Best-selling. Game. Ever. Goes online.
With The Sims Online, the most successful computer game ever has become a massively multiplayer online game. Although the conventional wisdom is that it will blow the lid off the genre, it's too early to tell whether it'll be the commercial juggernaut that its offline counterpart has become. But whatever its commercial fate, there's no denying that Electronic Arts has done something, well, unconventional. Whether you regard it as successful depends on what you're looking for.
You install the game, set up your account, log on, download the obligatory patches, and pick your avatar. Then you're staring at a neighborhood screen with some filters to help you pick out the different kinds of places you can visit. There are even dedicated welcoming locations, although these are arguably unnecessary; The Sims Online is probably one of the newbie-friendliest games you could ever hope to play. You select a location and, pow, you're in. Welcome to The Sims Online. From here on out, things get a little weird.
Not in Kansas anymore
Unless you're one of the beta testers who seems to knows everyone else, you'll probably spend most of your time dropping in, literally, on other people's houses. One of the many concepts sacrificed in taking The Sims online is the idea of a neighborhood and the people who live in it. Despite a recent patch to allow properties to be grouped under a name, there is no geography in The Sims Online. It is simply a collection of house-sized areas, each limited to eighteen people at a time. From the main screen, you pick one and suddenly materialize at its front door as if you were beaming down from the Enterprise. There's no concept of places being far, close, next door, or across town. It's a cyberworld where every place is adjacent to every place else and therefore nowhere is any place in particular.
There are basically two kinds of places in The Sims Online: skill/money locations and social locations. Sims can use objects to improve their skills or earn money. For instance, a piano will improve creativity while a chessboard will improve logic. As you raise each skill, you'll unlock new animations that you can use while your sim is interacting with someone else. To encourage grouping, you get a bonus when you're doing the same thing as a group of other sims. Hence locations devoted to clusters of people making potions for money or talking to themselves in front of mirrors to improve their charisma. In these places, sims are just parked like so many cars. There are similar places devoted to earning money. These are like virtual sweatshops, with a dozen sims all but chained to an assortment of odd money-making machines. Quick, someone pass the Sims Fair Labor Act.