People who don't play life sims might not understand that they're 'the most complex RPGs ever written,' says Life by You director

Life By You - A a character with dreadlocks wearing a yellow shirt in a conversation
(Image credit: Paradox tectonic)

The Sims isn't the only PC life simulation game in town anymore. Dozens of smaller, more focused life sims have appeared in the years since Stardew Valley took off, and now upcoming Sims competitors like Paralives and Life by You are aiming for the same kind of broad home, relationship, family, and career simulation that EA's 24-year-old Sims series is synonymous with.

Life by You director Rod Humble, who was the head of The Sims series for several years in the 2000s, thinks the fundamental inclusivity of the life sim genre is responsible for its growth.

"The reason that life simulation is so big, and I think it's going to get bigger, is that it's an inclusive game genre that anybody can use to tell stories that are rooted in real life," said Humble in a recent interview with PC Gamer. 

Humble, whose game credits date back to the early '90s, says he prefers working on sims to games with authored stories because the latter are "exclusionary" by nature. "Who is the lead character? What is their gender? What is their skin tone? What is their age? All of a sudden, I'm just cutting people out," he said.

Designing a simulation like Life by You, on the other hand, is "always inclusionary," says Humble. "It's like, how do we extend the magic circle to this colleague who has this worldview and who wants to make sure that they can play that worldview or play that style within our game? And it's an absolute blast."

It's also a huge undertaking, which is perhaps why there haven't been a ton of Sims competitors. There's really no more ambitious genre name than "life sim," and although Life by You doesn't make it all the way down to cellular biology, it aims to simulate quite a lot. At a high level, you can "drag, demolish, and rearrange entire towns," and at its most granular, you can decide what a certain character says to another character in a particular moment, writing a live play (or soap opera, if you prefer) as you go.

(Image credit: Paradox)

I think people who don't play life simulators perhaps don't understand that these are also the most complex RPGs ever written.

Since any aspect of living—say, learning to knit—is fair game, Life by You developer Paradox Tectonic has a big to-do list, but the scope is what makes building life sims "so much pure joy," says Humble. Because everyone at the studio is an expert in life, everyone gets to contribute design ideas. And since players (should) know something about being alive, life sims can be complex without requiring a lot of instruction to pick up.

"I think people who don't play life simulators perhaps don't understand that these are also the most complex RPGs ever written, as well as being some of the most complex crafting games ever written, as well as being the most complex behavioral AI systems ever written," said Humble. "But the reason I think that they are so popular is that even though they're that complex, they are relatable, and you don't need a tutorial."

Making way for mods

Life by You won't have all its planned features when it releases in early access this June—Humble doesn't think its babies are quite cute enough for launch, for instance—but it's designed to be heavily customizable and moddable, which is really its ultimate expression of inclusivity. 

Aiming for total inclusivity comes with trade-offs. Life by You's characters are stylistically bland on purpose, for instance, so that modders don't have to mimic a distinct art style to add hairstyles, clothes, and accessories—a divide in The Sims modding separates "Maxis Match" and realistic "Alpha" content. Life by You's American suburban architecture will also be the target of much modding, I expect, as players add more diverse styles to the construction toolbox, and Paradox Tectonic will have to be careful that its official updates don't break the modding community's work.

Humble isn't shy about what's really likely to be the most popular mod category, either, and encourages players to explore sexuality or whatever else they want to in Life by You. So that players feel secure in their privacy, the studio has chosen not to include data collection systems in Life by You, which many other developers use to help them understand player behavior and prioritize fixes and updates.

"People around the world often use life sims to explore, for example, their sexuality," Humble told me in an interview last year. "Like, hey, how would it 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."

Life by You releases in early access on June 4—it's on Steam and the Epic Games Store. For more on Paradox Tectonic's comprehensive approach to life simulation, the developer has published a few feature deep dives on its blog and YouTube channel.  We also spoke to Humble in a little more depth about how Life by You will support modders. 

Tyler Wilde
Executive Editor

Tyler grew up in Silicon Valley during the '80s and '90s, playing games like Zork and Arkanoid on early PCs. He was later captivated by Myst, SimCity, Civilization, Command & Conquer, all the shooters they call "boomer shooters" now, and PS1 classic Bushido Blade (that's right: he had Bleem!). Tyler joined PC Gamer in 2011, and today he's focused on the site's news coverage. His hobbies include amateur boxing and adding to his 1,200-plus hours in Rocket League.