A place to call your own
After visiting other people's houses and maybe greening up your sim, you'll probably want your own home. So you spend your money, maybe pooling your resources with a roommate, and you build a house. You stock it. Then you sit back and wait for people to visit. Maybe you practice your animations, linking up a handshake with a giggle and followed with the special "Showin' 'Tude" that you learned for humorous effect. You can use this to greet people when they show up. That'll win them over! But since logging off closes your house down, you have to stay online, in your empty house, to wait for people to visit. So you're waiting. Waiting.
At this point, The Sims Online reaches a level of existential absurdity worthy of Beckett. Actually, that might be giving it more credit than it deserves. It's more like a level of pathos worthy of Tennessee Williams; you're sitting in your new house like the mother and daughter in The Glass Menagerie, waiting for your Lady or Gentlemen Caller. Like as not, he'll pop in and then pop right back out. Maybe you should have named your house something that sounds like a strip joint: “Pleasure Palace” or “The House of Hot Loving” or maybe “Live Nude Girls”. Of course, that promises a certain type of visitor that you might not want.
This is when you realize the value of a level treadmill, or at the very least, intermittent goals. The Sims Online doesn't offer much to strive for, which is completely antithetical to the standard massively multiplayer online pattern, in which players are hooked by being constantly given little carrots to grab for: another level, a higher rank, a new spell, a better sword. The whole idea is to keep you chasing goals so you'll pay for next month. The Sims Online substitutes for this a simple skill system, but it discourages too much emphasis on skills by degrading them over time once they've reached a certain level. The economy, which is tied to the skill system because you make money based on your skill level, is used almost exclusively for building your own house, which is rather pointless without visitors. The whole endeavor is a waste of time, since you can just as easily visit someone else's house for the same effect. The Sims Online is hobbled by a lack of motivation to really do anything beyond noodle around and idly chat with the other players who are noodling around.
One of the things lost since the original version of The Sims is the importance of AI-controlled Sims. Since everything is the result of a live person clicking on a button, there are none of the emergent behaviors that made the offline game so oddly compelling. You can't throw two people into a conversation to see whether their conversation bubbles will coincide. You can't wall the neighbors into your basement to leave them to starve to death. It's just not the same when you're hitting on someone's wife to see if his little AI will make him react with jealousy. It feels weird kissing a sim when you know there's another person on the other end of that sim, a person who might be bald, 47-years-old, and still living with his mother. It's ironic that these real people behind their avatars often have less personality than the offline AI. Half the fun of The Sims offline was navigating the web of computer-controlled relationships and adding your own family to the mix. You can't build a neighborhood and name its people after celebrities to see whether Nicole Kidman falls for Henry Kissinger or Robert Blake. Watching a room full of people mingle in The Sims Online is less like watching a room full of people mingle and more like watching some ill-conceived internet chat room. Every action and reaction is the result of someone clicking on an icon and activating it. Like Sartre's concept of hell, The Sims Online is other people.