like having no delusional die-hards who stood up to defend the Star Wars prequels. Where’s the fun if everyone acknowledges the product on offer is junk and agrees to keep their money in their wallet?

You can read all the negative comments about The Sims 4 right now. The game itself, ready or not, comes out on September 2, 2014. Better-informed negative reviews commence on September 3rd.

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