After EA's live-servicey SimCity reboot cratered in 2013, Paradox swooped in with Cities: Skylines, a good ol' fashioned offline city builder, and became the new monarch of the genre. Apparently, that was just round one.
Later this year, Paradox will release a Sims competitor called Life By You, which is being developed under the leadership of former Sims studio head Rod Humble. It sure feels like Paradox is trying to repeat history here. Cities: Skylines was everything SimCity wasn't, and now Life By You promises to give Sims 4 players everything they've been asking for, and nothing they don't want.
Mainly, that means lots and lots of freedom to customize. Instead of grappling with unofficial tools for extracting Python scripts, Life By You modders will enjoy visual scripting tools directly in the game—some of the same tools that the Berkeley, California studio is using to build the game, and will use to make expansions in the future.
The tools look powerful: Players can design custom jobs, social scenarios, conversations (the residents speak real languages, not gibberish), and more. There's an object editor, and support for importing custom 3D models and animations.
"If you want to make an expansion pack that's better than ours, go for it," Humble told me during a meeting at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last week. "The game is yours, and you don't need to ask anybody's permission to stream it, to do whatever it is you want with your creations. And that's the way that our business model is. We want to sell a life simulator that I think the community has been asking for for a long time. It's theirs, and we just want to pass it on to them."
Above: A demonstration of the dialogue scripting tools.
Here are a few of the other things players will be able to do in Life By You:
- Pursue goals with one person or household, like they would in The Sims
- Inhabit the perspective of any resident, explore the open world on foot and in vehicles, and live their life (with their "memories") with no loading screens
- Design and place not just houses, but any building in the town, from offices to restaurants, which can be made functional with the scripting tools
- Create and share custom quests, which formalize the informal challenges popular among Sims 4 streamers (Humble's example: Try to have 100 babies)
During the Life By You reveal stream earlier this month, viewers repeated each feature back in all caps: OPEN WORLD!? DIRECT CONTROL!? CARS. Humble knows his audience.
Yes to sex, no to telemetry
Life By You also includes visible nudity for players who turn off censorship shaders, and although it won't feature explicit sex scenes (that happens under the covers), Humble is well aware of what the most popular Sims mod category is. Life By You is "specifically designed" to make adult mods possible, he told me.
And because the opportunity to safely explore sexuality and identity is a big draw of life sims, according to Humble, Life By You won't include something that The Sims 4 does: telemetry, which refers to the transmission of anonymized gameplay data back to a developer for analysis. It's how EA is able to say that there were 289 million "WooHoos" last year across all the world's Sims 4 games.
"People around the world often use life sims to explore, for example, their sexuality," said Humble. "Like, hey, how would I feel to have kids, or to date a guy or a girl? So it's very important for this community, in this day and age, to know that this is a private experience. There's no in-game telemetry gathering data that could, for example, go to a hostile government."
I've never heard of in-game telemetry being used against someone by a government, but anonymization and data security are never perfect. If I were worried about the privacy of my in-game activities, I'd rather play a game that doesn't include any telemetry at all over one that does, even if I'm promised it's safe or given the option to turn it off. One point to Life By You.
Oops, everyone's gay
In their explorations of identity, some players will want to recreate life in a town that's demographically like their own, while others may prefer fantasy, and Life By You will support either choice.
"By default, all of the settings for gender, skin tones, and sexual preferences are set by me," Humble said. "But when you create your game, you can change those any way you want by percentages. So if you're like, hey, 'I want to make a world where it's full of people who just fall in love with me, and I'm the only sexual interest in this world,' you can do that."
Or, you could make a world in which everyone is gay, or everyone is non-binary—whatever you want.
"I think there's a whole generation of people who are sick of gender roles being shoved down their face," said Humble. "And so we're like, hey, you get to define it any way you want. We hope people like that."
Regarding skin tones, towns default to an "Olympic Village," according to Humble—an even mix—but again, players can decide for themselves who inhabits their city.
"If you live in Brazil, and you're like, 'Well, people don't look like this in Brazil,' just go ahead, change that spread, and you've got it," said Humble. "You can do that with age as well, and, as I said, gender. And so by doing that, we want people to be able to make places that look like where they live, that resonates with them, as opposed to Northern California, which is what we'll naturally make."
Sim v sim
Life By You can be played as a structured game with goals, but all this freedom and decision-making makes it sound more like a platform than a game. Aside from telemetry, the only things Humble told me Life By You explicitly avoids are illness (they took it out after Covid) and violence. People can die, but not by disease or murder, and no effort has been made to support the creation of violent mods. "The important things in life are rarely hitting people on the heads with sticks," Humble said, but if a modder does manage to turn Life By You into GTA, that's their prerogative.
I'm excited to see what scripters and modders build in Life By You—suburban RPGs?—but there's no guarantee it'll take off like Cities: Skylines did. That game filled the hole left by SimCity's self-combustion, but in this case, The Sims 4 remains enormously popular and has a big, established network of modders and video creators.
The Sims 4 base game is free-to-play now, too, and Maxis is working on a new Sims which, for all we know, may include similar features. And for all the complaints The Sims 4 gets, it has lots of great qualities, such as its distinctive art style. Life By You, by contrast, looks a bit like an architectural mock-up made in out-of-date CAD software. And those powerful scripting tools could turn out to be buggy, or hard to use—who knows what problems might arise in a project this ambitious?
For now, it's just cool to see some real competition in the life sim genre. Another promising project, Paralives, is making progress, too, so EA will have to step it up if it wants The Sims to remain dominant. Life By You isn't too far off: It'll release in early access on Steam and the Epic Games Store on September 12.