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PROFILE: Will Wright
Unsimulated success
SimCity creator's video games are about building cities, not blowing them up

Matthew Yi, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, November 3, 2003

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In Will Wright's mind, video games shouldn't always be about winning or losing.

That was the trouble when he pitched an idea some two decades ago for a new game centered on building cities. A softwaremaker that had published Wright's first hit game, "Raid on Bungling Bay," was skeptical, insisting that without clear winners and losers, the idea would be a commercial flop.

Oops.

Since then, Wright's little pet project, later known as SimCity, has become one of the most recognizable computer games of all time, with more than 20 million copies sold.

Wright's bigger hit came much later, in 2000, with the Sims, which made living itself a game. Players in the game get to control the lives of characters, from eating and using the toilet to getting a job, finding a spouse and having a baby.

The Sims has become the best-selling PC game ever, with about 28 million copies and related expansion packs sold. The sequel -- the Sims 2 -- is due out early next year.

Not bad for a college dropout who once convinced an Indiana state trooper he was a writer for an automobile magazine test-driving a car when he was pulled over for doing 104 mph. (In fact, he was taking part in a 25-car race from New York to Los Angeles inspired by the movie "Cannonball Run.'')

Wright's insatiable curiosity about the world around him, along with some key serendipitous moments when he met the right people at the right time, have propelled his career.

Indeed, the blockbuster Sims games have established him as an icon in the burgeoning video game industry.

Although Wright, who lives in Orinda with his wife, Joell Jones, and their 17-year-old daughter, Cassidy, won't disclose his fortunes, his fame cannot be denied. He has inked deals with television networks for potential shows, has been featured in magazines and even had MTV knocking on his door two weeks ago for a segment on video games.

"That's always been my biggest aspiration, having MTV come over to my house," the 43-year-old Wright said, laughing while sitting in his dining room that looks out into the hills behind the exclusive Sleepy Hollow area of Orinda.

"It's interesting. Life goes where it goes," he said.

Wright was born in Atlanta and lived there until he was 9, when his father passed away and his family moved to Baton Rouge, La.

Curiosity has always driven him. "I was obsessive as a kid," Wright said. "I would usually get very obsessed with some subject or area of interest for six months or a year, and just totally learn everything I (could) about it."

After three years and one summer-school class, he graduated from high school at the age of 16. He enrolled in Louisiana State University, but later transferred to Louisiana Tech and then to the New School University in New York.

"I went to college for five years but never got a degree," he said, smiling.

One summer when he was back home from school, Wright met Joell Jones, an older sister of one of his childhood friends. She was living in the Bay Area, but had decided to spend the summer with her family to recover from an accident involving a broken window that injured the nerves in her hand.

"We'd fallen madly in love," she said. "I'm 12 years older ... so there was that age difference, but we couldn't drop it."

Later that year, Wright dropped his college plans and followed Jones to California.

They landed in Oakland. While she pursued her career as an artist, Wright decided to make video games for PCs.

His first title, "Raid on Bungling Bay," was a war game in which the player flies a helicopter to blow up everything in sight.

Broderbund agreed to publish it, and while it didn't gain traction in the United States, it sold well in Japan.

"As part of making that game, I had to create this landscape with islands,

little roads and buildings for you to bomb," he said. "I found out that I was having a lot more fun with that part of it than flying around and bombing it."

That interest in the intricacies of the landscape and all of its contents would lead him to create SimCity.

Without an interested game publisher, though, SimCity sat on his shelf in the basement office of his Oakland home until a fateful party in 1986 at an Alameda apartment, where he met an entrepreneur.

Jeff Braun wanted to jump into the video game market but wasn't sure where to start, until a friend suggested free beer and pizza and inviting a bunch of game developers over.

"Will is a very shy guy, and he was sitting by himself, and I felt sorry for him," Braun said.

The two started talking, and Wright later showed SimCity to Braun, who was ecstatic. "He showed me SimCity, and I died. ... This was what I was looking for," he said.

"Will kept saying that this won't work, that no one likes it. ... He thought I was reaching into a garbage can and pulling out trash."

Braun finally persuaded Wright to go ahead with the game, and the two formed Maxis Studios in Walnut Creek.

The first SimCity hit the stores in 1989 and was an instant success. The company's revenue steadily grew to $38.1 million in its fiscal year 1995, the year the firm went public. Wall Street wasted no time jumping on the SimCity bandwagon, pushing the stock to the $50 level.

But with the pressure of repeating a big hit, the company began to show signs of struggle. After turning in $55.4 million in sales in 1996, revenue fell 13 percent the following year, and the company posted a loss of $1.7 million. The stock fell below $10, and Wright, Braun and the rest of the board members were looking for an exit strategy.

That's when other game publishers started knocking on the Maxis door with acquisition offers. Electronic Arts in Redwood City won the bidding war, with a stock deal worth $125 million.

"At that point, it was clear from the business point of view that I didn't really think we can survive on our own," Wright said.

But part of that decision meant laying off about 40 percent of his roughly 240 employees.

"That was by far the hardest part, knowing that we were going to let go of so many people," Wright said. "But the reality was that we would have had to let go of everybody had we not done the acquisition. It was just a matter of time."

The move also gave Wright a chance to pursue his new game, which at the time he called a "doll house." The idea behind the game is to control how the characters live their lives, down to the way they decorate their homes.

It was a tough sell at Maxis, due to the company's limited resources, Braun said. At the time, the company was feeling the pressure of pumping out new games on a frequent schedule. By contrast, the new game would be a large project that required more money, time and human resources.

"I couldn't convince the (investors) and management that a doll house was the way to go. You can't tell them you can change the world with a doll house, " said Braun, who was Maxis' chairman and chief executive officer before the merger. "But then it proved to be true."

The doll house became The Sims, which EA published in 2000.

While EA is getting ready to release the next version of that game, The Sims 2, early next year, Wright says he's already focusing on a new undisclosed project for the game publisher.

Besides, these days he's spending a lot of time satisfying his curiosity in his latest obsession: the Russian space program.

He's even begun collecting parts from the training replicas of the Space Station Mir and other Russian spacecrafts. His collection includes control systems computers, navigation panels and even a Russian space hammer.

"In Russia, it's legal to own this stuff; for NASA, it's not. A lot of the people who worked on the space program somehow acquired this officially," he said.

Some of the objects are landing in EBay, where Wright spent $1,700 for a navigation panel.

Wright is not sure what he'll do with the collection. Currently, he spends time on the Internet and reads about the Russian space program.

Wright insists he's not gathering fodder for his next game.

"Not a game, no. Maybe for something else. The stories that they have are just so amazing. There's got to be some way to tell the stories," he said.


Name: Will Wright

Born: Jan. 20, 1960; Atlanta

Family: Joell Jones, wife; Cassidy, daughter, 17

Games: SimCity, The Sims, SimCopter, SimAnt, SimEarth

Quote: "I always get a black car and don't wash it. It's urban camouflage.

... You can almost get any car and get it dirty enough and it becomes invisible."

E-mail Matthew Yi at myi@sfchronicle.com.

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