Destructoid Interview: Ben Bell, Senior Producer, The Sims 2: Castaway

Two days ago I had a chance to sit down — via telephone — with Ben Bell, the Senior Producer on the upcoming multiplatform title The Sims 2: Castaway. Unlike our recent look at MySims, this one is your traditional style Sims game, at least graphically. The big difference for this edition is that instead of living comfortably in virtual suburbia, your Sim(s) now have to contend with the wilds of a tropical island after having become stranded there like so many Sherwood Schwartz sitcoms.

Of course, the premise alone isn’t enough to convince us of the viablity of the whole thing, so we went to the source for answers. Hit the jump for a transcript of the lil’ chat we had. 

Wii_temple_interior03_throne

Nex: Obviously with so many expansion packs and different iterations of The Sims … when something like Castaway comes out, people are wondering what’s new, what’s different; in short, why should people care?

Ben Bell: I think that the starting premise of the game is tremendously different from anything we’ve done before with The Sims. The characters themselves are true to the franchise, but we’ve put them in a situation that people have never seen them in before — it’s dramatically different from anything that’s been conceived before in the series.

When you start off the game, you get washed ashore on a deserted, tropical island and you start off with nothing, and if you’ve played The Sims before you know that the game is kinda about having refrigerators, toasters, being able to cook and clean and having a job and going to work and having a family and all this stuff that’s part of civilization; well we took all of that away and left these characters with absolutely nothing but what they found on this island — that’s the starting premise of this game.

I think that’s what fundamentally sets it apart: that you spend the game learning how to create a new life from scratch by taking resources you found on the island and crafting something new, and by taking your crew of Sims who’ve washed ashore and creating a new society in whatever way you desire. There’s wildlife, incredible locations — jungles, volcanoes and beaches. It’s the setting and the starting premise that really makes it different. 

Nex: So why did you guys decide to make such a drastic change? Why set it on an island?

Ben Bell: Because it’s fun! It’s one of those themes that’s so enduring, starting with The Odyssey and up through the modern day with TV shows like Survivor and Lost, people have always been interested in the theme. There is so much inspiration that you can find when you think about ‘what would the gameplay be like?’ … it just seemed so rich.

That’s basically it: we looked at it and it just seemed so full of cool ideas for fun gameplay. In a way it’s a little bit of us living out a fantasy. Like, ‘it sure would be nice to get away like that’.

Nex: I think you’re the first person to use The Odyssey and Survivor in the same sentence. Congratulations. 

Ben Bell: Haha. I’m a pioneer.

Wii_spear_fishing02_side_ready

Nex: Here’s the big question I came up with when I first heard about the title: having the game set on an island, where the main theme is that you’re alone and you’re battling loneliness and insanity, doesn’t that kinda detract from the relationships aspect that previous Sims games have relied on?

Ben Bell: Yes and no. You can play the game both ways. In the canon of stories about being lost on an island, you have the Robinson Crusoe story and you have the Swiss Family Robinson story where you’ve got group survival and lone survival. When you’re playing the console versions, on the Wii, the PS2 or the PSP, you can choose to make a crew of one Sim and you can live out that life and you can battle the elements on your own, or you can create a crew of up to six Sims and when you do that, you’re making a story of group survival. You can make a family, or you can make a group of friends, or you can make a group of rivals. So really, you can play it both ways.

Nex: The other big way that Castaway diverts from the other Sims games from what I’ve seen is that you guys have added a bit of a plot to the title; am I completely wrong and misreading that, that you’ve added sort of a pseudo plot to the game, as opposed to the sandbox style of previous Sims games?

Ben Bell: The plot is sort of you exploring the island. The plot comes from a lot of story that the player can layer on there themselves that mainly comes from the relationships of the characters, or the relationships between the characters and the chimps. You do explore the island and once you’ve unlocked all the different areas, then the games kinda become your “free play” space, and you can play them however you want, or you can choose to escape. It’s those long term goals like discovering everything, finding the hidden temple, getting off of the island; those things give it a certain story structure. There aren’t antagonists and protagonists.

Nex: You just mentioned the chimps. What’s the deal with the chimps? Are they enemies? Are they friends? Are they pets? 

Ben Bell: They’re a little bit mischievous, so from time to time they take stuff from you. In the beginning, they’re sorta shy and as you get them to warm up to you they kinda become your companions, your friends. A lot of the game is about finding new kinds of resources and collecting them to build stuff. Once you’ve got the chimps trained, you can give them names and you can send them off into the forest to find stuff for you. You can say “hey chimp, go find me a bunch of coconuts”, and then you can use those coconuts to build something new. They play a bunch of different roles in the game, but in the end, they’re sorta your helpers.

Nex: Fair enough. So there’s not romantic interest between the people and the monkeys, right?

Ben Bell: Hahaha. No. They’re just your buddies.

Nex: With the whole “wrecked ship, trapped on an island” thing, a lot of previous media comes to mind — like you said, The Odyssey, Survivor — so with that in mind, which of the following three shows was the bigger influence on Castaway: Lost, Survivor or Gilligan’s Island?

Ben Bell: Wow. Yeah, that’s … when I saw this question I sorta struggled with it. Definitely not Survivor. Probably more somewhere between Lost and Gilligan’s Island. The Sims are fun characters. They know how to have a good time, so you can build musical instruments and have parties on the beach. Once you’ve gotten yourself past survival, the game becomes about thriving, so I guess Gilligan’s Island

I watched a lot of Survivor just to get that authentic island feel, but ultimately we want players to feel like they can have that real Survivor story or they can build a new life and build pretty incredible homes, have cool clothing, have a party with their people and the chimps; so maybe a little more like Gilligan’s Island.

dsscreens

Nex: With the recently released MySims, there were huge differences between the Wii version and the DS version. This Tuesday, you’re releasing Castaway on 4 different platforms; are we going to see drastically differently versions on each platform?

Ben Bell: You will see very different gameplay between the DS game and the console games. We consider the console games to be the PS2, Wii and PSP. The DS version is really unique. Obviously that platform demands really unique gameplay. It’s certainly my favorite platform to play games on, so I love the Castaway on DS. Minigames are kind of a buzzword, but I really feel like we’ve done something special with them in this DS game, where we’ve connected the minigames to the different survival tasks, so you can go spearfishing and your skill as a player with the spear kinda comes into play. You navigate entirely with the stylus, you can click on anything on the screen and sorta feel your way through the world. The environments are different, the progression is different, the characters in the game are different and the way that you play is very different, and it’s a really beautiful DS game. 

Nex: Obviously, The Sims started on PC, and has had this huge following on PC, but with the move to a console, is there a concern that you guys are alienating people who are fans of the game for its user-created content?

Ben Bell: That certainly is something we think about, and that’s part of the reason why we really wanted to pursue a theme like Castaway to really add something else to the game. The PC game is really strengthened by the fact that people can go out there and pull in all sorts of different content that people have created for the game and I think that The Sims is probably one of the greatest examples in our business of a game that’s fueled by user-created content. With The Sims 2: Castaway, that premise of island survival is something completely new, and thats why we wanted to pick a theme that was that big and really deliver on it.

Nex: Since you guys have started developing all these Sims titles for the Wii, does the Wiimote provide a suitable substitute for something like a PC’s mouse?

Ben Bell: I think it’s something different. The mouse is a precision tool. You can do some mouse-like things with the Wiimote, but we tried not to put the player in that position all the time in the Wii game. I think the Wiimote — the precision of it — wants to work in broad strokes, so we use it for building because you have this grid system that kinda snaps the pieces around, so it becomes easy to be precise with the Wiimote. We don’t use it a lot for pointing everywhere and picking stuff like you would with a mouse. I think it’s a really cool tool for players to feel like they can touch the game, and we try to use it in a way that makes the player feel precise without requiring precision movement.

Wii_building01

Nex: This last question isn’t on [the list I submitted to them], but it isn’t very hard, so I’m going to ask it anyway: Three of the four platforms you’re releasing the game on are current generation platforms. The PlayStation 2 is not, what with the PlayStation 3 having been out for a year now. Why did you guys decide to do the PS2 instead of the PS3, and when was that decision made?

Ben Bell: We made that decision early on. The PS2 is a great gaming platform. Whenever I go to stores I still see it selling, software is still selling, and there are still good games coming out for it. Our audience is still there. The Sims players are a very mainstream audience, they are not necessarily the early adopters of the PS3. We just wanted to build something for those people who are still on PS2.

Nex: So it’s not necessarily a slight toward the PS3? You aren’t predicting doom and gloom for it.

Ben Bell: Oh no, not at all. EA has a lot of games coming out for PS3. I definitely have one at home that I play every night, and I love the platform. But for The Sims 2: Castaway, the PS2 just made more sense as a platform.

 

I want to thank Mr. Bell for joining us for this interview, and he wanted me to remind all of you that Castaway should be in stores Tuesday, October 23rd. 

Earnest Cavalli
I'm Nex. I used to work here but my love of cash led me to take a gig with Wired. I still keep an eye on the 'toid, but to see what I'm really up to, you should either hit up my Vox or go have a look at the Wired media empire.