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I've read that you had a hard time getting SimCity published.
WW: When I started working on SimCity, I showed it to Brøderbund and they said, "Sure, let's do it." But they kept wanting to change it. I'd kind of programmed it to the point where I thought it was done, and they didn't think it was nearly done. They kept wanting a win/lose. They were expecting more of a traditional game out of it. But I always wanted it to be much more open-ended, more of a toy. So they never published it.
They never gave me any money for it either, so I never got the advances. I wasn't in any real financial obligation. So it just sat on the shelf for several years. You know, the Commodore version was all done; it was just never published.
When Jeff and I started Maxis, we just went back to Brøderbund and said, "Hey, we want the rights back," and they said, "Sure." Then we invested our money into programming the newer [Mac and Amiga] versions of it.
We were a very small publisher; we actually ended up working with Brøderbund as our distributor, so Brøderbund still got their slice of the pie. They were instrumental in launching Maxis; they were just really nice people, and they were showing us the ropes, and financially helping us, in terms of inventory management and all that stuff. We were like an affiliate publisher with Brøderbund for several years after that.
How did people react to the idea of a game without a goal, no win or lose? As far as I can tell there were very few titles before it that went against the traditional win/lose.
WW: Well, there weren't games that adults wouldn't feel embarrassed playing at that point. They were all arcade shoot 'em-up things. But by the time we actually went back and reprogrammed it all on the Mac and the Amiga, there was a whole different group of people trying to buy computers for the first time. Up to that point it was just hardcore techno-heads, technology geeks. But around the time of the Macintosh, you had a lot of people that were doing print layout, reporters -- a much broader group of people. They were actually buying computers to do real things and it was a more mature market.
And for those people, there were no games that really appealed to them. SimCity turned out to be that game. A lot of our original games, like SimCity and Sim Earth, were programmed on the Macintosh, and it turned out that a lot more reporters had Macs. So there weren't many games for the Macintosh, which meant that when we came out with the game, the reporters, the press were more likely to buy it and play it. And then we'd get a lot of coverage, so it was just kind of serendipitous. Even though the Mac market wasn't that big, it was squarely in our demographic and we got a lot of coverage.
Your education was at a Montessori school, wasn't it?
WW: Up to about sixth grade.
Did that influence your approach to games? Montessori education is about learning through play and experience and your games seem to echo that idea.
WW: Yes, I think it did, in a number of ways. It became more overt, more conscious to me later in life, as I got interested in Maria Montessori and her theories, and went back and started reading and studying the whole movement. You know, she represents one part of what's generally referred to as constructivist education.
There were people before her like [Friedrich] Fröbel, who was a German teacher who invented these things called Fröbel Blocks. He invented the whole concept of the kindergarten. But he was approaching it with a very constructivist, "Let's give toys that are creative to kids, and let them play and learn geometry and math."
But even since then, there are people like Alan Kay or Seymour Papert, the people applying sort of constructivist approaches to education through technology. I think of my games kind of like that. Really I'd much rather: (a) rather than educate somebody I'd rather inspire or motivate them, get them interested in the subject, and (b) I think that self-directed learning is far more powerful than if you lead somebody on a leash.
So initially this was a subconscious thing?
WW: Around the time of SimCity it was more subconscious. I think I just realized I enjoyed making things, and I thought other people would enjoy making things, as well, on the computer, and having them come to life. But then after that, I started reading more about the pedagogy of her [Montessori's] approach to education and stuff, so it became a little more self-conscious to me as a designer. But I think I always gravitated towards that process anyway.
How did the leap from Raid's world editor, to SimCity with its urban design theories, happen?
WW: First, it was just a toy for me. I was just making my editor more and more elaborate. I thought it would be cool to have the world come to life. So I started researching books on urban dynamics, and traffic, and things like that. I came across the work of Jay Forrester, who was kind of the father of system dynamics. He was actually one of the first people I found that actually simulated a city on a computer. Except in his simulation, there was no map; it was just numbers. It was like population level, number of jobs -- it was kind of a spreadsheet model.
So I took his approach to it, and then applied a lot of the cellular automata stuff that I had learned earlier, and get these emergent dynamics that he wasn't getting in his model. I found when I was reading all these theories about urban dynamics and city behavior, that when I had a toy simulated version on the computer, it made the subject much more interesting than reading a book -- because I could go to my computer model and start experimenting.
That just bought the whole subject to life for me and then, more and more, I started thinking, "Other people might enjoy this." But even then I never thought SimCity would have a broad appeal. I thought it might appeal to a few architects and city planner types, but not average people.