How interior design software from the 90s laid the foundation for today’s life simulations

In 1994, my mother, a working interior designer, decided to jump on the home computing bandwagon and get 3D Home Architect. (opens in a new tab). The Broderbund program was part of a clumsy and curious wave of computer-aided design (CAD) software suitable for the burgeoning home market (opens in a new tab)– the average Joe looking to redecorate and remodel in an exciting new digital world. I already knew floor plans and architectural drawings from watching my mother at her drawing board. My mother made a valiant attempt to get used to the program, but being a die-hard traditionalist, she eventually went back to working with her trusty pencil and paper. Suddenly 3D Home Architect, which my parents didn’t consider a video game (and therefore not something to fear), was all mine.

It was a cultural call, asking users to imagine their lives as available for expansion through computing.

Dr Laine Nooney

Decades later, I’ve spent oceans of time arranging furniture in Animal Crossing and setting up my free pet room in Final Fantasy 14. In games, especially life sims, home decor can be a dangerous road to a place where time stands still. But in the beginning, the world of digital home design was a very different animal: easy-to-use consumer CAD programs that shaped a generation of home computer users.

(Image credit: Broderbund)

“When these products first came out in the 1990s, people wanted to play with them because they literally made it possible to do things on a computer that weren’t possible before…it was like being part of the ‘future. ‘” says Dr. Laine Nooney. (opens in a new tab), specializing in the historical, cultural and economic analysis of the video game and home computing industries. Like me, Nooney has fond memories of their mother playing around with 3D home design and landscaping programs in the mid to late 90s when their family was going through a period of upward mobility.

“Even in the mid-1990s, only about a third of American households had a computer. Journalists, investors, and innovators went to great lengths to convince people that a home computer was something you should want. or not,” says Nooney. “The idea of ​​home computing was not just about having a computer in the home. It was a cultural call, asking users to imagine their lives as available for expansion through computing.”

Even with its blocky, unsophisticated graphics, to me 3D Home Architect was a gateway to the pure and simple idea of ​​an imaginary home. Some of its software siblings, like Sierra CompleteHome, had cost estimating tools, which I was blissfully unaware of. After all, I was a child, and if I could build a vast, physically impossible mansion with the best materials available, by God, I would. It was the first time that I could experience a digital space without limits, far from the physical limits of my Barbie Dream Cottage. (opens in a new tab)who never seemed to have enough room.

In the realm of games, I had already waded through 1991’s Jones in the Fast Lane, Sierra Entertainment’s bitterly funny social life sim where you started out in a shabby, run-down apartment and worked your way up to a luxury condo. It offered a basic screen showing your home, filled with hard-earned furniture and electronics, but there was no control over where to place items or options for editing.

While “playing” 3D Home Architect, I treated it like a free-form game to imagine hypothetical homes of the future for myself and fictional characters. Maxis began offering more focused Sim games that took a more granular approach to smaller scale life simulation, such as SimTower (opens in a new tab)– the first Sim game that really challenged me to figure out how and where I placed different amenities in the titular skyscraper.

Unlike SimCity 2000, it was both a literal and figurative close-up of modern life, exemplified by the glitz and futurism of the high-rise format. There was also a much more visceral emotional connection between the locals depicted onscreen and the environment – for the first time ever, I had to really think about where I placed the restaurants and entertainment facilities, as well than the elevators in the building (if residents waited too long or became too impatient, they would simply disappear in a red rage).

(Image credit: Maxis)

The psycho-spatial and psycho-geographic aspect of social/life simulation games really came to a head when Maxis released The Sims in 2000. It was, admittedly, a confusing time for adults struggling to parse this new cultural phenomenon. . (opens in a new tab)including the idea of ​​creating a comfortable space for IT people to thrive. For kids like Sophie Mallinson who had grown up with home design programs, it was a given.

Funny to think I used to play with interior design software, and now I’m using a video game to plan my own house

Sophie Mallinson

One of Mallinson’s earliest computer memories was the free CD-ROM demos of home design programs that came with his mother’s home decor magazines. “While these products were obviously aimed at adults, with bland aesthetics and built-in cost estimates, at eight years old, everything on the computer was game to me,” says Mallinson, who now works as a simulation game designer. at Maxis. “I remember being blown away by the ability to navigate a realistic 3D environment, my imagination running wild as I created rooms for imaginary characters and invented a backstory for each house.”

Designing a house in The Sims (2000)

(Image credit: EA)

In 2000, drawn by the lure of homemaking and the imaginative power of home design, Mallinson decided to get The Sims, which quickly became her favorite game. “Not only could I design houses using a large catalog of furniture, from heart-shaped beds to inflatable chairs, but everything was interactive,” she says. “I could see my Sims using every object I had carefully chosen and living their lives in the space I had created for them.”

Mallinson, who recently purchased her first home, recreated the floor plan in The Sims 4 to play around with renovation ideas. “It’s funny to think that I used to play with interior design software, and now I use a video game to plan my own house,” she says, adding that she constantly thinks to better, more accessible ways to integrate with the core of The Sims. components – the architecture and design of the house – in the gameplay.


(Image credit: Witch Beam)

Now, the concepts of home, interior design, and customizable living have become familiar features in everything from fantasy RPGs and relaxing puzzles to dedicated interior design mobile games. The role of 3D home design programs in cultivating this standard, as well as their impact on a generation of game designers and simulation fans who grew up fascinated with things like 3D Home Architect, remains largely unexplored. Although there hasn’t been much research in this area, Laine Nooney thinks there are “interesting resonances” between how games approach room or unit composition, and how whose 3D home design programs present homes to us as units of divisible space.

“I think we seriously misunderstand the history of video games and the computer when we draw very firm lines between games and other types of software,” says Nooney, who suggests these programs could be considered the one of the first “sandbox” 3D rendering tools available for the medium. home computer user. Ultimately, in our quest to understand the human fascination and cultural appeal of computers, early novelty software like 3D Home Architect hasn’t been given enough credit for its influence in modern game design. “Interestingly, I think we’re seeing a comeback of these kinds of tools in the form of augmented reality provided by furniture and home decor retailers,” adds Nooney. “In its own way, novelty never seems to get old.”

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