A former employee of Maxis Emeryville has been writing on Reddit about the development process for SimCity and what it’s like to work under EA. Yesterday saw that publisher take the ultra-classy step of closing the revered studio during the height of GDC (when most games writers and reporters are distracted by other shiny objects).
The user ‘vertexnormal’ has been confirmed by Reddit as a genuine (former) Maxis staff member. He says that he left the studio in January when he saw the writing on the wall.
You can read all of the posts he’s made about SimCity here, but the one linked at the top of this piece goes into the most interesting detail about EA’s method of greenlighting games; and why SimCity got locked in to so many unpopular decisions.
“EA has adopted a greenlight gating process. Where by with little or no capital invested they have a few highly talented senior designers/creative types come up with the framework of a game. They develop what they can as proof of concept, usually simple gameplay prototypes and concept art, which is then presented to EA,” he writes.
This is the preproduction process, which can last months or even years.
By the time the game moves into production, “… you know what you are making, how you are going to do it, how [EA] are going to sell it and hard numbers to back all of that up. Some time after that, when marketing thinks it is right, they will announce the game to the public.”
Vertexnormal says that he doesn’t necessarily fault EA for this process: “It is meant to minimize risk and it does pretty well at that.” But EA is a gigantic company, and once a game (like SimCity) is locked into a set of features that have been announced to the public, very little is going to change.
“Once locked into ‘online-only’ there was no way of changing it. People complained that the cities were too small but there was no way to address that without compromising the numbers and forecasts when the game was sold to EA’s corporate overseers. EA can’t be negotiated with at this level, you can’t change their mind … All of this stuff happens out of necessity, and all of it comes down to money.”
It’s worth adding that vertexnormal has pretty high praise for the working conditions at EA, and says a great deal has changed since the infamous 2004 “EA Spouse” blog post and subsequent lawsuits.
“Not everyone shares this experience, but I haven’t worked back-to-back weekends in almost a decade. EA has a really good benefits package, competitive pay, and a strong sense of progressive public responsibility,” he writes.
It’s a fascinating and all-too-rare comment on the inside workings of a huge publisher, and suggests that their greenlight and production process, while working to minimise risk, makes it difficult for a title like SimCity to change direction. It sounds like no matter how much Maxis (or even people within EA) may have wished to increase city sizes or ditch the always-online nonsense in response to public demands, the inflexible corporate structure made this borderline impossible.