Remembering Maxis Emeryville

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SimCity at night
A SimCity landscape at night. Photo via www.simcity.com.

As the news broke yesterday that Maxis’ Emeryville studio was shutting down, the #RIPMaxisEmeryville hashtag, started by Maxis veteran Guillaume Pierre, lit up on Twitter. People used it to express their dismay and reminisce about great Maxis games. More than a few said they went into games development because of Maxis. I have many of the same memories, but I also have a few others.

I worked at the Emeryville studio as a member of the online team for Spore and as the online lead for SimCity. (No, I won’t talk about what happened with the launch; I’m probably under some Wolfram-and-Hart-esque NDA that extends for the rest of my life.)

First, to state the obvious, Maxis as a name is not dead. The Sims is, I hope, continuing to bring in heaps of money. But the Emeryville studio felt like the heart of the Maxis brand.

The studio was started as a place for Will Wright to work on his next great creation, which would end up being Spore. I joined Maxis a few months before Spore launched, but people in the studio had worked with him a long time. Our office manager had been with him almost since the beginning and was singlehandedly responsible for our culture. More than a few of my co-workers had worked on SimCity 2000 and the original Sims. He selected, trained, and inspired many members of the game team himself. It was a special crew full of quirky talent you wouldn’t find anywhere else, held together by vision and passion.

I always claimed I was just visiting the games industry — I didn’t work there before, and I don’t work there now — but Maxis grabbed hold of me and will probably never really let me go. Sure, I remember working long hours for months on end before game launches, one of which, SimCity, happened just after my daughter was born.

But I also remember watching SimCity’s creative director play with how the moon would illuminate the night as it arced across a region. I remember our art director explaining how we’d make SimCity’s architecture styles look consistent across the different density and wealth types. I remember a technical artist demonstrating the stunning effects she had created for Spore: Galactic Adventures. I remember game designers and artists teaching others in lunchtime workshops. I remember the core SimCity team passing around the latest in data visualizations as we explored ways to communicate to the player that went beyond what anyone else was doing. I remember a studio full of super-smart and creative people working with a common passion and vision.

In the end, I didn’t work in the games industry after all. I worked at Maxis, and that was something altogether different.

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