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.

26 Comments

  1. Shaun Green says:

    Johnson’s comments re. the games industry midlist really interest me – it’s the first time I’ve come across that perspective. I’m looking forward to the full interview, hopefully he expands on this point!

    • TaylanK says:

      You might be interested in reading this too:
      The Independent AAA Proposition – link to hellblade.com

      “We’re just making the game, we think it’s fun, please buy it. It’s simple.” I find that bit problematic because it’s exactly the mindset that has led to countless studios shuttering and people getting laid off. The truth is, the much over glorified, simpler days of taking huge creative risks and asking a single price sucked as a sustainable business model. It might have been good from a consumer point of view but it did absolutely terrible for keeping devs in their jobs. Which is why Maxis was one of the handful of studios that survived over the years, with all the others imploding and reforming and rebranding a thousand times, usually right after delivering a title.

      Publishers are there to solve the sustainability problem that studios just couldn’t be bothered to deal with. It’s not as simple as “fun game = single price” anymore unfortunately and people in suits will continue calling the shots until devs themselves acknowledge and crack the problem.

      • Hedgeclipper says:

        Even the indies aren’t doing single price really though, that’s just a bit of narrative licence – these days Steam makes it much easier for indy developers to hit a range of points along the demand curve far better than publisher s could back when they were putting boxes in retail stores (ant that’s before we even talk about alternate distributors or bundles).

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        teije says:

        The key to sustainability that would help studios avoid being indebted to publishers is to have an regular, repeatable revenue stream. Having revenue you can count on means that you can afford to invest in newer projects, knowing there’s a safety net allowing you to keep on paying your staff while the new project is in development. This is just as true in gaming software as in the enterprise level software my company creates. There are several possible models out there.

        One is Paradox’s method of adding regularly scheduled DLCs to their base games – so there’s a pre-existing audience of people who will buy it (assuming the original game isn’t crap, obviously). Their approach gets a lot of flak on the forums and elsewhere, but has proven very successful for them.
        Another is the episodic approach – that we’ve seen some of, but hasn’t been used widely enough to assess whether it’s a sustainable approach
        A third is subscription based of course. That seems to be a harder sell than ever now, but if it can be managed, provides a very predictable revenue stream. Having your customers pay you a set amount every month is golden from a company’s perspective.

        Kickstarted is obviously not one of these – unless you’ve got an very strong track record these days, it’s akin to playing the lottery.

  2. eljueta says:

    It’s sad but I hope the talent finds its way to other projects, like Offworld trading company, which I’m particularly excited about.

  3. Kempston Wiggler says:

    I think it was fairly obvious from the time of Spore onwards that whatever “soul” the company once had was being overshadowed by the bigger business concerns. Spore’s “stream-lined” scope. Sim City’s launch…all that flat-out lying to the fans and customers, yes I’m talking about you, Lucy Bradshaw, all clear signs that EA’s gaming-as-monetizing-opportunity disease had progressed to terminal levels.

    Some might call this justice. I see it as a terrible shame. The sad, pitiful death of one of the PC greats.

    • draglikepull says:

      Spore was amazing. I wish more games had adopted its “massively single-player” idea, and the algorithmic textures, animations, etc. were really impressive.

      • a hundred boners says:

        except it was a travesty compared to what they showed off however long before it came out. it was extremely dumbed down and butchered to appeal to as casualized an audience as possible. cell stage was the best part of the game

        they cut out the entirety of being a sea creature

        the creature and nesting stages were supposed to be truly ‘algorithmic’, with the animations, breeding capacity, hunting efficiency, etc influenced by your creature design. it wasn’t. at all. they all walk pretty much exactly the same. you are doing the exact same thing over and over to progress every time. no matter how horribly janky and illogically constructed your dude is, it doesn’t matter, he is just as good at [whatever] as any other dude with the same kind of cosmetic plopped on him. these were the biggest letdowns of my life

        the tribal and city stages were pretty much the exact same game and had absolutely nothing of interest to them except designing things

        space stage could’ve been good if 90% of it didn’t come down to being constantly nagged at by pirate attacks, your neighbors, and your own people. i didn’t finish it because getting closer to the center of the universe and the conclusion means more and more tedious worthless micromanagement piling up

        it’s an okay game if you hit your head and forgot what was promised and actually shown off prior to release. it might’ve been an alright game if anything at all was fixed instead of leaving it up to the modders but I guess spamming priced cosmetics was EA’s priority. never buying anything from them, ever

      • Pantalaimon says:

        I honestly hope to see a lot more developers picking up from where Spore left off on procedural content generation. Obviously there’s a huge amount of it in games right now, but possibly none of it has come close to bits of what Spore attempted (or originally envisaged before it compromised in the end result).

  4. Love Albatross says:

    SimCopter and Streets of SIm City need a modern update/remake. It was mad you could design a city in SC2000 and then fly or drive around it.

  5. WinTurkey says:

    Maxis died the moment Will Wright left the company.

    Search your feelings, you know it to be true.

    • GallonOfAlan says:

      Noooooooooooooo

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      FhnuZoag says:

      Possibly before that, with the gigantic failure of Spore.

      • Raoul Duke says:

        Yeah, I’d say it died at whatever board meeting it was when they finally gave in and turned Spore into a ‘casual’ game for idiots, instead of the glorious biological madness simulator it could/should have been.

  6. vorador says:

    EA is an expert on buying, then ruining excellent studios, and finally burying them.

    Bullfrog
    Westwood
    Origin

    And now Maxis. Additionally, Criterion is in life support, and could be closed at any moment.

    The best of their ideas forgotten. Their IPs, either buried or wasted, and their best talents ran away as fast as they could.
    Even Activision is not that bad. EA has the worst track record of the industry with acquisitions.

    • NicholasTimothyJones says:

      And Pandemic Studios. We cannot forget Pandemic Studios with their Battlefronts and Destroy All Humanses and Mercenarieseses.

    • Arglebargle says:

      Maxis started dying the day they got bought out. Usually there’s a couple of years hang time before the EA corporate culture fully infects and disables the host. After that point you just have a zombie husk, resembling the former design house, but not in any real creative control of itself. Stronger victims sometimes last a little longer, but the corruption progress is pretty inevitable.

      Almost all the folks I know who’ve worked for studios bought out by EA pretty much spit on the ground when the name gets mentioned.

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      FhnuZoag says:

      I dunno, I think you can argue that studios die anyway. Can you think of a lot of studios from that era that have managed to make it to this day? Eventually people and talent just moves on.

    • Turkey says:

      Well, luckily with all the big publishers who’ve been eating where they shit for the last decade now, there’s no new talent to take advantage of.

    • draglikepull says:

      I’d add PopCap. EA bought them and took the nearly perfect Plants vs Zombies, fired the lead developer, and turned it into a microtransaction F2P game, then into a 3rd person shooter, etc.

    • BooleanBob says:

      And my Thic!

      I mean, Mythic.

    • Pantalaimon says:

      People say that about Bullfrog and EA but under EA ownership they still put out Magic Carpet, Dungeon Keeper and Theme Hospital.

    • airmikee says:

      You may have a point about the first three, but Maxis killed Maxis. The Sims 3 is the last game of theirs that I had any interest in playing, and that is six years old now. The Sims 4 introduced nothing new, and even stripped out some vital parts of what I felt were core mechanics from Sims2 and 3, even blatantly stating that some of those “missing” features would be added in later as DLC. SimCity was a travesty full of blatant, outright bullshit from the top of Maxis and doesn’t even compare to SimCity3000 in terms of building freedom. Two powerhouse franchises that dominated their genres, after inventing those genres in the first place, flushed down the toilet entirely by Maxis, not EA.

      For me, Maxis died the day Will Wright left the company, and the last six years were simply spasmodic death throes and cash grabs by people desperate to prove their worth as corporate stooges and nothing close to video game developers.

  7. Rufust Firefly says:

    Glad to know that I’m not the only one with fond memories of RoboSport. Such a great game, though I haven’t played in ages since my copy won’t work on any system that displays more than 16 colors…

    And SimAnt came with an incredible manual and a death-laser spider. Good times.

  8. stinkytaco says:

    OMG! no Spore 2? lol, they should have closed down years ago.