An earthquake tears the ground asunder. Torrents of water flood the streets. Fires race from block to block. It's a full-fledged disaster -- the kind of calamity only SimCity fans could love. Since its debut in 1989, the best-selling computer game has introduced millions of SimMayors to the trials of running a complex urban system. Make good choices in zoning and budgeting and the city prospers. But players are always just a few moves away from mayhem. ""It's a chaotic system in the same way that societies are chaotic,'' says SimCity's 34-year-old creator, Will Wright. ""You can't predict what's going to happen.''
Unpredictability is a theme in Wright's own life. Although SimCity developed quite naturally from his childhood passions, the connection is clear only in retrospect. Growing up in Georgia and Louisiana, Wright spent hours building models and playing board games. In his late teens he moved on to robots. His first introduction to computing -- college programming courses -- was a bust. ""That was back in the days of keypunch cards,'' he says. ""I hated them.'' Instead, he studied architecture, mechanical engineering and aviation at three schools without ever getting a degree.
Around 1980 a friend talked Wright into buying one of the first Apple computers. This time, things clicked. Before long Wright was immersed in the new world of computer games. He remembers playing ""the very first original flight simulator'' and being amazed by the way the game created ""a little virtual world inside the computer.''
The first game Wright developed was for the old Commodore 64. ""It was a very stupid game,'' he says, because ""the point was to fly over all these islands and bomb them.'' What really interested him was not the shoot'em-up parts but the setting for the game. He began working on SimCity in 1985. Two years later Wright met entrepreneur Jeff Braun at a barbecue and they decided to start their own company, Maxis, to develop the game. SimCity was an almost immediate hit. More than 2 million copies have been sold in this country alone, and it has spawned a whole family of SimGames, all codesigned by Wright, including SimEarth -- The Living Planet, SimAnt -- The Electronic Ant Colony and SimLife -- The Genetic Playground. The newest SimCity, called SimCity 2000, released late last year, features enhanced graphics and sound. Braun is now chairman and CEO of Maxis, based in Orinda, Calif.; Wright is chief game designer.
It's a success story by anybody's standards, but Wright isn't about to lay down his mouse. Even before SimCity 2000 came out, he was at work on an effort he calls Project X. ""It's going to have a strong simulation component,'' Wright says, ""and yet it's a little bit more focused on the idea of you as a designer.'' He's been studying how people relate to dollhouses and train sets, which he sees as ""media through which people can exercise their design talents.'' ""If you look at a train set, some people will get in there and study the train and the cliffs and the hills,'' Wright says. ""Others are into the schedules, while other people spend all their time on the little village in the middle.'' The new project will allow people to focus on different parts of the design process, depending on their interest.
Fans will have to wait until at least next year to see Project X. In the meantime Wright's hard at work, getting up around 10 and spending a few hours at one of the four computers at his house in Orinda. Then he usually heads off to the office before picking up his 8-year-old daughter at school. After family time, he's at the computer until 3 or 4 a.m., conjuring up new virtual worlds to conquer. For Will Wright, the mayhem has only just begun.