Part 3: The Saving Grace
"My stress level was increasing exponentially," explains Wright. The best-case scenario was that the company would delay SimCity 3000 and endure a potentially deadly financial crunch; the worst case was that one of the most successful franchises in PC history would be ruined by desperate executives seeking a way out.
Enter San Mateo, California-based Electronic Arts, the $1 billion dollar interactive conglomerate. Maxis was the ideal acquisition candidate for EA, who was looking for ways to improve its equity in the PC game market. The SimCity brand was one of the most recognized and respected PC franchises; indeed Electronic Arts had long considered Maxis as an acquisition candidate, but the executives in Walnut Creek turned a deaf ear to EA. After all, Maxis wanted to become the next EA, not yield to it.
Needless to say, that attitude didn't last. "All of the sudden, in the middle of 1997, Maxis was very interested in talking to us," explains Luc Barthelet, Maxis' general manager, who was an executive at EA at the time. But it's not like Maxis had much of a choice. With more than 200 employees on the payroll, a heavy loss in the previous year, and no focus for the future, it almost had to sell out.
"I entered the deal with a lot of trepidation."
- Will Wright on the decision to sell Maxis to Electronic Arts.
And so it was announced in June 1997 that Maxis would be acquired by Electronic Arts in a US $125 million dollar stock transaction. Wright's take in the deal would be about US $15 million in stock, but he still wasn't completely sold on the concept. "I entered the deal with a lot of trepidation," he admits. "I knew there were going to be layoffs, but not doing the deal would have meant even more layoffs down the road."
You might ask, with Maxis in such sorry shape, what exactly was Electronic Arts buying? "The Maxis acquisition was one of the first examples of brand really playing a role in a major business acquisition for EA," says Pat Becker, EA's vice president of corporate communications. Admittedly, Maxis was broken from the inside out, but EA thought it could use its management talent to turn around the studio and get a highly visible and respected brand in the process.
BEHIND THE GAMES
From day one, EA appointed a 35-year-old French engineer named Luc Barthelet to become the general manager of Maxis. Barthelet, a manager at EA's San Mateo studio for a number of years, would have to make the hard decisions about Maxis. In reflecting on the acquisition, Barthelet, an articulate and straightforward Frenchman, says, "The problem was that management was not focused on product development. It was trying to make Maxis into everything EA was, but it didn't have the focus or infrastructure to do it."
Maxis' general manager Luc Barthelet.
Barthelet would move into the Maxis offices full time in the summer of 1997 and be greeted by a studio filled with strife, anger, and disillusionment. His goal was to find the diamond in the rough and bring the magic back to Maxis.
A New Focus, a New Mission