The Wright Stuff
Will Wright plays with evolution-and Intelligent Design-in his new magnum opus, Spore. In this extended interview, see what one of the gaming industry's luminaries has to say about the Wii, Second Life, and much more.
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.
**How long has the game been in development?****
Depends on what you call in development. The first research I did on it was starting around 2000, and I spent a lot of time researching the SETI project, subscribing to journals, reading all the books I could, and it was about a year later that it expanded to become more the Powers of Ten thing. I realized how closely the Powers of Ten and the SETI actually map onto each other.
Can you explain?
SETI is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence which is conducted with large radio telescopes listening to nearby stars for radio traffic. A fundamental tenet of that is what’s called Drake’s Equation. A guy named Frank Drake was the first guy to actually listen to stars for intelligent communication and was the first person to propose actually communicating with them and sending out a message. He sent out a message from the Areceibo telescope back in the sixties. But Drake’s equation actually tries to calculate the probability that there are intelligent aliens out in the stars. Its simply an equation that takes the number of stars in the galaxy †how many of these might have planets, how many of those might be habitable, how many of those has life arisen on, how many of those have that life been intelligent. You just multiply all these factors together and come up with a number. But if you look at these factors and what they represent, they actually represent aspects of chemistry, biology, sociology, cosmology. and so those sciences span all these different scales. So if you are actually looking at all the terms of Drake’s Equation you in fact are looking at a Powers of Ten map. Some of the factors are very small chemical factors, other ones are very large astronomy factors — how often are stars born? Others are sociological factors †how long is a society likely to survive once it has become intelligent? And so the two mesh together very nicely.
So spore has that sort of micro to macro span.
Yeah, there’s small to large in scale, but there’s also the distant past to the distant future in time, so in some sense it’s a map as much of space and scale but of time as well, but life is kind of like the portrait we’re putting into this frame. We´re looking at life from the very small to the very large and from the distant past to the distant future.
Nothing overambitious about that.
No†it’s a very focused game.
How big a team is involved?
We’re hovering around a hundred people or so.
That seems like a big team to deal with.
It’s actually not that large compared to a lot of game development teams at this point in time. We actually have a very small art staff because the player will be creating most of the stuff in the game. The art staff is very unusual in that most of them do some level of programming. The team is unusual in a number of factors because we’re doing this all procedurally. We have a whole team that’s just dealing with pollinated content, moving content from player to player. We have another team that makes editors for the players to be creative, tools that the players create the content withâ€the Godfather team was like 300 people.
As this has gone on as a creative process for years and years, does it still pretty much resemble your initial vision or has it morphed in significant ways?
Actually it’s surprising how close it does resemble my initial vision. Almost more so than I thought we would achieve. We ended up achieving more, especially with the editors, the player tools, than I thought we would, in terms of being able to create really cool stuff with a very small number of clicks. The different levels each have level designers that I work with very closely, and we have to coordinate. The really challenging part of this game is making these different levels feel like a singular experience, so that once you’ve left one level the next level doesn´t feel like we’re changing all the rules underneath you, and the interface changes and the controls and the camera and all this stuff. So getting these levels into alignment, feeling like one consistent, sort of singular experience has been the real challenge on the design side.
The Sims experiences have appealed strongly to a female contingent, more so than pretty much anything else. Do you think this is going to have that same appeal, or is this a more masculine game? It felt that way to me.
When you look at the theme of it it at first might seem kind of science-y. But the approach we’ve taken is to be very playful with the entire universe. A good example of that is the creatures. And in fact we found that with The Sims even, what women especially seemed to enjoy was the creative aspects of it, being able to make things that were theirs, then being able to share them and build stories around them, et cetera. I think the creature editor just by itself is going to have a huge appeal to female players as an aesthetic artistic expression of what they want to do. The fact that they can make something very elaborate in the game and then show it to other people and trade it with everybody, and in fact trading it is like automatic now, whereas before you’d have to put it up on a web site and the other people would come and download it and put it in the right folder and all this, now it will just be totally automatic. And anybody else playing the game might come across the cool creature you made and be able to bookmark you, get more stuff from you and give you positive feedback about what you created. So I think Spore is going to feel like a much more elaborate creative palette than The Sims did, and it´s a matter of making the environment of creatures and evolution and traveling in space not seem off-putting or too science-y but make it feel like a very natural narrative environment, where I naturally want to tell a story in these worlds. Because I think the storytelling is the other important aspect. Once I make stuff in the game, I want to now use that stuff to basically play out a story, and then share that story with other people.
How do your experiences get shared with other people?
We’re still working on aspects of the narrative side of that. Like in Sims 2†in Sims 1 we had this thing where you could create a storybook. In Sims 2 we had that plus we had this thing where you can create a movie. And we’re going to have something like that, that we’re still in the design process on right now, but some way you can share your narratives. But right off the bat, the content you make can be shared. In The Sims, we saw that in fact much more people were sharing content †you know, characters, furniture, houses, lots †than were sharing stories, so content was really the main thing they wanted to share. In Spore, the tools are more and more powerful than they were in The Sims, so the next step is, now, how do we take those things and use them to build a narrative. And we want every level to feel narrative-rich, so there are hundreds or thousands of potential stories on every level that I might choose to play out during the game.
Let’s talk about the content sharing system, since that’s one of the coolest things in the game. Can you explain how that works?
Every time the player makes something in the game †creature, building, vehicle, planet, whatever, it gets sent to our servers automatically, a compressed representation of it. As other players are playing the game we need to populate their game with other creatures around them in the evolution game, other cities around them in the civilization game, other planets and races and aliens in the space game, and those are actually coming from our server and were created by other players. so there’s an infinite variety of NPCs that I can encounter in the game that are continually being made by the other players as they play. And whenever I encounter this content I actually end up building a little card deck in the game that we call Spore_pedia, there’s a little card to represent every piece of content, every creature, every building, every vehicle, and I can see who made that. I can see what its stats are. I can bookmark that person if I like their stuff and have their stuff†like I can find my best friend and say make sure my best friend’s stuff comes into my game, so I encounter their worlds first. So it’s almost what we were seeing people do with _The Sims, where they would go browse web sites looking for cool stuff and then download it, except we kind of burn it all into the gameplay. I don’t have to leave the game, put it in my folder, go browse the web †it’s now part of the gameplay experience.
And you mentioned you can actually give feedback to the person who created whatever the thing is?
We’re going to have different feedback mechanisms. One of the things we’re going to be doing continually is rating the most popular content, so when you make a creature you’re going to be able to go to what we call the metaverse report and get a sense of what is your creature’s popularity ranking relative to other people’s creatures. And if you’re not on the Net, we will still have a large database of stuff on your disk that it will draw from instead, so it’s not required, but it’s pretty simple turning it on.
Well that’s, to my eye at least, potentially the coolest part of the game.
Looking at things like Pokemon and Neopets, and how much people kind of identify with these creatures, and they didn’t even create them †they trained them or gave them some stats or whatever †but it was always Pikachu or whatever. In this case I want people to feel like they are Pokemon designers, Neopet designers, or Pixar designers, and the range of creatures is pretty astounding.
But you’re not looking at an economy where people sell what they’ve created, like in Second Life?
Well, those economies that develop †there’s no way for us to prevent them, first of all. If there’s a reason for it to exist, as an external economy, they can always go do it on eBay, so I’m not saying we can prevent this from happening. There probably will be some sort of economy that we haven’t quite figured out, where the most popular creature, or person, get some sort of reward, and we’re not quite sure what form that reward will take yet.
But will you be able to pick and choose what creatures or buildings are shipped down to you, or is it just the server doing it automatically?
Oh no, it naturally happens automatically, but you can also browse the entire database of content and if you see stuff you really like, you can say I want this or that. So let’s say I wanted to recreate Paris in the game, and I’m looking for the Eiffel Tower and I’m looking for the Arc de Triomphe and I can find them on the server I can say ‘OK, make sure those are in my game.’ And then when I open up the shopping catalogue in the city planning part of the game, those would now appear. So what we’re hoping is that players will be able to create very well-crafted worlds even though they didn’t create all the content. Just like The Sims, there’s this giant library of props and actors I have available just to download and then tell a cool story with. Maybe I’m really good at telling a story but I’m not that great at making the actors and the items, or maybe somebody else is really good at making buildings, but for the most part they want to download vehicles and creatures. So people can specialize.
We’re basically building a model of the player’s aesthetic. So if you keep picking things from the shopping catalog that are like super-cute, Disney-like, then it will start offering you and downloading more stuff that matches your aesthetic. So in some sense you’re teaching the computer your aesthetic and it’s building a model of that. And when it makes a request to the server it’s taking that into account, so the world will slowly start to represent your aesthetic choices.
When we moved from Sims to Sims 2 there was more emphasis on gameplay, on goals, on winning or losing. Where does Spore stand†can you win Spore?
In terms of the level gameplay, working your way up from cell to creature, definitely yes, because we have goal conditions where you have to get to a certain goal to go from creature to tribe, or tribe to civilization. Within those levels we want to have a large number of different ways in which you can get to that goal. Once you get to the space level, that’s where I’m saying it becomes more of an open sandbox. And we have all these different metagoals to pursue, so there’s really no winning the space game, although there will probably be people out there who have probably conquered the most planets, or built the largest federations, or done the most trading†we’ll have metrics around that as well, so there will be stats where you can compare yourself with other people.
And there will be an online leaderboard?
Yeah, but it’s not head to head, it’s everybody playing in their own little sandbox.
So on the continuum from games to simulations, where does this one stand?
It’s a strange hybrid. A lot of our game levels are going to have mission-based gameplay as well, where you are given little goals you can choose to pursue †try to do this and earn extra points †as well as the space level, there will be a lot of mission-based gameplay as well. So I would say this one, within the game, is gong to have a lot of overt goals that you can pursue or not. Like in The _Sims 2__ you have all these wants and you can choose to pursue the want but the game doesn’t end if you don’t get there. Your Sim just gets unhappy, so there will be consequences. But when you get into the editors in _Spore, that’s where it starts feeling very open-ended. and a lot of time people will spend just in the editors, making weird wacky things to see how they will do in the world. So it depends how you approach it. If you want to approach it as a goal-based gameplayer there will be some fairly specific goal structures in there to pursue. But for the most part we’re not trying to dissuade the kind of open-ended creative expression player if they don’t choose to pursue those goals. With the one exception of, there are specific goals to progress through the levels.
So I can die off? I mean, obviously one failure condition is that I didn’t survive to the point where I can play the next level.
Yeah, and in most of those cases you get ratcheted down a level, you don’t have to start over from scratch. Like in the creature game, if you die you fall back to last generation, and you might keep dying and dying and dying but eventually you survive that generation then you’re ratcheted up, and if you die you fall back to that one. So for the most part you’re sort of ratcheting in your progress. But until you get the highest brain level you’re not going to enter Tribal, or in Tribal phase until you get 20 members of your tribe you’re not going to enter Civilization.
One of the oddball things about Spore, when you look at it, it’s sort of a single-player massively multiplayer game, which seems at odds†I kind of like the idea that I won’t be killed by a 14-year-old who has more skills than I do, but did you consider having it live online player versus player?
We thought about it. In fact, technically, based on all the stuff we’ve already done for it, it wouldn’t be very hard at all. We’ve already solved all the hard problems we would need to do a persistent online world version of Spore. The hard part is, what happens when you come to a planet and the planet’s offline? Which would be the case. In fact, one of the reasons why I kind of went down this path is that nobody has really explored the hybrid model. And this really is a hybrid, it’s what we call a massively single-player game, where we try to get the benefits of an online game, which is all the people building the world collectively together, without the liabilities, which is that the 14-year-old can kill you or that you’ve invested all this time in your planet and somebody comes along and blows it up, and therefore you had to put everybody on the same level treadmill. And I hate these level treadmill games, and I wanted the players to feel really empowered. You know, you have this whole universe and this UFO and you really want to go out there and do epic things, but in an online game you couldn’t. So trying to get the best of both worlds, figuring out what the sweet spot is between the features available through a shared universe experience and then the power available to a single-player experience. The intersection of those two things is kind of where Spore ended up and why it ended up there.
So what you leave out of that equation is the socializing you get in say a Second Life.
The face-to-face socializing, yeah. we’re still hoping to have the asynchronous socializing through content, which we’re already seeing in The Sims web community. huge communities form with very well-known people based on the content they’ve made, other people taking that content and telling cool stories with it. So that’s the kind of socialization I want to focus on with Spore, that worked very well with The Sims.
Speaking of which†Sims Online seemed like a slam dunk, got huge press, it was going to change the nature of gaming. And it still exists, but it wasn’t the raging success people were expecting.
I think that’s actually the reason, because with The Sims, I think people love controlling this experience, and creating everything, and playing out these stories, and having the ultimate power to shape the experience and environment to whatever they want to. In an online game you can’t even pause the game, or speed it up †you can’t control time at all, because everybody has to be on the same time sync. So I think the empowering part of The Sims is one of the reasons it was so successful, the fact that I could be creative with how the experience unfolded, but the limitations of an online game meant that you really couldn’t have any power over other players, or much control over the environment itself or even over the timeline. So those two things felt like they were really in opposition to me. Plus the majority of our players of The Sims, sort of our mainstay, are teenage girls for the most part. And these were also players who never played any other game. So the prospect of getting them to actually subscribe to a game for $10 a month was a very difficult business proposition to these people, who a lot of them don’t even have credit cards. I mean I’m a hardcore gamer and I don’t subscribe to any online games, and getting a casual player to do the same, it’s totally different.
I find I don’t subscribe to World of Warcraft †I appreciate what they did, but I have maybe a half hour to play, an hour to play, on my own schedule. I can’t join a guild and make commitments †I have enough trouble keeping commitments to my own family.
Oh I know – same here!
And it seems like gaming more and more is slotted in, as opposed to the kid playing obsessively.
I think it’s more interstitial time now, where you have these little tiny blocks of time that you carve out that you want to play a game in. I mean, that’s why I play Battlefield all the time, because I can sit down and play half an hour of Battlefield, it’s really satisfying and I don’t have to worry if I never play it again for another two months. I’m not paying anything, nobody’s waiting for me, no commitments. I can have a nice half-hour satisfying experience.
Which brings up an interesting question. If I’ve created a world in Spore, will I be able to play on my cellphone and somehow link back into that.
We are actually looking at versions for all these different platforms, and the content that you make in the game, because it compresses to these incredibly small files, is pretty much platform agnostic. It’s small enough to where you can easily send anything you’ve jade in Spore down to a cellphone, it’s just a matter of reconstituting it at that resolution. Our creatures should be compressible down to about 3K each, and they’re one of the largest pieces of content.
So I could theoretically then have an editor that I carried on my cellphone and then send it back to the game when I got home?
Well, the hard part here is building a satisfying editor on your cellphone, not sending the creature back and forth, that’s the easy part. But like a Nintendo DS or something, that’s plausible.
Do you see Spore, or the rest of your games for that matter, as being educational?
I think in a deep way yeah †that’s kind of why I do them. But not in a curriculum-based, ‘I’m gong to teach you facts’ kind of way. I think more in terms of deep lessons of things like problem-solving, or just creativity †creativity is a fundamental of education that’s not really taught so much. But giving people tools†what it means to be human is to learn to use tools to basically expand your abilities. And I think computer games are in some sense a fundamental tool for our imagination. If we can let players create these elaborate worlds, there’s a lot of thought, design thought, problem solving, expression that goes into what you’re going to create. You know, I think of the world of hobbies, which isn’t what it used to be. When I was a kid, you know, people that were into trains had a big train set and they spent a lot of time sculpting mountains and building villages, or they might have been into slot cars or dollhouses or whatever, but these hobbies involved skill, involved creativity, and at some point involved socialization. Finding other people and joining the model train club, comparing and contrasting our skills, our approaches. And I think a lot of computer gaming has kind of supplanted those activities, they have a lot of the aspects of hobbies. Especially the games that allow the player to be creative and to share that creativity and form a community around it. I think just in general, play is about problem-solving, about interacting with things in an unstructured way to get a sense of it and what the rules are.
Which is counter to current trends — educational philosophy seems to have taken a huge step towards the three Rs, the basics, what you can regurgitate on a standardized test. And this seems to be going back to process-oriented education, where you’re learning problem solving.
And a lot of it also is†you know, some of the most effective education is failure-based, where you’re given a system and you can manipulate it and explore different failure states and success states, and all that. Most of our educational system is designed to protect you from failure. You know †here’s how you write a proper sentence, here’s how you do a math problem without failing. So basically, they don’t let you experience failure. Failure is seen as a bad thing, not as a learning experience. And even when you get to the professional world, things like architecture, engineering, industrial design, they teach you how to do it the right way. Where it used to be you would build five bad buildings and they’d fall down and you’d learn yourself †that was more the apprenticeship, craftsmanship model. You’d build 20 bad chairs but eventually learn how to build a good one because you would learn the failure states yourself, inherently †you’d experience them directly. Whereas when you go to engineering school they teach you how not to fail, so you’re never directly experiencing those failures. It limits your intuitions. Whereas a kid playing a game †the first thing they do is they’ll sit there and play five or six times and learn from that, and they learn at a very core level in a very different way. They’ve actually explored the whole possibility space. It’s not that they’ve been told ‘don’t go there because you’ll fail’ and so they never go there and never experience it directly on their own. They’re encouraged to do that all on their own, in fact they’re directly building that possibility map.
We talked about the fact that you’re platform agnostic, coming out on PC first. Are you looking at Spore on consoles?
The PC is a lower-friction development environment when you’re doing innovative stuff. And especially something that has such as strong network connection like Spore does, we need a hub, really, as the core experience that we first do. Because if our server content is going to be platform agnostic, we want to figure out what is the biggest funnel for that content into the server that we can build right off the bat, and the PC seems like the best platform for that. And now we can flow the content to other platforms as well. But hopefully all that content will be platform independent. But the PC is a really good environment still in a number of ways relative to consoles, primarily because we have a high-res monitor, we have a mouse as an input device, and they’re pretty much universally connected to the net. And some of the consoles are starting to get aspects of these things, but to have all three of these things in one device is still really valuable from a gaming point of view.
I would imagine building an editor for creating creatures using just the console controlsâ€.
That’s where the mouse is actually a wonderful input device. I just love the mouse as a gaming input device.
â€it’s sort of like trying to draw with mittens on.
I mean the Wii, in fact, is one of the more interesting ones because of that. It’s still not as precise as the mouse, but it’s much better from my point of view for random access of the screen compared to a controller joypad.
Obviously as a kid you didn’t dream of being a computer game designer, seeing as how there was no industry at that point. What did you think you were going to do?
I always thought I was going to be some sort of engineer or architect †those were the two things that really kind of captured my fancy. But basically I thought I’d be making things. I always liked making things as a kid. I spent a lot of time building models, lots and lots of models, planes, tanks, ships, whatever. When I got my first computer I realized that hey, I can build models on the computer now and they’re dynamic, so I could build these much more interesting models. And that’s what got me into simulation and AI. Kind of in between all that I also got very interested in robots, as kind of a hybrid, an interesting form of modeling, really modeling people. People seemed like the most interesting thing to try to model. And that’s kind of been a hobby of mine since before I got my first computer and it still is†building robots.
At this point there are game development curricula at many institutions of higher education. Good idea or bad idea, if you want to work in the industry? Or do you go study art history or whatever and then show up at EA?
Well there are a few programs that are actually turning out some really good graduates now. And I try to stay on top of these pretty closely, get to know the professors teaching the best courses across the country, because I’m actually trying to harvest really good interns from these people. And the ones that are working out well tend to be a really nice blend of technology and art, to where you end up with technologists, programmers, whatever, that have very well-developed art sensibilities, or you have artists that have a good appreciation for using digital tools, and the new spaces that those open for artistic expression. And one of the most successful ones is at CMU. They have this program, the Entertainment Technology program, and it was co-developed between the computer science department and the art department. And we’ve probably, at EA, hired at least half the people coming out of that program. There are about five universities around the country that have pioneered these new programs. And I’m not talking about vocational schools, things like Digipen and stuff like that, I’m talking about more the fundamentals of how should we teach this to the next generation.
One of the things I’ve always liked about covering the industry and hanging out with developers is that it’s kind of a community of mutts. It’s not like we all went to j-school or went to whatever. It’s all people who developed some liberal arts or technical expertise and then were drawn to gaming.
There’s huge diversity of experience. You’re getting people that came in from architecture or movie-making or engineering, and that’s a really interesting creative mixture of these different design fields. And game design in general, if you look at all the things you need to know that fall into game design, it’s probably the richest design field there is, relative to any other design field. You have aspects of industrial engineering, music, architecture, film and video, usability, cognitive psychology, product design †all these things become components of game design.
And at some level, marketing.
Yeah, it’s entertainment. How do you basically show a person that this is something that they’d enjoy doing with their discretionary time.
And I’ve been doing this long enough to remember buying games on cassettes in baggies that one guy built in his garage…
In a month.
I know the actual budget figure for developing Spore is a confidential number, but it’s not small. Is that influencing the design?
In the industry that has a huge influence on design. People saying ‘OK, we’re going to put tens of millions of dollars behind A or B. A is a sequel to something that we saw sell before, B is some weird thing we have no idea what it is.’ Getting people to roll dice on B is very, very hard. Which is why we’ve seen, I think, this dearth of innovation recently. But it seems like it’s swinging back now toward innovation. Nintendo is a good example, on the DS and now with the Wii, we’re seeing innovation being rewarded with market awareness and excitement relative to just pouring lots of money behind evolutionary progress. At E3 every year it’s always ‘what have you seen that’s new, what have you seen that’s new,’ and there are these multi-million-dollar productions, really beautiful, HD, etc.,. etc., and still they’re not that impressive to us because it feels like a natural continuation of what we saw last year and the year before and the year before. Whereas things that are truly innovative, as long as they can rise above the noise level, people are genuinely excited about them.
If you look at the economics you can say ‘OK, this game is going to cost x, we’re going to sell that much,’ but also it’s going to open up these other design areas that, if the market sees them as innovative and we’ve solved these core things that are technologically very defensible †I mean it was hard to solve a lot of these problems, and it will be years before other companies can catch up to this stuff. I mean, still to this day it’s remarkable to me that nobody’s come up with a really good competitor to The Sims, seven years later.
What other projects are you involved in? I understand you’re working on a documentary about the Soviet space program?
Oh yeah, that’s one of my long-term projectsâ€very long-termâ€
Where do you see gaming moving in the future?
One thing that really excites me, that we’re doing just a little bit of in Spore†I described how the computer is kind of looking at what you do and what you buy, and developing this model of the player. I think that’s going to be a fundamental differentiating factor between games and all other forms of media. The games can inherently observe you and build a more and more accurate model of the player on each individual machine, and then do a huge amount of things with that †actually customize the game, its difficulty, the content that it’s pulling down, the goal structures, the stories that are being played out relative to every player. So in some sense you’re teaching the game about yourself and it becomes kind of your ultimate playmate, in terms of knowing ‘oh, I think you’d enjoy this’ or ‘try that,’ and it’s kind of playing against you. You and I might buy the same game off the shelf one day, play it for a month and, a month later, our games are almost unrecognizably different †because yours has evolved to fit and entertain you, and mine has evolved to fit and entertain me. And I think that’s something that’s going to be a fundamental thing about games about ten years from now, because we’re just starting to see that more and more at this point.
That also answers one of the problems I see in the gaming world, where everything has to be incredibly difficult, because the reviewing structure rewards being really hard because it’s professional gamers who are the opinion leaders.
That’s a huge problem because what we’re doing is closing the door to new players. We’re seeing that with these forty and fifty hour games. Where most people would be more than happy to buy a game for $30 bucks and play it for five hours if they could play it all the way through and it was an entertaining experience. But people are forced to cater to the hardcore, or the Internet crowd†So I think games that have the ability to self-balance to your interest level, your skill level and your time commitment, all three of those things. Your pacing †how often do you play, do you play in ten minute chunks or in one hour chunks †and the game should be able to detect that and adjust itself accordingly.
I talked with developers before about how frustrating it is that they devote incredible amounts of work to building those last levels of a gameâ€.
â€that nobody ever gets to. It’s even worse when most people only see ten percent of a game, then they get frustrated or stuck and then they miss most of it. I would imagine if you look at all the games that are bought and how much the actual people play through them, it’s probably like 20 percent.
Cooperative gaming is pretty rare at this point, which seems like shame. Because if I want to play with my kid, I don’t necessarily want to be blowing his brains out.
And games are one of those funny things where it can be a very social experience relative to like sitting there watching television together, it’s amazing. Just watching kids in front of their game consoles, how much intense socialization they go through. Playing Mario Kart or something, even when they’re competing, it ends up being a bonding experience. And I think most people see first-person shooter multiplayer games as this very aggressive thing, but in fact if you look at the group of people playing kind of before and after, it feels much more like a bonding experience, they’re having a shared experience, even though they’re shooting each other in the game, it’s really like they’re playing cowboys and indians or tag or something. From their point of view it’s not like they’re hurting each other and having a fight, it’s that they’re sitting there playing this sport together, and they come away all having this shared experience.
How do you see the progression from Sim City to Sims to Spore, in terms of your magnum opus. Is there a progression?
I think if there’s a progression there, it’s that the player is taking a larger and larger role in creating the world. In Sim City you had very well structured tools. You could put down roads, buildings, and so on. Within that kind of region you could build any kind of city out of those tools. The Sims was a more open-ended version, now you can create these little characters and they go around and they have behaviors and personalities and you can build their house and they have neighbors, so it was a little bit larger box in which the players can kind of create a world. And Spore I think is even further in that direction, where we really focus even more on the tools, how do we give the players the widest possible range of output from these tools that we’ve given them, and get the widest diversity of worlds, at different scales. So I think it’s pretty much getting the player to do more and more of my work for me †you know, delegating. And getting them to pay me for that privilege. That’s a great way to approach it. The fact that they enjoy doing it is even better.
You’re committed to shipping during the second half of 2007. Do you have a sense of what you want to do next?
There are so many different things†well actually yeah, there’s one idea, but I don’t want to talk about it. But I’m very interested in more relevant gaming.
Relevant how? Socially?
Socially, yeah. Getting people more connected to the real world through gaming. Because I think we all live in our own little bubbles, we have our own little lives and there’s this whole world out there of things happening that we’re kind of dimly aware of. We might pick up the paper or watch the news. And it’s a complex world. A lot of very strange twisted dynamics, interesting things, very important things that are going to shape the future that our children live in. And that if you could just get everybody to be a little bit more aware of the world around them, and how it works, and have that feedback in to the course the world is taking, gaming could be an incredibly powerful mechanism for steering the system.
If nothing else you get to play with parameters with no harm done.
Yeah, and we think of things like politics and economics and environmentalism, all these things as these horrendously complicated things with a million variables. But yet there is a limited level of understanding of the climate, of politics, of economics, that we could take anybody and make them five points smarter in any one of these dimensions. And just making everybody in the world five points more educated on each of these dimensions I think would have a tremendous impact on the system as a whole.
Is playing Spore like playing God?
In some ways. I guess it depends on what your conception of God is. I mean, in Spore, for instance, you do have limitations. and so, if you’re a god, you’re not a terribly powerful, omnipotent god. But yet there is this feeling of creating a world at the end of the day, there is this entire little world that you’ve had a major hand in creating. So I would say on the creative side probably yes, on the omnipotent side definitely not.
But you do have more control than you do in real life.
But if you could predict exactly what would happen as a result of your actions, there would be no entertainment there. So it’s exactly the fact that when I do something I want to stop and see what’s going to happen, I have to actually watch it play out, as opposed to automatically know the futureâ€
Do you participate in any of the online communities?
I have on and off, but the time commitment is just too much. I find them interesting from a sociological point of view, and from a tool point of view. I think Second Life is interesting because they have given the players such huge control over the environment. And they’re now just hitting their stride and getting a lot of really cool stuff, amazing stuff. There were a lot of predecessors to that, like Alphaworld and things like that.
Most forms of entertainment don’t get that kind of gestation period ordinarily. It has to be at least five years. And all of a sudden my daughter said to me, “Say, have you heard about this Second Life thing?”
Yeah, it’s probably more like six or seven years†I think the first version launched in 2001. And the important part of that development wasn’t so much what Linden Labs did, it was the user community. In fact they were very careful to nurture the right of user community and it took them three or four years to do that, and then the community were really the ones who grew it from that point.
So what we need now is to be able to bring your Spore creature into Second Life.
Well really, they’re both tools-based, so it’s a matter of can we create lower and lower function tools for people in those environments to use to then create a collective experience.
It would be interesting if all your virtual lives could intersect.
It’s a simple idea of having cross-game compatible avatars †I’ve talked to quite a few people about that idea.
In a sense it’s like what they’ve done on the Wii, where the first thing you do is create a character that then is inserted into the action of many different games.
Which is a great idea.
How do you think the audience for Spore may be different from your other games?
I think we’re probably going to be capturing some more hardcore gamers, just because of the scope of the game and the unusual nature of it. I’m looking hopefully at a big overlap with The Sims players, though â€ I want to make sure the game is not too hard or complex for the average Sims player. But if you look at Sims 2, it’s actually a very complex game, and it surprised me how easily players migrated from Sims 1 to Sims 2. And if anything, the interface and controls of Spore should be much simpler and more streamlined than Sims 2. Next is, will the theme of content and worlds and space and science be appealing, and I think primarily the creatures are our hook there. If you can make weird, cool goofy creatures that show emotion and have societies and do dances and stuff, I think if you look at the graphics for Neopets and Pokemon â€Neopets especially is actually quite gender balanced. So I think really we’re looking at those two groups as probably the first core groups, half Sims players, half hardcore competitive gamers looking for something novel, and maybe a third, people coming from totally outside. I’ve had a lot of people, when I’ve demoed Spore coming up and saying “I’ve never played a game before, but I want to play this one.” And I think those people are attracted by the empowerment of the tools, they would really like the experience of creating a Pixar character and having it come to life.
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