Editor’s note: This story was first published in 2011. We’re resharing it on Oct. 20, 2021, the 30th anniversary of the Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm.
Will Wright’s home was one of the first to burn in the Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm. His quick thinking in fleeing without delay probably saved his life, and that of his first wife and immediate neighbors whom he took with him. The experience also had another consequence: It inspired him to create what became the best-selling personal computer game in history.
Wright, one of the world’s leading video game designers, sprang to prominence when his company, Maxis, launched Sim City in 1989. Maxis was sold to Electronic Arts in 1997. Wright’s new company, Stupid Fun Club, was formed two years ago and is based in West Berkeley.
The process of assessing his losses and material needs after his home burned down set Wright to thinking about the value of possessions and the promise they hold of fulfillment. Having always been passionate about architecture, he began to develop an idea for a game where players would simulate daily activities in a suburban household, including building a home from scratch: The Sims was born.
Wright’s home was on a ridge on Norfolk Road, very close to the site of the incompletely extinguished grass fire that is believed to have sparked the catastrophic fire that swept through the hills on October 20.
Wright remembers waking up that morning and smelling smoke.
“The wind was coming from the east which was unusual, and there was a lot of smoke,” he says. “I called 911 and they said everything was under control.” Wright went to shave and shower but the smoke was increasing at such a rate he was prompted to phone 911 again. “It was happening so fast and it was out of control,” he says.
His neighbors had left their two-year old child with grandparents and Wright knew they didn’t have a car. He had to persuade them to leave, but, eventually, they agreed to come with him and his wife. After Wright had grabbed some pictures, the group jumped in his car and headed down the hill. At this point, the fire was surging forth at such speed they were driving through a corridor of flames.
“We drove down Charing Cross Road which is where all the people died. We were about five minutes ahead when we got there,” he says. “Not once did we see a police officer or fire fighter.”
About a week later, Wright returned in a police car to see what was left of his home. “There were chimneys and Weber grills — one car was just a big puddle of melted aluminum,” he says.
Wright discovered that the loss of his possessions did not overly affect him. “The interesting part was to find out that I wasn’t really that attached to much,” he says. “I started assessing my material needs: a toothbrush, underwear, a car, a house… I was surprised how I didn’t miss stuff. The fact we got out and none of our family was hurt seemed so much more important.”
The Sims had its genesis right there, as Wright went through his inventory of needs — as he “tried to reacquire a life”.
“I started to wonder about all the things we have and how we purchased them for a reason. Why do we need x or y or z? Why do we think something will make me happier? It almost came down to Maslow’s pyramid of needs,” he says.
The Firestorm made Wright step back from his life and ask himself “what is life made up of”, he says. “Rarely do you do that in your real life. When something like this happens, you get a big picture. Where do I want to live? What sort of things do I need to buy? You see your life almost as a project in process. When you’re embedded in your day-to-day life you don’t get that perspective.”
Wright looked at time studies — such as John Robinson and Geoffrey Godby’s Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans use Their Time. He also immersed himself in analyses of shopping behavior. The insights he gleaned, combined with his fascination with architecture and living spaces, led to the blueprint for The Sims — a game whose focus is building spaces and simulating the daily habits of people who live in them.
The timing was fortuitous. Wright had just completed a year’s worth of work on Sim Ant. In fact, just two weeks’ earlier he had taken the entire source code for that game from his home to his office — narrowly avoiding it being consumed by the Firestorm.
So ants were on his mind when Wright went back up to the site of his razed home in the hills. “The only life form that had survived was ants,” he says. “They had been deep in the ground so they had survived the heat. I was tuned in to ants, I guess. I watched as they came up and carried off the dead ants on the surface — they were feeding off their dead comrades.”
This article is part of our “Firestorm Special” series which is appearing on Berkeleyside in the run-up to October 20, 2011, the 20th anniversary of the Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm. Read previous Firestorm Special stories.