clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Why a Sims game took seven years to add a pregnancy story arc

Producers say having their own children helped them understand why it was important

For years, having a baby in mobile life simulation game The Sims FreePlay was nothing more than a big blue button: press it, and a baby would magically appear. According to EA associate producer Joshua Birse, players constantly begged for a more in-depth experience that captured what it’s actually like to go through a pregnancy. But every time the studio got requests, Birse says, it would shut them down by saying it was “never” going to develop the feature. In 2018, things changed.

Since its inception in the year 2000, The Sims has been one of the top-selling video game franchises in the world. “It’s the ultimate dollhouse,” says Gita Jackson, a Sims expert who is embedded in the community. (Disclaimer: Jackson is a former colleague.) “It’s a relatively taboo-free space to explore your fantasies — no matter how weird or sadistic.” As it is a digital playhouse, The Sims has always benefited from being the type of game nearly anyone can understand, even if they don’t play many games. It’s no wonder that The Sims continues to be so popular across a wide range of demographics.

Traditionally, major Sims games let you live out the minutia of a character’s life, whether that’s choosing how to decorate your house or what kind of career you’ll pursue. Families compromise a big part of the fantasy, and players love to create communities and storylines featuring characters in a variety of relationships. In turn, emulating various stages of life has proven critical to The Sims’ identity. Back in 2014, The Sims 4 drew ire for initially excluding toddlers from the game, instead only including development phases for babies and more fully grown children. Toddlers might seem like a small detail, but the fact is that players want as much real life as they can get in The Sims.

When FireMonkey Studios released FreePlay in 2011 as a spinoff, it worked differently than the main Sims games. For one, FreePlay runs in real time, and everything a sim does must be directed by the player. More crucially, FreePlay launched without classic Sims features like marriage or having children. In a different world, this might have doomed the spinoff, but around this time, the nature of mainstream games started to shift. Early games were largely considered complete upon release, but newer generations of games — released to players who were used to having internet access — let developers introduce patches, updates, and downloadable content, all of which could significantly change the overall experience. Games became more fluid, and designers became more responsive to feedback. Over time, The Sims FreePlay started to add more features to its slate, eventually allowing players to raise a family more or less how they could in the main games. But it took around seven years for FreePlay to finally add the full pregnancy experience, and doing so represents a wider shift in the game’s politics.

Before June 19th of this year, in order to have a baby in FreePlay, players had to marry their couples. Once married, an option would appear for adding a baby. If selected, after a short period of time, a baby would be added to the family, no fuss or frills. According to Birse, players always requested a pregnancy that encompassed what happens over the course of about nine months, just like the real thing. If this seems like a strange request, consider that last year, fans lobbied to get laundry added to The Sims 4, or that more recently, some of the community was up in arms over the fact that the in-game snow didn’t seem deep enough. These are finer details, and Sims fans have cared a lot and for a long time about how all the games handle pregnancy and raising a baby, as these elements influence what kind of fantasies you can spin with your characters.

For the studio, however, pregnancy was a tricky proposition. Even adding smaller features, like allowing sims to have long hair, sometimes requires a laborious rebuilding of certain portions of the game. Pregnancy, which would ostensibly deeply impact a significant portion of the game — families, which are often the core unit of many players’ games — was a tall ask. And the more players clamored for it, the more the developers worried about getting the feature right. With an existing commitment to add new content every six weeks, FireMonkey Studios found it easier to say the mechanic would never happen than to pour resources into something that might end up disappointing players.

But as the game has evolved over the years, so too have the developers. In 2018, the studio felt like it was ready to tackle the challenge, partially, it seems, because the studio as a whole started growing families of their own.

“I was actually going through my first pregnancy with my partner as we’re building this feature, so it was quite eye-opening,” Birse says. “I kind of get it now.”

This real-world experience helped inform how the team built the pregnancy mechanic. Now, instead of simply materializing a baby out of nowhere, FreePlay gives players the option to have pregnancy unfold as a storyline that is decoupled from marriage; single moms can have babies, for example.

“In real life, families are not copy-paste,” Birse says. “They’re dynamic, they’re culturally diverse, they’re changing over time. So for us, that was really important as well. Decoupled marriage, a single female sim can be pregnant. We are embracing culturally diverse, same-sex marriage, same-sex couples. You can now live out those stories.”

Pregnancy is now considered a nine-day event within the game, with sections that encompass everything from parent sims taking up yoga to learning how to bottle-feed their future child. The “homework” aspect of child-rearing, Birse says, came from his experience in getting checklists from his partner that denoted specific things the couple had to do to get ready for a baby. It is so much work, Birse says, that the team made sure to include objectives that had to be completed by consulting a sim’s wider friend circle, such as playing out the moment you make your pregnancy public to the world. As they say, it takes a village to raise a child.

Beyond adding more quests and story elements, the new pregnancy feature includes multiple routes, so every pregnancy does not play out the same. Players also get a variety of different clothing options for their pregnant sims, along with new furniture, decorations, and animations that help flesh out the experience. The team wanted to go beyond just giving sims a baby bump. They wanted to equip players with the tools to tell their own stories, whatever they might be.

For the most part, FreePlay avoids the more controversial aspects of pregnancy. Based on my conversation with Birse, it sounds like the worst thing that can happen to a pregnant sim is morning sickness. The team did consider going further than that, but the results of qualitative research proved that players largely wanted a fantasy version of pregnancy. According to Birse, FireMonkey Studios presented a number of ideas to players to see what they thought.

“Morning sickness came up often. That was important to them. The topic of having a miscarriage or abortion was definitely [there], but it didn’t actually seem to be important for players to have included,” he says.

Birse says that adding elements like miscarriages still aren’t fully out of the question. It all depends on what players want: if enough people ask for it, the team will consider it. Similarly, while the game doesn’t currently allow male / male couples to become pregnant, the team vows to evaluate player feedback to the mechanic’s current iteration, and take it into account for future updates. (Male / male couples can, however, still acquire a baby through old means.)

“Because we’re a live service, we are constantly updating and evolving based on players’ wants and needs,” Birse says. “It’s been just over a week now, the reception has been great, but we will continue that conversation. If it is something that players [want], that’s something we’ll be doing for sure.”

This article was originally published on July 10th and has corrected to reflect that male couples can acquire a baby.