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Inside Will Wright’s next big game: HiveMind (exclusive)

Will Wright has created some of the biggest video games of all time, from SimCity to The Sims — games that have sold well above 100 million units and generated billions in revenues. Now he’s moving on to his next idea, called HiveMind.

HiveMind is a game, and it’s also the name of a new Berkeley, Calif.-based startup Wright is unveiling today in an exclusive interview with VentureBeat.

The idea is a new evolution in gaming that Wright calls “personal gaming.” It is a game that can customize itself for the individual player, taking into account aspects of player’s real-life situation as elements of the game.

It’s not an easy concept to understand, particularly because Wright isn’t describing the game in detail yet.

“Rather than craft a game like FarmVille for players to learn and play, we learn about you and your routines and incorporate that into a form of game play,” Wright said.

He noted, for instance, that there may be 50 different dimensions to a person that could be learned through data collection. Some of those dimensions could be location-based, like where you are, where your friends are, and how much money is in your wallet. It may sound like a creepy invasion of your privacy for game to know that about you, but Wright wants to emphasize the entertainment value of sharing and why people will probably share that information gladly.

Wright’s inspiration came last year when he went down to Burbank, Calif., to give a talk and showed up early. He wandered down the street to a 1950s-style diner. There, he found a bunch of car enthusiasts who gather on the last Friday of each month to show off their cars. A car buff himself, Wright had a great time talking to those people. It was random luck, but quite entertaining.

“If I knew about these events, my life would be a lot more interesting,” he said. “How do we expose you to these events, these things? How can we make a system that understands enough about you and gives you situational awareness? It could take into account what time of day it is, where you are, how much money is in your pocket. Imagine if you could open Google Maps and it shows you things that are interesting to you on the map.”

Wright’s idea with HiveMind is to collect data so that the game can discover opportunities for a person to have fun, directing the person to the right place where they could enjoy themselves, based on their interests. If the HiveMind knew enough about Wright, for instance, it could have found that gathering of car experts for him.

“It is about how we make reality more interesting to you,” Wright said.

Harvesting data to entertain you

Although he realizes many people are guarded about privacy, he notes that the younger generation is more comfortable sharing information about themselves. And they will willingly share it if they could be virtually guaranteed a great deal of entertainment in return. If you entice people with enough game-oriented entertainment, they won’t mind sharing that information, he said.

What Wright hopes to do is harvest a bunch of data and then use that to suggest ways to entertain a person. Once HiveMind gathers this kind of data on a lot of people, it could go into a kind of matchmaking service, as happens with sites that collect dating information. HiveMind could mine the data and discover useful things about its players.

“It blurs entertainment, lifestyle, and personal tools,” Wright said. “With that data, the world and the opportunities for entertainment within it become more visible to you.”

“If we can learn enough about the player, we can create games about their real life,” Wright said. “How do we get you more engaged in reality rather than distract you from it?”

Once again, as he has done so many times in his career, Wright is talking about a kind of game that has never been done before.

“This has to do with where gaming is going,” Wright said. “We had our eras in console gaming and social gaming. A lot of this personal gaming will happen on mobile devices. The question here is how can we learn enough about the player to create games about his or her real life.”

The inspiration for this game also came in part from researchers who are talking about “a quantified self,” where they gather everything about their life and behavior and store it in digital form. Researchers like Gordon Bell of Microsoft, who created a project called MyLifeBits, believe they can gain self knowledge by recording their lives in minute detail.

Examples of this include fitness programs like Nintendo’s Wii Fit, where you can measure your daily exercise progress, as well as more recent fitness measurement devices from Basis (pictured) and Striiv. The basic principle behind these fitness devices is gamification, or making a non-game activity more fun by using game mechanics.

But Wright doesn’t want to limit HiveMind to something like fitness. What if, for instance, an application could tap into something as personal as your dreams? That suggestion is way out there, but it is intriguing.

Nor does Wright want to limit his scope to something like augmented reality (layering digital data on the real world), or Foursquare, which gives people achievements when they check into locations.

Such applications might know a few dimensions about a person, but they just don’t go deep enough into gaming psychology, which could really motivate a person to do something. Here, the games will enable HiveMind to mine data about a person.

Wright said it wasn’t a requirement that you have to be near someone playing the same game as you. He called that the “density problem,” something that augmented reality games run into all the time. Augmented reality companies can create multiplayer games, but there might only be one other player within 20 miles of you. Wright said his game won’t rely on players needing to be near each other to play.

Turning to others for problem solving

One of the elements of the game goes back to The Sims. In that game, the artificial intelligence was built into the objects around the simulated people, rather than the people themselves. The objects would advertise themselves to the Sim, which had to fulfill its needs in the order of most urgency. The Sim turns to the object that fulfills the most urgent need.

In his new game, Wright said, you might turn to your friends to help fulfill your needs. They could send messages to you that try to get you to do something that you need to do. In that sense, your friends could help you accomplish some of the things that you want to do in real life. That is a kind of crowdsourcing, where lots of people contribute ideas to solve a big problem, and it is one of the things that the internet is great for.

The internet essentially operates like a “hive mind” when a problem needs solving. And that is why Wright is calling the new company HiveMind. He thinks that collectively, people can help individuals solve problems.

That idea reminds Wright of a sci-fi story by Bruce Sterling called Maneki Neko, named after Japanese gift cats. The story is about the “gift economy” where people contribute gifts to strangers and in return get back everything that they need. People can earn “karmic points” that can be redeemed, a common feature of social games on Facebook.

Wright sees this vision for a game as the logical extension of his game career. He moved from simulating and solving the problems of cities with SimCity to solving individual or family problems with The Sims. Now he is moving not toward solving the problems of a simulated person, but solving the problems of a real person while entertaining them too.

“When you look at the arc of the games I have done, starting from SimCity, they are each mining a deeper level of creativity,” Wright said. “And they are more focused on the individual over time.” Hence, Wright is now in the age of personal gaming, where the “user becomes the game.”

Wright said the ideas percolated over the past six months while he was mulling things over at his other startup, the Stupid Fun Club. That company is more like an idea generator and a think tank, not an operational company. HiveMind’s three founders include Wright, serial entrepreneur Raj Parekh, and game finance expert Jawad Ansari.

Details on the funding for the company, its schedule for releasing games, and other matters will be released over time. The game could be staged on a mobile devices or Facebook, and other game platforms as well.

It is possible that the HiveMind game will interact with other ideas coming out of the Stupid Fun Club, including an unannounced TV show that is in the works based on a Stupid Fun Club idea, Wright said.

Wright is hoping that his announcement today will trigger interest from like-minded developers who have been thinking about the same thing. He plans to scale up the HiveMind business and make it into a big operation with lots of talent, building apps, a back-end system, and anything else needed to make the HiveMind a reality.

“We want to do this in a very big way,” Wright said.


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