Familiar Faces
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 3 (March 2003)

Familiar Faces

By Karen Moltenbrey

The next time you see a friend or relative playing The Sims Deluxe Edition computer game, don't be surprised if you see a familiar face or two among the virtual crowd. You may even see a character that looks just like you. That's because this recent Sims title from Maxis ships with a customization tool that enables players to easily create a personalized Sim character right down to the smallest detail. Using a digital photo, players can even "clone" themselves, their parents, siblings, or friends and insert them into their virtual Sims world.

"The Sims has always focused on customization," says Sinjin Bain, vice president at Maxis, referring to the game's unique style that requires players to create their own Sim families from templates and then place the characters in various situations and settings. "A standalone application, The Sims Creator, enables players to take the customization to a new level," he contends.

Maxis/EA has placed a unique spin on game modification by including a tool in its Deluxe Edition title that enables all players to create a customized character.

In addition to customizing characters, users can also employ this feature to intuitively design original attire for their Sims and add logos to the characters' clothing or skin. This is accomplished by importing bitmaps from digital photos and adding them to the surface of a preconstructed character model, built by Maxis in Alias|Wavefront's Maya. Users load their Sims directly into the application, where they perform edits and then save the models directly into the game.

Most game modification programs, such as Discreet's gmax, are aimed at both developers and game enthusiasts. However, these tools require a basic knowledge of 3D modeling—a skill that only a handful of game players have. Conversely, The Sims Creator enables virtually anyone to easily create a customized Sim character. A complex set of painting and editing functions are also available for those with basic 3D modeling skills who want to extend the capability even further.

"The Sims Creator is all about customizing characters, while software such as gmax is used to create new environments for game levels," Bain explains. "Essentially, The Sims is more like gmax in the sense that the game environment is already 100 percent customizable. However, now, through Creator, users can also apply that capability to the characters."

The Sims Creator, an open format to Right Hemisphere's Deep Character and Deep Paint 3D texturing programs, introduces Sims players to sophisticated 3D software that's accessed through an easy-to-use GUI.

Since releasing the original version of The Sims nearly three years ago, Maxis and the title's publisher, Electronic Arts, have seeded the player community with a selection of customization tools that users can download from EA's Web site to create paintings and décor for their virtual characters' homes. Previously, the developer also released tools for generating customized character skins, "although you have to be an artist or understand the concept of texture mapping to use them," Bain points out.

In fact, Maxis discovered that only 5 percent of The Sims users were generating 90 percent of the customized items, which can be posted on EA's Sims Web site. Yet, nearly 70 percent of the players were downloading the objects. "That dynamic told us our users wanted to take customization to a deeper level," Bain says. "So, we had to find a way to provide that capability to all users, especially those who are unfamiliar with design programs such as Photoshop—which describes nearly 98 percent of our players."

With that goal in mind, Bain contacted Right Hemisphere, maker of Deep Character and Deep Paint 3D software that Maxis uses internally for painting and texturing its game models. That collaboration resulted in The Sims Creator. Users of The Sims can access this open format to Deep Character and Deep Paint 3D through an easy-to-use GUI that simplifies the complex process of texture mapping 3D objects.

Since its release last fall, The Sims Deluxe Edition has been a top-selling PC title—an accomplishment Bain attributes to a number of factors, including the new customization feature: "People have as much fun playing with this application as they do playing the game."

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior editor for Computer Graphics World.

Alias|Wavefront www.aliaswavefront.com
Right Hemisphere www.righthemisphere.com

Images courtesy Maxis/Electronic Arts.