Maxis is best known for its work on the 125 million unit-selling The Sims franchise, and up until last year was the home of revered game designer Will Wright. The team has recently released The Sims 3 on PC and is working on a console version of the game for release later this month.
GamesIndustry.biz recently took the opportunity to sit down with vice president and general manager of Maxis, Lucy Bradshaw, and EA Play VP of marketing John Buchanan, to discuss the move to home consoles, how EA's continued monetisation of online play might affect The Sims series, and whether the team will ever get the opportunity to work with Will Wright again.
Q: The Sims 3 is coming to home consoles at the end of the month - what's driving that move to console, and do you think the franchise will always be associated with the PC format?
John Buchanan: We're talking about one of the greatest franchises in the history of gaming. 125 million units sold in just ten years time. It has an incredibly robust, enthusiastic and dedicated community and so for us we wanted to bring the experience of the world's greatest life simulation to the console. That's an incredibly powerful technique that the team has been able to do, but still keep the core essence of what The Sims is.
Q: Have the massive changes in the PC market, online market and social gaming had an affect on the push of The Sims to console, and the way you're approaching the brand on home systems?
John Buchanan: At the core, the essence of The Sims, we will always have a very successful and robust business on the PC platform. We have an incredibly robust line-up. We continue to see ourselves doing incredibly well on the PC platform. In fact, The Sims 3 is outselling where we were with The Sims 2. For us the PC is an incredibly healthy platform. What we see is other opportunities on the iPad, the iPhone, the home consoles, and being able to extend that great experience that the PC delivers. So it isn't changing or circumventing what's going on in the PC space, in fact we find it to be incredibly healthy, it's the world's largest platform. For us it's about extending that experience to other places where people want to play that game.
Lucy Bradshaw: Additionally, the fact that the consoles have gone online gave us an opportunity to take The Sims and adapt it to those platforms that now have the abilities that made such a strong community on the PC space. By integrating all of the community directly into the game and having it so you never have to load the game to bring in new assets, it's a really amazing experience now.
Q: Have consoles still got a long way to go before they truly emulate that community strength and service that we know on PC?
Lucy Bradshaw: I think they're really building on that. So much so that it becomes that we can recreate that social experience, create achievements and that sharing that has been a hallmark of The Sims. I think we've managed to take that even further on console and it's exciting to see the team take advantage of the platform. It brings something that the last generation of consoles didn't have.
Q: Is there anything you'd like to see the format holders do to improve online services on home consoles?
Lucy Bradshaw:They're been taking consoles in interesting directions. The Wii brought together a much more broader sense of family play and experience, which allowed us to take The Sims from an office environment on the PC to the living room and that really brings a new experience. A lot of the features that The Sims 3 is bringing to console is taking advantage of the living room. Achievements and sharing - those kind of changes and progressions in the console space is bring a new audience to those formats. When we have something like The Sims it's another playground for us.
Q: I spoke to Rod Humble at E3 and he said it's amazing how differently people play The Sims when they're in their study space compared to a living room...
Lucy Bradshaw:It's a different dynamic that we saw, and bringing people around the game to play The Sims is something that was already there but not necessarily the most inviting place to do it. Doing it around the couch is a different experience.
Q: Rod also said he was interested in the way social gaming works, particularly since EA bought up Playfish, and incorporating some of their methods into game development. Is that a similar idea to how Maxis is operating?
Lucy Bradshaw:Social gaming is a really different environment, you're playing with something very quickly and you need to see what people respond to. That type of learning does come into the client space as well. For the longest time we've looked at our community and taken feedback and integrated it into expansions, the Stuff pack, all of the things that we've done with the PC game. We've had that relationship but you do that at a lightening pace in the social gaming environment.
Because you can develop quickly, you can respond to player feedback, you can see how quickly people are attracted to a feature or a dynamic as soon as you put it in and give them more of that. Taking down the wall between the developers and their players, and having that response through telemetry or testing, both parties - Playfish and our studio teams that make Facebook games - are learning a lot.
Q: That must be a quick learning process for your developers?
Lucy Bradshaw:Whenever you turn something around so quickly it's fun. In the client space you've worked on something for 18 months and you're getting usability testing all he way through, but in social you're out there in front of players right away. For the game industry in general it's a very exciting space and it's about how do you apply that in your design in different environments.
Q: With costs so high for console games - and rewards high for the big hits - is it tempting to play it safe when releasing a franchise game like this, rather than risking innovation?
John Buchanan:We look at it a bit differently. What's exciting for us is the Wii has introduced a whole new audience to play and it continues to sell very well. The PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, every single day they're bringing in more families to this industry and allowing them to play. With Move and Kinect, that's going to extend a whole new level of experiences for play. We look at each of those different platforms and ask ourselves how can we build the best quality product and experiences for those people?
We work closely with our studio teams to deliver the best game that we possible can. If we put all that together and communicate it appropriately against those different platforms we will see success. We don't look at it as getting more competitive and it's costing more, we recognise an opportunity to be successful by creating experiences and communicating those with the right marketing approach. The success comes for the experiences those people have when they play those games.
Q: Is there a pressure to monetise consoles games beyond the initial purchase now, because the costs are so high in terms of development?
Lucy Bradshaw:I think you'll see us working on a number of different fronts. Bringing the player the full game with an extended online offering, whether that's an extension that we previously might have marketed in a box and now we're really just delivering it in another fashion, is one of those. But this is just about being in front of the customer, having that relationship, if you call it monetisation because we're doing something digitally that we used to put in a package and sell through retail - to me it's not a whole lot different.
Digital is a new space, it's something that Electronic Arts has actually really been investing in - how are we expanding game experiences? Whether we give upfront demos so people can have a taste of something or whether we give extended play after the fact with a new game mechanic. Again, that's just opening up different avenues in which we're getting in front of the people that play our games.
Q: Is it possible to develop new IP and have that released successfully on console now or has that already passed this generation?
Lucy Bradshaw:Launching new IP at anytime is always risky. It takes a lot to make sure you get that message out. When Electronic Arts does it we really work on the quality to make sure it has innovation and delivers a new experience. There's something exciting in the industry today with new avenues to launch new IP. You can take the route of going via XBLA or PSN and coming out with something smaller, get a following and build on it. And look at what we do with EA Partners, which is another way we can team with companies to deliver new IP, and invest in them and seed some new experiences. Right now for a developer there's a lot of different choices there.
What we've done with The Sims 3 for console is an interpretation for consoles that is just beautiful. For the very first time we have everything running, and with the strength of The Sims behind it and all the development knowledge and experience that the team has, we've really bought something exceptional there.
Q: Was it a relief to see consoles catch up with your vision of what The Sims can be on console?
Lucy Bradshaw: They've always been there visually but to be able to do all of the computation and all the simulation aspects for what is alarmingly a real life simulator - the complexity of what's going on in The Sims would probably surprise a lot of people. I've always said about The Sims that it's the most compelling when they do something that surprises the player. That autonomy is there now on the consoles.
Q: With the Online Pass in EA Sports you're charging an extra $10 for online play for second hand consumers - is there an opportunity there for other EA labels, beyond sport?
John Buchanan:There's absolutely an opportunity. The EA Games label, their titles are also heavily involved in that with. And we're looking at it in the exact same way. What's important for people to realise is the kind of experience you get from an online initiative like that really needs to be focused on the consumers that are excited about that opportunity. With the Play label we have great franchises in the kids space and family space, so what we have to do is make sure we're delivering the best experiences that we can.
Online Pass is a great way to deliver that. That might not be the same for the kids audience with something like The Littlest Pet Shop. For us it's important from a label perspective to recognise that's a great opportunity because consumers are excited about what Online Pass offers. We need to make sure we're tailoring the approach that we take specific to our different franchises.
Q: How has Maxis has changed since Will Wright left? Because he's such a big figure and leaves such an impression on games and the people that work with him...
Lucy Bradshaw:The one thing about Will is that he's a very collaborative person. We've had a lot of people who have worked at Maxis for sometime who really brought a lot to Will's design. They have simulation in their blood, they've got that sense of tinkering working towards quality. I think that was part of the culture of Maxis and remains so. We have a great working relationship with Will still, he's experimenting with Stupid Fun Club and doing some really interesting things in a different space. Maxis is really strong and doing lots of interesting developments.
Q: Is there an opportunity there to collaborate with Stupid Fun Club on game concepts?
Lucy Bradshaw:That may very well be the case but right now Will's got some crazy stuff going on. He is just so mind-blowingly amazing in terms of coming up with new ways to look at something and I've always loved working with him. Working with Will has just been one of the most amazing experiences.
Lucy Bradshaw is VP and general manager of Maxis. John Buchanan is VP of marketing for EA Play. Interview by Matt Martin.