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How The Sims 4’s Island Living team built secret mermaids and better jobs

Uncovering Island Living’s secrets

Maxis / Electronic Arts
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

The first time The Sims 4 team tested out mermaids for the game’s upcoming expansion, things immediately went haywire. The first mermaid, a “crazy fish face dude” according to the producer who created him, summoned a thunderstorm in public. The game world turned into chaotic mayhem, with Sims dying in the water, stripping naked, and descending into complete panic as a result.

In the final product, mermaids aren’t total agents of chaos anymore. Actually, Island Living aims to be a well-balanced machine that introduces a number of features to the game, such as a new world and career, and improved gameplay systems. Sulani, the new neighboorhood, has three distinct islands, a volcano, and tons of ocean-themed collectibles. The expansion pack is a solid addition to the world of The Sims 4, and it manages to achieve this by balancing a fine line between the supernatural and the mundane.

Maxis / Electronic Arts

Balancing the scales

“We were extremely cognizant of making sure that we could satisfy the players that like the realism that like being able to go to work, being able to raise their family, but also the players that love the occult,” says says producer Jill Johnson about the development of Island Living. “That’s me, I’m obsessed with mermaids. I’m obsessed with vampires. Everything! Give it to me.” She laughs.

Mermaids are one of the most popular features of Island Living, but they are lacking many of the features of their occult cousins, vampires. They don’t have talent trees or mechanics that dramatically change the way they play the game, like an inability to eat food or go out during the day. Mermaids do have powers: storm summoning, a siren’s call, and dolphin summoning ... but they’re simple and straight-forward to pick up. They’re far closer to aliens, the other existing non-human Sim type. Another big change from vampires is that they’re possible to either embrace or outright ignore.

Players can make a mermaid, turn into one by purchasing special kelp, or discover covert mermaids in the world. These mermaids among the populace have “a few fishy behaviors that give themselves away a little bit,” according to Johnson. But if players never befriend them and ask if they are a mermaid, they’ll stay undercover forever, and their Sulani will never become supernatural.

Maxis / Electronic Arts

The team accomplished the opt-in mermaid system with a mechanic they call “merwoke” households. If your household is “merwoke”, they are aware that mermaids exist, and will see them out and about around Sulani. However, a household that is not merwoke will have a much more natural, realistic experience. Sulani can contain both kinds of households; it’s not a neighborhood wide trigger. Players who are interested in only realistic Sims still get to enjoy Sulani,

The joy of the mundane

While mermaids are fancy, its some of the smaller and less obvious additions that have pleased fans of The Sims 4. A new stilted foundation for homes is a crowd pleaser, as well as a new way to handle careers. An odd job board is now in the game, allowing Sims to earn an income by helping out neighbors without having to maintain a 9 to 5 grind.

Part time jobs are also now accessible to adults, as opposed to being a teenager only job. Adults can work two part time jobs, or work part time while starting an influencer career or building up their social media. Between part time jobs, work from home careers, and the job board, Sims can set their own schedule, which of course gives them more time for adventuring and socializing.

Maxis / Electronic Arts

There’s one feature that’s notably absent from Island Living, but is commonly modded in by fans. The community has asked for story progression, a feature where Sims not in the currently controlled home will live their days out. Neighbor Sims, with story progression, will marry, have children, and pursue their own goals, even when not under player control. Johnson says the team is “definitely aware” of this request from the fanbase, but notes that she cannot comment on future development plans.

As for the current state of story progression, Johnson says that it’s tough to define what progression is, as different players have different ideas on how that could play out. The Strangerville game pack, as well as Island Living, has experiments with story progression in the world based on the player’s actions. Strangerville and Sulani both phase as the player progresses, which is “a few steps in that direction,” Johnson says. “We’ve been having a lot of fun this year with how players can impact and really change their environment and the way the game plays out.”

Sulani turned out to be a good environment for those experiments, as the people have a unique culture. Not only is the first trans Sim in a starting household in Sulani, but there are also Sulani-exclusive perks. Johnson shares that one of her favorite parts of the expansion that Sulani neighbors tend to drop by often to deliver leftovers and check in on players ... and if an unexpected fire breaks out, a neighborly fire brigade will run by to help you out.

Island Living not a game changer like Get Famous, but it shows that the team has learned lessons from Strangerville in a phasing, alive world. While some fans wish that philosophy would extend to Sims in the world, this pack has changed up a lot of the behind-the-scenes infrastructure while still adding fun toys to the sandbox.

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