NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - There's been a coup in the PC gaming world. After nine years as the best-selling computer game of all time, "Myst" has dropped to number two. In its place now stands "The Sims," the quirky and utterly addictive title that lets you control the lives of simulated people.
Electronic Arts has shipped more than 6.3 million copies of the game worldwide since February 2000. Don't expect things to slow down anytime soon, either. "The Sims" continues to rank among the industry's top-five selling games each week. And with a massively multiplayer Sims game (as well as a stand-alone sequel) on the horizon, Sims-mania might just be getting started.
That's got a lot of bean-counters smiling at EA. "The Sims" is more than a consumer favorite; it's also a cash cow. Despite its age, the game has never wavered from its $44 retail price. It has also spawned four "add-on" packs, each retailing for $29 - and all selling hand over fist. All totaled, more than 13 million Sims-themed games have been sold.
The brainchild of developer Will Wright -- previously best known for his mega-selling "SimCity" games -- "The Sims" gave birth to a new segment of the gaming community. Players write stories about their Sims, create new skins for them, build new items for their virtual homes - and make all of this available to other players via the Internet. While this sort of fanaticism isn't uncommon among hardcore gamers, "The Sims" is a game that's typically played by casual gaming audiences.
"I feel like we built a good game and that brought it to the first million [sales]," Wright said. "But it's the fans that took it beyond that. ... We owe that level of achievement to the players."
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Up next for the series is its first step into the online world. "The Sims Online" will let thousands of simultaneous players build and visit virtual homes, make new friends and explore the microcosm of Sim life . Gameplay will be open-ended, with no "winner" or "loser." Instead, you'll have the option of working toward various short-term goals or just soaking up the environment.
In terms of attracting a sizable audience, that's not a bad plan. Online gamers currently are the hardest of the hardcore crowd. They're fiercely loyal to the games they play and get indignant when any criticism is raised. Wright said he's specifically not trying to attract those players.
"I don't want to build something that you have to spend a couple of hours every night playing," he said. "I want someone to be able to play this for a couple of hours on the weekend and still feel they're getting something out of it."
Players will choose a "city" for their Sim to call home in the online game. Each city initially will support a population of 30,000-40,000 players. And Wright said the game will start with 25-30 cities ready to be populated, many with a theme (such as theme parks or nightclubs). As the game grows, so will the size of cities (with populations expected to max out around 100,000) and the number of towns around the Sims world.
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Even with the built-in audience of "The Sims," the game's not without risk for EA (ERTS: Research, Estimates). The company's most recent efforts in the online world -- "Majestic" and "Motor City Online" -- have fizzled. And there's the looming question of whether casual gamers will be willing to pay a monthly fee on top of the retail price for their Sims fix. (EA should unveil pricing for the game in May at the Electronic Entertainment Expo.)
Also in the works is a stand-alone single-player sequel to "The Sims," which EA indicated will be announced later this year. Wright's involvement in the game is limited at this time, but he promises a new player interface, new graphics and a new artificial intelligence powering the Sims.
"They'll be more expressive, more interesting and more lifelike, but they'll still have that funny, open-ended, chaotic atmosphere like you see in the first game," Wright said.
You're also likely to see a game that's more story-based. Wright has been studying visual story-telling techniques lately and would like to include things like cuts, scenes, fades and other movie making tools in his creations. Imagine, for instance, zooming in on the face of your Sim after he or she is rejected by another, getting a close-up look of the heartbreak. That's a lot different from the wailing you currently view from a distance.
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"This is a technique we need to make better use of in games," said Wright. "This technology helps to further communicate the emotions of the Sims."
No matter how they turn out, both "The Sims Online" and "The Sims 2" are going to have some awfully big shoes to fill.
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