Will Wright is the rock star of the video game industry.
His games are almost always hits and have generated billions of dollars in sales for Electronic Arts, his employer. SimCity, the early game that let you build cities, was big enough with tens of millions sold. It spawned Sims, which has sold more than 100 million units since its launch in 2000. Wright has been at work on his new game, Spore, for seven years. The game takes players on a journey from life as a single-cell creature to mastery of the entire galaxy – all with creatures and civilizations created by the player. On Monday, stores in North America will begin selling Spore. Already, thanks to the advance launch of the Spore Creature Creator in June, there are more than 4 million creatures on the Sporepedia. While Spore is a single-player game, your own creature will compete against creatures created by others who have entered them into the Sporepedia. Wright is doing something like 80 press interviews a week. We were happy to get in line and ask him how he does serial blockbusters.
VB: How do you feel Spore turned out?
WW: It’s exciting. I lost count of the interviews in Singapore. I just flew in from London. I’m browsing the Sporepedia now. For me, as I was finishing the game and was halfway through development, it was clear that the really interesting thing was going to be how the fans filled in the content with their own creatures and other things. It released in Europe today. There are tools to manage and organize the content now. They can use the Sporecasts. Now the stuff is really starting to get traction. Within a week, we should see some amazing user-generated material. I’m looking forward to playing the game in the next couple of days where I can use that stuff in the game.
VB: What do you notice about the creatures people have created?
WW: Well, we’ve had the creatures coming in for a couple of months now because we released the Spore Creature Creator early. Now we are starting to get the other stuff, like the buildings, the vehicles, spaceships and what not. For the first time, we can see these other things. The creatures are interesting not just because of the quantity but the quality.
VB: How long was it in the making?
WW: I started researching it about seven years ago. I started reading. We did early prototypes. We formed a core team about five years ago. It was a small core team and it ramped up.
VB: That sounds very similar to the time you spent on The Sims.
WW: Yeah. I started prototyping The Sims about seven years before it shipped.
VB: Do you feel you should speed up the process or do you feel good about that and how long it takes to make a great game?
WW: I think it’s more about how long it takes to make a game that is unique. You have to spend a lot of time exploring different branches. They don’t always pan out. We could go down safer branches and not worry whether it is the right branch or not. But if you want to find the landscape or region that is unexplored, you have to plan on doing a lot of back-tracking.
VB: There is this formula for success in the video game industry. You don’t seem to follow it at all, yet you’re successful. So what is your formula?
WW: I didn’t know there was a formula. (laughs) That might be useful.
VB: It seems so hard for the others to get off the track of doing the same old thing. But you’re always off that track.
WW: I think a lot of people start with the genre first. They want to make a really cool first-person shooter or a cool driving game. That is my last step. I usually start with a subject. What catches my interest? What sparks my imagination? Then I dive into that subject. Eventually, I try to figure out ways to implement it in game play. I think of the theme first, the genre last.
VB: That sounds a little like how Shigeru Miyamoto (Nintendo’s top video game designer) does things. He was looking at the ants at work in his garden and he came up with the Pikmin game.
WW: Yeah, it’s more like that. It’s hard to predict what other people will enjoy. But it’s pretty easy to find out what I like. So I don’t spend a lot of time figuring out what other people want to play. I figure out what I want to play. Then I work on that game.
VB: What was the hard part of designing Spore?
WW: Part of it was technical. We wanted the animations to be procedural (rather than pre-scripted, they would be driven by the behavior of intelligent game creatures as they react to a given environment or event). We had to teach the computer to do these fundamental things on its own, like animate a texture or build models. So much of that has to be automatic in Spore. We went down a path that was totally unexplored territory, even in the academic field. The other big challenge was designing the different types of game play within the game. There was a large design team I was managing across all of these assets. There was a usability side. We had to give the players tools. But they had to be something a six-year-old could use.
VB: What do you think of the reviews coming out?
WW: I don’t read them too much. I’m looking forward to play the game in about a week because so much of the content has been unorganized. Now it’s going to be organized. You can pick a theme and play that whole game with that theme. I’m going to wait a couple of weeks to see. That’s when it should all click. We’re taking some hits in the press for the depth of levels. Shallow or not. That was pretty much intentional. The Sims 2 didn’t appeal to hardcore gamers at all for a lot of reasons. It was lower than Half-Life 2 on its Metacritic (aggregate critical scores) rating. We’d rather have the Sims 2 sales and the lower Metacritic rating than Half-Life 2’s sales. Intentionally, if you go after a lot of people who don’t play games at all, you will take hits among the hardcore gamers.
VB: How do you feel about the new level of fame coming with Spore?
WW: I’m more like the team representative here. There were more than 100 people working on this thing. It’s a really qualified team, hand picked. We had the best people in the company. It’s kind of expected though. The more mainstream it is, the bigger the launches are, the bigger the marketing budgets. You go around on a VIP tour. I’m the marketing figure head for about a month.
VB: To me, it is interesting to watch the new level of mainstream recognition for games.
WW: I think that is kind of cool. Especially, the game industry is much bigger than it was 18 years ago. We’re getting new players into gaming. We aren’t closing the doors to people who haven’t been longtime players. Because of that, we are getting more mainstream recognition, more mainstream press interest than we used to get. That’s an indication that the industry is broadening out. It’s more innovative. It’s more diversified. In general, this is all a good thing.
VB: The press awareness is one indicator of success. What are some others?
WW: For me, it’s mostly observing the fans to see how enthusiastically they pick up these tools and start making stuff. Also, the social connections they make between each other. They can subscribe to what their friends are doing. It puts me a lot more in the role of the anthropologist, just like with The Sims. I think the vibrancy of that community (such as at Spore.com) will be the primary measure of success. We can have other measures like sales. For the most part, our top task is making sure that we launch and get a strong community. Then we figure out ways to nurture it. As part of this press tour, I go out to meet some community leaders. I hear their concerns, which are different from a game magazine’s.
VB: Do you have hope that Spore will outdo The Sims.
WW: It depends on what your metric is. Most people would consider it to be sales. That would be great. I’m not holding my breath or anything. What made The Sims so successful was the focus on the community. It’s the same with Spore. If you just want to make the sales figures high, that pushes you into a different set of things you will try. When the community gets involved, gets the right kind of tools and support, then the community becomes the developers of the game. They can really make it huge.
VB: What’s the scope of the Spore franchise as you have spelled it out so far.
WW: The fans will point us in that direction. We have a lot of ideas for expansions that we have been working on in the background. Spore has a much broader set of expansions than The Sims did. We can’t do them all at once. We have to take our shots. The fans will show us what to do. They were the ones who showed us what expansions to do for The Sims. They determined the evolution. We take creative output from the editors into new gaming experiences. We are thinking about taking parts of the game levels and expanding them. We have a much broader set of opportunities for expanding Spore. I think it is more horizontal, while with The Sims it was more vertical where we did expansion packs for the game over and over and over.
VB: All of this thinking about franchising started at the beginning.
WW: Yeah, we had the success of The Sims and started thinking about taking it to the next level.
VB: How do you feel about the different mini games within Spore?
WW: Everybody has one favorite level and one they didn’t like at all. My favorite was always the space game. We recognize that each of these genres of game play do not all appeal to the same player. That was why we unlocked the levels so you didn’t have to play the first level to get to the next level. You can even just play with the creature editors if you want to.
VB: I remember that you had a lot of different books that were the inspirations for The Sims. What were the inspirations for Spore?
WW: There were so many inspirations for Spore. “2001: A Space Odyssey” was an inspiration. The SETI program (Search for Extraterrestrial Life). Lots of books on astronomy and evolution. The Powers of Ten. Every subject has a number of great books around it. “The Life of the Cosmos.” I could go on. There were hundreds of books.
VB: Are the inspirations visible in the game still?
WW: In some way, yes. You can tell there are places where they intersect with the game. We want to have the universe as one model. We didn’t chop it up into sections. All of the beings were connected in it. We wanted certain philosophical points to come up without us being overt about them. You play all of your levels in one spot on a planet. Then you can see at some point that you are one of millions of worlds. You can start to understand evolution more directly.
VB: Spore is really important to Electronic Arts. Do you talk to the EA management about that? Do you feel the pressure on your shoulders because Spore is so important to EA’s financial future?
WW: I try not to get too emotionally invested in that stuff. If I did, I would make the wrong design decisions. I try to think about it from the player’s point of view. Especially the type of player we want, from a much broader demographic than most games. Some of our testing was with non-gamers or Sims players. If you get too stuck on the numbers and the business projections, that doesn’t help. Certain people should be concerned about that. I’m not one of them.
VB: Do you have any tips for young game designers?
WW: Seek inspiration outside the game industry, and outside the film industry as well. Many games borrow too heavily from linear storytelling. It’s interesting to have the player create the story in contrast to us trying to impose a story on the player.
VB: What are your observations about the game industry?
WW: I’m pretty excited about what is happening with the Nintendo DS and the Wii. They are so out of the box that they are bringing a lot more interest to people who wouldn’t otherwise play games. I think the iPhone is also an interesting platform for similar reasons. Some of them aren’t games but they’re more like toys. That’s a good trend toward diversifying games.
VB: Are the new ways of interfacing with games interesting?
WW: Yes, that’s part of it. They make it more accessible. And accessibility is the key no matter whether there are traditional or new kinds of controls. Wii Sports has really simple versions of bowling and other games. The tennis game doesn’t have a billion features. You can pick it up and play it for ten minutes.
VB: What are we going to be interviewing you about seven years from now?
WW: (laughs) I’m working on a couple of projects like I always do. I’m going to take a breather. I’ll decide which one to run with pretty soon.