The new SimCity for PC offers, amongst other things, the ability to make curvy roads. Curvy roads! But it also offers a whole lot more than that, even though English road planners would argue curvy roads are the most important thing in the whole wide world. We caught up with Maxis senior vice president Lucy Bradshaw at E3 2012 to talk about how the game is coming along, and how the industry is a very difference place since Maxis made its last Sim City game.
Q: It's a big year for you guys. How do you think the reaction to SimCity has been?
Lucy Bradshaw: It's been so favourable - I think people are seeing something in the game. They go to the demo - and I have to say, even the demo makes my spine tingle because it's really starting to realise exactly what I'm hoping - and they're seeing a real deep investment in the simulation.
Q: I've had comments in the past few days where people are saying they're going to have to buy or upgrade their PC now...
LB: There we go! Sim City selling PC's worldwide!
Q: You're doing the Facebook stuff as well, though. That's interesting. This industry works by boxing things into easy to identify groups. Do you think we'll ever see a convergence where 'casual' and 'core' are just one thing?
LB: I don't know, because I think people have different needs depending upon the platform - at least for right now. I think there's ways to unify across, and we have a strategy at Electronic Arts so that if we know you're playing, say, SimCity Social and SimCity, that we're going to recognise you and make sure that you feel rather special in our games. That you have an identity that gets you some rewards - we can say 'hey, cool, you're back and you're playing this one too? Awesome; we're going to give this to you', that kind of thing. I think there's some connectivity and some tissue there.
But I think players really do have a different need if they're playing on, say, a mobile device or if they're sitting down at home and really dedicating some time to a game. I think they want kind of different experiences - at least right now. Some games maybe translate a little bit differently across multiple platforms, but for us it was important that, with SimCity, that with the social space and the PC that we satisfied the needs of the audience in a different way.
Q: The biggest criticism from the core audience of the PC game is this idea that it has to be online.
LB: What we're giving you is a lot of choice in terms of how you play. You can play connected with friends but you can also take an entire region on by yourself - you're not going to really witness the fact that this is anything keeping you from exploring the space or doing what you want in terms of how you play.
I think that what we wanted to do was give SimCity a context. In the past Sim Cities were these kind of isolated little islands, they had their own closed economies. What we wanted to do was put you, in a sense, where you had kind of motivation and purpose and context.
Q: I'm used to connected online games - one of the first games I ever really played was Counter-Strike. But it comes at a cost, where you've always got to be on the Internet. And when the Internet drops...
LB: We have a nice, graceful way of dealing with those kind of things so that you're not going to lose stuff. That's the beauty of it being asynchronous, is that we are able to be very graceful about how that online connection works and stuff. I think we're going to be in a really great place.
Q: You look at something like Diablo, and when that doesn't quite work...
LB: I think that's why we have to be really, really good about the service that we provide. Electronic Arts is investing quite a bit in making sure we're locked and loaded. If you've seen some of our recent launches they've been really quite flawless. Battlefield had huge amounts of players and stayed extremely stable, and think SWTOR was one of the most absolutely stable MMO launches.
We understand that, when we go down this path, one of the things we have to do is provide really great service. Not only in the steps that a player takes to get into the game, but also in the game services themselves.
Q: You were the only female executive to present a game at a conference for the whole of E3. How does that feel?
LB: I'd love to see more women in the industry, and I actually think there are. They may not be here at E3, but I do think that there are new university programs where college graduates are coming from all walks of life. I've spent a lot of time with our university relations making sure that women know this a great career. Yeah, I've been in it for a while, and I am at an executive level and it's great. I love what I've done, I love making games, I love having learnt the business and being able to lead Maxis and understanding how you think about designs and platforms and the challenges that this industry has in store, and continue to evolve what it is that we're doing.
I see the people who are coming out of the college programmes, with these very multi-faceted multimedia entertainment degrees, are much more diverse. So our population within EA is starting to get a little bit more gender balanced, but not entirely and I would love to see even more so.
First of all, women are just good for business. If you read any book around women who have leadership roles in businesses, ultimately those businesses are doing better. But I think you have a different perspective when you have a different mix behind the scenes, making the games and everything, and I think it can really open up different kind of innovations, different features, and different ways in which you design games too.
So it's going to be a while before we ever see a kind of balance to a greater degree, but I am happy to say there's a lot of opportunities in the industry.
Q: When I was, like, 12, boys played games and girls didn't. It was like that. And I've seen it change, it's games like The Sims and...
LB: Yeah, different genres, different kinds of gameplay that satisfies a much broader audience. That's what I mean about how we'd do different things if we were more balanced. I think the proliferation of these [points to an iPhone] and the social space has democratised gaming, so it isn't 'here's the genre we're going to be in and we're gonna make, you know, 56 of this particular genre.' Well, that is for a very specific audience - I happen to love playing RTS's and I love action-RPGS and I am a tower defence junkie, but I also really enjoy Scrabble, and I enjoy playing social games. I think the more choice that we have... it's a really really great time to be a gamer, and even some of the indie stuff that's happening today is exploring new territory.
Q: In my pocket of, you know, male console gamers, there's a lot of resistance to that change. It's as if they don't want that to happen. They just want games to be the same that they've been.
LB: I think it's simply business. Core is a known audience - we know that they'll go and spend, and that they are very dedicated to the franchises that they love. I think that when you go outside that you do introduce more risk, because it's very expensive to build games, particularly AAA.
But that's why I love things like tablet, mobile and social because you can kind of experiment and push into new gaming territory, and the production costs are not nearly as high as they are in that HD space. There's been a lot of focus on really just the game mechanics, and I think the Wii really took a different approach to their audience - it was younger, it was family, and it was in the living room. And it did very well with that certain genre of games that they came out with. So I think now that you see this so much easier to get out and everything, I love watching the evolution of gamers and I think it's going to continue evolving even in the social space, so we'll have to keep adapting.
One of the things that we've done at EA is that we have a great university relations group. I wish I could reel back time because if I could have done the internships that we're giving interns today, because they come in and they get a particular role in a particular team and it's that team's responsibility to make sure that they have a great summer, and they do that by ultimately exposing them to all sorts of different opportunities within our company. There are leaders and mentors who kind of chaperone them for the summer that they're there, and we ultimately give them a perspective - we give them an opportunity to do an indie game jam, and that's a super cool experience.
Q: Ten years from now, what will gaming be?
LB: Look at the sort of cycle of evolution and how it's speeding up. Phones and Facebook only kind of got into gaming just a few years ago, and that's matured and changed the audience. I think what you're going to see is all of these things become more interconnected, and that gives us a tremendous creative space to kind of explore and to kind of make an entry and exit into a game so much easier to do. I think some of the stuff we're doing with the sports titles in this generation, where you can kind of fine-tune your team on your way home - if you happen to be not driving – that can then be instantly transported into your game when you're home and you're going to play on your console. That seamless engagement in a game over time. I think it also gives us an opportunity, for us in Maxis, I look forward to blurring the lines – we let you play with life, so how can we let you use this seamlessly connected world to maybe make your gameplay even more contextual to you. So for me that's an exciting space to explore in terms of design.
Q: Finally, then - and bringing it all together. As we've seen from Diablo III, there may be teething problems with these connected worlds. Are they worth us going through these potential problems to see this future?
LB: I don't want people to have to tolerate bad connection or downtime. Like I say, the asynchronous multiplayer aspect to what we're doing allows us to be very graceful in how we address any kind of hitches. We also take very seriously games as a service. It's been an interesting evolution as a producer and a game maker that I'm now thinking about – we used to think about the installer, and you had to because honestly an installation of a game was like, atrociously bad – the moment you even see an ad and you click on something, what experience can we give you? And how do we make sure that we're inviting and seamless every step of the way. And so my span of responsibility is extended way to that. I can't tell you the passion behind the game teams to get every aspect
And I do think, yup, as with any technology there's going to be moments of 'here we go' and we've seen it with hordes coming in and systems that are overloaded and what not. But we ultimately have come up with more and more graceful ways to deal with that. And I think the opportunities it affords in terms of gameplay are so significant, that if we're not going to push in that space and stay on these little self-contained islands that we're not going to explore new gameplay.
Games come in lots of different flavours, so I think it's fine to say that there are still those experiences, but with something like SimCity it's just so compelling a kind of addition to the game to put you in a context that we've decided that multiplayer is a very important feature for this one.
And it's fun! It's fun to design, and it's fun to ultimately start to realise.