Just who are The Sims? Chances are that the name rings a bell (it's a computer game, right?) but for its legion of fans – and we're talking seriously fanatical followers – it's nothing short of an obsession. For months they have been salivating at the prospect of the third title in the franchise, which hits shelves on Friday. The game, perhaps best described as a "virtual dolls' house", is already the most popular PC game series ever, with more than 100 million sales since February 2000. So what is it, and what's all the fuss about?
Before The Sims ...
There was the City. Games designer extraordinaire Will Wright laid the foundation for The Sims when, in 1989, his Maxis company (now part of Electronic Arts) released Sim City. Its graphics were rudimentary but millions shared Wright's fondness for being masters of their own metropolises on their Atari STs, Amigas and Commodore 64s.
When gamers got used to laying railways and perfecting "urban zoning", Wright decided to make his franchise a bit more human. Enter The Sims. In a virtual suburb, gamers played God, determining their Sims' physical features and personality, and controlling their activities and interactions with family and neighbours. They could also design their houses. The first virtual object, conceived for a prototype, was a loo.
Sims speak their own language called, naturally, Simlish. Based on a combination of Ukrainian, Tagalog (the Philippines language) and Navajo, it has captured the imagination of fans. Lily Allen even recorded her hit single Smile in Simlish, complete with a computer-generated music video.
The Sims series has been translated into more than 20 languages and has proved particularly popular on the continent. It's such a hit in France that in 2005 the country's postal service, La Poste, released an official Sims stamp.
Wright's inspiration for The Sims came in the form of a fire that destroyed his home in 1991. "After that you have nothing and have to build your life from scratch, so what do you buy first?" he said in a recent interview. "You get a toothbrush and underwear, then a place to stay, later a new car."
Like Nintendo's Wii console, The Sims owes its huge popularity to its ability to break out of the teenage boy's bedroom to a broad demographic. The game's maker, Electronic Arts, believes as many as 65 per cent of players are female. Apparently The Sims appeals to their "creative nature".
Sims in the new game will make their homes not in Pleasantview but Sunset Valley, a giant suburb. Other neighbourhoods will be available to download and include Riverview, a watery idyll dotted with farms and pastures on the Simomon river.
The Swedish giant of flat-pack jumped on the Sims money train (see "Quids-in") by pairing up with the game's maker to release a disc of virtual furniture. Players of The Sims 2 could buy the add-on and fill their houses with everything from shelving to wall art.
The Sims 3 team have tapped into the zeitgeist in the run-up to the game's launch, with various humorous videos on YouTube. One featured a Sims version of Susan Boyle, while an earlier parody spoofed a trailer for the new Star Trek movie, complete with a husky voiceover in Simlish.
It's not just "guinea pig flu" that can snuff out virtual life. Starvation, drowning, fire and electrocution can also kill Sims. Gamers can even dispatch characters by, for example, getting them into a pool and deleting the steps, or putting them in a room and deleting its doors. Dead Sims become ghosts, which in the new game can be controlled, allowing gamers to spook surviving characters.
When an unofficial version of Sims 3 popped up on the controversial Swedish file-sharing site The Pirate Bay two weeks before its release day, it was downloaded 180,000 times in just three days.
Two years ago, Hollywood magazine Variety reported that 20th Century Fox had bought the film rights to The Sims. Brian Lynch, whose CV includes the films Aunt Fanny's Tour of Booty (2005) and Big Helium Dog (1999) was set to script it, but the buzz has since died down and IMDB, the online movie database, has no listing for the film.
Brand new Sims come with a virtual fig leaf in the form of strategically-placed blurring. Perhaps inevitably, hackers have created an unofficial "nude patch" that focuses the blurring, revealing Sims in all their glory. Other fans have designed patches to make their Sims interact in ways to make the game's creators blush (see also "WooHoo").
Those lacking the imagination (or time) to create their own Sims can take control of pre-made families. The second game in the series included the Ottomas, who left gamers confused after a bug led to a baby Ottoma being given a random father (a family pet, in one instance). Sunset Valley will be home to several families including the Altos ("nouveau riche and evil") and the sporty Keatons.
The Sims' eye-catching logo looks rather like a giant emerald but is in fact modelled on a plumb bob, the weight builders use on the end of a plumb line. It appears above the heads of active characters, its colour indicating the Sim's mood, from a "best" white to a "horrible" red.
The Sims franchise has been a major money-spinner for its developers, so far generating around $1bn in revenue. Electronic Arts will be hoping the third incarnation of the game will fly off the shelves – earlier this year the US company announced disappointing results and 1,100 job losses.
The company may be preaching to the converted with their new game but there's no denying the strength of early reviews. A chap at PC Zone magazine wrote: "I've lost so many hours to The Sims 3 the PC Zone team were convinced they'd have to surgically remove my mouse from my hand to get me to work."
One of the new features in Sims 3 fans seem to be getting particularly excited about is "traits". When creating new Sims, gamers can select from a list of more than 60 traits to determine how their Sim behaves and interacts with its virtual neighbours. "If you want your character to be artistic, they'll decide that they want to paint and they'll be really good at it," explained the games producer Ben Bell in a recent interview. "Whereas if you decide you want your character to be evil, they'll be really happy when bad things happen to the people around them."
The Sims is traditionally a PC game but its developers are keen to get it on to other platforms. An iPhone version is due and exclusive games have been developed for consoles. The Urbz: Sims in the City ditches the suburban backdrop and features a score penned by the Black Eyed Peas, members of which also appear in the game.
Gamers were once alarmed to discover a highly-infectious and deadly virus was sweeping the suburbs. Lively debate dominated the message boards for weeks until the source of the virus was identified – virtual guinea pigs in uncleaned cages (Will Wright later admitted to planting the virus "for fun").
When in the mood, Sims may perform WooHoo, the game's euphemism for sex. But it can't be done willy-nilly – characters must have high relationship scores before they get busy, and the game will only allow such activities in a bed, hot tub or changing booth (a public WooHoo). The game uses a comic display of fireworks to illustrate the act but more graphic depictions are possible with the right hack (see also "Nudity"). By selecting the "Try for a Baby" action, gamers can also get their Sims pregnant.
Gamers can select from a list of "career paths" when creating their Sims. As well as "business" and "medicine", the first game offered "Xtreme", which allowed Sims to become mountain climbers, bungee jump instructors or race drivers. The third game doesn't offer the mode but there is no shortage of other options, from "spa specialist" to "pickpocket".
There are seven "life stages" in Sims 'development, from "baby" to "elder". For 21 Sim days, characters are "young adults" (having spent 14 days as teenagers) and go to college. They look like adults but have the voices of teenagers and move slightly slower. They can get married, buy homes and have babies (see also "WooHoo").
The Scrubs and Garden State actor is one of many celebrity Sims fans. He once blogged about one of his Sims, Arnold, who "has his mind on one thing and one thing only: a paramedic named Randy", Braff wrote. "Randy ended up crashing the party I chose not to invite him to, made everyone stop dancing and then started a chess tournament. This guy is the WORST!"