If I hadn’t just checked the date myself, it would be hard to believe that The Sims 4 came out in late 2014.
I’ve been playing The Sims literally half my life, since the first game came out when I was in high school. While I never got to play the expansions of the original, I’ve otherwise sampled almost everything The Sims has to offer over the years, observing how the additional expansions took shape as the series evolved. One thing I’ve noticed is that it’s always a tough, drawn-out process moving onto the next game, mostly because the content packs become such an integral part of the experience. With the absence of key strategic features or the little details that make the game such mischievous fun, it can take years before a core Sims game has enough additional content to make the switch “worth it”—especially if you paid full price. The Sims games are too expensive, and too expansive, to leave behind easily.
Case in point, it took me years to feel comfortable transitioning to The Sims 3 from The Sims 2. At the time, I’d paid too much money for all the expansions to downgrade to a skimpy base game, and I wanted to see and do everything The Sims 2 had to offer. Fortunately, most of the stuff I enjoyed about The Sims 2 eventually made it into The Sims 3 and the expansions, with gems like World Adventures and Supernatural, tipped the scales in the new game’s favor. So eventually I moved on and by then enough time had passed that my enthusiasm for the new material far outranked any misgivings about “missing” features.
Years later, however, I still haven’t gotten into The Sims 4. So far, there hasn’t been a reason to. I’m not particularly interested in the new dialogue and “improved storytelling” options, and I don’t need better graphics. But more than that, none of the expansions seem particularly compelling. In the previous titles, the additional post-release content was a way for The Sims to play with outrageous themes and ideas that couldn’t, for whatever reason, be included with the base game. But so far, The Sims 4 has continued to use it as a means to restore features and items that “should” be part of the vanilla experience. Outdoor Retreat, Spa Day, Dine Out, Vampires and Parenthood: of the five released so far, none exhibit the can’t-miss creativity that the expansions of The Sims 3 showed from their first release, World Adventures. And similarly, the smaller bundles, known as stuff packs, either see the return of material that came to be an assumed part of the core Sims experience, or didn’t need expanding upon in the first place. Laundry Day? Toddler Stuff? Fitness Stuff? There’s not a lot of room for the fun and fantastic escapism of Sims games past; so far, it sounds like digital domestic hell.
And examining the update notes for The Sims 4 is just an exercise in phantom frustration. I don’t even play the game yet, and I’m still upset at the idea of what I would have had to live without. Ghosts, lockable doors, dishwashers, basements, classic traits like “Jealous” and “Kleptomaniac,” bed claiming, half walls in Build mode, pools, repairmen, nannies, the famous Grilled Cheese ambition: these are all integral items that have been the part of many Sims games, but were not present in the base of The Sims 4 and had to be added through content updates. To the game’s credit, one of those updates allows for additional forms of gender representation and identity, giving players the freedom to dress their Sims in any style of clothing and customize their character to specify if they can get pregnant or prefer to pee standing up. But that’s just it—the updates ideally should be used to thrust the games into the future, not catch up to their past.
Looking at the numbers, it’s hard to argue that EA isn’t trying to go as slow and draw out the life of The Sims 4 content for as long as possible. Almost three and a half years have passed since The Sims 4 was released as a base game, and only five major expansions have come out, (with a sixth, Jungle Adventure, currently in development) and 13 stuff packs. By comparison, The Sims 3 had 11 expansions in only four years, with nine stuff packs. Perhaps the complaints that they are stripping down the content piece by piece to sell in the smallest and most expensive parcels possible are valid. EA doesn’t exactly have a good track record when it comes to exploiting their customers; the fact that they place store items in the first three slots of the Build inventory, taking advantage of the player’s line of sight to promote items they do not own and thus encourage them to spend money, always left a bad taste in my mouth. Their expansion Supernatural for The Sims 3 was one of their greatest add-ons ever made, adding several new life states and Sim types for the player to enjoy, and how have they followed up? By offering only one of the life states, Vampire, in The Sims 4—and as its own expansion, at that. I have a feeling fans will not be happy if all the other playable life states—Genie, Witch, Werewolf, Mermaid, Alien, PlantSim and Fairy— do not end up in The Sims 4, and even less so if they’re given their own pricey content packs. I don’t feel like playing the game if they’re not at least an option.
And yet another one of their finest pieces of post-release content, World Adventures, seems to be scaled back, taking the form of Jungle Adventure and providing only a single new location for Sims to visit and excavate (whereas World Adventures had three). It’s only the sixth expansion to be released so far in the cycle. Usually I’m not one to try and reduce the value of a game by using a set of numbers to “factually” quantify its merit. But when a company is increasingly monetizing every last corner of their game and using sometimes manipulative tactics to do so, it’s worth bringing up, at least in the interest of ensuring consumers aren’t being squeezed for every last penny. Not only is the content coming out at a trickle, it’s been stripped down to sell off piece by piece. No wonder I’m not ready to move on to The Sims 4.
It’s possible that EA has simply had their resources and attention divided. After all, they did release The Sims 4 on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, in addition to PC. However, The Sims 3 came out on several platforms, too. For a company as powerful and resourceful as EA, it’s hard to argue that the do not have the money or time to devote to doing better. While they may intend for The Sims 4 to have a longer release cycle than The Sims 3, nonetheless, the player’s attention span can only last so long. Taking a gamble on it is risky.
The Sims 4 has a lot of catching up to do if EA hopes to maintain their momentum with the series. The incoming fans of every new generation of The Sims will always have high expectations for the content: they’re leaving a fully-fleshed out game, with myriad experiences and options, for a stripped down base title that has yet to realize its full potential. To that end, The Sims 4 is somewhat getting there, with past Sims game content like pets, city life and families returning to the fold. But there hasn’t been anything particularly compelling yet and they’re still just filling in features that should have already been there in the first place. I still have approximately $1000 worth of The Sims 3 content to get through, and with witches and potions and unicorns at my fingertips, it’s gonna take more than pets and laundry to get me to move on to The Sims 4. In that sense, perhaps The Sims 3 got too fun for its own good. Where does the series even go from here, if not improving upon and reinventing its amazing legacy content?
At any rate, I’m not alone. Every time I post a screenshot of The Sims 3 or make mention of my latest in-game antics on social media, at least one person pops up to applaud my choice in Sims games and claim it as “the best one”. While I’m sure it’s to EA’s benefit that there’s still a large audience for their previous game, it doesn’t speak well for where The Sims 4, released in September 2014, is now. If the next three expansions and handful of stuff packs don’t up the ante, I don’t see myself going anywhere anytime soon. EA, your move.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.