Nobody talks about games as lucidly as Will Wright, the creator of blockbuster franchises from SimCity to The Sims. He discussed the future of games at the Game Horizon Live event in a live webcast this week. During his Q&A session, he talked about a wide variety of topics about where games are going.
Wright said that he was inspired by the “Cambrian” explosion of games (as in the meteoric growth of life during that epoch in Earth’s history) that has come from indie game development on app stores for smartphones, tablets and other platforms.
Wright cofounded Maxis and created games like SimCity. EA acquired Maxis in 1997, and Wright went on to create titles like The Sims and Spore while at EA. He left Electronic Arts in 2009 and set up a series of startups. His latest company is Syntertainment, which focuses on creative play and the interaction between entertainment and reality.
Wright has won multiple awards and was inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences’ Hall of Fame. For young game designers getting started, Wright advised them to study nongaming fields so they can get more creative inspiration. Here’s an edited transcript of a portion of the Q&A with Wright at Game Horizon 2013. This is part one of the Q&A and we’ll run part two on Sunday.
Will Wright: Really, you’re dealing with two platforms. You’re dealing with the computing platform, which is code and technology and all that stuff, and you’re dealing with the human mind. When you design a game, it’s running on both of these platforms at once. A lot of the things that we can crunch numbers on in a simulation, we do that on the computer. But a lot of other things that the computer is not well-suited for, we actually run that in the player’s imagination.
For example, in The Sims, when you hear the people talk, you don’t actually hear them saying anything. You hear this kind of gibberish language. Through a lot of experiments, we determined that we could actually have them speaking in English or some other known language, but they very quickly became robotic and repetitive. That veil of reality disappears. On the other hand, if they speak gibberish, your mind naturally fills in the blanks and imagines a conversation. The Sims have vocal intonation. They have emotion. You can tell if they’re angry or flirting or whatever it is. We don’t hear the exact words, is all. In essence, what we did is we offloaded that part of the simulation into the human imagination.
When I started out in my career many decades ago, it was all about how fast the computer can run. How many pixels can we put on the screen? We were always fighting the machine at every turn to get more performance out of it, to do more tricks. Those limitations, for the most part, have just fallen by the wayside. I don’t feel like I have any meaningful technological bottlenecks or barriers ahead of me. At this point, it’s about how we best exploit the human imagination, the human mind, human creativity, in interesting ways. We’re trying to get somebody’s brain into a certain state that they enjoy. Sometimes it’s a kind of flow state. You’re at this border between challenge, accomplishment, and difficulty. Other times it’s more of a free-form, creative, expressive state, or something where you want to share, more of a social state.
Obviously, we don’t understand very much about the human mind. Game design, in some sense, is applied psychology. We’re hacking human psychology. We’re dealing with these mechanisms in our brains that give us joy, enjoyment. Sometimes it’s through challenge, or through finding patterns, or through solving problems. Our brain is wired to enjoy these things, which fundamentally is the process of learning. Our brain is wired to reward us for learning and pushing our limits and doing things outside of our barriers. Game design is in some ways a process of getting us into that state of expanding our mind.
I can sit there and look at the specs of a computer and understand all the stuff that it can and can’t do. The human mind, though, we have no manual for. That’s uncharted territory. As game designers, this is one of the fundamental ways in which we’re exploring the human mind.
Game Horizon: Which game designers in the world do you most admire? Current or historical?
Wright: That’s a good question. Obviously, [Shigeru] Miyamoto and Nintendo. What I admire most about him is that he always takes the player first. Right off the bat, giving someone the controller – what does it feel like? How tactile and kinesthetic is what he’s working on? It works from the inside out. What’s the first 5 seconds of the player experience? What’s in the next 10 seconds? His games have this craftsmanship around them that’s amazing and unique. Plus, the variety of things he’s done. So I very much admire him.
Also, Peter Molyneux. I think he takes a lot of risks. He’s got this vicarious thing about dealing with little worlds full of little people, which very much matches my sensibilities in a way. Sid Meier, I’ve always enjoyed his games. His games are just playable. They’re like a comfortable chair you sit in. I grew up playing board games and war games and stuff. Sid did as well, so I think Sid in some ways is re-creating our youth, the kinds of games we would play back then. There are lots more. It’s hard to pick them out.
All three of these are from my generation of game designers. There are a lot of other people, up-and-coming people, doing weird, cool, experimental stuff right now. I feel like we have a much wider crop of very skilled, talented designers now than we ever have, which is great for the industry. Partially it’s the result of having all these different platforms. You don’t need the 100-person team. A really smart kid can go out there with a couple of his friends and put an app out on the App Store inside of a year. Some of the greatest designers out there are just getting their start right now.
Wright: A lot of my influences for my games come from reading, from books. Specific themes and subjects usually are very targeted, coming from academic stuff. I was very inspired initially by Jay Forrester, who was the father of modern system dynamics theory back in the ‘50s. I was reading about how he was trying to take different systems – cities, factories, the whole world – and simulate them. He wanted to deconstruct them into component parts that he could build a model of.
As a kid I spent most of childhood building models – planes, ships, plastic and wood. I started putting in motors and building tanks and stuff like that, which led me to the idea of robots. I bought my first computer to control my early robots. Doing robotics, I started realizing that most of the really hard problems in robotics and AI were software problems.
At the same time, I got very interested in not just modeling the world with static, physical models, but also how to model the world dynamically. Modeling the internal dynamics of the world and the way things work. I’d say that Jay Forrester was a big inspiration down the simulation path. Another inspiration was a Polish writer named Stanislaw Lem, who wrote a lot about micro-worlds, simulating worlds, and the ethics of dealing with these things. A lot of philosophical questions that these little worlds bring up. For the different games I’ve done, for almost every game there’s some major inspiration. Edward Wilson’s work with ants inspired SimAnt. Christopher Alexander’s work on architecture inspired The Sims. So I get most of my inspiration from reading.
Wright: What I’m working on now is going to be much more of a mobile-based experience. It’s in a totally different ballpark economically and business-wise from the old shrink-wrap model. I think a lot of the old titles, the old franchises that are PC-based and whatnot, are going to have to evolve very rapidly. We’re in a new market. It’s true of the console companies and their business models as well. Their business model used to be that you’d buy a console and they’d sell you a bunch of games and that would pay for the console development. Now people are being conditioned, in the app markets especially, that games cost three to five dollars, or they’re freemium, with microtransactions.
We’re going from one local maximum, in the business landscape of games, to a whole different one. For a lot of business models that’s going to be a very uncomfortable transition. There’s obviously been a lot of piracy over the years in the PC market. DRM is one approach to it. Freemium is another. There’s a Darwinian process happening right now before our eyes as to which ones consumers will accept and which ones they’re going to be comfortable with. It’s a question of how you pull somebody into an experience, without frontloading the economic exposure from the consumer’s point of view.
As far as DRM – and this is relative to SimCity and what happened with the SimCity launch – I wasn’t really working with Electronic Arts at that point, so I can’t say much about that specifically. But I’d say that kind of DRM issue isn’t really much of a concern for me on the new project working on. The business model that we do choose, whether it’s microtransactions or subscription or however we try to monetize it, is a very big unknown right now. There is no established model. People are experimenting with all these different things and meeting varying levels of success.
GH: You talked a bit about all the changes that have come over the industry in the last five years. A lot of that is centered around the way the industry is structured, how things are sold. You mentioned microtransactions and episodic games. That’s all been on the business side of things. Do you feel that any of that has been a positive for the way games are designed, the way that design is approached?
Wright: As you move to something like a freemium model, what’s happening is, it’s really just an expansion of what we used to call game demos. I’d download a demo and if I liked it I’d go buy the game. We’ve granularized that process.
I am a firm believer that if the game has value to the player, if the player is enjoying that experience, then the player will be willing to pay for it in some form. I think that it puts games on, in some sense, a more even footing, in that it’s not so much about how big of a marketing budget you can put behind it. That’s still a large component, but it’s not as huge as it used to be. It used to be about things like shelf space and how you’d get distribution in very limited channels. That was such a huge filter that in some ways it was causing the publishers to fall back and be very risk-averse. The biggest-selling category was always sequels. Publishers were comfortable investing millions of dollars into the second and third versions of something they knew was successful. They were much less comfortable with trying something totally experimental.
In that sense, the new business models that we have are very good for game development. We’re seeing much more experimentation and risk-taking, because you don’t necessarily have to plunk down as much money on marketing and distribution as you did on game development. The platforms are such that I don’t just spend tens of millions of dollars to develop a top-level game on the platform.
We’re moving to a world where there’s a more direct correlation between the value a player gets from a game and your ability to monetize from the player. I’ve experienced this myself with certain games that I’ve played. There are games that I’ve downloaded, freemium games, that I’ve really gotten into and that I’m playing months later. I’m willing, at that point, to put money into the game – significant amounts of money. In some sense it’s up to the game to prove itself to me first. Do I really want to play this thing again and again? Am I getting into it? Then I’ll open my wallet and start putting money into it. I think the more direct the correlation between the value a player gets from a game and the amount of money we take from the player, the more people will feel good about the industry. Nothing feels worse than dropping down $40 on a game that you buy at a software store, bringing it home, playing it for half an hour, and finding out that it sucks. We’re moving away from that.
Wright: It’s hard to say, because at the same time, what we’ve seen is a huge widening of the demographics of our players. The reason why some of my games have been fairly successful, I think, is because they pulled in a much wider group of people. But still, they were on a very limited set of platforms. They were typically PC-based. When you get to the sequels to some of the games I did – The Sims 2, SimCity 2000, and so on – at that point people knew what these things were, and they were much more likely to drop the $30 or $40 to buy the game. In the first versions, it probably did mitigate the spread of these things. It was just word of mouth. People said, “You should check this game out.” You’d play at your friend’s house and then go order it.
Right now, there’s such immediacy to being able to try a game. If someone tells me about a game on my iPhone, I can be playing it in two minutes. I don’t have to find it in the store, bring it home, and install it. That immediacy allows the consumer to experiment with a much wider variety of things. Now, on the flip side of this, you have a thousand cool games competing for your attention. It’s about signal and noise.
GH: Are there any game genres or any design ideas that you’ve had and that you wanted to work on, but you never had a chance to do so? Now that development cycles are shorter and risks might be mitigated, is there anything like that you might have a chance to work on?
Wright: I’ve had so many ideas, some that could go way beyond my lifespan. There’s an idea I worked on for many months that was kind of a tactical storm simulator. It was based on 3D fluid dynamics. I wanted to be able to go in and grab the atmosphere and move it and manipulate it in interesting ways. By now, with a multi-touch interface, it’s probably much more achievable than it was with the old mouse and keyboard approach. But yeah, there are so many ideas that I got into at one point in time or another, and then for whatever reason – technology or simulation difficulty – they dropped by the wayside. For the most part, though, I think that the thing that’s interested me the most is the path that I’m going down, which is understanding the player very deeply and having a game that develops and evolves with particular people.
GH: A couple of years ago, we had Ken Perlin come and give a speech. I gather that you talk to him from time to time. If you had a dream team of people that you’d put together, who would they be?
Wright: It would depend on the project. I’ve worked with a number of great people over the years. Typically, in programming, it’s one of these fields where a great programmer is 100 times more effective than a really good programmer. But it also depends entirely on how motivated people are towards the project. That’s another huge multiplier. If you can come up with an idea and figure out who would be really into it, those are the people you want on the team. So it’s hard for me to say that there’s one dream team.
Ken and his work have been a huge inspiration to me. He was doing a lot of the early consulting for us on Spore, the procedural generation stuff. At various times I’ve had the privilege to work with some of the people who’ve inspired me with their writing — Christopher Alexander, James Lovelock. I’ve gotten them involved to various degrees on projects. When you get the person who inspired the idea to come in and start giving feedback, to me that is the dream.
Wright: It’s interesting. When I play games, I don’t necessarily feel like I get inspired by them at all. I just sit and play them. I enjoy them. There’s some part of my life where I put aside the fact that I’m a game designer, that I do this for a living, and I just want to sit and blow things up. My current guilty pleasure is World of Tanks. As a kid I always loved World War II history — I built a lot of tank models — and World of Tanks has all these different tanks from World War II. It’s fun for me because it’s kind of like a first-person shooter for old people. You don’t need to have fast reflexes to play this game. It’s much more about strategic thinking. These tanks go slowly and the turrets don’t turn fast. When I play first-person shooters I just get my butt kicked by 14-year-old kids. So World of Tanks is like a first-person shooter that someone like me can play fairly successfully.
I play a lot of apps, too, on my iPhone and iPad. Usually I don’t play them very deeply. I try a lot of them just to look around for cool things. Sometimes it’s a novel interface or a different approach. Those are probably a little more of an inspiration for me. I grew up playing a lot of turn-based strategy games, too, so I’ve always enjoyed those. Advance Wars on the DS, I spent many years playing that. Sid Meier’s Civilization, as well as the new one on the iPad, Civilization Revolutions. Those are the kinds of games I spend most of my time playing.