For years, having a baby in mobile life simulation game The Sims FreePlay was nothing more than a big blue button: press it, and a baby would magically appear. According to EA associate producer Joshua Birse, players constantly begged for a more in-depth experience that captured what it’s actually like to go through a pregnancy. But every time the studio got requests, Birse says, it would shut them down by saying it was “never” going to develop the feature. In 2018, things changed.
Since its inception in the year 2000, The Sims has been one of the top-selling video game franchises in the world. “It’s the ultimate dollhouse,” says Gita Jackson, a Sims expert who is embedded in the community. (Disclaimer: Jackson is a former colleague.) “It’s a relatively taboo-free space to explore your fantasies — no matter how weird or sadistic.” As it is a digital playhouse, The Sims has always benefited from being the type of game nearly anyone can understand, even if they don’t play many games. It’s no wonder that The Sims continues to be so popular across a wide range of demographics.
Traditionally, major Sims games let you live out the minutia of a character’s life, whether that’s choosing how to decorate your house or what kind of career you’ll pursue. Families compromise a big part of the fantasy, and players love to create communities and storylines featuring characters in a variety of relationships. In turn, emulating various stages of life has proven critical to The Sims’ identity. Back in 2014, The Sims 4 drew ire for initially excluding toddlers from the game, instead only including development phases for babies and more fully grown children. Toddlers might seem like a small detail, but the fact is that players want as much real life as they can get in The Sims.
When FireMonkey Studios released FreePlay in 2011 as a spinoff, it worked differently than the main Sims games. For one, FreePlay runs in real time, and everything a sim does must be directed by the player. More crucially, FreePlay launched without classic Sims features like marriage or having children. In a different world, this might have doomed the spinoff, but around this time, the nature of mainstream games started to shift. Early games were largely considered complete upon release, but newer generations of games — released to players who were used to having internet access — let developers introduce patches, updates, and downloadable content, all of which could significantly change the overall experience. Games became more fluid, and designers became more responsive to feedback. Over time, The Sims FreePlay started to add more features to its slate, eventually allowing players to raise a family more or less how they could in the main games. But it took around seven years for FreePlay to finally add the full pregnancy experience, and doing so represents a wider shift in the game’s politics.
Before June 19th of this year, in order to have a baby in FreePlay, players had to marry their couples. Once married, an option would appear for adding a baby. If selected, after a short period of time, a baby would be added to the family, no fuss or frills. According to Birse, players always requested a pregnancy that encompassed what happens over the course of about nine months, just like the real thing. If this seems like a strange request, consider that last year, fans lobbied to get laundry added to The Sims 4, or that more recently, some of the community was up in arms over the fact that the in-game snow didn’t seem deep enough. These are finer details, and Sims fans have cared a lot and for a long time about how all the games handle pregnancy and raising a baby, as these elements influence what kind of fantasies you can spin with your characters.
For the studio, however, pregnancy was a tricky proposition. Even adding smaller features, like allowing sims to have long hair, sometimes requires a laborious rebuilding of certain portions of the game. Pregnancy, which would ostensibly deeply impact a significant portion of the game — families, which are often the core unit of many players’ games — was a tall ask. And the more players clamored for it, the more the developers worried about getting the feature right. With an existing commitment to add new content every six weeks, FireMonkey Studios found it easier to say the mechanic would never happen than to pour resources into something that might end up disappointing players.