Rod Humble knows a bit about life sim games. He spent years as an executive at EA helping steer The Sims franchise before leaving to join Second Life maker Linden Lab. So when it came for his new studio, Paradox Tectonic, to try its hand at the genre, he knew exactly what he wanted to change. “What the genre needed was less constraints,” Humble says.
The studio’s first release, Life by You, was officially unveiled last week ahead of the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. It looks similar to The Sims but with a few important differences. For one thing, in place of the iconic (and fictional) Simlish, Life by You utilizes a procedurally generated real-language system for dialogue. It’s also a much more in-depth simulation. According to Humble, every single character in the game’s fictional city is fully simulated. They have jobs, homes, relationships, and the same basic needs as your own player character (i.e., they need to eat, sleep, and pee).
“The whole town is being simulated in real-time, with every individual having the same attributes as you do,” Humble explained. “We call that the principle of equivalency. What that allows us to do is, when you see someone in the world, they are operating on the same rules you are — so they need to eat and drink, they’ve got a house where they live — and you can right-click on anyone you see and then play them. You get access to all of their memories, their likes and dislikes, their relationships.”
It sounds like a huge technical undertaking, but Humble says it was a necessary part of the experience, where the developers want players to be able to tell natural and involved stories using the game. “It was needed because otherwise we couldn’t complete this open world design,” he says. “Traditionally in game development, non-player characters are usually props. In our game, the barkeep has a house, has work hours; you can talk to the barkeep, you can develop a relationship with the barkeep, and you can see where the barkeep lives. You can play the barkeep.”
He gave a few examples as to how the depth of the simulation can play out in the game. For instance, in Life by You, you’ll see white delivery vans driving around, but these aren’t just background visuals. Instead, they represent actual deliveries to in-game characters; when a computer-controlled character gets hungry, they might order groceries, which will then be delivered by one of those trucks.
“To have a feeling of freedom, it needs to be physical freedom.”
On a more involved level, characters can actually see and remember things; the developers call these moments “observables.” It could be as simple as learning a new meal to cook from watching a chef. Or, if you go out on a secret date, it’s possible a neighbor might spot you, and depending on their relationship with you, they could either post about it on a social network or go and tell your significant other. “That’s how we model social information,” Humble says. “These are things that agents have observed or experienced, that they can then carry with them moving forward, and it alters how they react to you and the rest of the world.”
Humble says that “the underlying ethos of the game design was freedom” and that informed how it was designed. Having the whole town simulated means that players have the freedom to turn anyone into a main character if they want. Similarly, Life by You will also have no loading screens — sorry, fans of reticulating splines — which he believes is more than just a technical feature.
“To have a feeling of freedom, it needs to be physical freedom,” Humble explains. “In real life, I can get in my car and drive to the shops and there’s no loading screen. That emotional resonance really mattered to the whole development team. You can tell that story: I went down to the shops, I met somebody, I asked them out, and they happened to live on the other side of town.”
The combination of a large open world (the developers won’t say yet exactly how big it is), a simulated population, and procedurally generated dialogue seems like it could potentially cause issues when it comes to offensive or triggering content. But Humble says that shouldn’t be an issue with the base game. “Out of the box, we make sure our content is going to be non-offensive,” he says. “The game doesn’t have any violence, physical or emotional. That doesn’t mean you can’t be mean. However, beyond that, what players mod and what players do in their own game — this is a single-player, private game — that’s not our concern.”
“A lot of players use life sims to explore quite private areas of their lives”
The game will support mods and various levels of customization, including the ability to tweak any object. This all ties back to that freedom-led design philosophy. With mods in particular, Humble says the studio will have a “very hands-off” approach. Players can distribute mods wherever they like, and they own what they make. But he was also quick to stress that this is a single-player, offline experience, so players can treat Life by You as a private space.
“A lot of players use life sims to explore quite private areas of their lives, including their sexuality,” Humble says. “So it’s very important that privacy is number one for safety. It’s a single-player game, you don’t need an internet connection, there’s no in-game telemetry at all.”
Life by You is coming at a time when its biggest competitor, The Sims, is also in a state of flux, with the next entry in the franchise in development. While that game appears to be a few years away from launch, Paradox’s entry in the genre is coming much sooner, with an early access PC launch expected on September 12th.