Game maestro Will Wright links his virtual universe to the Net with The Sims Online

By Geoff Keighley
December 06, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

It’s noon in Walnut Creek, Calif., and Will Wright, a quiet and unassuming 42-year-old, is sitting at a computer, his mouse swirling like a tornado. Wright, a multimillionaire computer-game designer, is the father of several thoughtful and quirky creations that have transformed the game industry. Right now, he’s online to join more than 45,000 strangers who’ve volunteered to test-drive his new game. The Sims Online is the highly anticipated next chapter to the best-selling computer game in history. It’s a huge world that exists in the electronic ether of the Internet — a fascinating collision of The Real World and The Matrix. Which explains why you’ll see things like Britney Spears catfighting with Mother Teresa, a hirsute fellow named Hairy Potter, and as Will Wright discovers, a Sim named…Will Wright? HEY! DON’T DO ANYTHING TO MAKE ME LOOK BAD, Wright types into a chat window as he approaches his virtual doppelganger.

Wright, after all, has an impressive reputation to uphold, one as a game designer known for innovative and compelling games, which against initial expectations have sold very well. In the beginning (way back in 1989), there was the urban-planning game SimCity, followed by a string of other simulation titles. All of which led to the record-breaking success in 2000 of The Sims, an offbeat simulation of…ordinary life. From a God’s-eye perspective, players exert control while their on-screen alter egos watch TV, do the dishes, and interact with various computer-controlled characters. The game’s real hook, however, comes from its nonlinear nature: It’s an open-ended world where players determine the story arc and create the dramatic situations.

The Sims Online takes that compelling concept and transfers it to the Net. (The $49.95 game will go on sale Dec. 17 and requires a $9.95 monthly access fee.) What’s different is that online each Sim is controlled by a real-life player who is also given a piece of virtual real estate to develop. Wright’s goal is to create a sprawling metaverse in which real persons can participate in the world’s biggest real-time drama. Already, one player has turned his virtual home into a Sim university. Days later, someone else has erected a Sim sorority house across the street. (We can see it now: a Playboy pictorial featuring the ”Girls of Sigma Iota Mu.”)

The game is ”like a big canvas,” explains Wright, the Atlanta-born son of a chemical engineer and a community-theater actress. ”Each player gets to paint a little part of the canvas in their own unique way.” And the real fun, he thinks, comes when players start visiting and chatting with others: ”You make friends and enemies. You might even fall in love.” Virtual romancing will undoubtedly be a big component of the experience: The original Sims was one of very few game titles embraced by equal numbers of men and women.

Work also figures in the game: If you want to furnish your cybercrib, you’ll need some cybercash. Players earn income by engaging in such activities as cooking pizzas or running a telemarketing ring. (It’s only a matter of time before we see the first Sims millionaires.) And social climbers looking to become the most popular Sim must first build a network of friends. The reigning Miss Popularity is Roller Girl. In our flesh-and-blood world, she’s Jennifer, a 21-year-old from Las Vegas, who answers the phone in the Bellagio Hotel’s housekeeping department. But at night and online, she’s the midriff-baring belle of the Sims ball.