Q&A: Will Wright talks 'Spore,' 'Sims,' science

The creator of <i>The Sims</i> explains the concept behind the upcoming <i>Spore</i> game, his definition of "god," and why game development is like aikido.

Eileen Yu Special to CNET News
12 min read

His all-time favorite movie is 2001: A Space Odyssey and as a child, he aspired to be an astronaut so he can form colonies in space and help solve world overpopulation.

Now 48, Will Wright has yet to make it to the Milky Way, but he can take some pride in having created the best-selling PC game franchise of all time, The Sims. First released in 2000, the video game has sold over 100 million copies across the globe.

Will Wright
Will Wright, creator of Spore and The Sims. Electronic Arts/Maxis

Developed at Maxis, which was co-founded by Wright and is now part of Electronic Arts, The Sims shot the American game designer to fame, earning him widespread recognition as one of the most important figures in the realm of video games.

Wright was in Singapore for the first time this week as part of a global promotional tour for EA's much-anticipated simulation game Spore, slated for mass release September 7.

During a game demo, he said the concept for Spore was spawned from a desire to encapsulate everything else that The Sims was unable to--leading to his initial moniker for the game, "SimsEverything."

His inspiration for the game also came from the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, an organization that aims to explore the origin of life and seek potential life-forms in the universe.

Wright explained that the fundamental concept behind entities such as SETI and the Drake Equation all seek to answer one simple question: "Is there somebody out there?" Developed by astrophysics professor Frank Drake, the Drake Equation attempts to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in the galaxy.

With these in mind, Wright laid the foundation for Spore. Set in the backdrop of space galaxy, the game lets players develop civilizations and create species, allowing these creatures to evolve from a unicellular organism into intelligent social beings.

Described by Wright as a unique hybrid of single-player and massively multiplayer online games, Spore can be played as a standalone single-player game, as well as an online real-time strategy game where players can develop and share their own user-created content.

In June, EA launched the free-for-download Spore Creature Creator tool to help spur content creation for the game in the lead up to its release in September. To date, over 2.6 million Spore species have been created--surpassing Wright's original target of 100,000, which was achieved just 22 hours after Creature Creator was launched.

In an interview with ZDNet Asia, Wright discussed how The Sims helped shape the concept behind Spore and the importance of Asia's role in steering future technological advancements. He also likened the realm of game design to Japanese martial art form of aikido and explained why games have social responsibility.

Q: How did the concept for Spore come about? Were you hoping to create something out of Spore, that perhaps you won't able to do with The Sims?
Wright: A lot of it was science, looking at science as a whole, and around the question of astrobiology and SETI, and how we turned that into an interesting game experience where you look at the entire universe from a very different perspective.

We learned a lot from The Sims. We looked at what users were doing--creating content--but there was a lot of friction. When users made something, they have to put it up on the Web site, download it into My Folder, and boot up the game. So in Spore, we looked to much higher amplification at both making the tools in the player effort and also taking away the friction of players sharing content--because that was half the fun, to share stuff you made--and making that totally transparent in Spore.

In addition, we wanted to increase the diversity of things that players might make. Spore has a lot of different elements from different things. We really made every element of the game, based on the player's creativity.

So you made content-sharing more seamless, compared to The Sims?
Yeah, we were seeing that the players, despite all the hoops they had to jump through on The Sims, still enjoyed doing it and did a huge amount of it. So we thought, what if we lowered the friction and made it easier, how much more would they go?

I think the numbers we have on Sporepedia are interesting and really good early indication. With The Sims 2, we also released a character creator tool early. My projections then for The Sims 2 of 100,000 pieces of content by the time the game shipped were pretty much what we got. The difference we're seeing now with Spore is in an order of multitude different in terms of the amount of content people are putting out.

These are games in which you're kind of an incompetent god because the system doesn't do what you expect it to do. You don't have omnipotence. And the fact that the world is unpredictable and a little bit out of your control keeps the game interesting.

The Sims franchise has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide and is the best-selling PC franchise in history. Did you anticipate this phenomenal growth when you came up with the concept?
I thought it was either going to be a big flop, or a big hit. I didn't think there was going to be a middle ground for The Sims. But I didn't envision it to be as big a hit as it was.

What did you think contribute to that growth?
I think a lot of it was the fact that we gave the player the role of storyteller. Rather than us trying to impose the story on top of the play experience, we left it very open-ended. And when players are playing the game, they would naturally craft a story and interpret it as such, and share these stories with each other. I think that's the thing that they really enjoyed about The Sims--the fact that they can steer the story in whatever direction they can imagine.

And along the way, you introduced celebrities and merchandising into the game itself. And recently, Ikea was launched as an actual expansion pack. Is that a marketing strategy we'll see more of from EA?
We're starting to experience with a lot of business models, especially in the Asian market, like things around micro transactions. I think Spore and The Sims are going to be exploring these things in the future.

I think a lot of what we learn in Asia will eventually be deployed to the rest of the world. Asia in some sense is becoming a proving ground for where the industry is going to evolve. And the expectation is those models that are developed for Asia, will be the ones that eventually become the predominant models even in the United States and Europe.

Because Asia is a huge broadband market, or because of its size?
For a lot of reasons, actually. It's a market that is developing very rapidly so there's nothing set in stone. In the United States, we've always had this shrink-wrap mindset and it's kind of hard to get out of that box. And Europe is very similar to the United States in a lot of ways.

Asia has been far more experimental and has been leapfrogging technologies in certain areas. The cell phone adaptation in Asia leapfrogged a lot of the rest of the world. I think Asia is like the Wild West.

Asian countries like Singapore and the Philippines are trying to be regional hubs for game development. Any advice for them?
Be prepared for a lot of experimentations, including a lot of failures. It reminds me of U.S. history where there was the Wild West and the gold rush. Everybody rushed over there because they knew there were huge portions to be made, and half of people got killed by Indians on the way there! That's almost to be expected--there's a risk-reward dimension. There's a huge reward potential in Asia, but also a lot of risks because it's not a proven market and has a lot of traditional ones.

But, you know, whenever you're dealing with a situation like that, you can attack it with diversity and take a diverse portfolio approach. One might work, and not all of them have to. So I think that's going to drive consolidation. Rather than 10 people taking total random risks, you want to put them all in one umbrella. So seven can fail, but the three that succeed can pay for the seven failures and then some.

So go broad and hope at least three will survive?
Yeah, and try to go in and roll the dice multiple times, enough times where you'll roll some success.

I know you're not involved in development work for The Sims 3, which is expected out next year. But, how far do you think the concept of The Sims can go? It's been around for close to 10 years now.
When you look at The Sims and how long it's been in the market, it's still amazing to me that we don't really have a viable competitor for it--though we've seen some bad attempts to compete with The Sims. It's obviously a huge category, appealing to a very broad demographic, and the fact that we don't really have a very viable competitor at this point--it's a really good sign. But, it feels like we're so far ahead of the curve on that franchise, I think as long as we manage the franchise well and keep the quality of the product where it should be, it'll last potentially for an entire generation.

Spore creature
Meet one of many critters created for Spore. Is this the face of success? Electronic Arts/Maxis
SimCity, The Sims and even Spore seem to revolve around the idea of "playing god." Is that something that fascinates you?
I think "god' is kind of a loaded term there. Really what they're playing with is reality. And because of the fact that we're giving players high levels of controls to play with reality, we tend to call them "god" games.

But these are games in which you're kind of an incompetent god because the system doesn't do what you expect it to do. You don't have omnipotence. And the fact that the world is unpredictable and a little bit out of your control keeps the game interesting.

So I think "god" is more of a game term and a bit of a misnomer from the role the player is actually in.

You also mentioned during the press briefing that if there was a God, it would have to recognize a level of physics in which you believe humans are actually capable of creating our own colonies. Can you elaborate on that?
According to some physics theories, there are similarities in our universe like black holes and equivalent to our Big Bang. So, there might be micro-universe underneath us, and we can pretty much perceive a point where humans can engineer black holes and create them. In which case, that in fact represents an underlying universe underneath us, so then from that definition, we would be gods. Therefore, I can easily imagine that there was some other intelligence that created our Big Bang.

But that doesn't mean that that God can actually interact with the universe underneath it. It's not a god that can actually look at you, and want you to do certain things, or even have any information go between you. So it's kind of a blind god.

Because we aren't actually aware that we may have created a colony?
Well, our definition of the word "universe" is an impermeable thing. If it's something that can interact with us, it's part of our universe. If it's outside our universe, it's forever unknowable. And I think for a lot of people, that's where they draw the line between science and religion. If it's unknowable, from a scientist's point of view, then it's religion. So I think a lot of arguments is going to have to do with where that boundary lies.

But from a purely physics point of view, I can imagine humanity having the power one day to create entire universes. We'll just never be able to see them or interact with them.

What do you look at when coming up with the concept of a game? The Sims, for example, has its own language, not unlike how J. R. R. Tolkien came up with a new language for Lord of the Rings.
A lot of it comes dynamically as you're developing the idea and franchise. You're basically trying to get a lot of square pegs and putting them into round holes. Usually, a lot of it is trying to work around design limitations. For example, in The Sims, we always had an issue with how we can have them changing clothes. It's messy to have them open a dresser and hold clothes up and so on. We decided to eventually attack such problems with humor. Now, Sims characters jump up in the air, spin around, and change their clothes.

From a purely physics point of view, I can imagine humanity having the power one day to create entire universes. We'll just never be able to see them or interact with them.

What started out as a design problem became part of the language of The Sims, and now even in our advertisements for the game, the characters jump up, spin around, and change their clothes--that's just part of the Sims universe.

Or how Sims babies are made, with flowers floating...
Yeah, the way babies are made or if they need a small thing, like a cup or spatula, they always pull it out of their butts!

So we have these things that start out as design limitations, and we actually turn them with humor into landmarks for what that world means. In that way, you know you're in that world. So in some sense, it's a bit like an aikido design sense, where you take this force and turn it into your advantage.

Do you try to meld elements like psychology, philosophy, religion and science? What are the backgrounds of your development team?
It isn't so much about looking at their dossier, but more of the personal chemistry. Yeah, we try to get team members that are diverse in their thinking. People work better, too, if you don't have them doing the same exact thing day after day.

We try to put people in small groups of six or less, and have them work in very tight little teams because we found that four or five people work very well together if it's the right group of people. And we try to break up the tasks, be it technical or design or production, into the size that the smaller team can approach, and those teams can try and organize around each other.

Something recreational like video games, can spark public outcry around heavy issues like religion--something which you've personally experienced with Spore--and for inciting violence as we've seen with games like Grand Theft Auto. As a parent yourself, how far do these concerns play in your mind when you're coming up with new game concepts?
I think it's the whole question about whether games are appropriate for all ages. We tend to think about games as kid activities, but in fact there are a lot of mature games that are really for adults. And, if we see it as a viable form of artistic expression, that's okay. It's just a matter of treating that as a society, and mostly parental responsibility because you wouldn't show your young kids the movie Godfather either.

I also think games have a social responsibility of sparking discussion. If you look at really good books or movies, one of the most interesting things about them is when people come out of the theater or talk about the book. It sparks interesting discussions about things like philosophy, religion, life. I think games should be able to do that as well. I don't think controversies around a game are necessarily bad if it's going to get people to have interesting discussions that they wouldn't have had otherwise.

In a 1994 Wired article, you expressed your dismay over the educational system and how you were excited abut having a Nintendo generation reform the educational system. Is that something you still believe in, especially with the emergence of things like cloud computing and social networking sites?
I think people are very naturally incorporating technology into their social life, and it feels like a natural extension of their social landscape. And that's a very interesting thing. It's hard to predict what it's going to do, but clearly, it's a generation that's comfortable with computers, comfortable with the Internet. And for them, the Internet is almost just a natural part of their body, like our cell phones are to us.

I think the fact that we're so naturally incorporating that, and it's basically leveraging us in giving us some capabilities we did not have before, it's going to be not only unpredictable but also, I think it's going to have major transformative effect on things like education.

Eileen Yu of ZDNet Asia reported from Singapore.