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The Sims: Project Rene interview - early access, diversity, and tools

The Sims 5 is now Project Rene - PCGamesN talks to EA’s Lyndsay Pearson and Phill Ring about what that means, the benefits of an early access launch, and pools

The Sims: Project Rene interview - a woman with a long, high ponytail in a yellow top and denim dungarees sitting at a desk

The Sims 5 development is finally underway, but the life game has a new name. The Sims: Project Rene is the working title for “the next generation Sims game and creative platform.” In our Project Rene interview, PCGamesN speaks with EA’s executive producer on The Sims, Phill Ring, and The Sims VP of franchise creative Lyndsay Pearson, about what that means for the future of the management game, how their community affects their decision-making process, and (of course) pools.

PCGamesN: First off, what makes you say it’s time for a new Sims? Why right now?

Lyndsay Pearson: As we have said before, with The Sims, there’s an endless amount of possibilities of things that we can do. There were some frontiers we’re really interested in exploring that really just makes sense for us to try and accomplish in a new way. So there’s no time like the present, I guess. It’s always a good time to start the journey. And we’re just really excited about some new innovations that we are going to be able to explore that we haven’t been able to do within The Sims 4. The Sims 4 has an incredible amount of content and stories to be told. But there’s some other things we want to play with.

Phill Ring: I think The Sims has been on an incredible journey, and as we see that the way that the community has really kind of taken to the Sims as a franchise, we see lots and lots of opportunities to continue to give that platform for people to be creative, and to tell their stories. So that’s why we really wanted to kind of change things up and talk about Project Rene as early as we have, because it’s very early in development.

We’ve got some fantastic experiences on The Sims, we’re still very much supporting The Sims 4 and we’ve got a huge number of content updates planned. But we’re starting that conversation nice and early, so that we can really have that dialogue with the community to shape what Rene could become. We love hearing people communicating their experiences and the stories they’re telling. That really inspires us.

I know the emphasis is on Project Rene being in development. Is this going to be The Sims 5? Or is this considered The Sims 5?

LP: Well, we’re definitely considering it the future of the Sims. This is the future of where the Sims is headed, the future of Sims innovation. And we’re using a working title for now, actually, to give us space to push some of those boundaries we’ve been talking about and look into areas we haven’t explored within the settings before. So using the name Project Rene gives us an opportunity to give ourselves a little freedom of what we think that could look like.

That leads into the next question: Should we expect something other than the traditional boxed release with expansion and DLC and add-ons the way we’ve come to know the Sims? Are you looking at new content models or subscriptions? There’s a bunch of different options now – are those in consideration for Project Rene?

LP: Well, you’re definitely right, that so much about the industry and the way that people play games and consume content has changed. What I will say is this, the model that has worked for The Sims, the idea of this compelling centre of contents that you add content to through packs of some sort, right, because we’ve had everything from stuff packs, to expansion packs, to kits, to stores – the Sims has tried all those things. But this idea of a foundation with content add-ons is something that has always worked for us. And we’ll definitely be looking at ways to continue to make that work for us. But it’s still quite early in our exploration. So I would say we haven’t ruled out a lot, but we haven’t settled on our final choices yet, either.

PR: I’ve been in the industry since 2006, so as we’ve seen the way that the industry is changing, it almost feels like it changes on a week by week basis. But the players and the communities, they’ve grown up – we’ve had entire generations of players whose entire life has been surrounded by being able to connect with games and connect with communities.

If you go back to a decade ago, I think game studios were basically creating what they wanted to create and hoped that the community would like it. And now we actually get to talk to our players and say, ‘Hey, what would you want to see what would be really exciting? What would help you be able to kind of have the most fun with this experience and what stories you can tell?’ And so that dialogue shift has changed.

I think if we look at things like early access titles and the way that indie game developers also connect with players, I think it’s just something that we’ll see more and more of, and I love the transparency. I felt like a decade ago we’d be working on all these different things and we just couldn’t communicate with players that we were working on them. Now we get to have a more free conversation, we get to talk to them regularly, and I think it’s something that we’re going to continue to keep on evolving so that we can have that constant dialogue.

The Sims 4 had so many different kinds of creative add-ons – the last couple of years have gone in some pretty unexpected directions that have fundamentally changed the way that you play the game. Is any of that going to carry over, or is Project Rene a fresh start?

LP: Project Rene is definitely learning from all the things we have done in the past with The Sims. So anything you’ve seen us try with The Sims 4, or even looking back at older games, are things that feed into what we’re thinking about for Project Rene. It’s an opportunity for us to take some of the best of those lessons, the best of those learnings, the things that worked or the things we never quite got to where we wanted them to be and say, ‘What would this mean in the future? How could we take that idea and push it further or refine it further?’

So I couldn’t say anything specific but there is a huge amount of conversation within the development team and across the teams of all of those lessons, all of those features we’ve explored. Different ways of thinking about a partnership or an integration – all of those conversations are put on the table of, ‘how do we make this part of the future of the franchise overall?’

Talking about continued plans for The Sims 4, do you see these games running simultaneously or concurrently with maybe some overlap? Or will Project Rene take over at some point and become the ‘de facto’ Sims game?

LP: So I’m going to answer this from a historical Lyndsay perspective: I think each generation of The Sims has had something unique that has been offered to our players. Even today, we still see players trying to figure out how to get The Sims 1 to run on their computers, which is really hard to do at this point. The Sims 3 is still something they go to regularly. So I find it very important that these games do coexist for as long as our players want them, because The Sims 4 is such an incredible experience.

No matter where we go, there is a role for that experience to exist in the future. So we definitely see a world in which they coexist. I think it’s going to be up to our audiences to tell us what they still want from The Sims 4, or from Project Rene. But I certainly see a world where you can play both of them or one of them; or decide to move over when you’re ready and play with the features Rene offers; or go back and play some content you love from The Sims 4.

With the call for the community to be part of the shaping of Rene, are you looking at an early access type deal? Or is this more like gathering community sentiment around dev diaries and snapshots and things?

LP: A little bit of everything. There is a role for community feedback groups or early access play, something that we’re definitely doing. And we’re letting people have access to the software far earlier than we would on a traditional Sims cycle. Which is really exciting to us. The reason being, we want that feedback early and often. We want to try something and then see how people play with it and decide where to go with it.

There’s this back and forth that, honestly, we’ve done with The Sims for years, where we take feedback from our players, we take feedback from our community and figure out how to integrate it into a new pack or a new update. But we really just want to push that even further and pull it earlier with Project Rene. So it will definitely be early access software as well as conversations and discussions. And who knows what else we’ll come up with?

That sounds exciting. The Sims 4 has its own long history – did the team learn specific things from the community and critical reaction to The Sims 4’s launch that you’re going to be thinking of as you move into this next phase with Rene?

LP: Yeah, I think that’s an important question. One of the biggest lessons we learned as a team going through the launch of Sims 4 was that the conversation around video games and expectations players have for games has just pretty dramatically changed over the years. There’s a certain level of expected transparency behind the scenes – as a player, I want to know what is going on and why you made the choices you made. Because I’m excited about it. Because I want to be in on it.

So it’s definitely something Rene is going to be focused on. And you’ve seen shifts in The Sims 4 over the years for exactly that reason. So that open conversation is probably one of the biggest lessons we took from launch – let’s just share what we’re doing, what the game really is going to be, what you’re going to experience, and what you’re going to see.

Obviously you’re still early in the design process for Rene, but what do you take from looking back at features that people liked from past games? How do the previous Sims games shape your decision making for Rene?

PR: Yeah – very, very much so. It’s something that we do all the time; we do it for The Sims 4 as well. What are the experiences the players are really enjoying, what are the things that they’re talking about? What are the things that they’d like to see maybe come back as a special update? And we love that dialogue. We love that passion.

Sims has been around for 22 years. So we’ve had a lot of players who have grown up, they’ve lived with The Sims for so long, that they have their favourites, they have the things that they’re really attached to. And as we’re constantly evolving The Sims 4 and looking into Rene in the future as well, we still do very much look to the past and have those conversations.

Do you have ideas about what Project Rene is going to make possible build-wise that wasn’t there before? Watching YouTube videos of some of the more talented builders in The Sims 4 is absolutely amazing. Are we going to take some of those guard rails off for players without the need for mods?

PR: I think you kind of touched on it just there where the creative tools and the kind of the potential for them can be absolutely huge. But there is that idea that, you know, bringing new players in, and particularly someone who might not have had a lot of experience in the gaming space or had a lot of experience with creation, we’re trying to find a balance so that there’s something there that they can be really excited by, and they can suddenly see the potential and they can suddenly start telling their stories and create the worlds but then also having the depth.

LP: There’s always a tension when we’re considering a tool like Build mode: how do we make it accessible and easy to create the thing that’s in your mind? That’s always a philosophy that we aim for. And as you pointed out, The Sims 4 had some restrictions or limitations, and some of those tools we’ve added over time, some of those are still limited to some of the choices we made early on.

So when we think about Build mode, or build tools in general, for Project Rene, it’s definitely a conversation of, ‘If you are intimidated by building, how do we make it really easy to jump in and make something that you imagine? Or if you are one of those amazing builders, how do we continue to give you a little more flexibility with the tools? That means exploring everything from breaking some of those manipulations, being stuck on a grid, or making things look a little bit more organic, such as stacking objects in ways we haven’t been able to do in Sims 4 before.

To actually – at the object level – be able to modify pieces of the object itself, and really get in there and customise it to the level that you want. And again, we don’t expect everyone to always do all of those things. Some people are those incredible builders who honestly do things with the tools I’m not sure we on the team even conceived of. And then there’s those who really just want to decorate their bedroom or recreate their kitchen. And we need to support that whole spectrum. So we’d like to break rules wherever we can break rules without confusing anyone. And we’d like to push boundaries on the tools as far as we can.

Something we allude to [in the presentation] is how do we let you work with a close friend to figure out that problem. Maybe your BFF is an awesome builder and you’re not, and you can figure out that problem together. They can do some of the hard stuff and you do some of the decorating stuff. Like there’s a lot of opportunities.

Give me a Sims contractor. I think that sounds pretty great.

LP: New genre!

Just showing up and fixing things. Maybe somebody might specialise in just doing really gorgeous bathrooms or something.

LP: I think you see that happening a little bit already, right? You see those players who are really, really good at layouts – who are really, really good at decor. So yeah, how can we make that like a legitimate path to come together and play?

We only got a brief glimpse at Rene but it showed off what looks like full 360 degree rotation in item creation. Is that something you’re hoping to achieve across the board?

LP: Again it kind of goes back to what we were just talking about. How do we give control to those looking for the most amount of control, and ease of access to those who just want to make their own bed or their own sofa? So yes, we’re definitely looking at how we give you as much of that flexibility within understandable space as possible.

Our staff were excited to see what looked very much like Create-a-Style from The Sims 3, helping to build custom objects from the ground up. Is that concept how you see Rene working?

PR: I’d love to say – it’s still very, very early. This is why we’re announcing as early as we have: so that we can have that dialogue, we can have those conversations. We’re looking to develop it in a slightly different way. We’ll be doing lots of revisions, doing play tests, and understanding what’s the right experience, what’s the right way that we can create something that, as mentioned, has that onboarding so the new players can come in, but something that is also still incredibly exciting for, you know, Sims players who are already here and have been there for many years.

Clearly over the past several years, there’s been a great focus into relationships and diversity in terms of gender and sexual orientation in The Sims 4. How are you hoping to expand on that as you’re starting fresh with Rene?

PR: Yeah, it’s something that’s so incredibly important to us. It’s so important to everyone on the team as well – we really want to continue to evolve it so that more players can tell the stories that are really important to them, and tell their lived experiences. What do we need to include? What other things can we do? What ways can we make it so that players can feel more connected to the Sims that they create?

Everything that we’ve learned ever since The Sims launched 22 years ago, right the way up to even today, we are constantly evolving. I’m incredibly excited by all the conversations we have with the community where players are so excited by the fact that they can create themselves, they can create their friends, they can create the world around them. And that comes from being able to actually see themselves in the experience. So we’re constantly looking to evolve – what worlds, what places, what locations, what kind of identities do we want to continue to evolve and update so that players can really feel connected?

Now one option that people have used cheats and mods for in addition to the pronouns update is to have their characters transition. Is that something that you’re looking to include in Rene?

PR: It’s something we constantly talk about, what the right implementation is for The Sims world. We’ve always wanted The Sims to be a slightly optimistic view on life. So that players can talk through their stories and see that identity take shape. And then we’re looking at ways that we can kind of incorporate that into the systems that make sense from a gameplay point of view, so that it feels like it connects within the Sims experience.

It’s an interesting thing we’re working through, particularly as we think about the changing landscape and expectations of players, as we connect into more diverse content in the world, which I think is fantastic that we’re seeing more and more across the game industry. So it’s something that we’re constantly looking at, and then just trying to figure out, ‘Okay, what’s the right way that we could implement this into a Sims product?’

It is exciting. It’s been wonderful to see this change develop its own momentum within the industry. Final question, I know that we’re running up against the edge of our time: Will there be pools in the base game?

PR: *laughs* You’ll have to wait and see, I’m afraid.

We’ll be sure to keep you up to date on all the Project Rene release date news as it happens. In the meantime, if you’re one of the new The Sims 4 players jumping into the now free PC game, be sure to check our guides to The Sims 4 cheats, what the best Sims 4 expansions are, and how to install Sims 4 custom content to further enhance your game.

Interviews conducted by Ian Boudreau.