Life By You has grand designs on The Sims' life sim throne
We chat to Paradox Tectonic's Rod Humble about going open world, getting rid of loading screens and its extensive modding tools
Rod Humble has his son to thank for his upcoming life sim Life By You. After finishing up work on two successful mobile games around four years ago, Humble was itching for something new. But he wasn't quite sure what. "I was in the kitchen talking to my son about, 'Oh, what should I do? I don't know what opportunities there are,' and he was like, 'Why don't you just pick the company you want to work at and ask them?'" And as a life-long Crusader Kings player, the answer was clear. "Okay!?" Humble says incredulously. "I can do that, I guess. So I did. I wrote to [PR manager] Troy [Goodfellow], and he knew Fred [Wester, CEO], and that was it. It was two weeks later and I met him in San Francisco and said, hey, I'd like to start a studio, and here's the way I'd like to run it. And he was like, sure, let's go for it."
So began Humble's journey to creating Life By You, his upcoming life simulator that's set to give his former pet project, The Sims, a run for its money. With The Sims 5, or Project Rene as it's currently known, still some way off, Life By You seems poised to finally give life sim fans the game they've always wanted. "I wanted to make an open world life simulator where the core tenant was freedom," says Humble. "Where players could freely play and tell their stories with minimal friction." And what was standing in the way of that freedom? Loading screens, says Humble.
Loading screens are "the biggest friction" in today's life simulator games, according to Humble, but removing them also opens up a whole different kettle of technological fish, he says. After all, when you get rid of that delay, the rules governing the rest of Life By You's world need to follow suit, and the process of solving that problem ended up opening a lot of new doors for the design team - starting with the one in your character's house.
As Paradox showed off just last week, Life By You is a life sim that lets you get up, go to work, do your job, come home again and maybe do a bit of cycling and beachcombing in the evening afterwards, all without a single loading screen breaking up the action. In addition to telling your agents where to go via simple clicks, you can also take direct control of them, too, with the camera shifting into an over the shoulder perspective to help guide your little virtual person around the environment like you would in a third-person action game.
It's impressive stuff, but that's not even the half of it, says Humble. "We took the metaphysical part of the life simulator as seriously as the physical part," he says, "and that metaphysical part is the complex bit. That was why real language was added to the conversation […which let us] articulate quite advanced metaphysical concepts that enable you to tell much more interesting stories." This alludes to Life By You's ability to chat to any NPC you like using its extensive dialogue tools. Conversations are generated depending on your unique circumstances, says Humble, such as your current location, who they are, and what kind of relationship you have with them, which in turn opens up more avenues for emergent storytelling. The hope is that no two conversations will ever be alike.
That, too, created another rabbit hole for Life By You's designers. After all, if everything's taking place in real-time, "What happens to the clock?" says Humble. "The answer is, it's all simulating, all the time. Now you've got every person in the world who's operating with the same rules, and you have to make sure that they're being accurately modelled every second of every year because we have real life spans here. Agents don't live for 14 days, they live 75+ years. And so unlocking that system and getting real time to work with a simulation where every agent is being simulated the same way as the player's agent, that was the real challenge."
Humble says it took the team "quite a few years" to get their breakthrough, but the end result lends itself to a more immersive and authentic version of your character's day to day life.
"What happens to the person who works in the restaurant when you go home?" he asks of other life sims. "There's a loading screen, and typically in games, that person doesn't exist anymore. In our game, we don't get that option. That person goes home, and you might live opposite them. And you might be in a fight with that person's spouse, and you might have relationship troubles with them. They might be bad neighbours, they might be good neighbours. And once you start to get into that way of thinking, everything starts to flow."
Why do this at all, I ask Humble. "Because I haven't seen it done before," he says. "Like, to actually model everybody [so they're] on the same playing field? That was the hardest bit, and the genesis of what we call internally the principle of equivalency. That is, if you see a non-player character doing something, you can do it and vice-versa. Once you get that, then you can have, 'Oh, I can replay anyone, anytime, because there's no different rules'."
"If you see a non-player character doing something, you can do it and vice-versa."
That's the other trick hiding behind one of the doors in Life By You. If controlling one character wasn't enough, you can also jump into the lives of its NPCs and take control of them for a spell as well, hopping between these different polygon bodies like some kind of possessive ghost. And yes, because everything is modelled in real-time, characters outside your control can get up to all sorts of things when you're not looking, including getting engaged to someone else without you knowing.
"Yeah, absolutely 100%," says Humble when I put this question to him. "And that's part of the delight. I often just leave the game running like a fishbowl, and I'm just looking at this little world. And then I might click on somebody, I'm like, 'Okay, what does this person do? Oh, they live there; oh, they have this job; oh, they've just insulted so and so'. It's really, really fun."
Of course, when everything's running on real-world timing, it can make the wait for big, dramatic life events seem like, well, an actual eternity. Happily, the Life By You team have included the option to skip forward in time (but not back) so playing the game doesn't end up becoming an actual second life for players (which ironically, Humble also worked on after The Sims 3). It's just one of many parameters that players can tweak and alter in Life By You, including your character's basic needs such as rest and hunger, as well as the amount of money jostling around in their pockets. Everything is entirely editable, Humble says, "no cheat code required".
I raise an eyebrow at this. When I ask Humble whether giving players such freedom will remove any sense of challenge from the game, he says he's confident that players will use these tools "appropriately" to tell their own stories.
"What's been surprising is that players don't automatically use [these tools]," Humble explains. "Quite often players will reduce them. I've seen a lot of players who come in and they're like, 'First thing is I don't want money. I want to be grubbing, work my way up. I really want to work for it.' Or 'I want my person to be miserable right now'. So when I say lowering friction, that's what I mean - it's when, as game designers, we just say to the player, 'Hey, it's okay. Here's the little fences. But you can just step over the fence any time you want'. And players feel free to be able to tell their stories. It's their game, so why not, you know, let players do what they wish."
I'm still a little sceptical on this point - if only because I know I'd definitely fall into anti-grub mode the second things got too hard. But I am mildly hopeful that this sense of openness might help rectify another problem that's been plaguing life sims (and The Sims, specifically) since time immemorial - and that's the small question of bugs. When I ask Humble how he even begins to QA a game like this, he says it all comes down to his "game design attitude".
"One of our designers calls it 'designing by chance'," he says. "The trick is actually designing robust systems, rather than trying to think of every combination [of what could happen]. When you get down a path of saying no to things versus saying yes, you go wrong. Because the power of these games is that you want the unexpected. So it's okay if something happens that breaks the game. As you've seen, it's a very easily salvageable game. If somebody's managed to wall themselves into a house, just pick them up and pull them out."
That attitude also extends to a sense of trust between the player base, says Humble. "I think there's a mistaken assumption that when people hear 'life sim', they think 'casual', and you and I both know it's the complete opposite. This player base is one of the most complex and intelligent player bases emotionally as well as in terms of the mods they're able to create."
Indeed, mods will be a fundamental part of Life By You's early access launch, and it's one of the key reasons why Humble ended up working with Paradox in the first place, he tells me. But the modding tools on offer here aren't like those you've seen in other Paradox games. For starters, they can all be accessed from within the game itself, and they're the same set of editors that the devs themselves have been using for the last two and a half years or so. The only difference is the colour of the tabs. "We reskinned them because it used to be all multi-coloured," Humble laughs. "It's cute - I liked the rainbow look - but [we thought] maybe we ought to make it a bit easier on the eyes."
There is one other small deviation from what the player will experience. When a member of Paradox Tectonic create a mod, it will live in the 'Official' mod section rather than your own personal one, but everything else is exactly the same. You'll be able to create mods for pretty much every item in the game, and share and export them. Humble selects a salon as an example. He gives it an icon that will be used on the sat nav mini-map built into your character's phone, and demonstrates how you can associate individual lots with a certain business. Next comes the side menu, which lets you tinker with all sorts of parameters related to your humans (or whatever you decide to call them, says Humble), lots, locations, and more. In fact, the 'Others' tab houses "the majority" of the game's mod editors, says Humble, and he reels off a list including quests, skills, items, shops, recipe and cooking editors before the whole room breaks into laughter. "We've got a whole bunch," he says, composing himself. But it doesn't stop there.
"Some of the most fun ones are, like, I want to make lipsticks - hundreds and hundreds of lipstick swatches - and you can do that. Because every item of clothing in the game is customisable. Lipsticks alone have got two layers of different colours, you can add a preset, and export them and share them with your friends. And that applies to every article of clothing, every article of hair, eyebrow colours, everything! Which is pretty powerful in terms of creativity."
He proceeds to show me a wallpaper that can be pasted and rescaled on the fly, as well as have different colours applied to it, all in real-time. It's a feat that's sure to please anyone who's been keeping a watchful eye on the upcoming indie life sim darling Paralives, which also seems to be similarly flexible and responsive to player creativity. The real question, though, is why such seemingly simple additions to the life sim building scene have taken this long to arrive in the first place. And for Humble, these kinds of advances have "been held back before by game development culture", which he describes as a path of least resistance when it comes to design and programming.
"Usually, that's something hitting something else, and making it do something, so we've had decades of that." But he's hopeful about the next generation of game designers, if only because he believes they'll take their inspiration from games rather than film like his peers. "That's why you've seen an emphasis on traditional narrative storytelling in games," he says. But that relationship between authors and players is starting to shift now, he believes, resulting in "real emotional resonance" compared to the "comic book-thinking" we've got now in today's blockbuster space.
"I don't think you'd get a more fun subject to explore than real life. We all relate to it."
"I think that more complex storytelling is inevitable when games are already the biggest grossing entertainment form. But if we want to become even more mainstream, we have to embrace that. It's no accident that the number one best-selling or category of fiction forever has been romance. Falling in love is not a minority interest. Everybody loves that, and so I think that you'll see games start to explore real subjects - and I don't think you'd get a more fun subject to explore than real life. We all relate to it."
Aspiring to that mainstream, blockbuster status does come with some downsides, however, with Humble warning that Life By You's PC system requirements aren't for the faint of heart. "Our aim was to make a well-running, open AAA high end life simulator first and foremost, so our min specs reflect that," he says. "Once we get it running, we can look at whether there are ways we can optimise it to bring it down. But out of the gate, I would strongly urge people to look at the min specs, take them seriously, and if you're going to play the game, you're going to need a good gaming PC."
And judging by the current specifications listed on Steam, it's the CPU that's going to be real killer for existing Sims fans still playing on decade-old hardware, with 2018's Intel Core i5-8600 / AMD's Ryzen 5 2600 coming in as the absolute minimum to help run the game's ambitious simulation. The minimum GPU requirements, on the other hand (Nvidia's GeForce GTX 960 / AMD's Radeon R9 380), are a little easier to swallow, with both cards dating from 2015, but as we all know, building a PC with a new CPU can be one of the most fiddly and expensive upgrades you can do right now. Certainly not as easy as installing a new graphics card, that's for sure.
"We want players to be able to lean on this game and know that what they make is going to last."
The reason, Humble says, is because "we want this game to last for as long as we can, not just we so we don't have to rebuild these things so many times, but also because we want players to be able to lean on this game and know that what they make is going to last." He also adds that Life By You will be entirely offline and won't require an internet connection in order to play, which should come as some relief after the recent debate around Redfall and Suicide Squad: Kill The Justice League. It also means Paradox Tectonic won't be able to invalidate any mods you end up making for it either, which Humble says was "very important to us".
Those minimum specs aside, everything Humble spoke to me to about in our conversation certainly sounds like the kind of thing life sims players want to hear right now, but as with anything this aspirational, the proof will definitely be in the playing of it. If he and his team at Paradox Tectonic can successfully pull off their ingenious poltergeist trick of slipping into the skin of any NPC and making each of their lives just as compelling as the last, with or without its comprehensive set of modding and editing tools, then Life By You could be something very special indeed. I'm still not wholly convinced about where the challenge is going to come from when every last slider can be tweaked and adjusted as the player desires, but if that marriage of Humble's physical and metaphysical concepts comes off, EA's Project Rene will have some serious sock-pulling to do in the not too distant future.
Life By You is coming to early access on September 12th on Steam and the Epic Games Store for £35/€40/$40.