Even seven years after its launch, The Sims 4 continues to be one of the biggest PC games ever made. After a bit of a rocky start, with long-time franchise fans (known affectionately as ‘Simmers’) complaining when it first released that it was smaller in scope, and with fewer features, than the previous games.
However, things have turned around, and The Sims 4 is one of the most popular entries in the series. While the team at Maxis could have ignored the fans and doubled down on its changes with The Sims 4,instead they embraced the community, and with the Game Changers initiative (opens in new tab), even got players and content creators to help add new content to the game.
To find out just how much the community has helped shape The Sims 4, and its latest DLC pack, Cottage Living, we chatted to Sims 4 Assistant Producer Morgan Henry, Tracey King, Lead Environment Artist and World Builder in Cottage Living, and UK Game Changer HeyHarrie.
A dream come true
As you can imagine, getting to work on The Sims is a lot of fun, especially when you’ve been a fan of the franchise. “It's my dream job,” Morgan Henry tells us. “I'm somebody that's played The Sims since I was a child… and it's always been one of my favorite games. So, I'm often at work like a little bit in awe that I get to work on it every day.”
Of course, with such a vibrant and dedicated community, there’s a weight of responsibility working on the franchise as well. “It's cool knowing that there's so many people out there in the world that this game affect them the way it does, or has had such an impact on them,” Henry continues. “We always love sharing those stories around the office of hearing how The Sims affects people, because you are a bit of a shared community with everyone in that way.”
While Henry, like many people at Maxis, are long-term Sims fans, Tracey King was relatively new to the game when she joined. “I grew up on SimCity,” she tells us, “and that was pretty... transformative for my life. I am an environment artist, I build worlds for a living, and that is exactly what SimCity is: building worlds. So, I could definitely say that has had an impact on my life.” Still, the expectations that comes with working on The Sims was not lost on her. “There’s so much there to learn and get to know. You have to know the community, and it's impressive and exciting and joyful. I really love working on this team.”
Care in the community
You can’t talk about The Sims without talking about its fans. Because of its global appeal – many people who may not think of themselves as gamers will pour hours into this game – and focus on creativity, throughout the years The Sims has cultivated an immensely engaged, dedicated and vocal fan community. So, how important is this community when it comes to planning new features for The Sims?
“I mean, very, very, hugely important to us!” Henry exclaims. “I think we think about the community almost every step of the way. It does impact what packs we want to make, knowing what the community is interested in and what they've been asking for.”
While a fan community that’s very vocal when changes are made to the games that they don’t like can be difficult reading for teams, if you take on board their points and work with the community to improve the game, like The Sims 4 team has, it can make for a much better game.
“One of the really nice things about it being such a long game,” Henry tells us, referring to how long The Sims 4 has now been running for, “is that you have this amount of feedback and player interaction where you can learn and discover what players are interested in.”
This level of passion has been the lifeblood of The Sims 4, and has helped inspired the team to match the expectations of the fans. “They keep it alive. It's really cool whenever you release a pack and seeing what people make with it, specifically with lots.”
Lots in The Sims are parts of the world where the bulk of the game takes place, and are where you build the homes where your Sims live. Sometimes these are empty lots for you to start from scratch, and sometimes they come with pre-built homes for your Sims to move in to.
“When the pond tool came out,” Henry continues, “we were all sharing pictures and looking to see what players have creatively imagined in ways that we never even thought [the tool] would be used in that way! Like filling the houses with water. That was crazy, but really cool to see how creative people were with what we made.”
The unique way Sims players interact with the game, the rest of the community and even the devs is what sets the game apart from others. “The Sims people make, and stories that are told… there's a lot of different ways the community and gives feedback, and they give back as well with what they're making and it inspires us, so it's just a really nice exchange.”
King agrees that the community is vital in shaping The Sims. “It informs what we include and don't include in the world building… What do we have that we can include? What can we think about making moving forward? It's always with the player in mind with everything we do.”
Moving to the country
This close relationship with the fans, especially when it comes to knowing what they’d like to see in the game, has had a big impact on the latest DLC pack for The Sims 4, Cottage Living, which brings a whole new neighbourhood, new lots, items and more, and is heavily influenced on rural countryside life.
“There had been an ask for farming for a really long time,” Henry tells us, “where players were really interested in that. And that would include a lot of types of content that might be a little bit unmanageable for a [career] path. But it got us thinking what's the heart and soul of that? And trying to really implement things players want like chickens and cows.”
As Henry points out, the things fans want may not always be viable, but by taking inspiration from their requests, the team can come up with something that works in the game and pleases the fans. “It felt like it was touching the cottage... aesthetic that's really popular. You see a lot of that with what players are creating, before the pack even came out. So, we knew that it would be something that players would like, and Cottage Living was definitely a pack that we were trying to reflect and give players what they were asking for the whole time.”
“And, as far as like choosing the location,” King adds, “we definitely try with each pack to go somewhere we haven't gone yet, specific to The Sims 4.”
So, when a new location is picked as inspiration for The Sims, do the environment artists and world builders do a lot of research?
“Most of it, I would say, is from research,” King explains about Henford-on-Bagley, the new location in Cottage Living. “I personally have been to England and Scotland, and it's just absolutely beautiful there! So, I had some personal reference to draw from, but yeah, the first part of production for world building is just pure reference gathering. So, we watched TV, looked at blogs, we Google Image searched. We also looked at other players’ builds to see what they have done. Things like that.”
Changing the game
Part of the success with The Sims is that its open ended nature has meant that the way people play the games has evolved over time. Has the changing ways Simmers play affected the overall direction of The Sims over the years?
“I think so,” says Henry. “It's one of the ways we get our feedback from players, watching how they play and seeing what is regularly streamed.”
One of the most popular new ways of playing the game are challenges. These are player-made challenges that rarely have any in-game benefit, but offer new ways to play the game. One of the most popular is the 100 Baby Challenge (opens in new tab), where players have to make a Sim (known as the ‘matriarch’) give birth to as many babies as possible in as few generations as possible.
“We're all very aware of the challenges the community has made,” Henry continues, “like the 100 Baby Challenge or legacy challenges, and we're always thinking of ways we can do things to support that, like adding the randomize button in CAS (Create a Sim) for supporting legacy challenges or small things here and there.”
As a Sims-playing streamer, HeyHarrie has seen first hand how the game has changed. “I think it's evolved so much... I started playing the game in 2000, so I didn't think that this would ever be my full time job. I just thought it was a hobby. It's probably the only game that I've had from that age all the way to the age I am now, and I can still find new ways to play it.”
Like so many gamers, HeyHarrie grew up with The Sims, and that intimate connection with the game is one of the key reasons why the community is so invested in the franchise.
“I think it's just kind of one of those ageless games that progresses no matter what stage in life you are,” she tells us. “It just always seems to progress. So, I started off doing gameplay, but now I'm predominantly into building and basically doing interior design in The Sims!”
So, what does HeyHarrie think gives The Sims this timeless appeal? “I think it's because it's so open ended. There is no real goal, and you can play it however you want. So, if you play in a certain way, and you kind of get tired of that you can always reinvent another way to play the game. So, it just keeps growing, and of course more content is added into it, so there's always going to be new ways to play the game.”
One of the ways The Sims is adding new content is through the Game Changers initiative, started up by Maxis’ parent company EA, and which gives players and creators a way to get even more involved.
“The Game Changer initiative has been really great for us, in a lot of ways,” says Henry. “They get earlier access, so we're able to get feedback from them earlier on, and it's also good for their channels, so it feels like a symbiotic relationship to me, where they're able to give us information help us inform the decisions were making, and we have that close knit relationship where we're actually able to talk to them and ask questions and learn from them.”
While Game Changers is an EA-wide initiative, Henry explains that Maxis does things differently. “I think we do something a little bit different with the lot building, where they're in the credits and actually part of the game making process… So it's a little bit different than being just a normal 'Game Changer', as they are contracted and working with us to build lots. But that's been an even closer relationship, in my experience, where they're seeing things even earlier and working with us even earlier, and that's been really fun and good to see.”
King agrees. “We try to incorporate the feedback with every activity,” she tells us, “but having Game Changers take over lot building just stepped our product up to the next level.”
Lots are arguably the most important part of the game, as it’s where you’re going to be spending most of your time as you build your Sims’ homes. It’s also the first place new players head to when they begin playing.
“Traditionally, lot building fell on world builders, and there was never enough time to do it justice,” explains King. “No one knows our game like players do, and it's almost a job within a job, and we could never do it justice. And I think that having players build these lots is... I wish we were doing it from the start! I'm glad we're doing it now at least. It gives so much more time dedicated to each lot, not just like the layouts and using build layouts and making cute houses, but knowing the way that players interact with these houses or venues, whatever they are, just bringing that insight into it. It is... oh my gosh... it's a game changer!”
“Working with the Game Changers on lot buildings has been pretty inspiring and exciting for the team,” adds Henry. “Whenever we get new lots in, and we do the review meetings where people would look them over, and people would just be 'oohing' and 'aahing' and getting excited and be like, 'oh, I can't wait to see the new lot updates whenever those come in' and waiting for new builds to see them. Which is, I feel, like a new level of excitement for seeing things going in the game, which is pretty cool.”
Usually, it’s players who get excited to see what the developers add to the game. With Game Changers, it seems like it’s also the developers getting excited about what the players add to the game, and that’s pretty awesome indeed.
“I do also think it brings the community even closer to the game itself, and the studio,” adds HeyHarrie. “Being able to see some of your favorite Simmer's builds already in the world, and the whole excitement surrounding that... I think it's just been a great addition. It helps, of course, that Game Changers can then give feedback when they're building the lots. We just build so much in the world that I think that's a great source of knowledge. And I don't think before this, the team was able to get that kind of feedback so quickly, during the process.”
“No, it always came after the pack was out,” Henry says, “and we'd be like, 'Oh, man, I wish we had thought of that!'”
The future of The Sims
In a recent EA earnings call, CEO Andrew Wilson got people’s attention when he mentioned how “Maxis continues to think about The Sims for a new generation across platforms and a cloud-enabled world, you should imagine that while we will always stay true to our inspiration, escape, creation, self-improvement motivation, that this notion of social interaction and competition – like the kind of things that were actually present in The Sims Online many years ago.”
Obviously, that got a lot of us thinking about The Sims 5, or whatever comes next. While Henry and King wouldn’t be drawn into any speculation about what that could mean, Henry explained that “As always, we're working on new expansions and game packs and stuff packs for the Sims. And Sims 4 has been a really awesome iteration of the Sims. And we're all still really excited to be working on it and seeing it grow.”
So, it still seems like The Sims 4 will be the main focus for quite a while yet. “We have this whole program that's focused around diversity, equality and inclusion,” says King, “so, you can expect to see more of that content coming starting in January.”
It seems like Game Changers will be a big part of that future as well. “We have had a lot of success with working with the Game Changers to build lots. I do know, that's something we're really interested in still exploring, and doing more of going forward,” says Henry.
“Yeah, I think the plan moving forward is to always have game changers build lots for at least expansion packs, and probably for game packs as well,” adds King.
“Well, I wouldn’t say ‘always’, just in case!” Henry points out quickly. “But it’s been really great for everyone, so we’d love to do it as much as we can.”
It certainly seems like this partnership between The Sims team and the fan community is really paying off, allowing players to help The Sims 4 become the best game it possibly can.
“Yeah, it feels like a really special thing to be able to do,” agrees Henry. “And it's exciting seeing other people be excited to get to work on it. When I try to imagine myself in their shoes, before I worked at Maxis, if I had got to build lots for The Sims, I'd have been so excited. I'm still excited when I get to work on things that actually go into the game! When I make a Sim and it goes in, I'm like 'I made that!' So it's been really cool [for Game Changers] to have that opportunity.”
- Welcome to TechRadar’s PC Gaming Week 2021, our celebration of the greatest gaming platform on Earth. Despite the global pandemic and ongoing GPU shortages, PC gaming has never been more vibrant and exciting, and throughout the week we’ll be reflecting this with a selection of in-depth articles, interviews and essential buying guides.