Will Wright has conquered the game industry and is now moving on to bigger things. He made waves in April when he announced he was leaving Electronic Arts to start his own company, the Stupid Fun Club. Wright, who has made blockbuster games from SimCity to The Sims to Spore, was one of the key brains behind EA’s successful Maxis studio, which has sold billions of dollars worth of games. Wright’s last title, Spore, launched in September, 2008, and it hasn’t quite lived up to its hype. But it still generated millions of unit sales and is now going to be made into an animated movie. Wright is recognized as a creative genius who has a knack for figuring out what kind of entertainment appeals to the broader mass market. Eager to keep a piece of Wright’s golden touch, EA took a minority ownership stake in Wright’s new venture and it has the rights to publish games based on the startup’s creations.
Stupid Fun Club has three products in the works, including one that might make it out the door in the coming year. Wright says he is branching out beyond games to embrace other forms of entertainment, from toys to online web sites. He’s even scheduled to give a keynote speech at the upcoming Engage! Expo at the Toy Fair show in New York in February. I spoke with Wright yesterday about his plans.
VB: How do you like getting out on your own?
WW: It’s fun. I’m able to work on projects that are much broader than I could at Electronic Arts.
VB: What have you said about them so far. Are they toy related?
WW: One of them is toy related. The others aren’t. We are looking at a lot of different industries. There’s the web. Toys. We’re not restricted to one type of entertainment. We’re kind of looking for ideas that cross a lot of different boundaries.
VB: Are you thinking of products like Webkinz, where there’s a plush toy and then a code to go to a web site?
WW: Every product that we are working on has a web component. The web is like the connective tissue in entertainment today.
VB: Why are you doing that talk at Toy Fair?
WW: I always wanted to go to Toy Fair and I never had a good excuse. Now that I’m broadening what I’m looking at, I can benefit from it. I am looking at play in general.
VB: So it’s good to be exposed to new kinds of industries?
WW: The opportunities are there when you get outside of one industry and see the creative possibilities between industries. The world is evolving and everyone is connecting in interesting ways now.
VB: Were you intrigued by Jordan Weisman’s new venture, Smith & Tinker, which is creating the Nanovor property that combines both web and toy experiences?
WW: Yes. We talked with Jordan Weisman before we structured this. Jordan is a great guy and he is pursuing something broadly similar in terms of cross-media entertainment.
VB: What are some examples of things you like now that point in this direction of a new kind of entertainment? I’ve mentioned Webkinz. What appeals to you?
WW: It’s interesting to look at media. I have my Tivo at home. I have my Amazon account. I download video on demand. At the same time, there are all of these huge interesting web communities forming around traditional properties. I am interested in the online communities around popular TV shows. The stuff the participants are doing is very extraordinary. The community around The Lost show on TV is one of my favorites. It’s awe inspiring.
VB: That makes me think about (MIT professor) Henry Jenkins’ book on “transmedia,” (content that crosses media boundaries) which he called Convergence Culture.
WW: You can call it a Remix Culture as well. Once something becomes digital and it’s on your computer, people want to play with it. It becomes malleable. They want to do fun things with it.
VB: So you might incorporate these things into what you’re doing in the future?
WW: In a lot of the products, yeah. I was always impressed that with the game industry, if you got a lot of people involved in the experience, how much effort the fans would put into it. You give them tools and they run with them. We want to take that model into other areas.
VB: How big are you guys getting at Stupid Fun Club?
WW: We are very small and will stay small. We are 12 people right now. I don’t ever want it to go above 30. We’re looking to partners to help develop games. We want to be more of an early design shop, doing research and development.
VB: I saw that Maxis cut back on its studio staff some. Did you have a chance to pick up former colleagues?
WW: Yes, a few. Just about everyone working here, with the exception of one or two, are people I have been working with for more than 10 years.
VB: The game people are the ones you need to have on board to get things done?
WW: But it’s not just game people. There are people here with film backgrounds and toy backgrounds.
VB: Seems like, in some ways, it’s a hard time to start something new because so many things are changing. How do you feel about your timing?
WW: The timing worked out really well. If you look back, companies tend to start investing in R&D ahead of a recovery. Since we are building things that won’t show up for a while, it’s good timing. It’s easy to find people to hire. It’s a very different feel when you are in early product development compared to crunch mode while you are finishing a big game. There are certain people who thrive in the early, creative environment. Some thrive when they have to finish a list of things that have to get done on a deadline. Very rarely do you find people who thrive on both ends of that cycle. We’re really focused on the front end of the cycle. The people I am hiring are those who really thrive in those open, creative environments. Then we will have a lot of people working at our partners.
VB: It sounds like a very different operation than Maxis.
WW: Yeah. It’s structurally different in how we are organizing it. It’s not the same economics. Electronic Arts came in as a minority investor and they’re funding our projects. They are an equity partner that doesn’t require any liquidity. If we took venture capital money, we would be asked about the exit opportunity. When would you sell out or do an IPO.
VB: How many projects will you do?
WW: Right now we are pursuing three pretty aggressively. We might get up to four or five. I want to stay pretty focused. We have a lot of ideas that we want to do. But it’s just three now. [Question for the reader: Does this weird app on the company’s web site have anything to do with those games?]
VB: Do you feel you are looking back on the game industry, as something in your past, and do you have a take on it now?
WW: I feel we are still in it because a couple of projects are games. We are taking the games industry into other areas. We are expanding what we call the “play industry.” Games are limited in some ways. Play can be applied to so many different kinds of experiences.
VB: Do you think the future is more about Facebook games, or is more about console games?
WW: I think it is going to be a lot broader than either one of those two. Those are both experiences where you sit in front of the screen. They’re very structured activities. I’m thinking much broader than that.
VB: Is there anything that inspires these projects and your company?
WW: The projects come from all directions. But the work is more like IDEO and its product design process. Design crosses a wide array of fields. They get very fluent in a lot of fields. They learn a lot and then they apply it across industries and designs.
VB: So you set up that kind of environment and make people as creative as you can?
WW: Yes, you take a product design company and an entertainment company and put them together. What would that be like?
VB: How soon are you going to get something out the door?
WW: Our first product could be commercialized in six months to a year.
VB: That’s pretty fast.
WW: I have my fingers crossed.