Not A Departure: The Genesis Of Darkspore

By Chris Remo

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.


This is the first major game Maxis has made without Will Wright in the studio. Do you think there is a correlation there with this gameplay departure?

MP: I wouldn't say it's related. In fact, I think a lot of the innovations that Will did back in Spore are how we ended up with this technology to begin with. So, there's definitely a lot of Will in there when you see the editor technology.

Yeah, it is the first game we're doing since Will has left the studio. But Maxis has a personality. It's a studio that's been around for more than 20 years. You build a culture, and that culture sticks.

If you come over to Maxis today and visit Maxis from 20 years ago, you'll see the same vibe when you come into the office. It's a very brainy studio. There's a lot of core gamers there -- a lot of PC gamers there -- and a lot of nerds. We wear a lot of flip-flops and shorts at Maxis [laughs].

Do you think you guys have to sell your image now? For a long time, Maxis has been "the Will Wright studio," at least to outsiders. Does that make you want to say, "Hey, this is what Maxis is. This is what we are."?

MP: I think what we really need to do and what we're doing as a studio is to focus on making great games. I mean, at the end of the day, whether Will is around or not, we need to make great games.

For example, the Sims franchise is over [at EA Redwood Shores]. It hasn't been in the Maxis studio for some time, and the Sims games are just getting better and better and better. I think, for us, we've got to take where Will has taken Maxis and go from there, and just continue to make great products.

We'll make products for a variety of types, and I think to make Darkspore is a chance for us to come out and say, "Maxis is capable of doing a lot of things. We have a lot of people on the team that have a very diverse background, and we can use that to our advantage to make great games."

Do you feel like there's a resurgence of this PC top-down action RPG genre these days? Blizzard announced Diablo III a couple years ago, there was Torchlight last year, Dungeon Siege III, the Titan Quest guys are making a new game…

MP: Right. And Torchlight was awesome. Absolutely. And I think a lot of it has to do with the PC being so pervasive. Even laptops now have reasonable graphic chips now that allow folks to play a lot of games. Laptops have dominated the PC market recently. So, you're getting a lot of players playing the games.

But also, everybody's connected online. This is a really new thing for us. Everybody connects through broadband, and that lets us do a lot of great things on PCs that we haven't been able to do before. I think having co-op gameplay being a strong focus for an action RPG style of game is an opportunity we can bring to that market now.

I don't think PC games ever went away, but they migrated online, and I think now everybody is starting to realize that. I think with what we're doing here and what Blizzard is doing, the PC market is coming back strong.

The fundamentals of the Diablo-esque PC action RPG are very straightforward, but it's a notoriously difficult genre to get just right. So much of it is about that perfect feel and atmosphere. Has that been challenging to nail down?

MP: Yeah. I think for a game like this with the depth of collection, customization, and upgrades, tuning is absolutely critical. What we're doing on the project right now is actually starting to tune. We've actually been tuning since we started.

We built a system that lets us create a lot of different types of loot and get it in a game and prototype it right now. The team already has playtests multiple times a week. We do telemetry and we get feedback from everybody who's playing the game to make sure that the game is very well balanced.

We're absolutely going to be continuing this throughout the development process and into a public beta process as well. We'll get a lot of people to come in and play the game and really help us make sure that we've got it tuned exactly where it needs to be.

This kind of game is very UI-dependent. Do you think Maxis' background in simulation and management games helps out there?

MP: It really does. But, you know, it's not only a strength in UI, but a strength in managing lots of data. When you're tuning a simulation game like SimCity, there are just tons and tons of formulas and data that have to be perfectly in sync. We're using a lot of that experience here to give ourselves the ability to tune the mountains of data that we're going to have and the customization.

On the UI experience, we've innovated a lot of this in years past with tear-out tool panels and things like that. And here, the UI experience has to be built for this game. A lot of what you've seen in demos so far is placeholder UI. That's going to get overhauled. We want players to really be able to sit down, pick up, and play this game without having to go through a long learning curve of understanding how it works.


Lucy Bradshaw was saying something to the effect of, "This isn't an extension of Spore." But, come on. It has "Spore" in the title.

MP: Well, Darkspore is its own game. No question about it. It's not Spore. It's not an expansion pack, and it's not the sequel to Spore either. It is its own game.

Now, we are really using the technology from Spore to build this, and so having Spore in the name is an homage to that technology. It's very visible in the editor.

But Darkspore is absolutely its own game. It has its own fiction. The darkspore are the enemies, the bad guys that you fight in the game. For us, the title of the game is representative of what the game is.

You hired a designer from Wizards of the Coast to work on this game, right?

MP: That's right. Paul Sottosanti.

How did that come about?

MP: We've built our team out of people who have a lot of experience both at Maxis working on Spore and other Sim games, and people from outside. We heard from Paul after he left Wizards of the Coast, and he's just an ideal fit for our team.

When we were doing the initial designs of the game, we were definitely inspired by Magic and Pokémon -- the Pokémon card game -- and we felt that having somebody with a depth of experience in card gaming matched perfectly with what we're trying to do, because this is a game about collectible heroes in the same way that Magic has got collectible cards.

And it's a game where min/max-ing even the smallest amount with the stats can be key in succeeding while designing the game. And that's exactly the experience that Paul had with what he did in Magic. So, that skill set dropped in one-to-one with the systems he needed to do with us.

How big is the team on this?

MP: We're a team under 40 people. It's a very small team. It lets everybody on the team be creative contributors to the game. Even though on paper we have traditional roles -- producers, designers, programmers, and artists -- the reality is that almost everybody contributes to the game design in some form or another.

The team is made out of a lot of hardcore gamers. The people who you met during your demo earlier -- if you logged into League of Legends tonight at 3 AM, you'll probably find them. [laughs]

It's great to have a small team because we can be very fast and get a lot of turnaround and creativity.

Is this game Maxis' main focus right now?

MP: Right now, our main focus is making Darkspore the best game it can be.

Did you have multiple projects incubating that you picked from to pitch to EA? One reason I ask is that, ever since The Sims, Maxis' products have been very much of a particular type. This must seem like quite a departure from EA's perspective as well as from an outsider's perspective.

MP: Right. You know, I think that in looking at where we ended up after we delivered Spore, that game is just the craziest, giant-est game ever, right? We looked at that, and with the technology that we created out of that game, we made some prototypes. We just said, "Let's try some things out."

Really, it's the same group that did a variety of prototypes on Darkspore that led us to the action RPG genre that we have on Darkspore now. The prototypes became fun really quickly, and as we started to play them out, it really wasn't a hard sell to let EA know that this was a great idea and that it's the right way to take the technology from Spore.

It's just crystal clear. You see the editors, you see what you can do, you've got character customization, and you drop it in. It's got familiar pick-up-and-play mouse-based mechanics. Everyone just did a forehead slap and said, "My god. This is exactly what we should be doing with this technology." So, we've had a ton of support from EA. This is exactly the right game for us to be making.

Even if they're on board for the game design, do you think there's any concern about going against type for your audience? This seems like much more of a "gamer's game," whereas Maxis has generally played to a more expanded audience.

MP: Right. And it is a gamer's game. No doubt about it. In a lot of ways, it's a game that's being made by gamers, because that's what the team is like. It is going to be new audience for us, to try to track the action RPG players, but at the same time, we are bringing forward the Spore community as well.

There are a lot of Spore players who are interested in online gameplay. And if you read the Spore forums, there are a lot of players who have been asking for more depth, especially in the creature game -- more things to do. I think this delivers exactly what those players are asking for. You can take a creature and do a lot more than just simulate.

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