The Sims Online should have been a sure thing. The premise reads like a gaming executive's dream sheet. A popular, long-lived franchise loved by casual and hardcore gamers alike; a game that sells at Wal-Mart as well as it does at EB Games and developed by Will Wright, one of the most famous names in game design. The launch window picked was close to perfect: December 17, 2002, just in time for Christmas, virtually assuring millions of sales. In-house predictions called for an ongoing active subscriber base of up to 1 million people, but The Sims Online launched out of the gate and promptly fell flat. Six months after launch, Wired reported 125,000 retail copies sold and 97,000 active subscribers - not bad, but not enough to justify the game's $20 million budget. By April, 2004, their subscription rate peaked at around 55,000, and has now stagnated near 35,000.
The "sure thing" is now an "also-ran," an embarrassment to all concerned and an eyesore on the balance sheet of the world's largest game company.
"The game we shipped didn't actually have the complete feature set that Will and I envisioned," says Gordon Walton, Executive Producer of The Sims Online, who called the task of transplanting the wonder of The Sims to an online environment one of the "real challenges. We just couldn't get everything built in the time available, even with great resource support from EA."
"Not enough time" is a common refrain among developers of failed games, but gamers and reviews alike have also laid blame for TSO's stunning failure at the feet of its a boring, repetitive skill system. One that even the hardest-core MMOG players considered tedious. There were also significant problems with the target Sims audience.
"Will was really interested in the social and gaming possibilities bringing the Sims audience together would offer," according to Walton. Fans of The Sims, however, didn't seem to agree. The series' core audience, in hindsight, had little interest in playing an online game at all, but if they were to play an online Sims game, they'd much rather play one that was more like the rest of the series.
Instead, players logging into The Sims Online found themselves in a strangely familiar, yet incredibly unsettling place. It was like The Sims, yes, but here they were expected to create and micromanage one Sim, rather than a family of them. Moreover, they were expected to raise her up in the classic MMOG model: Doing repetitive things for a meager amount of money to raise numbers that make doing the repetitive thing slightly easier which would then enable them to possibly get more money. In TSO, however, once the player clicked on an object, all there was left to do was watch and chat.
"Not having a fully functioning economy and more fun activities to entertain players made the game less appealing than we wanted," according to Walton. Those brave few who tried TSO would seem to agree.