Not five minutes into a recent playthrough of The Sims 4, my partner let me die. I’m a decent cook in real life, and it’s one of my favorite menial tasks in the game. But my Sim, with their funky asymmetrical pixie cut and obnoxious pastel clothing, didn’t feel the same way. On their first attempt at making macaroni and cheese, they immediately caught the kitchen on fire. Instead of running away, or whipping out their phone to call the fire department, they and my partner stood there and screamed while our cats, in bumblebee suits and sweaters, watched on. True love, huh?
Like many players of The Sims, I’ve always not-so-secretly delighted in finding creative ways to help my Sims meet their doom. This one however, was not exactly intentional. And that’s part of what’s always made the series so memorable — the strange stories we get to tell are completely out of the box and, quite frankly, sometimes a little sad.
Yet today is a day of celebration. Today, Feb. 4, 2020, The Sims turns 20.
So what exactly is the secret spice that’s kept the franchise alive for so long? Maybe it’s the stories. Maybe it’s the absurdity. Or maybe it’s just a team of developers who love what they do, some who have been with the series since its inception.
Meet the team
Michael Duke, senior producer on The Sims 4, is my tour guide at Maxis. He’s been with the studio for more than a decade, and it shows in his salt-and-pepper beard. Between the dinosaur shirt his daughter lovingly picked for him, and the giddy way he talks about The Sims as he shows off concept art and figures and the new shelves on the bright orange cover art wall, it’s easy to tell he’s a game developer.
Still, Maxis has a different feel compared to most game studios. Yes, the lights are low, and the staff is mostly huddled behind screens in their cubicles, but the energy is more relaxed. It’s also a studio drowned in color — there’s hardly an inch of white, except for in the furniture.
The Maxis studio is nestled on the third floor in a building at Electronic Arts’ headquarters in Redwood City, California, just a bit south of San Francisco. The office opens to a lounge area with couches and tables and art displaying cartoonish iterations of famed EA characters such as Commander Shepard and the Chomper plant, and tables littered with dice. Several Sims 4 posters line the walls, and the highlight is a gigantic map of the studio (with smaller ones beside it to take around the office), showing where everyone sits, as well as a very sad “You are here” marker nearly torn to bits.
Duke walks through the cubicles. Each has its own style, proudly and flamboyantly showing off each developer’s tastes. One catches my eye: Sarah Holding’s. Her desk is overflowing with Pusheen plushies, handbags, pictures, and more. Just outside of her cubicle is another Pusheen shrine of plushies and figures, and the star is a Pusheen holding a Sims Plumbob. She says her co-worker made it for her. Holding is one of many, many womxn who work at Maxis, and many of them, particularly womxn of color, are in positions of leadership — a unique trait for a studio in a male-dominated industry such as games.
On a rounded aqua-blue wall beyond the cubicles, circular stickers display the timeline of entries in the franchise. It highlights the four core games, spinoffs such as SimAnimals, and all 75-plus content packs. Duke says the goal is to eventually have enough releases to wrap around the other side of the wall.
Despite the relaxed feel, producers Stephanie Tran and Lyndsay Pearson admit that Maxis is no stranger to crunch. Both mothers, the two are open in talking about their own experiences with long hours at Maxis. Tran has been on the team for 14 years, and Pearson since the first game — she started as a QA tester nearly 18 years ago.
“I mean, [crunch is] a reality of making games,” Pearson says. “Like, it happens. […] So early, early on in my career, there was definitely a lot more crunch, but I think it just happened in the industry as a whole. We just weren’t that mature yet in understanding what it takes to make games, what it takes to go through some of the processes.”
“Do we even know now?” Tran interjects.
“We’re getting better,” Pearson says. “I do think we’re getting better. EA, at least, definitely is getting better at understanding how to plan and how to, you know, accommodate. And The Sims, in particular — we’ve been making Sims [games] for a long time now. Like, we have a pretty good idea of what we have to do, so while we absolutely have some pockets where it’s like, ‘Hey, in this particular week, we need everybody to stay and have some dinner here and work on some bugs,’ it is nothing like the horrors that people read about, right? We don’t have people here until 2 in the morning. We don’t. We don’t have people working on Saturdays. […] The whole point is, we understand you have a life and that you’re not going to do your best work if we’re keeping you here all the time.”
The studio has also run into issues with its community. While Maxis prides itself on being open and transparent through its SimGurus, who are Maxis employees, its Game Changer program — which consists of community members — hasn’t always represented the intended image of a safe, nurturing group.
Things came to a head in early 2019, when allegations that a former Game Changer was grooming and sexually harassing minors in the Sims community became public. The problem wasn’t just predatory behavior — it was also Maxis and EA’s inaction on the matter. The behavior had been brought to a SimGuru in December 2018, but it wasn’t investigated further; EA didn’t remove them from the program until March 2019, when another member of the community brought the issues back to light. Pearson, as general manager, apologized for the inaction on Twitter, but what changed at the studio?
Pearson says that EA subsequently revised the code of conduct for its Game Changers program, clarifying “what it meant to be part of these communities.” The company also overhauled its internal escalation processes, and held training sessions for public-facing employees who regularly deal with gaming communities on social media.
”I think that was all steps in the right direction, but it’s an effort that we continue to commit to,” Pearson adds. “EA has actually quite a lot of momentum behind building a healthy communities action [policy] in a number of studios, in a number of fronts, to try and continue to work on addressing the challenges that modern social media presents. That’s just the reality, and it’s shifting so quickly that we have to be able to be more reactive, and be more educated, and figure out how to continue to better ourselves to handle those situations.”
Learning the language
Historically, The Sims has been known as a safe place for players, in part because of its vaguely familiar but also completely unrecognizable language — a gibberish tongue called Simlish. And no, the language settings aren’t wrong; the people in the game are supposed to be speaking like that. Oddly enough, that’s a question producers Lakshmi Howe and Pearson get often.
“My dad personally asked me how he could switch the Sims to speak in English,” Howe says. “He was like, ‘I’m not sure I got the language settings right.’”
“It’s true,” Pearson adds. “We have seen a lot of people who think they’re speaking in something else and they just are like, ‘I want to switch it.’ And we’re like, ‘No, no. That’s for reasons. That’s on purpose. They’re talking to themselves!’”
Robi Kauker, senior audio producer at Maxis, has been with the studio for 22 years and helped create Simlish. He’s one of the original members of Maxis still on the team, and has an absurdly recognizable laugh when he gets nervous. He’s a bit reserved, but gets extremely animated when he talks about Simlish and how it was created, using his hands to, well, emote.
“Will Wright comes to us with a design problem of, ‘We want the Sims to have emotions. I want them to communicate, but they can’t talk because of repetition, [and a] lack of knowing what the players want to tell the story,’” Kauker recalls. “And we tried all sorts of things. We tried the Charlie Brown kind of musical instrument-type thing. We tried all sorts of silly, silly ones. Then we finally gave up and said, ‘OK, we’re just going to use voice.’”
It was Claire Curtain, one of the series’ original designers, who brought in improv actors and played various acting games with them. Curtain had them try Ukrainian, Navajo, nonsense, and even baby talking, and they stumbled into what Simlish kind of ended up sounding like. Over a number of weeks, Kauker and the team recorded every sound they thought the game would have — laughter, screams, grumbles, crying — and afterward, they spent a year piecing together and developing what Simlish would become.
“Things like ‘sul sul’ were never really said,” Kauker explains. “They were two different versions of ‘sul’ combined, and we made ‘sul sul’ and we took out the other things and added ‘dag dag.’ And, you know, a line like ‘grub ez fredishay’ from the original was totally [that], and it was, but it didn’t mean anything until our designers kind of gave us context and things.”
As the Sims entered the third dimension in 2004 with The Sims 2, Simlish became more complex, and its rather cutesy counterpart MySims even “reinvented” Simlish with phrases such as “yibzy.” The Sims Medieval also complicated the narrative, in the sense of: What does Simlish of the Middle Ages sound like? (Weird, apparently.)
While Simlish currently has about 120 words — or sounds, really — there isn’t a dictionary, and there probably won’t ever be one. That doesn’t mean there aren’t certain sounds that with specific meanings; it’s just that Simlish is a bit more conceptual.
“‘Nooboo’ is baby, but baby can be your child baby; it can be your girlfriend or your boyfriend or your S/O; it could be you’re acting like a baby; or, you know, baby-related — it’s a crib,” Kauker says.
“It’s really about the emotion of things. So that’s really all we’re trying to get to. […] Each line in Simlish, there are actually five variations of, or sometimes more. […] And one out of those five may contain that word, and that gives you a feeling of language, but it doesn’t have any language structure.”
Unlike languages that we use in the real world to communicate with others, such as English, Arabic, or even sign language, Simlish is meant to convey emotion. And it also doubles as a way to spark players’ imaginations.
“[Simlish is] letting you look at them and kind of make up what’s happening,” Pearson says. “It would be very difficult for us to try and fill in enough narrative to give you, the player, flexibility in what might be happening. But it’s much funnier if they just kind of speak this nonsense Simlish language and you get to be like, ‘Oh man, she’s so mad about that soup he made,’ or, ‘Oh, no, why is he upset about that thing that happened?’ rather than us trying to tell you that story.”
Something for everyone. Almost.
What does it mean to create a Sim? What does it mean to project an identity onto a virtual character? In a time where we’re focusing more on how everyone can see themselves in interactive and consumable media, how does a team like Maxis look at its representation of cultures and identities within its ever-expanding universe of life?
With a collection of hairstyles, skin tones, and clothing options that has grown over the years, inclusivity and identity are a focal point. The Sims also has a long-standing history with same-sex relationships, even though they were added back in accidentally. It wasn’t until 2009 with the release of The Sims 3 that same-sex couples could get married or “woo-hoo” with each other, however.
In 2016, in collaboration with GLAAD, Maxis eliminated gender restrictions in The Sims 4’s creation mode for all of its various customization options, and allowed players to choose masc or femme preferences, as well as the ability to become pregnant or to stand while peeing. Then, in 2019, The Sims 4 made history as the first triple-A title to feature an LGBTQ+ couple on its redesigned cover.
More recently, the team also added in updates celebrating Diwali, Day of the Dead, and Lunar New Year, as well as new clothing, decor, and other styles inspired by Caribbean, Polynesian, and Muslim cultures. One of The Sims 4’s latest expansions, Discover University, features a plus-sized black woman named Julia Wright on its cover; she is playable in-game and is also the main character of the expansion’s trailer.
That’s not to say The Sims is immune to social criticism. To this day, it lacks representation for players with disabilities — which, it can be argued, is freeing, but avoids the opportunity to include players who rarely get to see people like themselves represented in games.
Generally, though, according to team members speaking for this story, there has been a significant effort from Maxis to deliver representation for everyone, and that begins with the promotional artwork for each game and expansion.
“I think at the end of the day, when we’re focusing specifically on the topic of key art, that’s our one shot, our one opportunity to reach out and say, ‘Here’s the representation of Get Famous,’ for example, or ‘here’s the representation of Cats & Dogs,’” art director John Estes says. “But are there opportunities for us to reach out to the players themselves and say, ‘And here’s you in that,’ you know?”
Chloe Carter, a cinematics lead at Maxis, spends a lot of time working on key art. She’s the one who made the artwork for the Cats & Dogs and City Living expansions, as well as the pieces for the Parenthood, Vampires, and Jungle Adventure game packs, among others.
“I think with a game that’s so, so much about what you read into it and building your own world, it needs to be so many things to so many different people,” Carter says, “which helps us that [The Sims is] this sort of ongoing thing, because you can’t just be, ‘Oh, we’re creating this one story-based thing and we’re going to try to hit all of the diversity in that.’ We can keep adding to that and seeing where we missed in the past, building on that.”
But key art requires a special talent, because there’s such a strict limitation on how many characters can appear in it from pack to pack — and it’s a first impression. The key art for Realm of Magic featured the series’ first-ever nonbinary character, Morgyn Ember, an idea that came from Carter. She pitched it before she came out as transgender, as a way to test the waters for her own identity.
“[With] Morgyn, I really focused on, like, how they were dressed,” Carter says. “So you go in. You see like, oh, the evening wear is a little more femme. The beachwear is a little more masc. And there are some players out there that are kind of confused about that, and I’m kind of like, good. This is supposed to be a little bit challenging. So that was a chance, I think, to do a little bit of a deeper dive. It doesn’t get to be as front and center, but it’s more for the players who get in there and are going to deep-dive and be like, ‘Oh my god, this secret little thing is for me,’ you know? And that’s kind of like what I’m interested in, is hitting those people who aren’t getting that big hit of representation, who can find little bits of themselves.”
Playing with life
For as goofy and outright strange as The Sims has become over the last 20 years, it didn’t start out that way. Originally, Will Wright, the “father” of The Sims, wanted to build an architecture simulator. But in order to know if you have a good design, you have to have feedback. Wright wanted to include people, but didn’t really want them to do anything. “It was the female leads on the team that were like, ‘What if the people were interesting?’” says Pearson. And thus, the Sims, as we know them today — delightfully realistic at times and quirky altogether — were born.
That’s not quite the “special spice” that brings Maxis’ team together, though. Like the series’ inclusive player base, the team itself radiates inclusivity. And one of EA’s more recent marketing campaigns, Play With Life, centered around celebrating that within its community. It’s headed by brand marketing director Sheila Judkins, and senior producer Duke.
“I think people forget that The Sims is a really safe place to express yourself,” Judkins says, “and that is so important in the world we live in: to give people — you know, especially young, young kids who are coming up in the world and figuring out who they are — this space to build and create and explore and design, where they’re not going to be trolled. No one’s going to criticize what they build.”
Judkins is a mom in the real world, but there are no children in her game. Duke’s wife loves Pinterest and is not a gamer, but they use the game to communicate interior design ideas. Pearson loves the meditative aspects of building. Kauker enjoys the challenge and creativity of playing homeless sims.
“We get these letters from our players all the time,” Duke says. “All the time. It’s something very cool about, like, my job or Lyndsay’s job, is we actually get to see them. We usually post them. We actually have a good news Slack channel where we just kind of share cool things happening, and so we always take photos of fan letters and stuff like that, and share them with the team.”
As cheesy as it may sound, it’s the community that holds the Maxis team and the world of The Sims together. Whether it’s using the game as a tool for conceptualizing a space to show family, or escaping into this tiny world for just a few minutes, or even discovering one’s identity, the goal has always been to create a fantastical world for players to call their own. And because a large portion of The Sims’ player base is young, the whimsy is the key.
“We often find some of our youngest players are playing for a sense of control,” Duke says. “One of the toughest things about being an early teen [is] just like, ‘I don’t get to control anything, but I’m ready to be in charge of everything.’ It can be your sandbox [...] and it turns out, putting you in charge of everything in The Sims, you can learn from all those mistakes. You can learn that if you don’t sleep for four days, you do pass out, just faceplant. It’s a much safer lesson in the sandbox of The Sims than experimenting in real life.”
While so much of The Sims’ content does reflect real life, such as parenting, it’s the other additions, such as talking toilets, Murphy murder beds, and Sim-eating cowplants, that mix things up and allow for room to experiment, challenge, and maybe even give a good laugh. It’s all about creating that environment, something players can come to love and find themselves within.
“I think that was something that I really loved about the message in that campaign — [it] was just, we all have weirdnesses or things that not everyone else understands or they don’t seem quote-unquote normal,” Duke says, “but that’s what makes us all special, and it’s worth sharing that. So it’s just like, there’s no wrong way to play. There’s no wrong way to live.”