Just like The Sims itself, my chat with EA Maxis senior producer Michael Duke was full of silly, surprising stories.
He told me about how he used the game's customizable buildings and houses to connect with his wife over interior decorating -- something he normally finds inaccessible. I shared how seducing the Grim Reaper on senior night at a club helped me feel more stable after a major life upheaval. He offered the tale of some developers who cheekily programmed an automatically flushing toilet to sometimes obnoxiously flush while your Sim was still sitting on it. Highly relatable.
Duke says he loves swapping these kinds of stories about a series he's worked on for 13 years, starting as a gameplay engineer on The Sims 3 and sticking with the game through four expansion packs before moving to The Sims 4 team and a production track just a few years ago. Personal, emergent narratives like these are a major factor in the long life of the franchise, and the player response to them is, he says, part of what makes working on The Sims stay fun over a long period of time.
Despite what sounds like a hefty tenure, Duke says he considers himself more of a "mid-term retention" in a studio that values keeping its talent for the long haul. It's a challenging goal in an industry currently in the midst of some harsh self-reflection on issues such as crunch, toxic workplace culture, and high turnover.
And it's a goal that Duke acknowledges can be especially tricky for a studio like Maxis, which has a fanbase that likes frequent, detailed updates, and has thus far put out nearly 30 pieces of DLC content for The Sims 4. With each new piece of DLC, Duke says, the QA process especially grows more rigorous, as every new system added to the game must be tested to function with every other pre-existing system, and the likelihood of issues slipping through the cracks increases.
But Duke says Maxis has historically been keenly aware of the perils of crunch culture, and continues to do its best to combat these issues as they arise.
"Something I'm very proud of in Maxis is how much we work at trying to avoid [crunch]," he says. "It's been a value in this studio for quite a while, and in some regards I think we were pushing forward early on. I won't imply we never [crunch], but frankly it is very rare.
"What we try and set out to do is make sure we have a space where if people are passionate about something or there's something they just really want to get in, we want to have that space for them to work late one night and get it done and support that effort. We also don't want our employees to be here late every night, all week. We see that manifest in bad ways in the long run.
"We value the long tenure of employees. Those of us who are here just love being here, and our focus on quality of life and avoiding things like crunch is a big part of what makes retention possible in this studio. It's a very high priority for us."
Duke adds that there are also elements that make avoiding crunch easier for a studio like Maxis. One of those is the vocal community surrounding The Sims 4, which is quick to spot and report issues that QA might miss so that the team can fix them promptly. Another is that, after running a game like The Sims 4 for nearly five years, the team only improves at understanding the kinds of work and time commitments required for each new update, making it easier to plan ahead and manage their schedules.
"What's great about doing expansion pack after expansion pack is we can learn from the lessons," Duke says. "The first expansion pack we did was not perfect, and we had some challenges where we had to work a little more. But at this point we understand the size and the scope and the effort involved, so we're a lot better at actually building out schedules that mean our employees are always going to have their weekends and work normal work lengths. That's been super valuable to making sure the experience stays in the studio."
"When I sit down with my teams and we talk about what else we want to add to this game, we can still fill whiteboards with things we want to do"
The Sims 4 turns five in September, and though we didn't delve into specifics of what the team has planned for a hypothetical 'Sims 5" or similar, Duke's impression is that it may still be a while yet before we see a new major entry. Even though five years is the longest gap we've seen between two numbered Sims titles, Duke says he still has ideas for content they can add to keep players busy for several more years at least.
"We talk a lot about a three-year view," he says. "What are we doing over the next few years? What do we have planned? When I sit down with my design and production teams and we talk about what else we want to add to this game, we can still fill whiteboards with concepts and things we want to do. I look at that and go, 'Okay, we have plenty left to explore and add.' My technical directors are terrified when I tell them I want to build DLC for five more years. But if our audience is there and our community is asking for more, we certainly have the ideas.
"We're still drawing more players than we've ever had, year-over-year, and the game is continuing to perform and players are coming in and loving it. For us, it's exciting that we're not heading into the next iteration right now. Instead, we're talking about what we've never done, and themes no one has ever thought about. It's inspiring, from a creative standpoint."
As the namesake of an entire genre (and one that's constantly growing with new games and expansions), The Sims series encompasses a lot of what people like in simulation games broadly, which Duke identifies as the ability to experience the extraordinary within the ordinary. It's something he acknowledges is tricky to explain to people who have never played a sim game before, and might not understand the entertainment value in a game where you can, say, take out the trash. But he adds that once you've played The Sims once, you're in on the "secret."
"One of the values we take as a design and production team is 'Surprise and delight,'" he continues. "The reason you hopefully watch your Sim take out the trash is, occasionally, something you didn't expect is going to happen. And what we talk about is that the unexpected needs to happen far more regularly in our simulation than it actually occurs in real life.
"If I take my garbage out every week for the next ten years, maybe once in those ten years something interesting will happen when I get out to the garbage can -- like I'll open it and a raccoon will pop out. In the game, we need that surprise moment or story to appear more like one in every seven or ten times. That is the magic of bringing the mundane to life a little bit more.
"Our goal in this emergent design system is that even as you're doing normal, everyday things, something else goes by that turns it into a story or triggers a story moment for you that you can now build on as a player. And they're opt-in offers. If you don't want your story to be about that fire truck that went by, it passed and you don't care."
"If I take my garbage out every week, maybe once in ten years something interesting will happen. In the game, we need that surprise moment to appear one in every seven or ten times"
But key to selling the extraordinary to players, Duke says, is ensuring that at a fundamental level, players can be whoever they want to be. And The Sims has a better history than most games of allowing for that. Since the very first game, launched in 2000, The Sims has featured same-sex relationships and had a (for the time) solid range of racial diversity. It has only improved from there. The most recent iteration includes numerous appearance customization options, as well as gender identity choices broken down by clothing style, voice, physical frame, bathroom use, and pregnancy. Every one of these can be customized.
Duke is proud of how far the series has come, but is firm that Maxis and The Sims are far from done.
"Diversity and inclusion are things we care a lot about and there's always work to be done, and I feel the same way about our game," he says. "We're not there yet. But we're going to keep taking steps and I want to keep taking even more steps to be inclusive. Our goal is that every player in the world can come into this game and create themselves and create their friends and have a chance to explore their stories -- whatever that looks like -- and that story can be fantastical or mundane. We just want that place where we can all identify and find ourselves.
"I can think of lots of things we don't have covered; some are technical hurdles, some are a matter of time. One of the biggest challenges we run into as we try to do more things for diversity and inclusion is making sure we handle it in an appropriate way. I don't want to add something like it's a joke or humorous. I want to make sure we do it in a very respectful way and a very representative way.
"When we did support for non-binary gender, we had a lot of conversations with GLAAD about the right way to represent that. How do we do it in a way that feels inclusive and welcoming and not dictating our viewpoint? It's not about what we believe. It's about encompassing how our players want to tell their story.
"And it's a very hard thing. More recently, we added a bunch of Pride flags to the game, and we did a lot of research and worked with the It Gets Better Project, but when it came out our community let us know that they thought we missed the mark. We got a lot of pushback over not including a lesbian Pride flag. We thought we had done the homework, but what we heard from our community was that no, that doesn't cut it. Our lesbian players didn't feel adequately represented.
"I don't want to add [representation] like it's a joke or humorous. I want to make sure we do it in a very respectful way"
"So we moved quickly to try and add one, but what we discovered was there isn't a clear consensus on the lesbian pride flag. There's actually a lot of debate. So we found ourselves asking, 'What's the right one?' The last thing I want to do is choose one and alienate half of this audience I'm trying to make it right with. So we ended up adding three from our research that felt inclusive. And we spoke not only with our partner, but also with our internal group at EA, our employee resource groups. Our goal was to make sure no matter who you were or what your viewpoint on the subject, one of those felt right to you.
"That's how we ended up solving it, but it just demonstrates how difficult it can be to do this in a way that feels inclusive and welcoming. A lot of care goes into these, and it's the reason we can't add everything at once. And that may be part of why we don't see a lot of people doing this, because it's not easy."
Throughout our discussion, Duke is constantly looking forward -- future DLC, future games, future improvements to representation. When I ask him directly where he sees The Sims (which is getting on 20 years as a franchise) in another decade, he cheerfully and immediately replies, "A billion players!"
Though it seems like an obvious response for anyone creating a lasting IP like The Sims, Duke's reason for that desire is more heartfelt.
"Frankly, I think everyone's life would be better if they had the opportunity to spend some time in The Sims," he says. "It's a special place, and I think you learn something about who you are and a lot about other people and other stories. And as we keep working to be better at diversity and inclusion and more representative of the whole world, I think it becomes a more powerful thing for us to have an understanding of who else is out there in the world and their stories. I want that. I want to see us grow the reach and spread the joy to more people.
"I want to put my effort into something that puts joy into the world. And when I look at this product and what we do and the way it influences people's lives, it makes people happy. Putting effort into something that creates that impact is really rewarding. So when we hear from our players about the time it helped them in a tough spot in high school, or a time they felt bullied in middle school and played it out and it gave them the strength to deal with that issue or love themselves, those sorts of stories make it feel like we make more than a game. We make something that has a bigger impact than just a moment in time of entertainment. That drives all of us."