Expansion packs win battle for lonely hearts and minds
Gamemaker unveils long-awaited updates of its most popular and lucrative titles
For lonely hearts left dateless on a Friday night, there is always the thrill of chatting with complete strangers via instant messaging and online forums. Now Electronic Arts has gone one better, allowing gamers to vicariously experience romance through their virtual selves.
Last week, the world's largest publisher of video games released the latest expansion to its popular Sims series, Sims 2: Nightlife. The expansion pack, the second for Sims 2, includes a new 'pleasure seeking' aspiration - like real people Sims have goals - along with 20 new romantic social interactions, such as 'slow dancing'.
'Nightlife will allow players to take their Sims to a new downtown location,' marketing vice-president Patrick Buechner said.
'They'll either get to go downtown with their friends and just have a good time out, or they might go see the scene and see if they can hook up with that other romantic Sim of their dreams.'
Expansion packs are to video games what blades are to shaving razors. Electronic Arts makes plenty of money on Sims 2 - Sims is the most popular computer game ever, with more than 60 million copies sold - but the major cash is in the add-ons that come later. There were seven expansion packs for the first Sims title.
'There are certain expansion packs that the players are just demanding. I don't think they'll let us stop making expansion packs until we give them pets. They're demanding pets,' Mr Buechner said. 'I'm not saying it's our next expansion pack, but we'll definitely have to do pets at some point.'
Mr Buechner added one of every four Sims 2 players bought the first expansion pack, Sims 2: University. He expected Nightlife to perform better due to its broader appeal.
Another update to an Electronic Arts franchise, Need for Speed, offers vicarious thrills of a different sort. Gamers who watch televised hot pursuits on Los Angeles' freeways can live out their fantasies in Need for Speed Most Wanted, due out in late November.
Marketing vice-president Keith Munro said: 'The main point of difference [in the new title] is we really listened to consumers. We talk to them a lot. The No1 thing people want - not surprisingly - is police. They want to be chased by the cops - lots of cops.'
The game also includes several new car models from manufacturers such as Audi and BMW. 'We're letting people trick those out, and you've never really been able to do that before,' he said.
But Initial D fans hoping to imitate Jay Chou in street racing scenes set in Japan will be disappointed: Need for Speed Most Wanted is set in a fictional city on the east coast of the United States.
The philosophy of Electronic Arts is fictional settings are better than attempting to recreate roads in the real world that are not ideal for racing.
'One of the tenets for us is to create the ultimate drive. We really don't want to be held hostage to an actual location with actual roads that typically don't allow you to corner at 200 mph,' Mr Munro said.
There was a continued debate between people on the development team about whether to create real-world scenarios, he said. But 'it doesn't always lend itself to real-world scenarios'.
Likewise, fans of the new Battlefield 2 - which gives players the opportunity to command the Chinese army - might be disappointed that no Taiwan invasion scenario is included. Electronic Arts, perhaps wisely, has chosen to remain apolitical rather than ruffle the political sensitivities of its customer base.
But those who do not have to worry about being politically correct - the modder community - are free to do what they like. Battlefield 1942 is among the industry's most heavily modded games.
European marketing director Alex Bertie said: 'On the PC skew we do support a range of mod tools that enable consumers to create any scenarios that they want, as long as they have the technical skills.'
Football fans disappointed by seeing their favourite club lose can vicariously set matters straight with Fifa 06 Soccer, the latest instalment in the 12-year-old title, which has sold more 50 million copies.
The newest version, also due out this autumn, gives gamers a new club manager mode, allowing players to get behind the business of the world's most popular sport. Gamers control budgets, manage coaches and trade players among teams.
Football marketing director Matt Bilby said: 'If you decide the manager you supported makes the wrong decisions, it's up to you to take control.
'You can sign whoever you want: Ronaldo, David Beckham. If you want these players on your team, then you have to win enough games to make enough money to be able to buy the best players in the world and win the best trophies.'