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A History Of Maxis: Thanks For SimCity

A History Of Maxis: Thanks For SimCity

The Maxis that you knew, the studio that released SimCity and invented The Sims, is no more. The SimCity brand might live on, and the Maxis brand might live on elsewhere, but they will survive only as brands, things EA will invoke to sell things. This is a very sad thing, but let’s try and remember the good times.

Maxis was founded all the way back in 1987 — by Jeff Braun and Will Wright — as a means of publishing SimCity, a game that was eventually released on PC in 1989 but which had originally been developed by Wright for the C64 all the way back in 1985. Despite this intent, they’d go on to sign the publishing rights away to another company anyway (in the meantime releasing another game, Skychase), but what counted was that Wright and Braun were in business, and SimCity quickly became a blockbuster smash.

This freed up a now larger and richer Maxis to try new things. Sticking with a theme of management (not to mention the “Sim” brand), Maxis released a range of games like SimEarth, SimAnt, SimLife and SimFarm, one which had you playing with ants, while another had you literally playing God.

While those games went on to become cult hits, none were terribly successful for Maxis, so it was a good thing that Wright, co-designer Fred Haslam (now with eBay) and their team had also developed a sequel to SimCity. SimCity 2000 improved on the original in almost every respect, and added quirks and features that remain series touchstones to this day, like “reticulating splines”, alien attacks and arcologies.

That game’s success, however, which also led to the studio moving from its original home in Orinda, was followed by more duds and weird Sim games. SimTower (which Maxis only published; it was designed by Seaman & Odama’s Yoot Saito) SimTown, SimGolf, SimPark, SimTunes, SimCopter, the woeful Streets of SimCity (below)…all memorable for their commitment to weirdness, but again, hardly blockbuster successes.

That era of scattergun experimentation, subsidised by colossal SimCity sales (and the company going public in 1995), would come to an end in 1997 when Electronic Arts bought Maxis.

EA’s purchase of Maxis marked a shift in the studio’s focus and fortunes. Co-founder Jeff Braun took his EA buyout money and left, nearly half of the company’s original employees were laid off by Electronic Arts, and Maxis’ attentions over the next decade would converge on three things: SimCity, The Sims, and an experimental god game called Spore

After SimCity 2000’s success, two further sequels were released: SimCity 3000 and SimCity 4, neither of which was able to reach the same level of success as their predecessors, though SimCity 4 is looked back on a little more fondly these days.

Second came The Sims. Will Wright began work on this all-new series once development on SimCity 3000 finished up in 1998, but had wanted to do something like it as far back as 1991, when he lost his home in a fire and had the idea of making a game like SimCity, only focusing on individual people and their routines.

A History Of Maxis: Thanks For SimCity

[Maxis’ main studio in Emeryville]

Maxis weren’t that keen on The Sims. Braun remembers “The board looked at The Sims and said, ‘What is this? He wants to do an interactive doll house? The guy is out of his mind. Doll houses were for girls, and girls didn’t play video games.'”

EA, however, did a very EA thing and saw the potential for expansions and sequels in the premise, and backed the game. The rest is history; The Sims franchise hasn’t just broken sales records, but has been instrumental in widening the scope and appeal of PC gaming. It’s so important to EA, in fact, that in 2006 responsibility for the series was actually taken out of Maxis’ hands, with The Sims’ team being spun off into their own studio.

The third focus for Maxis in the 2000s was Spore, a game with massive ambition that was plagued by delays and was released in 2008 to not just underwhelming reviews, but hostile consumer reaction over the game’s controversial DRM measures, which limited the number of times a copy of Spore could be installed and which was also the subject of a class action lawsuit following EA’s failure to advertise its presence on the game box.

When Wright left the company in 2009, little was left of the studio that had once pioneered the idea of, well, “Sim” games. Their next game wasn’t until 2011’s terrible Darkspore, and while the 2012 reveal of a new SimCity initially excited fans, when that game was eventually released in 2013, it was so half-baked and broken that we actually started a “Disaster Watch” for it.

Maxis’ closure, then, has actually been a while coming. Most of what really made Maxis — Will Wright’s vision and the teams that worked on the better SimCity games — left years ago. Even The Sims itself moved out, and did so nearly a decade ago.

But that doesn’t change the fact a lot of talented people lost their jobs today, or entirely soften the blow. The closure of Maxis’ Emeryville studio is essentially the closure of Maxis itself. There might be another team still carrying the name (Maxis Finland), courtesy of EA’s branding endeavours, and there might be other SimCity games around (which, well, aren’t that great), but Maxis’ original and largest home was in Emeryville, so when we say goodbye to that studio, it feels like we’re saying goodbye to SimCity as well.

Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends. You can find more stories like this one here.


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