Maxis was the ideal acquisition candidate for EA, who was looking for ways to improve its equity in the PC game market. The SimCity brand was one of the most recognized and respected PC franchises; indeed Electronic Arts had long considered Maxis as an acquisition candidate, but the executives in Walnut Creek turned a deaf ear to EA. After all, Maxis wanted to become the next EA, not yield to it.
Needless to say, that attitude didn't last. "All of the sudden, in the middle of 1997, Maxis was very interested in talking to us," explains Luc Barthelet, Maxis' general manager, who was an executive at EA at the time. But it's not like Maxis had much of a choice. With a heavy loss in the previous year, and no focus for the future, it almost had to sell out.
"At that point, it was clear from the business point of view that I didn't really think we can survive on our own," Wright said. But part of that decision meant laying off about 40 percent of his roughly 240 employees. "That was by far the hardest part, knowing that we were going to let go of so many people," Wright said. "But the reality was that we would have had to let go of everybody had we not done the acquisition. It was just a matter of time."
And so it was announced in June 1997 that Maxis would be acquired by Electronic Arts in a $125 million deal, Will Wright personally banking an estimated $15m in stocks.
The Maxis acquisition was one of the first examples of brand really playing a role in a major business acquisition for EA," says Pat Becker, EA's vice president of corporate communications. Admittedly, Maxis was broken from the inside out, but EA thought it could use its management talent to turn around the studio and get a highly visible and respected brand in the process.
From day one, EA appointed a 35-year-old French engineer named Luc Barthelet to become the general manager of Maxis. Barthelet, a manager at EA's San Mateo studio for a number of years, would have to make the hard decisions about Maxis. In reflecting on the acquisition, Barthelet, an articulate and straightforward Frenchman, says, "The problem was that management was not focused on product development. It was trying to make Maxis into everything EA was, but it didn't have the focus or infrastructure to do it."
Barthelet would move into the Maxis offices full time in the summer of 1997 and be greeted by a studio filled with strife, anger, and disillusionment. His goal was to find the diamond in the rough and bring the magic back to Maxis. From the outset, Barthelet laid down the law. "I told people from day one: We are going to be a PC studio that does top ten products, and if we did that we'd stay in business," he recalls.
The first six months saw a total reorganization at Maxis, with the entire top-level management and most of the sales and marketing team exiting the company, including company president Sam Poole. Barthelet stripped Maxis down to a few key development teams and cut loose the Austin developer Cinematronics, who was still at work on games such as Crucible. "In reality, those games might have been top 75 or top 100 games.
Barthelet also killed the pending sports brand. Only one game slipped through the cracks and was released, a vehicular-combat game named Streets of SimCity.
Perhaps most troubling to Barthelet was the current state of the SimCity brand, a cornerstone of the acquisition deal.
When he finally sat down to play SimCity 3000 in 3D, Barthelet was shocked and dismayed. "There was absolutely no explanation as to why SimCity 3000 needed to be 3D," he says. Instead, the game would go back to its roots and simply augment the SimCity 2000 gameplay experience.
It was time to start over. Barthelet brought Lucy Bradshaw over from EA to help spearhead the SimCity 3000 project in November 1997. "When I got here, it had basically been agreed that we needed to take the game in a new direction," she says. For the entire SimCity team, embarrassed by its previous work on the project,
Barthelet and Bradshaw were a breath of much-needed fresh air. "There was finally no more running through the fog not knowing where we were going," says art director Quigley.
By early 1998, Maxis would be on track again with SimCity 3000. Everyone inside Maxis knew that no matter how much sycophantic banter was out there about the new Maxis, SimCity 3000 would have to speak for itself.
Perhaps the most important decision Bradshaw made with SimCity 3000 was not to reinvent the wheel. "Frankly, Will did it right the first time around. What we've done is augmented the experience." After Bradshaw decided to retain the core engine, the focus went into making subtle improvements, such as allowing larger maps, adding new zoom levels, and additional gameplay parameters.