Creating The Sims—and a New Reality

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Class of ’88 | The best-selling computer game of all time is a strategy game based on running the lives of self-sufficient, simulated humans, better known as sims. Sims are just like you and me—or your aunt, uncle, neighbor, professor, or mailman. Sims get jobs, buy things, and go about their lives. They do not shoot people or hijack cars.

The lack of violence is part of their appeal, and a big reason Charles London C’88—the game’s first artist, the series’ art director and creative director, and now a game designer—feels blessed to be part of its development.

“It dawned on me that what we make (in this industry) goes directly into the brains of young people,” says London, recalling his earlier work on a war game, “and that, for some children, this might be their only exposure to … history.”

Launched as a computer game, The Sims is now available on every console platform (Xbox, Playstation, and Gamecube), and its publisher, Maxis, continues to release expansion packs and follow-up products—including the newly released The Sims 2 University.

The Sims has sold more than 41 million copies, and while the game’s original vision belongs to Will Wright, an icon in the gaming world, London was the first artist employed by Maxis (owned by Electronic Arts) to give a face to The Sims.

Despite the unique nature of any game idea, game-play and graphics still determine its relative success, and the art director and artists are arguably the most important cogs of the game-production factory. Since the whole premise behind The Sims involves running the everyday lives of everyday people, it’s imperative that those “people” are almost uncannily real: that they move like humans, look like humans, even emote like humans.

Those responsibilities fall squarely on the shoulders of the art director. Though London is quick to say that he’s “always been one part of a great team,” he has clearly defined the look and feel of the game as much or more than any other individual involved, and played a critical role in shaping the characters.

He took charge of designing the game’s user interface, establishing the look and functionality of the iconography. And as the project grew, he was in charge of other artists working toward the same goal.

Yet the reality of The Sims nearly passed him by. He had come to San Francisco in 1989 to study at the San Francisco Art Institute, after studying history at Penn but spending all of his free time drawing and taking art classes. As much as he loved art, formal schooling didn’t seem right. But to his surprise, he found that “after all of this anti-establishment flailing,” he was a “very conservative artist” at heart.

“What I valued more than anything was good draftsmanship, composition, and traditional techniques,” London says. “Any abstract artists that I really respected had conquered the basics first.”

After working in the restaurant business for several years, London finally found the perfect outlet for his structured artistic tastes—computer graphics. With some money set aside for his education, London bought a few computers and some software, and developed his own curriculum. The move paid off, as his talent—and a chance meeting at a dinner party—landed him a job as a video-game artist at Hale Storm. London stayed with the company until 1996, when he left over a moral and ethical conflict regarding a World War II videogame.

In 1997, London was a recently married, out-of-work video-game artist contemplating life as a waiter—again. “I would have taken any job that came along,” London recalls. “But I knew how to do just two things—make games, and wait tables. And I wasn’t going back to waiting tables again.”

Then one day, while teaching a 3D Studio Max lesson, one of his students mentioned a friend-of-a-friend who needed an artist at his videogame company, Maxis. London jumped at the opportunity. At Maxis’ tiny research office in the South Bay, he met with the core technology group and development director Jim Mackrez—not to mention Will Wright, the creator of The Sims’ predecessor, SimCity 2000.

“We totally hit it off,” London says. “We were like peas in a pod.”

He was the first artist hired to work on The Sims, starting August 1, 1997—the day Electronic Arts (EA) officially acquired Maxis. As Maxis hired other artists to work on the game, they worked for him. He soon became The Sims’ first art director.

The culmination of London’s vision and perseverance came at the E3 Expo in May of 1999—the first opportunity for anyone outside of the inner circle to see the product—which turned out to be the hit of the show. The Sims shipped in February of 2000, and by the end of that year the game had sold 1 million units—unprecedented at the time.

After leaving Maxis for a nine-month stint, London returned as creative director on The Sims 2. It took some time to understand his new role (it was, he says, “terribly defined”), but eventually he found his footing and put in 18 months of 90-hour weeks. As creative director, his role expanded; basically, he became a game designer with strong art duties across the entire project.

When The Sims 2 was released last September, 1 million copies sold in the first 11 days. As a reward for his years of dedication to the franchise, London officially became a game designer—which means that he is still involved with developing artwork on Sims expansion packs, such as The Sims 2 University, but he’s more involved in the planning and development of the business side of the projects as well.

“This is something I had been waiting for my whole career,” London says. “I remember thinking that it would be great if I could make games. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but that’s where I am now.”

—Kent Malmros C’00

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