Electronic Arts has decided to to close the primary headquarters of Maxis, the studio behind The Sims, SimCity, and Spore. Developers at EA Maxis' home office in Emeryville, CA found out today that the studio was being shuttered. Other Maxis-related subsidiaries, like the The Sims Studio locations in Redwood City, CA and Salt Lake City, UT, mobile studio in Helsinki, Finland, and final studio in Melbourne, Australia are still in operation. For all intents and purposes though, the Emeryville location was Maxis proper.
The news was first revealed when SimCity lead gameplay scripter Guillaume Pierre mentioned the closure in a tweet. This was followed with a statement from EA itself confirming the news.
"Today we are consolidating Maxis IP development to our studios in Redwood Shores, Salt Lake City, Helsinki and Melbourne locations as we close our Emeryville location," an EA representative told Polygon. "Maxis continues to support and develop new experiences for current Sims and SimCity players, while expanding our franchises to new platforms and developing new cross-platform IP."
"These changes do not impact our plans for The Sims. Players will continue to see rich new experiences in The Sims 4, with our first expansion pack coming soon along with a full slate of additional updates and content in the pipeline. All employees impacted by the changes today will be given opportunities to explore other positions within the Maxis studios and throughout EA. For those that are leaving the company, we are working to ensure the best possible transition with separation packages and career assistance."
It's the end to a long run for Maxis, a studio that was founded in 1987 by Will Wright and Jeff Braun. The studio had early success with SimCity and SimCity 2000, but subsequent Sim titles didn't see the same love from the audience. EA acquired Maxis Software in 1997 and in the following years the studio released Simcity 3000 and its second franchise hit, The Sims. Since then, EA Maxis has been primarily focused on The Sims; life-sim Spore failed to really take off and the reception to 2013's SimCity was less than wonderful.
The timing of this closure is horribly suspect. GDC 2015, the annual game developer event, is currently going on. It's a show that's heavily focused on developer networking, with meetings focused on future partnerships, business deals, and employment. The kind and thoughtful thing for EA to do would have been to announce the closure prior to GDC, giving affected developers the chance to meet potential new employers at the show. As it stands now, the publisher seemingly tried to make the closure fly under the radar, which never works. It's possible EA had other reasons for the timing, but the statement above doesn't shed any light on that.
The main Maxis studio joins a number of studios that EA acquired and shuttered when one of their major projects underperformed. EA acquired Ultima and Wing Commander developer Origin Systems in 1992, but the publisher cancelled all projects not related to Ultima Online in 1999, after Ultima IX: Ascension launched to poor audience reception. EA disbanded Origin Systems completely in 2004, only to repurpose the name for its digital distribution service in 2011.
EA purchased Command & Conquer developer Westwood Studios from its parent company, Virgin Interactive, in 1998. The studio was dead by 2003, after Command & Conquer: Renegade did not meet commercial expectations. Bullfrog Productions, founded in 1987, was acquired by EA in 1995, with Bullfrog co-founder Peter Molyneux becoming a vice president at the publisher. Bullfrog was merged into EA UK, which became EA Bright Light in 2008, only to be closed in 2011.
Mythic Entertainment created the MMORPG Dark Age of Camelot and was acquired by EA in 2006. The studio was folded into the Bioware label three years later, after the release of its second MMO, Warhammer Online. It's final releases were the mobile-only Ultima Forever and Dungeon Keeper; EA Mythic was closed last year. Racing developer Black Box Games worked on NASCAR 2001, NHL 2K, and NHL Hitz before being acquired by EA during the development of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2. It became EA's primary Need for Speed studio, only to lose that title to Burnout developer Criterion Games in 2010. By 2013, it was gone.
Dreamworks Interactive was founded in 1995 as a subsidiary of the film studio. 1999's Medal of Honor was its biggest original hit and EA bought the studio from Dreamworks a year later. It became EA Los Angeles, the Medal of Honor studio, with additional releases like The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth and Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars. After Medal of Honor: Warfighter was pilloried by fans and reviewers alike in 2012, it killed the MOH brand and EA LA. Mercenaries and Star Wars: Battlefront developer Pandemic Studios was purchased alongside Bioware in 2008 and was dead a year later.
I could go on, but this is getting depressing. Manley & Associates, Kesmai, Phenomic, DICE Canada, Playfish; all studios acquired and shuttered by EA. Victory Games was started by EA in 2010; by 2013 it was gone without making a single game.
It's enough to make fans worried about what's next, with EA acquiring studios and cutting them off at the first sign of weakness. Even the studios that are still around are on shaky ground. PopCap Games was built on the back of Bejeweled and later Peggle. It was acquired by EA in 2011. EA laid off 50 developers in PopCap's Seattle offices in 2012, killed PopCap Vancouver in 2013, and there was another wave of layoffs last year.
Criterion Games is a shadow of its former self; it rose on the strength of the Burnout franchise, with two Burnout games released after the company's acquisition by EA in 2004. In 2010, it became the primary Need for Speed studio. EA established Ghost Games to handle that franchise in 2011, with Ghost Games absorbing 80 percent of Criterion's staff during the development of Need for Speed: Rivals. Co-founders Alex Ward and Fiona Sperry left last year and Criterion Games is currently down to around 15 developers for its currently unnamed extreme sports title. Oh, and Ghost Games UK was hit by layoffs last year with an unannounced Need for Speed title put on hold.
EA has a long history of killing studios. Of acquiring them and slowly strangling the life out of them before delivering the killing blow. It's a shame, because I hold no animosity at EA. It makes solid games; I still enjoy Bioware's output and I'm looking forward to seeing its Star Wars titles.
Despite the publisher finding a new direction under new CEO Andrew Wilson, there's still a sense of floundering at the company. EA Sports, Wilson's original division at the publisher, is still coming to terms with the current generation of consoles. FIFA 15 was in good shape, but NHL 15 was dire, Madden NFL 15 is still finding the franchise's direction, EA UFC had mixed reviews, NBA Live 15 was savaged by fans, NCAA Football died due to legal issues, and PGA Tour skipped last year. Bioware seems to be on the right path with Dragon Age Inquisition, upcoming Mass Effect, and its unnamed new IP, but Shadow Realms was unceremoniously cancelled less than a year after being announced. Visceral Games has left its original IP like Dead Space behind to work on Battlefield: Hardline and a Star Wars title.
There's just a general sense of loss when you look at EA's output at times. As game development gets more expensive and losses are punished heavily, EA is whittling down to just a few core games. EA Sports covers five sports on a regular basis, a far cry from the number of titles it handled a decade ago, and its casual Street titles are completely gone. Bioware is major tentpole RPG releases only. DICE and Visceral Games are keeping Battlefield annual. Criterion Games is doing something and Need for Speed is waiting for 2015's release, to say nothing of a potential Burnout game. What's left of Maxis is scrambling to make sure fans don't leave The Sims 4 behind. Star Wars is the publisher's major hope on the horizon. There's just a feeling of a major company hunkering down to take the hits, instead of striking out. This is what Jeremy is referencing when he writes about a potential crash in our industry.
So let's take a drink for Maxis. I admit it feels wrong for me to lament the loss of SimCity's home as I'm playing SimCity heir apparent Cities: Skylines, but here we are. Let's take another drink for EA, in the hopes that the company will find its way without another beloved studio falling under the axe.