Without an interested game publisher, SimCity sat on his shelf in the basement office of his Oakland home until a fateful party in 1987 at an Alameda apartment, where he met an entrepreneur.
Jeff Braun wanted to jump into the video game market but wasn't sure where to start until a friend suggested free beer and pizza and inviting a bunch of game developers over at his home.
"Will is a very shy guy, and he was sitting by himself, and I felt sorry for him," Braun said. The two started talking, and Wright later showed SimCity to Braun, who was ecstatic. "He showed me SimCity, and I died. ... This was what I was looking for," he said. "Will kept saying that this won't work, that no one likes it. ... He thought I was reaching into a garbage can and pulling out trash."
Braun finally persuaded Wright to go ahead with the game. He was so taken by Wright's innovative SimCity design that the two decided to immediately start their own company to help publish the game on home computers. They'd call it Maxis and the two formed Maxis Studios in Orinda, California.
Jeff's father came up with the name Maxis. Jeff had a number of rules that the name had to pass; It had to be less than 7 letters, contain a x,z or q and mean nothing. It also spells six AM backwards which they thought was cool.
By 1989, after a long search to find a publisher for the game, Wright and Braun struck a co-publishing agreement with Broderbund.
Using their own funds to pay a small team of helpers, the men spent two years coding what was to become SimCity. The programming effort behind the game consisted entirely of Will Wright. He was the entire design team as well, with Braun handling the business side of things and Broderbund providing enough backing to get the game onto store shelves.
The release was simultaneous for both the Macintosh and Amiga. A PC version followed later that year, and the original, Commodore 64 version of SimCity finally saw the light of day as well. But they still weren't sure if the game would sell. "Jeff thought it would do really well, but I was less optimistic," Wright admits. "It was just a much more cerebral game than anything else out there, by far." Initially, he was right. Sales were sluggish, and for the first few months, Wright handled all the tech support for the game out of Braun's Orinda, California, apartment.
Wright was not a graphic designer or an expert in human interface design, and the game may have suffered somewhat from its relatively bland graphics and wide array of player options. Maxis clearly considered those issues when it reissued SimCity for other systems, as the company hired graphic artists and simplified the interface without removing features.
You can play Simcity classic online for free here: SimCity Classic
Sales gradually grew over the course of months and years as word of mouth spread. Eventually, it became the most celebrated game of the year and the dam would break when Time magazine wrote a full page article on SimCity at a time when computer games were considered fringe products at best. All of a sudden, the game Wright couldn't get published two years before had become the hit of the industry. SimCity was an open ended system simulator unlike anything else on the market, and people couldn't stop playing it. From New York to Tokyo to Australia, SimCity made its mark as a realistic city simulator. By the end of the year, sales had reached $3 million.
System simulation games were such a new concept at the time that Maxis suddenly found itself fielding phone calls from governmental agencies the world over. "The CIA, Defense Department, Canadian Lumber Association, and the Australian Tax Board, among others, all contacted us," recalls Wright. Most of the offers were rejected, but they kept coming in. So at some point, as Maxis got big enough, they decided to give it a shot and produced a prototype refinery sim for Chevron called SimRefinery - a simulation of their refinery operation, for orienting people in the company as to how a refinery works.
They also did a project several years ago called Sim Health for the Markle Foundation in New York. It was a simulation of the national healthcare system.
They did a few others, but eventually decided to get out of that business. "We were spending more time negotiating contracts with these clients than developing the software."
SimCity was having a measurable impact on society. It got picked up a lot by schools as a way to teach kids about zoning and taxes in some 10,000 classrooms.
With a reach like that, Maxis was suddenly one of the hottest design studios in the world. "Maxis has always had this cache about it," says Bradshaw, who at the time, was at LucasArts. "They were always this cool little studio in the East Bay, and everyone just loved working with Will."