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'Sims' Creator Wright Leaves Electronic Arts

Will Wright, the creative force behind some of Electronic Arts’ biggest games, has announced plans to leave the company, the latest in a series of obstacles for the one-time publishing king of the video game space.

Wright, the creator of “SimCity,” “The Sims” and “Spore,” plans to focus on Stupid FunClub, an entertainment think tank he founded eight years ago. There, he will develop new entertainment properties, which will be targeted at an audience that looks beyond gamers, with possible additional outlets including movies, television, the Internet and toys.

“The entertainment industry is moving rapidly into an era of revolutionary change," said Wright in a statement. "Stupid Fun Club will explore new possibilities that are emerging from this sublime chaos and create new forms of entertainment on a variety of platforms.”

EA and Wright will own equal parts of Stupid Fun Club, with an unnamed third investor holding a minority stake. As part of its stake, EA will have the right of first refusal for any gaming projects that come.

Investors initially showed concern with the news, but shares of EA quickly rebounded. The stock finished just below $20 Wednesday.

Wright was the publishers’ most prominent developer, widely praised for his innovative thinking and ability to tap into the community's desire to contribute to games they play. Other publishers, such as Activision and THQ lack developers with the same level of star appeal. Even Take Two Interactive Software's Sam Houser, creator of the "Grand Theft Auto" franchise, does not have the same sort of widespread name recognition.

Wright's games, meanwhile, have been blockbusters. "SimCity" essentially launched the industry's simulation genre. "The Sims" franchise has sold over 100 million copies and generated over $1 billion in revenue. And "Spore" has sold 2 million copies since launch last September.

For EA, though, the last several months have not been easy ones. While “Spore” has done well, it hasn’t come close to the success of “The Sims,” which many investors were expecting. Late last year, meanwhile, EA announced plans to cut 1,000 jobs and close a development studio. Previously reliable franchises, such as "Need for Speed," have seen their latest installments post disappointing sales. And new franchises, such as "Rock Band" and "Mirror's Edge," performed below expectations during the 2008 holiday season.

While Wright's departure after a 12-year tenure with EA is certainly a public relations blow, it may not be as catastrophic as it would appear. Successors are already in place for his key franchises. Lucy Bradshaw, VP and General Manager of EA's Maxis division, was as involved as Wright in the creation of "Spore". And he turned "The Sims" franchise over to another development team many years ago.

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Also, with his decision to join a think tank, rather than launching his own separate development studio, EA doesn't have to worry about the next Will Wright game launching under a competitor's label.

On the other hand, they're not likely to see his next creation soon. Wright has always worked slowly and meticulously on his games. (“Spore” took roughly eight years to make it to store shelves.) While he said he was in the planning stages for his next game last September, it is unclear if he intends to continue working on that title immediately or will focus on another type of media.

To date, Stupid Fun Club has only publicly released one product—a multi-part pilot TV episode called "M.Y. Robot" made up of an unusual fusion of puppets, Japanese anime-style graphics, and feudal Japan with science-fiction overtones.

It's not the sort of stuff that might appeal to the audience of "The Sims," but it's the sort of artistically free environment that Wright has plowed several times before, resulting in products that proved to be massive mainstream hits.