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Soren Johnson On Maxis: "One Of The Great PC Devs"

Until their functional closure yesterday, Maxis were “one of the great PC developers”. From the seminal SimCity and adventurous SimAnt, to the breakthrough The Sims and absurdly ambitious Spore, the studio made two decades of strange, thoughtful, risky games.

One of the people who helped was Soren Johnson, who joined the studio in 2007 to work on finishing Spore. I was talking to Johnson about his new game Offworld Trading Company [official site] just a few hours after news of the closure broke and took the opportunity to ask him about his former employer, the studio’s closure, and the difficulties of working with big studios that have “a laundry list of requirements” for a game.

RPS: I wondered if you had any thoughts on the closure of Maxis?

Johnson: Well, it’s sad. I mean they’re one of the great PC developers, really. A lot of great games came out of there. I’ve got a lot of friends who work there and I’m probably going to be asking some of them how they’re doing over the next few days.

It’s tough. I think PC development is so open and so flexible and there’s so many options that it’s easier to be a small team than it is to justify yourself in a big studio. Because when you work for a bigger studio, there’s a laundry list of requirements they’re going to have for a game. Whereas we’re able to say, ‘We’re just eight guys, OK, we’re just going to make this little RTS, it’s going to be fun, we’re just going to sell it for one price.’ We’re not going to have this three-year plan of DLC and, I don’t know… It’s not a platform to sell stuff, right? We’re just making the game, we think it’s fun, please buy it. It’s simple.

I think that gets really challenging for the bigger publishers. In many ways I feel like companies like us are making the type of games that Maxis would have made fifteen or twenty years ago, and the games we’re making, they’re almost too small to scale for the bigger publishers to care about. I think it’s tough. It’s still sad. There was so much creativity that came through Maxis over the years, so it’s sad to see it go.

RPS: It felt to me that ten or fifteen years ago the middle fell out of the industry; smaller companies were doing OK, big companies were doing OK, but mid-sized publishers and developers disappeared. The hope was that digital distribution and so on would help reverse that trend, but what you’re saying suggests that’s not the case. Do you think it’s just as hard now for those mid-sized companies as it ever was?

Johnson: I think it’s a great time to be mid-tier. I think the truth is that the game we’re making now, if you’d made it ten years ago, you would have needed twenty, thirty or more people to make. [Now] you can make a full sized game with a smaller team, plus on the distribution end you can be making twice as much money so you can justify making a game that can be for a smaller audience. You combine those two things together and you can have these ten person teams that are basically like the mid-sized developers of ten years ago, and these games are kind of being ignored by the bigger publishers, so, it’s a good time for it, I think.

After leaving Maxis to join Zynga, Johnson went independent and formed Mohawk Games. Their first game, an economic RTS, is out in Early Access now. Alec liked it and a full interview will go up sometime next week.

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