For a closer look at Spore, launch the gallery of screenshots.
Although gaming is a multibillion-dollar business rivaling the movie industry, the creative talents behind it slave away in near anonymity. Will Wright is the rare exception, a 47-year-old superstar developer responsible for the creation of millions of virtual cities and people through his best-selling Sim titles (Sim City, The Sims and The Sims 2). He´s poured seven years into his next project, the ambitious videogame Spore, due to ship this fall, in which players pilot the development of life from a single cell to an intergalactic empire. We joined him for lunch in New York City to chat about his magnum opus, evolution, and why videogames of the future will play us as much as we play them.
There must be hundreds of thousands of words written already about Spore, but can you describe the game in 50 words or less?
The core of it is, we want the players to create their own worlds, all the way from the microscopic scale up to the galactic. At every level of the game there is a simulation of life, society, civilization, exploration, the player's kind of pushing back against, but as they create each level of this world it's automatically shared with other players, so that the players playing are also creating the game worlds for everybody else.
Going through the Spore demo, it seemed almost like a boxed set of games on a related theme rather than a single game. Do you see it as a series of separate experiences or are they tightly linked together?
I always thought of it kind of almost as a T, where the base of the T is you working your way up the levels, where there are goals from cell to evolution to tribe to civilization. Once you get to space, though, the game opens out -- that's the top of the T â€ where now there are these different metagames, different kinds of metagoals you can pursue, and it becomes more of an open-ended sandbox up at the space level. So its kind of a combination of directed gameplay at the base of the T working your way up and opening up into a sandbox at the top that's more Grand Theft Auto-like.
But the experience of that initial level where you're building your critters at the cellular level seems very different from what you're doing later in the game.
Each level, in fact, is in some ways a different genre of gameplay. And one of the challenges of Spore is how do we take all these different genres and bring them together with one control scheme, one set of UI, kind of a singular goal that you're always working towards. So it's a blend of genres coming together to create a singular experience. So you can kind of say what are the rules of my genre. but then you can say what is the experience and the overall goal for the player on topâ€
So do you think the same player who wants to build a cellular organism and nurture it on that level is going to follow through all these experiences? Ordinarily you play a different game if you want to build cities versus if you want to conquer alien civilizations.
We're trying to build each of the levels to where the player can, to a large degree, choose how much time they want to spend on that level. So you're not forced out of a level in most cases, you can kind of stay there. If I like the evolution game I can keep playing that as long as I want to, it's up to me to kind of evolve to the next level. At the same time these levels in most cases are each a tutorial for the next level. So we start out with very simple concepts you learn in the cell game, but those same concepts are the basis of the creature game with a few more things added in, and the tribe game is an elaboration of that, and the civilization game is an elaboration of that. So in some sense each one of these levels is kind of ratcheting you up a little bit more, a little bit more, and once you get to the space level, now you can kind of interact with all these different levels in different ways, now that you've learned them all.
So you're sort of smoothing the learning curve by teaching concept by concept by concept as you move along.Or you might see it as nested shells, where we start with the innermost one, now we can layer a few more concepts on that, a few more on that. Which is the basis of a lot of game design anyway, where you don't want to throw all 30 concepts in the game at the player at once. You want to show them the initial two or three things they need to do in order to play the game, then you give them a new weapon, a new dynamic, a new verb, and you start layering more and more options on the player. same thing here.
How much is the game based on established scientific theory, Darwinian evolution or what have you, and how much of it is more seat-of-your-pants?
I think the rough arc of life in the game is a pretty accurate though caricatured representation of reality, in the way life evolved from single cell to multicell to intelligence. Specifically on every level that kind of depends on what you're looking at. The evolution part of the game, the player is actually designing the creature, so in fact it's almost like intelligent design rather than pure evolution for your creature. The creatures around you are in fact kind of evolving more naturally, but in fact behind them of course are intelligent designers making the specific versions. Once we get up to the civilization level it's kind of an abstraction of human history. What are the different ways in which humans have built larger and larger groupings of people? We've done it militarily, economically, culturally, those are represented in fairly abstract terms. Once we get to space the scope of the size of the galaxy is an interesting little model of the real galaxy in terms of the distance between stars, the type of other objects you have up there, planetary nebula, black holes, stuff like that are fairly accurately represented in terms of their distribution in the galaxy, the number of stars we're dealing with is actually a very small fraction. Even though we have millions of stars in our galaxy, it's a very small fraction of what a real galaxy has. But still from the player's point of view they're both still huge numbers â€ almost inconceivable. Unless there's a compelling reason to break reality we've tried to follow reality, but again, in a caricatured format.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.