Sims' creator leaving Electronic Arts
Verne Kopytoff, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Will Wright, the acclaimed video game designer who created hits like the Sims titles, is leaving Electronic Arts to focus on his own entertainment company.
The departure, announced Wednesday, ends a 12-year career at Electronic Arts, during which Wright became one of the industry's most successful developers. The Sims franchise has sold more than 100 million copies, making it the best-selling video game series of all-time.
Wright, 49, plans to devote himself full time to Stupid Fun Club, a studio he founded in 2001 that develops ideas for film, television and video games. Electronic Arts said Wednesday that it has invested an undisclosed amount of money in the company and that it will have the right to license any video game themes that its new partner spawns.
Wright explained in an interview that his decision to leave EA was based on his desire to devote all his energy to his company, which he described as an outlet "for strange products and ideas." He said he has several concepts for television and toys and that the next step is to try to commercialize them.
Wright and EA own equal and controlling shares in Stupid Fun Club. A third, undisclosed investor holds a smaller stake.
Stupid Fun Club is operated from a warehouse in Berkeley and is home to several robots and milling machines. The team is assembled from people Wright met while participating in Robot Wars, a television series in which amateurs build remote-controlled robots and then pit them against one another in fights.
Some of the robots at the Berkeley facility, Wright said, have served the company by "sparking a lot of creative ideas that we realized would make interesting Lego blocks, or nuggets, that we could build entertainment experiences around."
Enlisting EA as an investor, Wright said, was a deliberate alternative to venture capital funding. A corporate investor can afford to be more patient and allow Wright, as he put it, to "keep things small, keep things focused on creative people," rather than having to meet financial goals and prepare for an eventual sale or initial public offering.
Holly Rockwood, a spokeswoman for EA, in Redwood City, said that EA "absolutely believes in Will's concept" for the company. Working outside of EA made sense, she said, because Wright's interests are broader than EA's video game business.
EA's sales have suffered in the slumping economy, prompting a wave of cost cuts including recent layoffs of 1,100 employees, or 11 percent of its workforce, along with delays in the release of several video games.
With partner Jeff Braun, Wright founded gamemaker Maxis in 1987, and scored a hit with their release of SimCity, the first in a series of popular titles. The games were considered groundbreaking because players simply managed their characters, as if playing in a digital doll house, rather than trying to beat opponents.
EA acquired Maxis, a public company, in 1997 for $125 million. Since then, Wright has been an important presence at EA, most recently playing a key role in designing Spore, in which players develop micro-organisms into creatures. The game has sold 2 million copies since its release last year, disappointing some analysts who expected a bigger success.
Todd Greenwald, an analyst with Signal Hill Group, called Wright's departure a big loss for EA but added that the company has several people to oversee existing video game franchises. Whether EA has someone else who can step in to develop blockbusters is another matter.
"Those big franchises will be fine," Greenwald said. "The big question is where will the next Spore come from? Where does the next Sims come from?"
Ted Pollak, a market analyst at Jon Peddie Research and portfolio manager for the Electronic Entertainment Fund, said he isn't concerned about Wright's departure having a business impact on EA.
"Will Wright is a brilliant game designer, but he's just one of hundreds," he said.
E-mail Verne Kopytoff at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page C - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle