Reflecting On Maxis: A Will Wright Interview
Maxis is the company behind some of the most successful games on the PC, and Will Wright was the most recognizable face behind Maxis. From the studio’s inception in 1987 to his departure from Maxis in 2009, he was the creative mind driving development of titles like The Sims, SimCity, and Spore. I spoke to Wright for an upcoming feature (appearing in our next issue) about the 25th anniversary of Maxis, but couldn’t fit the entire interview into the magazine. These questions cover a wide range of topics, including Maxis’ history, inspirations, and the need for a developer to be the public face of a game. Keep reading to learn more about the man responsible for the ideas that turned Maxis into the biggest name in simulation.
What was Maxis’ first project?
The very first product was this vector-based flight sim multiplayer called Sky Chase…Sky Chase was some game that some guy that I never even met wrote. [Maxis co-founder] Jeff [Braun] decided to publish it basically to iron out the wrinkles, and get it into the box, get it to shelves. We sold about ten or twenty-thousand copies of it. It didn’t cost us anything to produce because we were paying royalties and he did it all on his own time. It got us used to the idea of going from soup to nuts and getting something on the shelf.
Back then, where did you see yourself at this age?
I don’t even think I looked five years ahead back then. Back then, there wasn’t a games industry. It was more of a hobbyist type of thing. People with computers were hardcore nerds, and it was a “why would you even have a computer” type thing. So I don’t really think I envisioned the fact that what we were doing would become an industry. It felt more like something fun and creative, almost more artistic. The idea that we could make money on it was kind of cool, but that wasn’t really the point. The point was that we could create these cool things on the computer. Back then, every game was sort of its own genre. All of the games coming out were sort of different from each other in some sense. So it felt like there was a lot of unexplored territory. That was kind of on the creative side. On the business side, just kind of the idea that we would be getting something on shelves across the country was kind of cool. “Wow, people would actually pay for this,” you know?
Did you have any trouble adjusting to being under the EA umbrella when that transition happened?
Not really. In some sense, it gave me more creative freedom. Prior to that, we had gone public a few years earlier. I was on the board and being on the board of a public company is a whole different thing. You have these rules about what you can and can’t say, how you have to behave and all of that. It was an interesting learning experience, just understanding what it’s like to be public and deal with analysts’ expectations and all of that. But it also drives a lot of dysfunctional decision-making I think. A lot of short-term planning versus long-term planning. Every analyst call, every quarter is a big deal, etc. When EA came in, they were still a public company, but I was so removed from that aspect of it. I was over here in Maxis’ creative sandbox and not in the center of this small public company that was struggling to survive. So I felt like I was able to get my head out of the business side a lot more and get more invested in creative.
There’s something thrilling about pursuing a new idea. When developing sequels, does the process lose its luster because the idea isn’t fresh anymore?
I think for me I have a 10-year lifespan on any franchise. I did the primary design and programming on SimCity, the original. It was me and another guy that did Sim City 2000. That was over about a 10-year period. After SimCity 2000 it was like, “Okay I’ve had enough of SimCity. I just can’t do anymore.” So I had very little to do with Sim City 3000, or anything beyond that. I would play them and give people input and my opinion and stuff, but I wasn’t really part of the teams. Same with The Sims, I spent about 10 years on the project. New people can come in, though, and they have great new creative ideas, which is great. That’s how you keep a franchise going.
Simulation games are complex – at what point do things start coming together in the development process?
Typically in my mind I would start with the data structure. What data structure is going to represent all the different elements of the game? The dynamics will play off of the user’s interactivity. For SimCity we had the geographic layers: pollution, crime, traffic. We had the surface layer of roads, buildings, and trees. In your mind you think, “Okay how would these things interact? How would I expect it to play out, what would a test pattern be?” A test pattern would be if I built a city like this, and did this to it, I would expect that to happen. We came up with 10 or 20 test patterns that we could actually design test cities around. “Let’s do runaway crime in this one, pollution should be slowly spreading that way in this one, traffic should build up here.” In our minds we would kind of think, “What would the simulation create given that test pattern?”
At what point in the process can you tell if that simulation is fun?
Well, that’s a whole different thing. There’s basically engineering the simulation, then there’s designing the game around it. Specifically we would get the simulation running first so that it felt like these test patterns were creating things that were really plausible as the dynamics were unfolding. Then you get into what restrictions we’re going to put on the player to make this fun to interact with. And also, how do we balance these things? If you have 20 elements in a game, you want to have these things roughly balanced so any one of these can become a major problem. It’s very easy to have one always be so much huger than the other ones, where the other ones don’t even matter. It’s a series of nested levels. First you’re trying to even everything out and get all of the things normalized against each other. Then you’re actually deciding how much the user affects these things. You don’t want to give them too much effect, because then they can stomp out any problem and it’s no challenge, or too little in which everything runs away and you have no input. There’s definitely a series of staged tuning passes we take on this thing. Once you tuned this inner core, you don’t touch it. Then you go back and do the next layer. If you change up the inner layer, you’ve screwed up your tuning on all of the outside layers. It’s more of an empirical, analytic process we go through in creating this thing.
When you were zeroing in on what to focus on for a simulation, what did you look for in terms of the theme? What was attractive about those things?
It was always something I was interested in. Certain ones in particular like SimAnt, I was always fascinated with ants. Actually I was at a conference last week, which is fun because I was actually on the same booth as Edward O. Wilson, who is the world’s premier ant expert. It was really fun for me to get into these subjects learn about them make a game and eventually meet the experts in these fields. Most of the Sim games that I worked on it was some particular subject that I was very fascinated with, usually had to do with the intersection of the sciences. Usually where there is some controversy or some interesting discoveries being made. Stuff that I would read and then it would drive me to, “I want to create a game about that.” To me, the game was almost an excuse to do years of research on a subject that I like.
Do you think that games make good inspiration for other games?
Well, I always try to get my inspiration from outside the game industry. I think a lot of game designers would look at other games and say, “I’m going to do a better version of Command & Conquer,” or, “I’m going to do World of Warcraft, except on the moon.” For the most part, games have been in these very specific themes. Either fantasy, sports, military combat. I think the hallmark of Maxis games, and the stuff I try to work on, is this much deeper in reality – or some aspect of reality. Where you try to take reality and turn it into a toy, as opposed to some kind of fantasy world.
Do you think that individual creators need to get more credit? Be put in the spotlight more in the gaming industry or does that undermined the team effort that goes into making these giant games?
There is always almost a guilt trip aspect – you know, the press wants some figurehead saying, “Oh, here is the creator of that game.” The fact is that this is like one person out of 80, and everybody is working equally hard. So you feel like you become kind of a marketing figurehead, but I think that’s always a balance that has to be struck in a creative industry. I think maybe book authors are the exception to that, where it really is just one person sitting in a closet for two years writing a book. But when you get into the films, games, TV, and music really it’s a large creative team effort. It has just as much to do with being able to manage a large team as it does with being creative. A lot of the times the people that manage the large teams are the ones that don’t get the credit. [Maxis senior vice president] Lucy Bradshaw has never gotten enough credit for what she does behind the scenes in terms of organizing and keeping things running. But yeah, I think that’s an issue, and not just in the industry.
Read more from Will Wright and other current and former Maxis staff members in the upcoming issue (with Grand Theft Auto V on the cover) on November 8!