Life by You is a reality show you can play

By Colin Campbell, contributor

Life by You is "the biggest life-sim ever made," according to game director Rod Humble. It's designed as a modern-day fantasy where players can be whomever they wish, in a world of their own making.

Coming to the Epic Games Store on June 4 in Early Access, Life by You is best compared to a famous franchise Humble worked on for many years: The Sims. Humble headed up The Sims in the early '00s, when The Sims 2 was one of the biggest games in the world. He was still in charge when The Sims 3—another global smash—first released in 2009.

Humble, along with the rest of the development team at Paradox Tectonic, prefer to think in terms of how Life by You differentiates itself from its august life-sim predecessors. Paradox Tectonic says Life by You is more open than previous life-sims, with more freedom of movement and a greater range of activities. It also looks less cartoony than previous life-sims. Its characters speak to one another in real text-language, and not in expressionist hieroglyphs or gobbledygook.

Perhaps crucially, Life by You is also extremely moddable. Players are invited to amend the game any way they please, wielding the same suite of tools Paradox Tectonic is using to build the game. The central premise is that you, the player, should be free to build your own digital life, populated with the people, stories, conversations, quests, and goals that you choose.
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Life by You is a game about personality, society, and interacting with other people. It's an alternative reality playpen where you spend your days surrounded by whatever and whomever you wish, engaging in myriad fun activities. It's also firmly a singleplayer game. No one else gets to watch, or to judge—unless you want them to, via streams.

"I've always found the idea of players being able to tell their stories through free interactions—rather than a fixed linear narrative—really fascinating," says Humble, whose other previous experiences include a stint running digital social space Second Life, as well as working as a developer on numerous games known for their social facets, including the fondly remembered MMORPG EverQuest.

"For me, life-sims address the most relatable subject there is: regular, modern life," he adds. "We're all experts at that. If you think about most art forms, they are good at addressing real life and all its challenges in great depth. Life-sims give us a license to do the same. That is more powerful when you broaden the canvas so that players are making their own art within the game, by telling their own stories."

He says Life by You is "the biggest game I've ever worked on" and is grateful to Swedish publisher Paradox Interactive (best known for grand strategy simulations like Crusader Kings and Stellaris) for being "willing to fund a project that has great ambitions."

Humble began work on the game six years ago. "I saw that the technology had moved on to a point where it was genuinely possible to do a real open world life-sim at scale," he says. "That was the central pillar—to make the most fully featured life-sim ever made."

How Life by You plays

So how does Life by You play? And is it accessible to people who've never before tried a life-sim?

When you begin, you select your world from a selection of defaults, including one that Humble compares to an "Olympic village, where you'll find all of the skin tones in the world, and where everyone is pan[sexual], so everyone is potentially into everyone". (All defaults can be changed according to player preferences.)
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After selecting your world, you then access the character creator, where you can make yourself into anything you like. Humble says that people often click on a random generator until they get something that looks a bit like an idealized 20-something version of themselves.

You can also decide what kind of job you're happy with—or no job at all, which means you get at least a basic minimum income. Jobs might seem like a boring way to spend your game-time, but they open up social possibilities, potentially funny scenarios (you can behave pretty badly before you get fired), and progression challenges.

Or players can simply choose to be rich, and go shopping for their ideal house, cars, fashions, and so on. "When you've paid to play the game, you should be able to play it as you like," says Humble. "If you want to drive the fast cars right away, then you should be able to do that."

But owning nice stuff isn't really the point of the game. Humble's experience with life-sims means he understands that a lot of players just want to build and to create. A "Build" tool and ample resources are available right away for those who like to create ideal homes, with lovely internal decor and lush gardens.

Although there's a lot of complexity built into Life by You, it's designed to be played by anyone. "If you don't change any of the defaults, it's literally three clicks and you're playing," says Humble. "We wanted to make sure that you can start as quickly as possible. You have your starter house. Your neighbors come round and say hi. You get your first quest right away."
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Stories and quests give the game structure and concrete rewards, but they are not mandatory. "Some players are achievers who are looking for crunchy gameplay—earning stuff and making their stats go up. We've made sure that there's lots of things to explore, so achievers get the challenges and experiences that they want."

Life by You features Tamagotchi-like gameplay features, like making sure your character is fed, rested, washed, and entertained sufficiently to continue with the business of living. This is a simple matter of taking care of business during quieter moments, such as evenings. Players can catch up with friends or local gossip through social media apps and direct messaging.

Many life-sims make use of fake facades and "rabbit holes" for internal locations, interrupting gameplay with loading scenes. In Life by You, all the locations that the player sees are immediately explorable, populated, and an integrated part of the world.

Players are free to explore the game's open world at will, going and doing whatever they please—whether that's cooking or gardening or crafting or working-out or socializing or taking a stroll or going for a drive or simply bumping into other people. Players can also jump into the skins of the characters they encounter and spend some time in their shoes.

Having a nice—or not so nice—conversation with others is central to the game's emergent story-telling. While self-exploration is the psychological hook for Life by You, a lot of the game is about other people. As in real life, we define ourselves and we establish our personhood through our interactions with others.

Making happy memories

Life by You's senior designer Hannah Culver is some years younger than Humble so, unlike her boss, her earliest experiences of life-sims didn't come from working in development studios, but from playing and sharing with her middle-school friends.

"Like a lot of kids, I was into life simulation games," she recalls. "In middle school, I was obsessed with The Sims. We were all into making ourselves and our friends [inside the game] and then doing fun things. So I have a lot of fondness for the genre."
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Prior to Life by You, Culver worked in the mobile games sector. She doesn't miss the monetize-first design imperatives of mobile development. "I'm excited to be working in the PC space, and putting all my energy into just making it fun. Since The Sims was one of the first games that I really got into as a kid, it feels like my career's coming full circle, which is nice."

She adds, "The memories that stick out to me are the ones that I want to make sure that people can enjoy from our game—the ability to create themselves and create the people closest to them and play out fun things in their lives. I want to make sure that people who play our game can have those same kinds of fond memories."

In addition to life-sims, Culver says she's into other simulations, like Crusader Kings, where players are encouraged to explore themselves in fantasy situations, such as running a medieval empire. Life by You entails a similar exploration of the self, albeit in a modern world populated by yoga instructors, baristas, automobile dealerships, and office workers.

"Being a slightly different version of who you are is part of the appeal," she says. "When you're an adult, it's important to keep an imaginative part of yourself alive. More and more, we see adults happy to play games and explore themselves, through fantasies like Dungeons & Dragons. Putting yourself in new situations and imagining yourself as someone else is something we shouldn't lose just because we're not children any more. "

One of the central design principles of Life by You is a recognition that, although the desire for fantasy and experimentation is universal, life-sim players often want different things from their play. Some enjoy creating a digital version of themselves and their surroundings, and tweaking the world slightly, to make it more fun, or more funny. Others enjoy the challenge of climbing a career ladder and kitting out a home according to their own tastes. Plenty of people enjoy creative challenges.
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Some—which Culver describes as "chaotic player types," and with whom she identifies—just like to "see what happens when we push things as far as they'll go." In a way, it's like a madcap interactive reality show, with you as the main character.

She adds: "When we show the game in trailers and presentations, I sometimes don't know that we're giving a complete idea of the sense of surprise you get when you play. It's designed to be emergent, surprising, and unpredictable. My favorite moments are when things really go badly when characters are having conversations, but that's something that players can only fully experience when they're playing."

People and places

Art director Richard Khoo also came from a background in mobile games, where he often worked alone or in small teams, iterating on new games. He jumped at the chance to work on a big PC project. For a long time, he was still the only artist on the team. "I've worked at a lot of startups, so I'm really familiar with trying to build something from the ground up," he says.

Even now, as the game approaches its Early Access release, the team-size is only a handful of people. "We like to stay pretty agile," he says. "That way, we can experiment, and play with things, making sure that we're creating something that our audience wants. It allows us to be focused on the things that really matter."
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When Khoo began on Life by You, he and the team knew roughly what they wanted, in terms of art direction. "We wanted to differentiate ourselves," he explains. "I wanted to find a good balance between something that is not too cartoony and not too realistic."

"A lot of the life-sims feel to me like they skew really young," Khoo continues. "The art and the way the characters move and the way they interact is very cartoony and exaggerated. We feel like a lot of our audience grew up playing The Sims, but now they've grown older, and they want something that is not too cartoony, and that feels like it's grown up with them."

Part of the challenge has been creating a world that features plenty of locations, but isn't so large that the player feels lost or alone. The first iteration of Life by You's world is a coastal town, with districts dedicated to residential, retail, business, and leisure. Players can explore open areas like parks, a large beach, and a mountainous out-of-town area where they can place more houses. The world is currently about the size of a small seaside resort town, though extensions are likely at a later date.

"It's very casual, friendly, and scenic," he says. "You can hang out in a beach community, you can watch the sunset or the sunrise, and enjoy vista shots. It's the kind of world where people like to spend their time."

Khoo's biggest challenge was getting the characters right, most especially their clothes. "The character customization feature is really robust, but it was technically pretty difficult," says Khoo.
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"For example, the system allows the players to really express themselves through their clothing and through fashion," he continues. "We put a lot of effort into making sure you can wear a bunch of layers like you would in real life—shirt, jacket, scarf, purse, and so on—but getting them all to work together wasn't easy, and then you have issues like, do you want to wear your shirt out, or tucked into your pants? We wanted to make sure the player can express themselves through fashion, but it was technically difficult."

Animating the game's characters as they go about their lives and interact with other players has also posed challenges. Many life-sims make use of emotes and icons to denote emotions, but Life by You uses body language and facial expressions that partners with the conversation text.

"When the player is in a certain situation, we want it to feel natural, instead of a canned response. We're always adding and layering more emotions that make the situations feel real to the player."

The characters' emotional responses must also scan with the conversations they're having, which brings us to Life by You's language engine.

The art of conversation

As a genre, life-sims have generally avoided real-language conversations. Language that isn't strictly scripted—even in slightly variable dialog trees—is notoriously difficult to incorporate into emergent games, leading to annoying repetition, as demonstrated in the "barks" of traditional NPCs, apparently unable to voice more than a few rudimentary thoughts and reactions over and over again.

Famously, The Sims' creator Will Wright tackled the problem by creating a special language, called Simlish, which is a mixture of basic phrases, visual emotes, and vocal cues suggesting human emotions. This ingenious solution has worked well for decades, but was always a substitute for the satisfying complexity of real language.
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Life by You makes use of a text-language engine that allows players to enjoy dialog trees with other characters. These are presented as standard multiple-option choices for players, with percentage chances of outcomes shown as helpful guides. If you are flirting with your neighbor, you are more likely to choose a slick compliment than, say, a snarky insult. The dialog tree adjusts accordingly, as do gauges that measure the players relationships with others. If you're seeking friendship, but not romance, you seek out the best responses and conversational cues.

These options, and their outcomes, are informed by a matrix of individual character traits. So, if your neighbor is a suspicious, paranoid type, then the likelihood of a happy ending diminishes. Of course, your character also has their own traits, which you choose at the start of the game. Ideally, these traits are harmonious—it makes no sense to be both shy and outgoing, for example.

Crucially, players can modify in-game conversations and outcome-odds as they please. If you would like all other characters to find your repartee utterly irresistible, you can make that change. Or you can edit in-game dialog to suit your preferred way of speaking. If you want everyone in your game to speak like, say, hippies from the 1960s or cowhands from the 1860s, you can make those edits.
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Players can also create conversations wholesale, which they can either enjoy privately or share with others. Dialog is the cornerstone of most stories, most of the time, so in Life by You conversation modding becomes story-telling, and writing dialog becomes game development. Players can create entire stories based around character interactions.

Scripts can be amended to feature individuals' names or their character traits. For example, a character with a "messy" trait can be scripted to react to a dialog about an unmade bed very differently than a character with a "neat" trait.

"When we began working on Life by You, we didn't have language as part of the design," recalls Humble. "The team suggested a language editor, and the reason I hesitated was because real language is the vehicle of so much human emotion and how we're wired as humans. It's like that Wittgenstein idea about how language sets the limits of our world—if we can't name an emotion, can we feel it? I'm not sure if that's true, but it demonstrates the complexity of the problem."

"Our senior software engineer Ted Hung built a language engine, and when I saw it in action, my character talking to another character, I knew there was no going back," Humble continues. "We studied a lot of games that rely on conversations—visual novels, interactive fiction—trying to find the best systems that people can feel comfortable using. The chance to create branching, dynamic conversations is magical to me. And letting the players speak, to tell their own stories through dialog, is so important."
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Humble says the language engine is designed to affect the wider in-game world. "Language ties into our gossip system," Humble suggests as an example. "So when people say or do things, how does that piece of information spread around the world? If you see a colleague show up late for work, you might post to the in-game social media app, or you might mention it to a coworker, who tells the boss—and there might be consequences. That's easy for people to understand, and we naturally understand that information spreads and has consequences."

"Conversations can change the metaphysical state of each agent [character] involved in a conversation," he continues. "Knowledge can change as well, which is how gossip often works. It's an emergent system and of course, as in real life, sometimes it goes spectacularly wrong, which is the point and a lot of fun. Developing life-sims is about putting in the ingredients and seeing what comes out, and sometimes it's like, ‘Wow, everyone I know [in-game] is in the pub, collapsed on the floor at 2 AM,’ and that's the unexpected consequence of something someone said earlier."

Modding world

Allowing players the freedom to modify their game as much as they please was always central to Life by You's design plan. "Modding is a fundamental pillar," says Humble. "We need to be able to allow players to mod seamlessly, to be able to change and add extra depth to the gameplay."

"It's called Life by You because we want players to feel that freedom, but also not to feel the pressure of a blank canvas. It's not just a set of tools with no content. It's also the most fully featured life-sim ever made, right out of the box," he continues. "And you can say, that's great, but here's how my canvas is going to look. I'm going to change it in all these ways that are personal to me."

Mods can take the form of simple alterations to artifacts already in Life by You, like changing the color of a pullover, or the layout of a house. Or modders can use the game's building tools to piece together new iterations of in-game items. The most ambitious modders can create pretty much anything from scratch, and place it in the game.

Humble says there will be a mods site through which modders can share their creations. They are also free to share via third party portals, and to charge for their work.

"I think it's really important for modders to know that Life by You is about doing what you like, without our permission," he adds. "If we empower thousands of people to make a livelihood using our creativity tools and selling their work via Patreon or another service, or they are streamers, I think that that's a great thing, More power to them. It's a win-win."
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"The game comes with the tools that we use to make the gameplay," he continues. "You'll see exactly how we made all of the gameplay, how the skills level up, how the quests work, how the event system works, how the conversations work, where you encounter people, how the crafting system works, how the cooking system works. You can change it all into whatever you want. This is what makes the game inclusive. It's your world."

Culver adds that players shouldn't feel intimidated by using the same tools as professional game developers. "I think there's a perception that you have to be super good at programming before you can start doing these things. But it's designed to be really open and inviting for people to use. I used to teach children basic game design, and so I know the satisfaction that comes from putting a part of yourself into a game, and telling your own stories, and I'm really interested in what creative things players and modders make."

Many players will choose to keep their mods and personal gameplay preferences private. Doubtless, some will want to play in their own worlds that others might find offensive. But even in the public arena of shared mods, Humble says he's determined to avoid any kind of central censorship, no matter what gets out there.
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"If you make it, then you own it. We don't have any rights to your creations, and that includes the things that you stream. You're not going to get a DMCA [copyright complaint] from us. We view ourselves as similar to a paint program or a word processor. It would be unthinkable for the companies that make those products to dictate and police how they're used."

"I'm extremely concerned about corporate censorship getting in the way of game players, of imposing our values as game creators onto people who are paying good money for a game. It's not our place," Humble adds. "With that said, we will be using our Early Access period to identify our community-moderation needs and understand where we can plug in to ensure an inclusive and safe community for everyone."

No doubt, unpleasant content will emerge alongside brilliant life-affirming mods. But for the core game, Humble and the team say they are focused on creating a place that feels safe and embraces inclusion, as demonstrated by its multiracial, pansexual default.

A company spokesperson said that the developers have been working with various advocacy groups to take advice on portrayals. "We will be continuing to work with these advocacy groups, as well as creators that are often not considered in the gaming space, for their opinions," said the spokesperson.

Own world

Humble believes Life by You is a game that anyone should be able to enjoy. "You can create your own world, and you can populate an entire town with anyone you want. And then you can create any version of yourself and you can go into your world. You can decide to have everyone fall madly in love with you, or you can live in a world where everyone is a different age from you, or everyone is X or Y sexuality."
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The developers are adamant that Life by You gives players a sense of being inside their own private fantasy, without concern for anyone else. "I very strongly wanted this to be not only a singleplayer game, but also one that you can play offline," says Humble. "A lot of people use life-sims for personal exploration. They might be telling a story that helps them explore their sexuality for the first time, or experimenting with the idea of raising a family, or being married, or being a different gender."

"This is my world and I can do what I want with it—I believe that is appealing to players. It's certainly appealing to me, which is why I wanted to make this game."

Life by You releases on the Epic Games Store in Early Access on June 4.