In more than two decades of active development, Bay Area studio Maxis explored a wide range of gameplay and genres, but in recent years the company's broad reputation has become largely overshadowed by mega-hit The Sims (now developed by EA's Sims Studio) and the ambitious Spore.
With the recent departure of studio co-founder and industry icon Will Wright, Maxis seems to be casting an eye back to the diversity of its roots, employing some of the character generation technology from Spore in the service of a genre far removed from any previous Maxis game: the Diablo-esque action RPG.
Darkspore, announced in July, is the latest in a string of PC action RPGs to be announced recently, a group that also includes Diablo III, Torchlight and its upcoming sequel, Grim Dawn, and others.
Maxis is looking to its unique tech and storied development pedigree will allow its next game to stand out in an increasingly vibrant genre, and executive producer Michael Perry -- Maxis' longest serving current employee -- sat down with Gamasutra to discuss the studio's mentality and how Darkspore came to be.
Darkspore seems to me like a big departure for Maxis, and I've been playing Maxis games since the original black-and-white SimCity on PC in probably 1992 or so.
Michael Perry: I was actually there at the time. I started at Maxis back in 1992.
Wow. With Will Wright gone, are there any other people who have been at Maxis as long as you have?
MP: [laughs] No.
I remember a lot of Maxis games were actually outsourced. Did you guys actually make SimAnt? I loved that game.
MP: Yeah. We worked on SimAnt. It was all internal.
Some of them were external though, right? SimTower was Yoot Saito, as I recall. I really enjoyed that as well.
MP: That's great! I produced SimTower. Yeah, Yoot Saito was the designer of it, and we produced it. It was called The Tower in Japan, and we released it as SimTower in the U.S.
I also have weird memories of SimEarth, which I don't think I quite understood. That game was extremely deep.
MP: Yeah. The interesting thing about SimEarth was it was a true simulation. It was less of a "game" than anything else we ever made.
I think that mentality was alien to me at the time. I'd probably get it more if I played it now. In the case of Darkspore, as a contrast, this seems like maybe the least sim-like of anything you've ever made.
MP: Historically, Maxis has experimented in a few other game genres, but yeah, that is the case, especially in going from Spore to Darkspore. Darkspore is not a simulation game. Darkspore is focused on core action gameplay. It's focused on being a really good action RPG.
What we're trying to do is we're taking the technology from Spore, and we see that as a way to innovate in the action RPG space by integrating the other technologies we have in the game, by creating a unique campaign game design that we have, and by really making co-op gameplay -- even though you can still solo through the game -- a focus for the experience.
How did you decide this is what you wanted to do next?
MP: That's a good question. You know, when we built Spore, we built a lot of great things. It's groundbreaking in many different ways, when we see what the community was doing with the technology. I mean, the Sporepedia [online user content repository] has hundreds of millions of variations out there. It's insane.
Then, with what we were doing internally with the technology, we looked at that, and we looked at what players were saying out on the forums, and what they're looking for in gameplay, and we thought, "Wouldn't it be incredible if we could take this technology and use it to make creatures and characters that would fight together?" We wanted something we could make to play either co-op against enemies or fight against each other.
When we did a bunch of testing very early on, we took the tech in Spore and it allowed us to do a lot of very quick prototypes, and we very quickly realized that the action RPG genre is such a great fit for this tech.
Then we went from there. We saw the prototypes we played, we thought they were a lot of fun, and we thought this is a great way to make an action RPG game.