If you’ve never heard of Lucy Bradshaw, you’re not alone. But you’ve played her games. As the lead producer for record-setting titles like “The Sims,” “SimCity” and “Harry Potter,” she’s a powerful woman in an industry dominated by men. Since 2011, she’s has led the franchising arm of Electronic Arts’ Maxis division as vice president, producing games that help millions escape their reality and enter complex fantasy worlds and lives. But before her rise, she admits she came to Maxis in 1997 because, like millions of fans, she obsessed over building fantasies.
Bradshaw, after all, doesn’t just love games, she got lucky and worked at a job that she excels at. She’s passionate about gaming and the business behind it, and she’s used that drive — plus an innate understanding of psychology — to turn Maxis ideas into blockbuster franchises. That passion will be on full display next month, when the long-awaited “SimCity” returns. But this time, you’ll need to log on to play. The change in business strategy has fans grumbling, but she has her reasons.
Coming to Maxis
Bradshaw stumbled into gaming just like so many others before her — she loved to play games. After graduating with a psychology degree from the University of Michigan, she went into franchise development at LucasArts and Activision, overseeing such titles as “Rebel Assault,” “Secret of Monkey Island 2″ and “The Dig.” Those games didn’t reach the heights of Sims success, but they were popular in their day, providing a training ground for her career in gaming.
Eventually, she migrated to Electronic Arts, or EA, where a few years later, destiny intervened in the form of games she’d enjoyed since her college years. While on maternity leave in 1997, she heard EA acquired Maxis, she told Fast Company. As a fan of the game, she looked forward to becoming a part of the division.
“I was like, ‘I want to work there; that’s what I want to do,’” she added. “SimCity was the thing that got me into the video game business — it was the first game I played all night long.”
Like many students in the ’90s, she was hooked on SimCity, building skyscrapers and communities well into the night. She would soar in her role with EA, managing the successful development of “SimCity 3000,” “The Sims,” “SimCity 4,” “The Sims 2″ and “Spore” and “Darkspore” franchises — cash cows that would fuel the company’s future growth.
While Maxis founder Will Wright comes up in Sim-related titles, Bradshaw — a highly regarded franchising expert — oversaw the profitability and design of the game, adding crucial elements to hook players, like options to express creativity and give them ownership of characters. She spearheaded the brand and helped to craft the identity, making those iconic titles come to life — now-revolutionary features you now see in many copycats today.
The Sims: A Different Kind of Game
From marathon SimCity sessions, Bradshaw understood the compelling draw of new worlds, and in the years that followed, she helped create The Sims, which blazed a trail and drew droves of players across all age groups. It isn’t your usual game. There isn’t a storyline, you don’t shoot at targets or kill aliens, and there isn’t a sports platform or mystery to solve. Instead, you create people, which interact and thrive or die off. It’s a family friendly game, because kids and adults alike can create characters that are as simple or complicated as they like.
As a result, the programming is quite complex, and it takes several years of development time for sequels. For example, the last Sims game came out about four years ago. Meanwhile, SimCity is coming in next month, and unlike earlier versions, it’ll be available only online. For her, bringing reality and meaning to the game are important ideals. “I can tell you that sense of being able to create these living creatures — and do so in a way that felt really meaningful to players — that’s one direction that we’re taking,” she said in the article.
Bradshaw is just one of a handful of female executives gaining power in a male-dominated industry. But she believes women are a perfect fit for the video games, and encourages others to follow her path. She knows first-hand how important it is to bring passion and knowledge together into a lucrative career, but from a gamer’s point of view, it makes sense that more women become involved. The Sims series, for example, drove home what she already knew firsthand — when women can relate to a game, they’ll play it. She noticed The Sims and its follow-up editions reached a particularly unique audience: 65 percent of Sims players were female. And women pushed the Sims to become one of the highest-grossing franchises of all times, ranking only behind Pokemon video games and Nintendo’s Mario series.
“I want to see more women coming into this business,” she told Fast Company. “I look at it as a business imperative. Companies in the video game business like Electronic Arts are going to benefit from having more women in development and in roles that bring new perspective.”
At Maxis, she also led the development of Spore, a game that lets you create organisms and evolve them into almost any creature. The game, another huge success, took nearly seven years to complete and release, and after selling millions, it proved as addictive as The Sims franchise. Spore’s success among women points to the nurturing influence of games. And she flexes her nurturing muscles, balancing her work life with the needs of her two teenage daughters. But she’s facing challenges.
SimCity is already causing controversy. Maxis held a recent “Ask Me Anything” event on Reddit, and its online business model was a hot-button topic. Past iterations of The Sims and SimCity involved installing discs on computers, or buying cartridges, which let you play on consoles. The online game, meanwhile, requires a constant connection through a smartphone, tablet or a PC. While some players think the online need is inconvenient, she says it’ll be offset by better graphics and higher standards of gameplay.
SimCity requires a massive amount of computing power, so Maxis designed it to connect from the ground up, she noted, showing her determination to bring the best virtual experience to you.
Inside the Courtroom
Outside the game, she also showed her creative passion in the courtroom. When Zynga introduced “The Ville” in 2012, Maxis sued, claiming popular Facebook title copied elements from The Sims Social. Bradshaw took the lawsuit personally, and posted about the copyright infringement on EA’s website, insisting Zynga’s “design choices, animations, visual arrangements and character motions and actions” are a direct copy. She called the lawsuit a “case of principle,” words that show her own standards of hard work.
“Maxis isn’t the first studio to claim that Zynga copied its creative product, but we are the studio that has the financial and corporate resources to stand up and do something about it,” she wrote, acknowledging a long fight ahead. Just as she sought to make The Sims as real and comprehensive as possible, she stood firm in her dedication to in-game development. “As a longstanding game developer, I know what it feels like to pour your heart and soul into creating something unique and special for your fans to enjoy,” she added.
Bradshaw never become a household name like her contemporaries, but she’s a powerful and passionate influence in the gaming world. And as long as she remains involved, titles such as The Sims will continue to show that gaming isn’t just for the boys’ club — it’s for everyone. ♦