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Ocean Quigley was heartbroken when Electronic Arts fumbled the debut of SimCity, the always-connected game that launched without adequate server support in March. Consumers couldn’t access their game for days, and EA’s reputation took a hit. For someone who labored over SimCity as the creative director, it was hard to take.

But that isn’t what pushed Quigley, a longtime EA veteran, out the door. Rather, he decided that he want to work on his own projects after three SimCity games. It was, he said in an interview with GamesBeat, time to step out of the shadow of Will Wright, the master game designer and creator of the original SimCity and The Sims.

Quigley announced on Twitter this week that he had left EA to start Jellygrade, a new game studio working on an iPad game simulation. He is joined by SimCity lead architect Andrew Willmott and SimCity lead gameplay engineer Dan Moskowitz. They’re working a game that simulates the Earth at the beginning of time and how it evolved into place full of life. While it may seem a little like Wright’s past games such as Spore or SimEarth, Quigley says it will tap his own team’s creative juices. The new game is an experiment, and it’s a little too nerdy for EA to do, Quigley said. EA spokesman Jeff Brown described the parting as amicable.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview with Quigley.


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Above: Jellygrade

Image Credit: Jellygrade

GamesBeat: You’ve said you didn’t “rage quit” over the SimCity launch woes.

Ocean Quigley: [Laughs] I have a lot of ongoing affection for Maxis. I learned the trade from Will Wright there. I had a lot of friends and excellent collaborators there. Like any creator, I just wanted to start on my own projects. You have to step out of Will Wright’s shadow. Maxis is a fantastic place and EA is a solid and stable institution, but after working on variations of SimCity and The Sims for years, eventually you have to go do something of your own, if you have any ambition at all. This last SimCity was a multi-year project, and when it was done, it was time to go try that.

I have a couple of collaborators who I’ve started the studio with. They’re just stellar engineers, some of the best I ever worked with. The prospect of starting a company with these guys is not something that comes along very often, so I jumped at it.

GamesBeat: You did make it clear that it was disappointing that SimCity launched the way that it did.

Quigley: That wasn’t the determining factor in me leaving. That was just something to ride through and endure. It was incredibly frustrating, as somebody who poured their heart and soul into the game, to have it come out and fall flat on its face, with the servers all overloading and people not being able to play it for a number of weeks. That was a heartbreak of course. Doubly so because I’m quite proud of the game. I think we did a great job. That made the end of my work with SimCity much more bittersweet than it would have been otherwise. But it wasn’t, like I said, a determining factor. This is something that, as a creator, is the next evolution in what I need to do, to make something new and fresh that’s uniquely my own.

Jellygrade's Andrew Willmott

Above: Jellygrade’s Andrew Willmott.

Image Credit: Jellygrade

GamesBeat: How far along are you now? Are you picking a name?

Quigley: The studio name, Jellygrade, we came up with a few months or so ago. Andrew Wilmott, who’s the system architect — he was also the system architect for SimCity 4, architecture lead for Spore, and did all the graphics stuff for Sims 2 — he’s been cranking on the underlying new simulation engine, which is all physically-based simulation around solids and fluids and lava and stuff like that. That simulation is coming together. It’s not entirely in place yet, but it’s coming together, and we have a pretty clear vision of what we’re building on top of it, what the game experience is.

It’s going to be a science-nerdy type of game, with forming earth’s crust and rain and lava and sediment and erosion. The dawn of life in the context of this swirling environment. We’re leading on tablets. It’s going to be on iOS initially, and then the intent is to put it on more platforms as well. We’re just three guys, so one thing at a time.

We have the simulator running on iOS and Macs right now. It seems like the mobile platform has gotten powerful enough, just in terms of graphics horsepower and CPU, to do things like proper fluid dynamics simulation and simulation in general. Not just casual games, but honest-to-goodness simulations. You have to be efficient in what you do. Andrew has his doctorate in computer science from Carnegie Mellon, so he’s a pretty bright guy. He’s been able to cram all this stuff into an iPad or iPhone.

So we’re leading with mobile. Assuming it all works out, we’ll be able to move on to other platforms, but mobile is what we’re targeting for the initial release.

GamesBeat: It sounds like there’s almost nothing like this in the market right now. Is there even a genre for your game in mobile already?

Quigley: Not that we’ve seen. There are obviously particle toy apps for iOS and Android, but nobody that we’ve seen has tried to pull them together into a simulation of something large in the way that we’ve done. We’re excited to be creating and presenting this thing to the world. It’s a gamble, but it’ll be interesting to see if people pick it up, or if it is in fact too science-nerdy for the general population. But I think I do this with integrity and there’s compelling gameplay there, there’s a reasonable chance.

GamesBeat: Do you see a story in this game, or is it more of an open-world type of thing?

Quigley: It is a progression. It’s a story in the sense that the game starts you out with the molten surface of the newly-formed earth. You’re looking at a cross-section of convecting cells of lava bubbling up and spreading. You’re using the various tools that get revealed to you, that you acquire as you play the game, to progress through time, basically. You create solid crusts and terrain, build up atmosphere, create rain clouds and rain, and the seas of the early earth. You’re stepping forward through time.

I’m going to completely nerd out on you here. You’re going from the Hadean eon, the dawn of earth, through the Archean eon, where life formed — the first single-celled organisms — all the way up to the neo-Archean, where you had the first things that are plausibly the ancestors of plants and animals. There’s the great oxygenation event, when the atmosphere went from being this poisonous, sulfurous hell, to becoming blue skies full of oxygen.

The subject of the game tracks the early history of the earth and the emergence of life on a lifeless planet. That’s what you’re doing. So there is a story. There isn’t a little mascot, an avatar who you’re playing the game through, if that’s what you mean. But there’s a narrative of the larger system as you move it forward.

GamesBeat: It sounds a little like a mix of Spore and SimEarth there. Are you sure you’ve escaped the orbit of Will Wright?

Quigley: [Laughs] Will was there with so many things, so early. I don’t know if I’ll ever fully escape the orbit of Will Wright. But I believe the best I can do is to try and put my own spin on the subject matter.

GamesBeat: Do you anticipate that mobile platforms are going to get better, or do you think they’re already good enough for what you want to do with simulations?

Quigley: Obviously they’re getting better at a rocketing pace. If you look at the curve of GPU performance on mobile, it’s only going up. But what we have right now is efficient enough to do a simulation, as long as we’re efficient about it. As long as we code tightly, we can do a simulation and the visualizations for that simulation that is not compromising.

With the touch interface, you can directly manipulate a bunch of the physical things in the simulation. That’s something you can’t usually do with a mouse. You can scoop and pull and push things – even pull on the viscous lava or splash water on it and stuff like that – with multiple fingers. It lends a reality to the environment that you’re creating and manipulating as a player. It’s not just the graphics horsepower and the CPU that let us do this stuff. It’s the user interface. The touch interface is a natural for this type of tactile, physical simulation.