The flashy bits, all the furniture and gadgets that made The Sims what it was, were very, very expensive in The Sims Online. It was possible to build a rudimentary house with a few moneymaking objects with the initial grubstake, but the rewards were meager. Rewards scaled up proportional to the number of people playing, which meant to accomplish anything, it was necessary to attract other players who were disinclined to show up to some new Sim's house when they could just as easily work for more popular players who would then collect the rewards for all the stuff going on in their house. It was a backward system which punished latecomers severely.
Yet, as with any desperate economy, many TSO players (the majority of which were female) soon discovered that the world's oldest profession still had a place in the world's newest boomtown. Whorehouses soon sprang up, as did freelance child prostitutes and the inevitable nude patch.
"The most exciting major feature that the team wanted was player-generated custom content," says Walton. "It was also the most involved to implement and administer." Meaning EA had launched the game with no clear guidelines or tools for players wanting to creatively express themselves. Players filled the void themselves by injecting their own ideas of what might make a good game great. The result was, of course, an avalanche of explicit content and activity, and since the T-rated title had no outlet for adult content, it went everywhere.
Hardcore online gamers, raised with one eye on the game and the other on an image of goatse have come to accept the "porn-ification" of an online community as a matter of course; the inevitable entropy of an anonymous virtual hangout. However, the majority of Sims players, new to online gaming, were unaware of the den of iniquity that awaited them. The initial reaction many had to the game wasn't that it was a massively multiplayer virtual dollhouse. It was "My god, it's full of whores."
"We really wanted to make something the majority of the Sims audience would love to play online," says Gordon Walton, who now heads BioWare's Austin studio, and is working on an MMOG he hopes to announce at next year's E3. What he and his team at EA created was the online world's first great social experiment. The underground has largely moved on, as it's far more exciting to play one of the many other MMOG offerings, and the launch of Second Life gave the adult elements a playspace all their own. What remains is the 'til-the-lights-go-out crowd and the faint, but distinct, scent of disappointment at a 20 million dollar failure.
Shannon Drake likes commas and standing out in the rain.