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Interview: Scot Amos, Virginia McArthur
Subject The Sims 2 / Various
Interviewee Scot Amos, Virginia McArthur
Details Scot and Virginia are the producers for the Sims 2 on Consoles and Handhelds respectively, and talk about their job and that game.
Interview Date Thursday 13 October 2005

1. Welcome Scot and Virginia. Could you please introduce yourselves to those who don't know know you yet?
Virginia: I'm Virginia McArthur, and I'm a producer for Sims 2, for all things handheld.

Scot: I'm Scot Amos, I'm the senior producer for all things console, PS2, XBox and GameCube.

2. And what are your tasks as producer during the development?
Scot: Ok Virginia, it's all yours.

Virginia: What is NOT my task when a game is in production? So basically it's ringling design, to finalize what are the pieces that you're going to pull together for each of the different handheld devices, and then I help to manage schedules, I help to manage budgets, I help to hire key people and key personnell to help get these projects on. And in my particular case, with the handhelds this year, we focus on external development. So I work with external developers and I have other producers that work with me, to manage that development process. So really, what is the vision, and managing what that vision is. That's what producers at EA do, we drive vision and we make sure we are going to get the best quality we can out of a particular platform that we're working on.

Scot: I have to augment that with Virginia. One of the things I like about the producer role, two things are at top for the producer. One is, my job is to ship product. That means whatever it takes to make the game great, which generally means whatever it takes to make the team successful. Whatever they need; time, money, resources, equipment, good ideas, more creative people, whatever they need to make the great game. And then there's the second thing that I learned from Virginia also, is being the voice of the consumer, somebody who can say "consumers are not gonna like that," "they're gonna want to play it that way" or "they want it this way", "they want to change the UI" and being that person who can stand up to your own team "no that's not good enough," and driving them to make them do better.

3. You've just shown the games here, and you've also done so at E3, and I guess various other presentations as well, but how do you prepare for such a presentation or demo?
Scot: Haha. We drink a lot of Scotch!

Virginia: You do... We play these games over and over again, and you'd be surprised. You yourself have seen many demos and they're slightly different every time we do them. I'm still discovering new things, because I'm not there every minute of the day, finding and seeing what people are putting in my game. When anybody plays a Sims game, even Tim LeTourneau who works on the Sims PC game, he'll be playing it and he'll just be surprised about something that happens in the gameplay. So someone comes over and it just emerges in front of your eyes. It's like we put tools in the game that tell you how to play it, or how to create a game around it, and you go, and you push your Sim to go over here and then something completely different can happen. I can still talk to one Sim and the acquaintance is going to break up, and I can talk to the same Sim mauybe 3 hours later in gameplay, and all of the sudden I'm having Woohoo with the Sim. It's very much so, the more we play the more we know, and the better the experience is for you sitting in the audience watching the presentation.

Scot: Yeah on my side the preparation is in two different ways. Depending on what kind of I'm going to speak to about the game, I really focus on a story, one of the things I learned from Tim LeTourneau is that you're telling a story. Telling a character-based story about "Here's my Sim so-and-so, here's what they have to do," and actually show you the story line so that I actually show you the features that are part of that story, making it more memorable. It's also watching other people how they play the game, by watching my own lead designer, by watching Virginia play her game, I can't help noticing "oh I should mention that, oh I should mention that also, oh she forgot to mention so-and-so." So I took that and give her feedback, and ask her to watch me every time I present, and ask "What did I miss, is there anything I didn't talk about?" Things like two-player, we often forget to mention two-player so you have to remember it, and put it in front of the presentation.

Virginia: You didn't mention it did you?

Scot: Yes I did, I specifically put it right at the top. So it's like "mention two-player at the top," and I actually almost forgot the food game. I went through the first level, and was like "I haven't shown the food game yet." It's a matter of getting a checklist of things in your head with "what are the cool features everybody needs to see, what are the new things?"

4. Maxis is taking the Sims 2 to seven different platforms this year, with 5 really new games. Isn't it too much work, so the quality becomes inferior for some of the games?
Scot: No, not at all. One of the benefits is, for like the console, is we have an entire internal team that does nothing but focus on console. They're not distracted at all by any other platform. Virginia and her crew handle everything for the handheld groups, with discrete teams that are external, so actually they have their own marching orders as well. So it's not a matter of sacrificing it all and every way, it's dedicating resources so that each platform has it's own dedicated team.

Virginia: That's what we did with handhelds. I have a group in Seattle called Amaze Entertainment, and they have one group that works on the PSP and one group that works on the GBA and one that works on the DS. I have a producer for each one of those and I also have an internal Maxis producer that helps me maintain the quality. So although you can see from production standpoint I've got four games to keep track of, I'm not fully responsible for that. I have a team of people dedicated to make each of the games great.

5. It's been said that the previous title, the Urbz, didn't do as well as expected. What do you think caused this, and what did you learn from the game?
Scot: The Urbz for me was actually a success. It's one of the things we've learned an amazing amount of for everything we've done on console and on handhelds. I mean that if you look at the Urbz on handheld, my god, I think that it beat Madden. I can't remember if it was actually number 1 or not.

Virginia: We were neck and neck with Madden on the DS.

Scot: It's a matter of the way players perceive the game. We actually just talked to another gentleman and he said he really loved the Urbz. He's actually sad not to see an Urbz 2 this year, while he expected one because for the first time he had a people simulation game that he could play in nine or ten hours and actually get that slice of experience that he wanted to have from a Sims-like game. That's actually the feedback we get out of the Urbz, because we experimented with the idea of what's the magic formula that makes the Sims work, what makes it so great. So we took all different elements, threw them together, and said "ok, how does this feel?" The feedback we got from that actually includes a lot of what we did this year for the Sims 2. Looking at the consumer audience saying "I'm a console player, I want to play like a console player," that's where direct control comes in. "I want to have my own life creating stuff, not feeling like I'm completing a linear path" - great, so we can take some more emerging behaviour from the Sims 2, we actually added in some of the story goals from the Urbz and previous games like Bustin' Out. We can look at all these different elements and say there's things we've learned from what we've had in the Urbz. So was the Urbz a success? Yeah, it was actually successful for us for sure. It's not nearly where we wanted it to be the next new Sims, but at the same time we learned so much from it we're still very proud of that product.

Virginia: So from a handheld standpoint for the Urbz: for people that really played the GBA version all the way through, they loved it. They were like "this is an amazing game experience", it's actually really, really deep. We had something similar to the food creation system on the Urbz on the GBA last year, but a lot of people didn't discover it because they didn't finish it all. We had a place where you could actually harvest food and you could mix things, you could make pies, and make secret pies... We had all these things in the game that people never discovered, while it was a really deep gameplay experience. So the number 1 thing I learned from last year is don't put your cool features very deep within the game.

Scot: Amen!

Virginia: Yeah I don't know how many reviewers never mentioned our food creation system from last year.

Scot: Maybe one.

Virginia: Oh it was actually one or two. I was so sad, because to me it was a side-game for somebody to play the game and it was a side-path, it was a small creative moment, it was like we had these other elements to go for. So this year, anything that's new and fresh and exciting, we put right up front of the game so people can play with these things right away, they know what they are, and then they can use it throughout the rest of the game.

Scot: Like build/buy mode. It's one of the things we now force in one structure is that you have to use build/buy mode. Many people don't realise there's more to this game than playing the level that we give you. Flatten in, build it from scratch, try again, make it optimized so you have a bathroom closer to the kitchen with a fire alarm they should have. So all the stuff we try to teach the player by driving gameplay early and exposing those toys and those tools early make a completely different game experience.

6. The Urbz, especially on consoles, had a very short development cycle of just about 9 months. This has resulted in some blogs like the "spouse" blog, or Joe Straitiff's, one of the engineers on the Urbz. What are you doing this year to prevent that from happening again and what has changed within Maxis to prevent this?
Scot: Believe it or not, but the timetable for the Sims 2 this year is almost exact the same as the Urbz was. In fact we have fewer people but the difference is how we structure the team. We have a lot of what we consider parallel development and parallel design. We had a different kind of structure with the Urbz. We attempted to say "we're going to focus on a new vision." We heard a lot of different voices from all over the place, so it was kind of chaotic as far as how the design was built together, how things got meshed together for the Urbz stuff.

For the Sims 2 Console, we have such a clear vision. We see from the success from the Sims 2 PC has left, number one, a very clear target of what we're going after, we need to get to this qualty and this level of gameplay. Number two is to get there on a tighter time schedule, within a year. "What are the things that are going to make the game absolutely perfect? What are the features that we need to focus on?" We have dedicated groups of people, like we have this group dedicated to figuring out what the food creation looks like, we have this group dedicated to figuring out what direct control will feel like. So we have these different groups working in parallel, with their own atonomy. And then what we do with Sims is saying "here, you figure out all these things so and so," and then a leadership team on top of this thing saying this organisation is going to sell you this structure which works together as one ordinance. Together we can quickly and effectively, in the turn of a dime, do what we've never been able to do because of how we organised this team.

I think we're one of the first, there are like three teams within EA currently using this cell structure mechanism, and it's really effective for us. We're able to divide the puzzle in the right size pieces for those groups to be able to tackle them by themselves, and then initiate, create and develop all that themselves and autonomously and link it right back into the main structure without having to worry about "oh, we're waiting for someone to make a decision over there," or "we have to work 10 months in crunch mode." When my team is finished with the game they're as happy as planned, rested. The art team actually took their break and is already back from their break because they were doing so well.

Virginia: The aim for this project I think, number one, is clear design. Being able to focus both your team and your design up front. We call it "managing up" and "managing down". Basically you're managing expectations up to senior management and executives, you're managing expectations to the community, and you're managing expectations to your team. I think from a handheld perspective, for the DS and the GBA, we were really able to do that this year, and console was able to really do it as well. It was based on experience, as we've done this for years now.

Now, a different development cycle is for both PSP and Mobile - it hasn't been as easy. It's kind of hard, and the reason is that they're whole new platforms. Like every time we put a piece therein, it's with a new platform that you may or may not know how to use. The technology is still very new, and we're checking the bounds of the new platform. So next year, whatever we do moving forward with Mobile and PSP, you're definitely going to see a smarter, brighter group, that's gonna be great, because they know what they can and can't do now.

7. Now the PC version is given a bit of new life every few months in the form of an expansion pack, and continuously with new downloads. What are you doing with the Sims 2 on Consoles, to give it a long life like that?
Scot: Actually the console itself is the depth of the game. Honestly, like the numbers I gave you earlier, about the Q&A people spending two and a half weeks on the game and only ended up last week figuring out how to finish 100% of it. It took them 36 hours to get them through the whole thing to get a 100%. So if you translate that to the people, that means something around 80 to 100 hours of gameplay for a normal consumer. So that itself, how much time do you want to spend on one game? And that's just to finish it, that's not going back to do freeplay mode, building from scratch, trying to figure out what you can do from ground zero, explore the food creation game, explore the fashion creation game. So the things we've done are really into the game itself when you buy it off the shelves, those creation systems really give you that replayability and emerging behaviour.

8. There's also a new generation of consoles coming up. Do you think that will give any new features that will allow you to do new stuff like custom content?
Scot: Absolutely. By the things I looked at, I can't really speak as to what those features are, whether we'll do custom content or not. Everybody's talking about what's the next level of online, "what are you gonna do with those?" We have nothing for sure to say about it, but absolutely the XBox360 and the PS3 and the Revolution, there's amazing technology there. I guarantee that there are a lot of really smart people, smarter than us, thinking right now "how would I use that, what would I do with that technology?" We're very anxious to see what they come up with.

9. The PSP also has WiFi support, and even got a small web browser recently. Are you making a PSP version of thesims2.com, maybe with extra downloadable content or so, or sharing Sims maybe?
Virginia: That's definitely a possibility for the future. It's a feature we decided not to focus on right now, and we decided to focus more on WiFi itself. So you and I can trade our Sims; for the first time in the Sims universe you can get a Sim from your game on a handheld or console, and I can take my Sim, and we can exchange these Sims and play in each other games. So that's huge. And also, we're able to trade objects and also compete in our social game. So that's how we're managing WiFi this year.

10. All handheld games are also somewhat similar, in that they're all quite adventure-type of games, and they're all set in Strangetown. Can you quickly sum up the similarities and the differences between those games?
Virginia: The similarities are basically the theme around Strangetown, and taking the core Sim to components such as your wants and fears, and you still have personality traits, a Create-a-Sim, and you still have open-ended gameplay. So what we do is, we use that story mode to drive the player and teach them how to use the Sims on that particular platform. It's very much like what Console does, they get 36 hours of gameplay because they have the goals associated with this. But at the same time you can just play the open-ended freeplay mode, which is where you're creating your own character, your own story for the game.

Now what's interesting for the GBA is: the GBA has 12 episodes that you can unlock and play, and they're a different kind of gameplay and you can play it however you want. It's a reality TV show, and you're playing out the life with these people that live in Strangetown.

On the DS it's all about a hotel that you get to take over at Strangetown, and you're building up the hotel for the visitors, and you're trying to make money as someone's working on your car because it broke down as you entered Strangetown.

On the PSP the story is your car breaks down and the garage just disappears and you're like "I'm stuck here, what am I going to do?". So you get a house, and you get all these weird neighbours, and it's all about discovering the secrets of these weird neighbours. So what you're playing is traditional Sims 2 gameplay, with wants and fears and aspirations, but at the same time you're also discovering secrets. And then with those secrets you can trade them.

Mobile is the most traditional Sims experience. That really is you have your virtual Sim, it's like your Sim is now living and breathing in your phone, and you're taking care of it just like on the PC, very similar to what you're doing with the Sims on PC.

11. Do you still play the Sims 2 games at home, as well, and if so which one?
Scot: I do. Believe it or not, I actually play the console version and the PC version.

Virginia: I actually just got University, but haven't had time to play it yet, I've been developing a lot of titles this year, so I got University and am about to put it on my laptop, and then I'm going to start playing University. One of the big things in University is the all new build mode, because I'm a doll houser and I like to build.

Scot: Have you tried the Nightlife stuff yet? The half walls are just stunning.

Virginia: The Nightlife stuff is awesome. I gotta get through University first, and then I'll get through Nightlife.

12. Any final comments for our readers, anything you want to share?
Virginia: I'm really excited to see that your readers, and the people that play our games, the Sims players... I want to see the feedback from them about what they think about the games. I can't wait to get it in their hands because I think everybody's going to have a really good time. They're all really unique, and I'm ready to hear their opinions of what they think of the game.

Scot: We make these games from them. They're the ones who make us want to make all these games. We love what we do, obviously, we've been doing this for three years, we kill ourselves and do the hours, and we don't need somebody to feel sorry for us because we love it. We're really just fanatics about. People ask me how I'm doing and I'm living a dream, because I come to work every morning in California, make plenty of money making great video games, and then there are great fans who come back and say "we like this", or they didn't like it - great! You can go back and address that thing and change it because they're the ones who make us successful.

13. Thanks a lot for your time!
Virginia: Our pleasure.

Scot Amos, Virginia McArthur was interviewed by ChEeTaH.

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