25 Years of Maxis – Living the Simulated Dream

by Joe Juba on Mar 04, 2015 at 11:00 AM

Author's Note: This article originally appeared in issue 236 of Game Informer. With the news of Maxis closing its doors in Emeryville, we wanted to post the feature to give you a look at happier days at the legendary studio. I conducted these interviews in September 2012 – prior to the release of SimCity and The Sims 4 – to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Maxis. Though recent developments may be missing from the conversation, I left the studio impressed by the dedication, passion, and creativity of the staff. Even if the Maxis brand persists in some altered form, the Emeryville location was the core of the studio, and I'm sad to see it go.

The year 1987 is a pivotal one in gaming history, introducing iconic series like Mega Man, Metal Gear, and Final Fantasy. Though shooting robots and fighting wizards were the most prominent gameplay moments from that year, a new type of experience was taking shape at the newly formed Maxis Software – a small studio in Moraga, California formed by Will Wright and Jeff Braun to publish SimCity. In the gaming landscape of 1987, a simulation about urban planning was risky, but Braun and Wright hoped that it would find an audience.

After 25 years, Maxis is a different organization in many ways. It has grown into a multi-studio developer, survived a corporate buyout, released a high-profile disappointment, and built the best-selling PC series of all time. Despite these changes, the core of Maxis has remained intact over time; its focus on fun, accessible, and creative content lets players’ imaginations run wild. The studio’s ability to retain this identity over time is due in large part to the passion of its dedicated staff, many of whom have been at Maxis long enough to witness a wide array of its stumbles and triumphs. 

These are the stories from those people about the ups, downs, and quirks that come with building and maintaining one of the most respected studios in the industry – and the games that make Maxis famous. 

Contributors and their positions (as of September 2012)

Ben Bell
executive producer, The Sims Studio

Lucy Bradshaw
senior vice president, Maxis

Kip Katsarelis
lead producer, SimCity

Charles London
creative director, The Sims Studio

Ocean Quigley
creative director, SimCity

Robi Kauker
audio director, The Sims Studio

Lyndsay Pearson
producer, The Sims Studio

Christian Stratton
UX director, SimCity

Will Wright
CEO, Stupid Fun Club

Chris Hecker
developer, SpyParty

Rod Humble
CEO, Linden Labs

Alex Hutchinson

creative director, Assassin’s Creed III

Maxis has it roots in a pizza party, where co-founders Jeff Braun and Will Wright first met. At that point, the “game industry” was hardly an industry at all; computers were not widespread, and creating games was largely a hobbyist pursuit. 

Will Wright: I met Jeff at that pizza party and I had shown him an early version of SimCity. Jeff at the time had a small company making font software for the media. But he was really into games. He didn’t give a s--- about fonts, but he loved games. He saw SimCity and he just got really excited about it and said, “Let’s do a game company together.” We started talking about it more, and he ended up selling his font company. He had some money from that, and I had some money from royalties on a previous game, and it just kind of went from there.

Lucy Bradshaw: I don’t think Will, of his own impetus, would have formed Maxis the way that it was. There are those people in life that, together, they can take something further than otherwise would be possible alone. I think Jeff has that ability to make other people even better than they are. Both of them together were a fascinating combination.

Ocean Quigley: My first impression of Jeff was, first and foremost, he’s a businessman. He was the guy who was setting the top-level objectives for the company. 

Wright: I think I was more in the creative space, Jeff was in the business space, which worked out well. Jeff has a passion for growing a company and running a business, and I had more of a passion for creating a product. I think my perspective was more, “How far we could take this stuff on the computer? What can we do that’s cool?”

When it officially released in 1989, SimCity won acclaim and awards. Though it sold well, the extent of the game’s success didn’t completely sink in at Maxis.

Wright: I think the first time I really kind of realized that was when Time or Newsweek did a full-page review of SimCity, and it was the first time they had ever reviewed a computer game…. At the time, all of the games were kind of fantasy-based or combat. There weren’t any quality games in the strategy realm. There were a few turn-based games like Dissonance or the old Avalon Hill stuff. But none of it felt like it was contemporary, real-time, and accessible to a lot of people.

The SimCity series earned many fans with this approach – some of whom got surprisingly invested. 

Wright: We got letters from all sorts of people. It was funny, we got one from the mayor of Portland saying, “Oh god I wish Portland was this easy to run. I have so much power in this game, but I don’t have that power in Portland.” There was also this kid in New Hampshire who lived in this small town and there was this mayoral race happening. And the kid invited each of the five candidates over to his house to play SimCity and he wrote an article for the local paper talking about their approaches to SimCity. It was wonderfully written, maybe a 10- or 12-year-old kid. It was one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen. 

Bradshaw: We get the purists. They will point out if we’ve missed a number. We strive for integrity, and we strive for consistency in our integrity. It is a game. It needs to be playable and it needs to be understandable. So we strive for that, and yet, we also strive to make it behave consistently within that construct.

Quigley: The actual urban planners, I think, like it a lot because it takes the thing they have to stress about and turns it into a game. People who aren’t city planners know it’s a game, and people who are city planners are just tickled that somebody’s making anything that relates to their profession.

The broad range of fans helped turn SimCity into an enduring franchise, but the team felt the pressure with each iteration to provide something new.

Kip Katsarelis: There’s definitely a challenge in not just repeating what’s been done, but capturing the essence of – for SimCity – that puzzle solving and that challenge and that pushback you get from the simulation.

Christian Stratton: We’ve explored ideas that bridge between The Sims and SimCity. We explored the idea of games that brought the camera in closer. It was a natural thing, and people had been asking for it. We did explore it, and often what happened is we came away thinking, “Well, we just don’t really have the right game here.” So we’d just drop it once we felt confident in that assessment.

Bradshaw: I came on board to lead SimCity 3000. It had moved to being 3D, but it wasn’t at a time when computer processing could ultimately tackle such a thing. 

Quigley: My favorite game that we’ve done so far is SimCity 4. Because of that hobby, model railroad quality to it. When I was a kid, I’d build cities out of blocks and go down the stream and carve out a landscape for houses. Of the games we’ve shipped so far, SimCity 4 is the game that scratches that itch for me the best.

Maxis released other well-received simulations like SimAnt and SimTower, but the mid-‘90s produced a glut of other Sim-something games that weren’t met with the same enthusiasm.

Alex Hutchinson: I think that studios are always growing and changing, and that they have natural life cycles with peaks and valleys. People forget that before The Sims went large, the studio wasn’t in the best space.

Quigley: Maxis had decided that they wanted to become like Electronic Arts and be a publisher, and bring in lots of stuff. Will, at that point, had gone off to work on The Sims – his little skunkworks project. The sharp, core efforts of the studio had gotten diffused across a bunch of projects that Will wasn’t paying much attention to.

Wright: There was actually a thing that was going on, not just with us, but with a lot of the medium-sized studios. Just the way business worked back then, we had our own sales force, and we were trying to sell to international markets. Before EA bought us, we were about 40 to 50 people at Maxis. A surprising number of those people were just on the marketing side, which is almost like this monster you had to feed. They need a number of products from you. So we were driven to actually produce more and more titles, and we were talking to a lot of outside developers [about] doing other Sim titles.

Even with the success of SimCity 4, Maxis went with an outside developer, Tilted Mill Entertainment, for the next entry. SimCity Societies, released in 2007, got a harsh reception from critics and fans.

Bradshaw: Part of the reason it went the direction that it did, in terms of how it was received by SimCity players, is that it didn’t have the kind of interaction and simulation level…. It was a fine game in and of itself, but for that SimCity player, it didn’t meet the expectations for that level of it.

Wright: I didn’t have anything to do with that decision. Honestly, I didn’t even play Societies. I read some of the reviews of it, though.

The pressure to create multiple simulation products led to financial trouble for Maxis, causing Wright and Braun to seek a buyer for the company. In 1997, Electronic Arts completed its acquisition of Maxis.

Wright: There were three prospective buyers that we were having negotiations with: Activision, Infogrames, and EA. Each had its pros and cons and we met with the leaders of each. There was something about the vibe from the EA people, though, that just felt much more comfortable. In retrospect, looking at all of the factors, I think we definitely made the right choice. Infogrames really wanted to have a U.S. presence and we would become, basically, their U.S. publisher. That would have been a totally different direction for us. Activision, I won’t even go into that.

Chris Hecker: Everyone was like, “Oh, EA! I’m sure they’re going to ruin Maxis!” To Will’s credit – and EA’s credit – Will always defended them and said, “No, actually. We were going to kill the Sims and EA came in and was like, ‘No, this is great!’” The people who came from EA, Will said, were always incredibly supportive, and saved the Sims in some sense. It’s basically the exact opposite of the conventional wisdom of what EA did to companies.

Wright: I think we were bought by EA at a good time in EA’s history. EA had done a couple of acquisitions before that, Origin and Bullfrog, that hadn’t gone so well. But they learned a lot from those mistakes.

Stratton: Maxis was probably EA’s biggest acquisition. It was something that they did very delicately. EA wanted to make sure it was a really clean, good transition when it acquired Maxis. I was just hired, but from my perspective, I felt like it was a great move that really energized Maxis as a studio.

The Sims is the best-selling PC series ever, but the project’s origins show that the idea of a playable dollhouse wasn’t a sure thing.

Wright: I was having a hard time getting any support within Maxis – before EA bought it – for The Sims. Almost everybody that saw it within Maxis thought it was a stupid idea…I was actually kind of running it as a black project within Maxis.

Robi Kauker: I can see how Will could see part of the group as not being excited, whereas those of us on the other side were like, “Yaaaay!” We had come off of doing SimCity 3000 and SimSafari, and had a lot of change in the studio, and to have this big idea to deal with was awesome.

Hecker: The Sims wasn’t about the people at the beginning. It was about the house and having them come in and judge. Then they realized that the people were the interesting part, and they switched it. A big part of The Sims is making your dream house, or locking [sims] in the closet. But the fact that they’re there screaming when the stove catches on fire is the magic thing. 

After zeroing in on the magic of The Sims, development efforts were focused on the title after the EA acquisition. However, prior to release, how it would fit into the gaming landscape was still a mystery.

Kauker: It was too cool of a project and too much of a toy to know what an audience was going to think about it. You kind of understood that everybody was relating to it in different ways, but you didn’t know what that meant.

Wright: I don’t think EA had any idea, at least on a marketing forecast level.

Quigley: We thought it would do okay, probably not as well as SimCity.

Wright: I would probably say The Sims [is my best game]. If for no other reason than the unpredictable nature and approachability of it. I think it’s the game that almost anybody can walk up to it and have some sense of what they might or should be doing in it…When you hear a hundred different stories about what happened to somebody playing The Sims is, to me, an indication of a good, wide experience.

Ben Bell: There are so few games where people can find themselves in it. The reason why the Sims appeals to so many people is that you will find yourself in the game, no matter who you are. If you put time into it, you’re going to fall into a play pattern that reflects you as a human being. It’s like a Rorschach test. 

Lyndsay Pearson: The very first time I played the Sims, I had a character try to make breakfast and set himself on fire immediately.

Charles London: We’re always looking for opportunities to set sims on fire. There’s always a new opportunity for a mishap.

Pearson: The Sims’ philosophy is fundamentally optimistic. We create a world that fundamentally gravitates towards positive things. Now, if you as a player want to consciously go out of your way to do those other types of activities, we’re not going to stop you.

The Sims became a phenomenon. Following up on that surprising success presented an interesting challenge for sequels, including the ill-fated The Sims Online.

Wright: I think we had these aspirations for The Sims Online – primarily custom content that never got in. I think we underestimated the engineering to even get the thing up and running with the amount of time and resources we put behind it. We were hoping to get this thing online and get custom content following up very shortly thereafter. Instead, we had all these other issues that came up and kept pushing back the idea of custom content further and further back to where it never made it in the game… If it would have been more of a freemium model like we have nowadays, I think it would have been a totally different story.

London: Under Sims 1, all of the effort was trying to get EA to understand why this game was a game…. But with Sims 2, the success was so phenomenal that it was an entirely different challenge. EA was like, “Now you’ve got to take it 10X.” And “10X” was actually the phrase that kept getting used – “10X this” and “10X that.” In retrospect, I’m grateful for the ambitious target, because it really made us realize that our biggest competition was ourselves. Which, by the way, is a condition that has never changed. It remains true.

Another result of The Sims’ success is the stream of expansion packs for each new entry. Adding elements like new pets, seasons, and even magic, these expansions enhance the experience for fans – though some cynical gamers assert that the steady release is more exploitative than creative.

Rod Humble: We did try to combat it, but we also needed to make our customers happy. It’s kind of like a band, you know? “Play Freebird!”

Bell: We work so hard on these games. It’s hard to express that. There’s tons of craftsmanship in every one of them. Every day we come to work and ask how we can make a beautiful game. How we can push the limits.

London: It is natural and understandable for our audience to say things like, “the new base game should have everything all the expansion packs used to have.” There’s a reason why we don’t do that beyond just the facile answer of, “Well, that’s impossible.” The reason is that it takes a lot of thinking and a lot of nuance and careful design to bring the best out of those subjects.

Pearson: There’s always people who will say, “It’s just more stuff,” but it’s actually a very different experience, and that’s why the players keep coming back…The way we can best combat that perception is to offer something new that is really a substantially different experience. Players always want to tell a new story with their sims. They always want somewhere new to take them, something new to do with them.

One of the most distinctive features of The Sims series is the fact that the characters don’t speak a recognizable language. Instead, they speak “Simlish.”

Kauker: It has a small collection of words that mean something. “Nubu” translates to baby, “Sule sule” and “dag dag” are kind of “aloha” – hello/goodbye-type things. There’s probably, right now, about 20 of those working. And then there are about another 100 or so that have contextual value – you’re sad, happy, things like that.

Humble: When we put little characters on the screen, the fact that they don’t talk really enables us to fill in the gaps. When we were developing The Sims 3, we would call them “hamsters with jobs.” They’re little pet people, and we’re kind of looking at them like animals, but we can also relate to them.

Bell: You know when you read a book, and you’ve got this image in your mind of what it means? There’s this thing that happens between you and the fiction – you add a lot to it. The same thing is true with a physical toy, like when a kid is playing with Legos. They see a world that’s in there, but it isn’t really there. If the sims spoke, you couldn’t imagine all the kinds of things that happen. It frees you up as a player to go anywhere you want with the fiction. 

Pearson: One of the practical reasons [behind Simlish] is that we’ve shipped the game in so many different languages that that amount of support for all of the different translations would be huge. Astronomical. But the more important philosophical reason for it is that they are their own little culture. They live in their own little world. If we had made them speak English, it brings them closer to being in our world.

Selected Gameography

1988: SkyChase
1989: SimCity
1990: SimEarth
1991: SimAnt
1991: RoboSport
1992: SimLife
1993: SimCity 2000
1993: SimFarm
1994: SimTower
1995: SimIsle
1995: SimTown
1996: SimCopter
1996: SimPark
1996: SimTunes
1997: Streets of SimCity
1997: SimGolf
1998: SimSafari
1998: SimCity 3000
2000: The Sims
2002: The Sims Online
2003: SimCity 4
2004: The Sims 2
2004: Urbz: Sims in the City
2008: Spore
2009: The Sims 3
2011: Darkspore
2013: SimCity

Spore (titled SimEverything originally) was unveiled at the 2005 Game Developers Conference, though it had already been in development for years. While it initially dazzled audiences, development challenges led to a longer wait than expected.

Katsarelis: I saw Will give his talk – he did it down in Redwood Shores – and I just got goosebumps. I’m like, “I want to work on that game.”

Hecker: There were these three axes we were trying to innovate on: tech, UI – how do you make these things accessible? – and game design… I think we hit it out of the park on the first two, and I think we failed on the game design.

Wright: I think we probably should have waited longer to reveal it…it turned out to be an almost unprecedented amount of engineering with the procedural animation and creative aspects, but almost an unprecedented amount of design that we had to attack with at the same time.

Hecker: When you’re making creative art, you should innovate on one axis. Do one thing no one’s ever done before, and do it amazingly well. We were doing, like, 40 things no one had ever done before. It took so much time.

Hutchinson: I think that at the end of Spore, we were all exhausted and just ready for it to ship. People had been wrestling with the problems in that game for so many years, and really at that point you can’t make radical changes, you just need to finish… Usually, beginnings are full of hope and you don’t need to be very realistic, and the end of a project is full of cold reality, so they often require different types of people.

Wright: I think we expected it to be three times harder than a regular game on the design side whereas it turned out to be ten times harder. In my mind it was almost an analogy between the Apollo program and space shuttle. NASA was roughly expecting the space shuttle, which had about three times more parts than the Apollo, to be about three times more engineering than the Apollo. They figured out the space shuttle was about 10 times more because it was really exponential.

Bradshaw: [Spore] didn’t achieve the kind of success that we would have liked to have seen, that we have with both SimCity and with The Sims. I think it’s still something that I’m immensely proud of. When you look at the immensity of that – and it’s a lesson in scope – I think what we did do was deliver something that those who played it engaged with it very deeply.

Because Spore fell short of expectations and never grew into a massive franchise, some people are quick to call the project a failure. Not everyone agrees.

Hecker: There was a lot of cooks in the kitchen on that game, design-wise, which is another one of the problems. But from a technology standpoint, oh man, Spore was the best. I have a page up on my website about all the cool stuff I got to do…from a programmer’s standpoint, it was the best job ever.

Quigley: I think the stuff that worked for us and the stuff I’m most personally proud of is all of the procedural world creation and creature creation and vehicle creation. That was kind of the heart and soul of Spore, as a creative toolkit for people to build creatures and planets and buildings and stuff like that. We broke a lot of a ground with that.

Bradshaw: You’ll see in how we’ve evolved our creativity tools that Spore encouraged us to think about the intuitive nature of these. You’ll see vestiges of it in how we’ve evolved our creativity sets. As we go forward, even with SimCity, we’re allowing you to kind of construct buildings, and they have snap points, and it’s really fun and malleable. Mostly I think you’ll see Spore in the way we’ve learned from it.

Will Wright left Maxis in 2009, but the atmosphere of the studio has remained true to the pillars on which it was founded. An emphasis on creativity, community, and accessibility still seems to drive Maxis employees.

Wright: Maxis has had its up and downs in terms of quality and focus, but for most people I think Maxis represents something that’s more focused on reality in a playful way.

Hutchinson: People would hang out, play boardgames after work, hit a local bar, but perhaps unsurprisingly it was much more family-friendly and relaxed than many video game environments I’ve worked in. But a lot of us are still friends even though we work in different studios and sometimes in different countries. The culture was very loyal and very caring. 

Bell: Work is like family. It’s a real bonding experience. For me, the more that people can relate to each other and count on each other at work, the more familial it is, and the better the product is going to be. One thing we talk about at Maxis is, because we make games about life, they’re games about people.

Hecker: Maxis was incredibly gender-diverse compared to most. And age-diverse. Age matters, too. I’m 42 now, and I’ve killed enough orcs. I’m done. I don’t need to kill any more orcs. I beat the orcs. I want to make games about different stuff now. So the fact that there are “old” people at Maxis now, I think, matters a lot.

London: The culture is close. It’s familial. It’s funny. It’s a little neurotic sometimes, which I think is a very particular quality to Maxis. We’re very introspective…There are some studios that have a real sense of their stardom, and that’s particularly absent where we are. We’re really conscious of the fact that we earn the right to make every subsequent expansion pack. So it’s a pretty humble place, which I like. 

Meeting Will Wright

Will Wright may be a legendary figure in game development, but to the people at Maxis who worked alongside him for years, he earned a variety of other titles. Whether he was a mentor, prankster, or just a smoker, the people at the studio had different stories to share.

Lucy Bradshaw: Will is one of the most jaw-droppingly brilliant people I’ve ever worked with, largely because of the way he looks at things. And he will look at things in such a unique fashion and be articulate about that. It’s not just about how he goes about making games. It’s how he views the world.

Chris Hecker: Will’s rhetorical tai chi is unmatchable. Someone would come in and be like, “Hey, Will, I think this part of the game needs to be changed,” and he’s like, “Mm! Come in.” And then you’d leave the office five minutes later thinking something completely different. The problem with it, actually, is that he’s overpowered. That might have been a good idea, but it’s kind of a game for him. He’s like “wooo-chaa,” and you’ve completely changed your mind. And you come out smiling, saying “Wow, great meeting!” … I think he’s a little OP on that front.

Robi Kauker: Will struck me as one of those great people that – in the music world, where I had come from – you meet and you go, “This is going to be fun.”

Kip Katsarelis: My very first impression was, “Who's this guy smoking all the time!?” (laughs)… A few months after being at Maxis, they had a “bring your kid to work” day, where Will taught game design. I’ll never forget that experience – it was on a Saturday, so it was his own time, and he sat there and played. They had toys and Legos and paper. He’s just like a big kid; he was down on the floor with them, playing and teaching them how to build games. I still have a picture of my son sitting there with him.

Charles London: He’s also a total prankster. He loves silliness. And he tells the world’s worst jokes, which is a form of his sadistic humor. There’s a donut joke that he tells. Everyone knows the donut joke, and we just love the way he tells it. It is not funny. It’s not, in any way, a funny joke. But the fact that that’s the joke he likes to tell makes it hilarious. 

Before “casual gaming” was even a term, Maxis has been creating titles that appeal to a wide audience. The company has invented avenues for people who don’t consider themselves gamers.

Stratton: We’ve always been a studio about sim. We have explored things that were lighter on simulation, some that came to market. But, basically, we know our strengths, and our strengths are in simulation.

Wright: From my point of view, I was always making the kind of games that I would want to play, and the kind of games that Jeff would want to play, too. We were just asking ourselves what kind of games would we want to play? We were twenty-something years old, and a lot of these games felt like they were targeted towards fifteen year-olds. There weren’t that many games targeted towards adults with different sensibilities.

Quigley: These are the kinds of games I want to make, and really, no one else is making these kind of games with this level of quality and this level of ambition… I want to make games where you create a world, and that world comes to life, and you edit it and transform it, and it pushes back at you, and it convinces you it’s reality… There’s no other company that’s doing the kinds of games that I want 
to make, so I’m stuck here as a consequence, right?

Humble: Nothing is stickier than your own creativity. If you’ve got a toy that becomes a mirror for your creativity and helps you be creative, I think that is incredibly powerful.

Bradshaw: It was funny, at one of our town halls, I read a catalog from 1992 or 1994, and there’s a blurb that really does talk about the heritage of Maxis and why that was meaningful to who we are today. It talked a little bit about creating software toys, which I thought is such a brilliant way of thinking about the games that Maxis makes. It’s something that, as a label, we’ve embraced.

Now, after the departure of Wright, Maxis is turning back to the franchise that put it on the map. In 2013, the studio is set to release the first new SimCity in years. The classic property’s revival is just one of several projects – some unannounced – in the works.

Quigley: It was only after we finished Spore that we had the bandwidth. That we could look up and say, “What I really want to work on next is SimCity.” You think of a company like EA as a giant corporate assemblage, but it’s really made out of people who want to do different things.

Humble: The legacy of Maxis is attached to the genius of Will Wright. He is able to think in such an unusual way. And the fact that he did it twice! Two genre-breaking megahits that opened the door for a whole new way of thinking…When Maxis does something new, people get really excited and they want to know what it is.

Bradshaw: We have two really well-known IP, which are Sims and SimCity. We have an opportunity to look at new platforms to reinterpret those…. We’re looking at those super powers for where the Maxis label is investing in terms of new games. I can’t speak to any of them, but our Sims brands and our creativity tools and a lot of these elements become our playground to continue to reinvent.