Will Wright on the origins of 'Spore'

The legendary game designer talks about the evolution of his new evolution game and how to "make the creation process fun."

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
9 min read

On September 7, Electronic Arts will release its long-awaited and much-anticipated Spore. For many, this will be the biggest video game event of the year, and possibly even the last several years.

Spore, which was first announced in 2005, takes players through the process of evolution, from simple cell-like creatures, step by step, on out into space, is the latest from The Sims and SimCity designer Will Wright.

There is little question that Wright is one of the industry's most important figures, as evidenced by the packed houses he always speaks to and the reverence everyone from gamers to other designers to reporters have for him.

For Wright, the release of Spore, is the completion of seven years of work and the finished product is a far cry from its earliest concepts, which he and a small team were first discussing while The Sims was still fairly new. Yet by then, he was already seen as perhaps the industry's leading innovator for the entirely new genre of games he'd created.

Now, Spore is set to push that innovation envelope even further. And while no one yet knows if it will be a commercial or even critical success, it's safe to say that the excitement over the game--which has been raised in part due to the fact that it has taken Wright and his Maxis studio much longer to get the game to market than originally planned--is as high as any game in recent memory.

Proof of that excitement level was borne out by the more than 2 million people who downloaded the Spore Creature Creator after its June release. This free feature allowed anyone to make creatures for the game in advance of its release, something that served two key purposes. First, it got people energized and gave them something to play with before the game was out. And second, it provided millions of creatures to populate the game with on day one, since everything that individual users created for the game is shared with everyone else, despite it being a single-player game.

Earlier this month, the day before Wright set off on a worldwide, four-week publicity tour, I sat down with him at Maxis' Emeryville, Calif., headquarters for a discussion about the evolution of his evolution game. I wanted to know about the conceptual origins of a game unlike any other, and Wright was happy to tell me all about it

Q: What were the origins of Spore?
Will Wright: The earliest evolution of it had to do with the SETI Project. The original concept was sort of a toy galaxy you could fly around and explore. As we thought about, it became apparent that evolution was a very important component. Some of the very first prototypes involved how you would move around and visualize the galaxy. And then on procedurally generated creatures. Could we actually generate creatures through evolution so there was a vast variety of creatures rather than just the 20 or 30 fixed things that games typically include.

Were you inspired by other video games?
Wright: I played a lot of space and strategy games, but one thing that always disappointed me in space games was that you're presented with a galaxy with maybe 100 worlds. It was never vast like a real galaxy. Even the Spore galaxy is a tiny percentage of a real galaxy, but you get the sense it's immense, with countless worlds to explore. And I'd never seen an evolutionary game where, again, there was a vast set of possible creatures you could come across and that could convey the diversity of real biology. So we started thinking about procedural solutions. Very early on we wanted to give players a really cool design editor so they could design a wide variety of creatures. A lot of our early prototypes explored whether we could do procedurally generated animations and textures and could we build an editor that was easy to use?

You had to invent all the systems, right?
Wright: We researched what little had been done in computer science around things like procedural animation, which was mainly around humanoids, procedurally generating human animations. But almost nobody was generating animations where you didn't know what the shape of the creature was. We had to basically invent our own kind of computer science for that.

What was that like to have to do that invention?
Wright: It was risk assessment: Can we solve enough of this problem to be confident we could solve it well? The earliest prototypes were making strange topology creatures and seeing if we could teach the computer to make them move plausibly, and later, show emotion and behavior. We had to find out whether the project was doable or not, or if some part of it wasn't doable, where we have to scale it back.

What are some steps or systems that you found weren't doable?
Wright: Surprisingly, some I thought weren't doable were. I'd never heard decent procedural music and I'd given up on it until Brian Eno came on the project. He'd been thinking about the problem for years. So we reincorporated it after rejecting it in the early phases.

Does Spore seem like the same game as what you showed at E3 in 2005?
Wright: It seems like basically the same game. We expanded areas that we didn't originally think would be important or fun, especially things like content sharing. We'd thought you would just play the game and stuff would appear. But as we developed more content and the ability to browse and explore it, we discovered how fun that process was and the social currency you get making something really cool and sharing it with other people. We borrowed the language of social networking and Web 2.0 to present what we're calling the Sporepedia.

Famed video-game designer Will Wright will see the results of seven years' of work pay off when 'Spore' is released on September 7. Electronic Arts/Maxis

Did the development of Sporepedia and the Web 2.0 elements contribute to the game taking until now to finish?
Wright: You can't really say it took five months, three days and 47 seconds more because of that. We're always looking at what we have, like we realized on the browser side that, Wow, it'll be great if we add these extra features but that's going to push us out a few more months, so let's also change the Creature Editor and some game levels and add achievements and mission-based systems. You're doing these things in parallel. Eventually, they have to be ready the same day. If one thing slips, you continue to polish and add a few little features you didn't think you'd have time for.

What are some ways creating Spore has been different than your other games?
Wright: One big way is the art team. Typically, we would just build a larger and larger army of artists to make more and more content, like in The Sims. But because we were doing this procedurally, our art staff was mainly concentrated on teaching the computer and giving players tools to make stuff. Another difference was the design density in Spore. Because there's so many different genres and levels, I had a designer for every game level and the editors and Sporepedia.

Originally, you referred to Spore as "massively single player." And now?
Wright: Spore is a hybrid. There's huge unexplored space between single-player and multiplayer games. With multiplayer games, there's tremendous design limitations: Nobody can peak, nobody can pause time, no one player can be super powerful. These limit the experience you can give someone. But there is a huge benefit of getting a million people collectively building an interesting world. So our hybrid model aims for the best aspects of a multiplayer game without the worst drawbacks.

Virtual world publishers talk about the benefit of aggregating the all the content their users make. What's your take on that?
Wright: I like the idea. I was trying to figure out how to lower the friction of creation to getting into the game but also how do you make the creation process fun, so you don't have 1 percent of people making stuff for the other 99 percent. Rather, how do you get 99 percent of people making stuff for the 100 percent.

What are some of the research influences for Spore?
Wright: A lot of Richard Dawkins' work. Edward O. Wilson, back in the very early origin of light phase. Stuart Kauffman wrote about autocatalytic sets, which are theories about the origin of life, like did life come to Earth on a comet or did it originate out of self-organizing chemical sets.

How would something like that manifest in the game?
Wright: Well, we actually took a different direction. At the beginning of the game you see this comet hitting the planet, which is a panspermia theory, which is the alternative theory to bio-genesis, which is that life formed naturally through chemical complexity on Earth. We ended up prototyping and exploring a lot of spaces that are not in the game. We're trying to look for the most interesting 20 percent out of the 100 percent of what we could put in the game.

What's the prototyping exploration like?
Wright: In the early phases it entails me talking to a programmer about some system we want to explore and we build a very simple prototype like the ones we're putting on our website. So start poking and prodding and playing with this little toy. It's fun to watch stellar formation animation. It's fun to play with autocatalytic sets. We'd build prototypes for each one of these and play with them and imagine a singular experience that involves some subset of these prototypes that use similar concepts that can be ramped in the players' mind so they're not having to learn, you know, 20 different things that are totally unconnected.

In the recent Electronic Arts quarterly earnings call, CEO John Riccitiello suggested Spore might one day become a label of its own. Are some of tehse directions you're talking about the basis for the expansion packs an ongoing label requires?
Wright: When a game is released, we have a good sense of how we can expand it in different directions. But you do first have to get it out to the public and see what they do with it. As we see the fans doing various things with it, it will become pretty clear to us that, Oh, yeah, this would be probably the best direction and we already have an expansion map, so we know how to navigate that terrain. But we're also exploring entire other forms of media and starting to think, what does this brand mean. We want Spore in a very general sense to become this intersection between science and creativity.

What do you hope fans will learn about science from Spore?
Wright: I want this to be more on the motivational side than the education side. I really want to spark people's interest in these subjects. People still tell me they went into, you know, civil engineering because of SimCity. It wasn't that SimCity taught them how to build a city, but it got them interested in how fascinating the subject is. That motivation is far more powerful than just trying to pour facts into their head. So, if nothing else I'd like people to come out, sit back, look up at the stars and think a little bit deeper about what a galaxy is.

I've heard Spore was originally known as SimEverything.
When I design a game, at the very beginning, I design a box, and with Spore many, many years ago, the title on the box was SimEverything. I can show the team my box and say, Look, we want to build this, imagine what will be in this box. Spore was feeling pretty unique and SimEverything almost felt like a parody of the Sims brand, which is why I liked it. But my lead artist, Ocean Quigley, actually came up with Spore as the code name for the project. But after a couple of years of calling it Spore, the name seemed to fit on so many different levels, especially as we thought deeper about the pollination and things like that. At some point we said, Let's just call it Spore.

What is it like to be at the end of this process?
Wright: It feels nice. It's a big transition, because we've been working, working, working on this thing and it's kind of like, a Frankenstein thing where you flip a switch and it comes alive and roars off into the world, and you don't know what kind of hell it's going to raise. So it's kind of scary and exciting at the same time.