Life by You is challenging The Sims 4 by tempting its modders
Paradox designed its game using the same in-game tools that players will have access to, making its open world even more accessible.
For years, Sims 4 superfans have grudgingly spent hundreds of dollars on expansions, packs, and kits — or subscribed to the Patreons of modders that add new Sims 4 features and designs — trying to make it a little more "real." No proper life sim has emerged to supplant it, and fans suspect the upcoming Sims 5 will strip back down to a bare-bones experience that needs more DLC to complete it.
With its rather basic name and simple graphics, Life by You may not strike you as that long-awaited Sims challenger. But it has the sim-gaming community buzzing because when it arrives in Early Access on September 12, it will already be more of a "complete" experience with no core features held back — and the promise of mods making it even better.
At GDC 2023, I spoke to Rod Humble, former executive for The Sims 2 & 3 and the current General Manager for Life by You, seeing some behind-the-scenes footage of the game. Paradox Interactive almost certainly has its own DLC plans, if it follows in Cities: Skylines' footsteps; but in my mind, the game's success or failure will hinge on whether the Sims' modding community buys in.
So far, Paradox appears to have made it quite tempting in that regard, but does it have the chops to compete with the best PC sim games?
The concept of the game is straightfoward enough: You enter a coastal town and inhabit a person as they complete life- or job-related quests. At any time, you can switch from one household member to the next, even if they're across the map. There's no "rabbit-holing," as in the Sims 4 tendency to only occupy one location (home, work, school, or vacation) at a time.
You can even jump into some random passersby's life and start making decisions, or jump forward time a decade and see how people's lives have progressed without you. According to Humble, that real-time progression was the most difficult feature to implement, which is why Paradox recommends your PC has 16GB of RAM and a GeForce RTX 2060 or higher: you need some real power to run Life by You.
Add in a robust character and architectural creator, and the appeal to Sims fans is obvious. But Humble also showed me the fully-editable backend files that players can access, from changing the look of a default object like coffee to adding custom actions to an objects like using a tree as a bathroom.
I asked Humble about the limits of this moddability, if you could (for example) add a "throw a table" option, and he explained that in-game physics is something they've attempted but haven't implemented just yet (except for an "exploding house" gimmick, apparently). But if you're not moving an object, the only limitation for adding actions would be your animation skills.
You'll also have the option to add more conversational options or edit existing ones, which can come in useful if you want to implement a regional dialect different from the stock game options — or even add a new language entirely. How? By accessing the exact same dialogue creation tool that the devs used to code the default conversations.
That's a common theme with all these modding options: no difference between Paradox's capabilities and the player's capabilities, except that everything defaults to Paradox's code if you reset everything.
Since it's an in-vogue topic right now, I asked about ChatGPT, and Humble explained that while Paradox writers wrote everything themselves, they've looked into the AI and know that it could generate tons of on-topic dialogue for each category like flirting or casual conversation. And players can add all those lines to the game with a simple file upload.
You can even change Life by You's base configuration file, changing your population's racial demographics, percentages of sexual orientation, and so on. Since I've been enjoying The Last of Us recently, I asked if I could reduce the person count for a post-apocalyptic feel, and Humble laughed, saying his kid had asked that too. The answer was yes, you can make your city nearly people-less (or crowd it to bursting), but the game UI relies on a smartphone, which limits any possible dystopian immersion a bit.
The Sims has largely adopted an American suburban feel, with DLC adding city life and some exotic locales. In Life by You, Humble says, they tried to create a coastal city that you could find "anywhere," which could make it less alienating for international gamers trying to recreate their hometown feel.
In other words, modding and shared designs for people, homes, dialogue, and other elements will make or break Life by You's realism. So I brought up a serious pain point with modding in The Sims 4: every DLC or game update tends to make mods incompatible, meaning players have to either uninstall every mod or wait for their creators to patch them before enjoying the experience.
Humble admitted that gamers should expect mod issues during early access as they fix unforeseen bugs, which seems reasonable enough. But he also told me that once version 1.0 ships, they intend to only ever add to existing code rather than modify it. Any mods designed to work with the core systems shouldn't be invalidated by whatever new features come later.
If I had the time or skills to mod games, and didn't have to worry about adapting my code after every update, I'd find swapping from The Sims to Life by You pretty darn appealing! But modding is about more than the tools; it's also about whether players will pay for your hard work, and that depends on how many people find its all-encompassing gameplay compelling and adopt it.
I unfortunately didn't get a chance to play Life by You at GDC 2023, so I can't say for certain how well any of this will work in practice. But the only other Sims-like game I know of in development is Paralives, which looks promising but is in its fifth year of development with no end in sight. Life by You has an uphill battle to win away Sim fans, but those fans will appreciate the breath of fresh air.
You can pre-order Life by You on Epic Games for $39.99 and receive a few pre-order perks: a Jumpstart Fashion Pack, Walls to Floors Decor Pack, and a Vintage Scooter. You can also wishlist it on Steam.
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Michael is the Senior Editor of VR and fitness tech at sister-site Android Central, but happily lends his help to the Windows Central team for games coverage.