By Geoff Keighley
Designed by James Cheung
used to tell people I was going to do a game about city planning," recollects Will Wright, the 39-year-old co-founder of Walnut Creek, California-based Maxis Software. "They'd just look at me, roll their eyes, and say, somewhat dubiously, 'Oh good Will, you go do that.'"
That was then. Now, all Will Wright has to say are two words - "Sim" and "City" - and people pay attention. No wonder, since his 1980s creation SimCity is emblematic of intelligent, creative, and socially responsible game design. It and other Sim creations have sold in excess of seven million copies worldwide.
Who would have imagined that building roads and power lines and zoning land for residential or commercial use would be considered a recreational activity, much less fun? Will Wright did, and SimCity's success is living proof of the concept.
Wright is a lanky, thoughtful-looking man, the kind of guy who wears a black watch with a built-in calculator.
Yet to label him as a tech-head is a misnomer. In reality, he's an eclectic hybrid of creative might and technical know-how. Few people cite textbooks by the names of their authors, but Wright is one of those few. He has an affinity for knowledge for knowledge's sake - so much so that he went to college for five years, but never got a degree.
Wright's design approach befits his academic orientation. SimCity started as a simulation based on the urban planning theories of an MIT professor named Jay Forrester, and all his other games have some link to academia. By taking the abstract dictums of theoretical science and creating tangible interactive experiences that often go far beyond the regular conventions of what we consider to define a game, Wright has merited the respect of his colleagues and the loyalty of gamers.
Maxis co-founder Will Wright
Yet the game business isn't just about respect. It's about money, market share, and quarterly reports. And through its ten-year history, Wright's Maxis - the software publisher that SimCity built - would experience all the ups and downs those factors can impart.
Maxis would swell from a company of two to a publicly traded software juggernaut with more than two hundred employees at its peak. The SimCity series would be an unmitigated success, but the company would be hard-pressed to create another series that would be worthy of the Sim-brand lineage. After the artistic achievement of SimCity and a few other less-successful Sim games, Maxis would eventually be reduced to releasing full motion video games with a Miami Vice actor and a children's product about a precocious pet mouse named Marty in search of his missing cheese. These embarrassing products quenched the pristine aura surrounding Maxis and all but erased Maxis from the hard-core gamer's radar screen.
Edward James Olmos of Miami Vice starred in The Crystal Skull adventure game for Maxis, one of its most embarrassing games.
But like the phoenix from the ashes, Maxis appears poised to rise once again. This month has seen the release of SimCity 3000, which is already atop the charts as the best-selling PC game in the US. Maxis may finally be back, and as such, it seems a perfect time to take a look at the history of Will Wright's company, go behind the scenes of what really happened to Maxis, and look forward to what lies ahead.
Join us for the story of Maxis...