Game designer Will Wright, best known as creator of The Sims franchise, shares fascinating insights from his decades working in the games industry.
Recorded in Los Angeles on 5 June 2011
Will Wright: Ever since I was a kid I’d go through like six month [obsessions] where it might be a certain battle in World War II or Houdini’s lock-picking or who knows what. I’d just get obsessed with a topic, sometimes broad, sometimes narrow. My mother wasn’t quite sure if it was healthy or not but she basically kind of survived these obsessions.
I was always kind of worried as to what kind of career I might possibly have that would allow me to do that but luckily video games came around and it’s the perfect career for somebody like me.
Talmadge Garvin Blevins: When you went to school, you studied aviation, mechanical engineering, architecture but you ended up being a computer programmer which is something that I believe you were totally self-taught at?
WW: Yeah, basically I got my first Apple 2 while I was attending school in New York City and just got captivated by this machine. The Apple 2 was one of the very first kind of PCs but it was just complex enough to where one person could pretty much fully ‘grock’ it. You could understand the way all the hardware worked, the way all the built-in software worked and how to program it. Pretty much since then computers have been so complex that no one person could understand the whole system but it was kind of nice starting with that sort so that at least at that level I could understand the way the entire computer operated.
TGB: Was teaching yourself something that was a challenge that you wanted to achieve? Was it something that was just out of necessity then at that point?
WW: I’ve only learned things effectively that I was obsessed with and, you know, these obsessions of mine. One of my longer term obsessions has always been robots and at the time I was actually building these weird mechanical contraptions and outfitting them with electric valves. Some of these things were hydraulic and a little bit scary, but it was coming to the point where I really wanted a control system.
The PCs were just coming out, so the initial reason I bought my first computer was actually to control my robots, and so for me it was just kind of like this tool, this add-on. So I need to learn to program this thing, and there was one Apple store in all of New York City that I would go to at the time and on the shelves there were these little things in ziplock bags which were the very first computer games on the Apple 2. I started buying a couple of those because I’d always loved games as a kid and pretty soon I just became entranced by these little microscopic worlds inside the computer; the very first flight simulator which was all wire frame graphics, some of the war games, they were like turn-based, things like that.
Pretty soon my interest in robots just kind of got put to the side and I became fascinated with the machine. I was still really learning how to write programs, doing basic programming to begin with but then getting kind of interested in simulations, artificial intelligence and all that stuff.
TGB: Your first published game was Raid On Bungeling Bay which you went out to the Bay area to shop around. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?
WW: At the time, the Apple 2 programmers were making games and there weren’t many. It was like a handful of people had been working on that machine for a while and they really knew that thing inside out.
So I thought to level the playing field I should get one of the new machines that’s coming out and this is right around the time the Commodore 64 was hitting the market. So I bought one on, like, day one that it was available, and just grabbed the manual and spent the next two months absorbing everything I could about that machine and that’s what I programmed my first game on, Raid on Bungeling Bay.
It was pretty much, ‘How quickly can I make people game?’ and I didn’t even put a whole lot of thought [into] what the game was about. I kind of studied the hardware features and what kind of cool things I could do with the graphics on the machine, and ended up with this pretty stupid flying around shoot ‘em up game.
(Excerpt from Raid On Bungeling Bay)
WW: And those are sound effects, it’s not audio feedback. That was the state of sound effects at the time. The Commodore had this one sound shift and it wasn’t even wave form graphics. You know basically you just put numbers into the sound system and it would make random noises and you kind of sat down and poked it and tweaked it and at some point you know it would make a sound that sounded roughly like an explosion or a helicopter and you would just go with that. It was totally trial and error.
But basically underneath this game, to entertain myself, I built this elaborate simulation of ships and trucks and networks, you know bringing supplies to the factories that most of the players weren’t even aware of but if you understood the way the infrastructure worked in this game, you could actually play it much more effectively. It was a totally wasted effort from the design point of view but it kind of kept me entertained anyway.
TGB: So after Raid On Bungeling Bay, you found that not only did you enjoy the game but you really enjoyed playing along with the landscape generator as well, right?
WW: Right. Actually that game was the kind of initial conception of SimCity because I found I built a program that allowed me to scroll around that little world – make the train, put down roads, buildings and stuff – and it was basically my editor for this game. I found I was spending a lot more time and having a lot more fun building these little worlds than I was blowing them up with a helicopter. So after I finished the stupid helicopter game, I kind of kept playing with that program and that’s what actually eventually evolved into SimCity.
TGB: What was so fascinating about cities to you?
WW: I think cities are interesting in that you have all these dimensions collapsed into one thing that we’re fairly intimately involved with. Everybody knows what cities are like. They’ve been to different cities, they see how they’re different. They understand concepts of traffic pollution, land usage but it’s very organic when you can put it into a fast forward. Basically if you can look at a city over decades, it very much looks like an organism. You see the growth patterns and these cycles going on and you start seeing these interdependencies. There’s a circulatory system, a nervous system, all these things that when you’re actually out there looking at just buildings and roads, you don’t see. You see the daily operation of a city, stuff flowing through these networks, but seeing the growth of a city is a whole different kind of way of looking at it.
(Excerpt from SimCity)
WW: SimCity, it’s interesting that there’s this fascination with micro-worlds or models really at different levels. One of the things that kind of inspired me for SimCity was an old Stanislaw Lem story called ‘The Seventh Sally’. He had these two robots and wrote a lot of his stories about Trurl and Klapaucius – they were robot inventors that would go around kind of trying to outdo each other. In the story, Klapaucius was flying around in his spaceship and saw a little asteroid and a little guy jumping up and down on the asteroid. He landed and it turned out it was a deposed dictator that was totally irate because his civilisation had exiled him for being such a tyrant.
Klapaucius felt bad for the guy so he built his invention for him and described it in wonderful prose, basically this glass case about a metre on the side with all these knobs and levers and he could issue edicts in there and give pardons and start wars and it just went on and on about how this guy basically had a whole kingdom inside this little box.
And he goes backand tells his friend Trurl about how he at least made this one guy happy and then his friend was asking more and more detail: Were the people really crying? Would tears fall from their faces? Oh yes, it was in every little detail you know and then it kind of got into the nature of reality. Well you just basically put this whole kingdom under this tyranny again, you idiot!
There was kind of an ‘oops’ moment, but at any rate, Stanislaw Lem’s stories were wonderfully philosophical. They were really more philosophy than science fiction but I was just captivated with the idea of having a whole little world in a box where you were kind of the driving force for good or bad, primarily in a creative way because I think up to that time most games were very action oriented and also very kind of Walter Mitty escapist you know? You’re saving the world or you’re leading an army, and SimCity was about something that we actually have a lot more daily experience with. We have a relationship with cities that we don’t… most of us do not command armies or space armadas etc.
TGB: So around that time, most of the games were arcade-style games. They had a definitive end, an end point. Is that something when you walked into SimCity you said, ‘Hey, I just want to break the mould on this, I want to go with something that’s a little bit different than what’s already out there’?
WW: I actually never thought SimCity would be a big hit. I thought it would have kind of [an] appeal to architects or maybe some strategy gamers out there which there weren’t many at the time but I was actually very surprised that SimCity ended up being such a big success.
TGB: Obviously SimCity was a huge success, thankfully, and spawned a whole series of Sim games. SimFarm, SimLife, SimEarth, SimAnt – shalI I go on?
WW: No that’s plenty! There were lots and lots of Sim games. In fact we were kind of lucky in the beginning naming SimCity because then we had a prefix; that was our brand.
(Excerpt from SimAnt)
WW: This was the third game I did, or second game I did after SimCity. I did SimEarth and then SimAnt after that and so you know we kind of went to SimEarth and people were expecting SimGalaxy next so we decided to go in the opposite direction and went down to ant. SimAnt was a very playful game actually, relative to a lot of our other simulations, but we still tried to be very accurate in terms of the way the ants behaved in the game, the way the pheromone trails, operated. I’ve always been fascinated with ants.
One of the things I wanted to do with SimAnt was show people why ants are so cool, especially adults. But it turned out that the big hit for SimAnt was [with] 12-year-old boys and they kind of already understood ants were cool, but they were the ones that played this game and bought this game the most. I don’t think I convinced a whole lot of adults how cool the ants were.
In some sense, ant colonies are the most elaborate intelligence that we fully understand. We have no clue really about the human brain. We know bits and pieces about the way the brain works but ant colonies, we pretty much understand the way they operate and they’re very efficient and very smart. A typical ant colony is around the intelligence of a dog in terms of problem-solving and learning. Most people don’t realise that but – I can go on for hours about ants so – I’ll stop there, yes.
TGB: Obsessions. Another thing that crops up in a lot of your games are helicopters. Obviously your first game, Raid on Bungeling Bay, the little traffic helicopter in SimCity…
WW: Every version of SimCity has had helicopters.
TGB: And SimCopter of course, a whole game built around a helicopter.
(Excerpt from SimCopter)
WW: SimCopter is kind of a simple flight simulator but there were different models of helicopter, but one of the main things we were experimenting with is that the world that you’re playing around in is actually a city that you built from SimCity.
You don’t need SimCity to play this game. It comes with a lot of level-base cities but if you had SimCity you basically can take the city that you built in that, and then bring it into this game and that would be putting you in the game. So a lot of the same dynamics are happening in SimCity, traffic, fires, crime, all these things are still happening in SimCopter except now you’re basically trying to put out fires, chase criminals, clear up traffic by reporting it and so we built this mission-based game play.
In some sense I basically had a very small team on this game and kind of wish that I’d had a larger team and about two more years because what Grand Theft Auto turned into is kind of what this was intended to be originally. It had a surprising number of the same concepts as Grand Theft Auto. There was a radio station with all these simulated radio channels. You could get out of the helicopter and walk around and interact with people on the streets. But underneath there’s this whole kind of living city that you’re flying around and interacting with.
Helicopters are just cool. I can’t even say why they’re cool but they’re just so cool. Airplanes are basically, if you let go of the controls, the airplane will pretty much keep flying for a while. You let go of the helicopter’s controls, it crashes instantly. You know helicopters are dynamically unstable which makes them kind of interesting, risky and attractive at the same time.
TGB: So let’s move up a little bit to the year 2000. It seems like by then you had become a suffixophobe because you’ve pretty much changed the way the Maxis name formula went for games and created a game called simply The Sims.
(Excerpt from The Sims)
TGB: What do you think the secret of the success of The Sims has been?
WW: Well The Sims started off as kind of this architectural thing and [one of] the most direct inspirations for The Sims really [was] SimAnt, in an interesting way, in terms of can we build an intelligent system, intelligent people that behave in a wide variety of situations through distributed intelligence? And I’m not going to go into exactly how that works but basically as you put more stuff around the Sims, the intelligence is not in the Sim but in the environment and it informs the Sim what to do. So as you add stuff, like through these expansion packs, every time you added more objects into the game, the Sims became more intelligent and we had great success with expansion packs there.
One of our primary customers were like 12-13-year-old girls and boys as well but in some sense we were coming up with expansion packs every few months, that they might buy for 20 or 30 bucks and it was their equivalent of subscribing to a game. Most of these kids, especially a few years ago, really didn’t have the opportunity to put a credit card on line and play a game, you know, subscription-based.
(Excerpt from The Sims)
WW: But they could bug their parents and say I want this or that expansion pack, and since they’ve already got the other ones, it’s [an] easier sales job to say OK I’ll buy you another expansion pack. But in essence they were subscribing for about ten bucks a month to The Sims, with all these expansion packs.
(Excerpt from The Sims)
WW: I did a prototype of The Sims and worked on it for about a year right after SimAnt and we had a focus group where we brought in a group of game players and we had four ideas that we were presenting. One of them was The Sims which I was calling ‘Doll House’, and of the four ideas that was the only idea that they all universally hated, with a passion, I mean absolutely hated. The other three they thought were pretty cool game ideas, I don’t even remember what the other three were. I don’t think they ever made it to market but I kind of learned at that point not to trust focus groups at all, period.
TGB:So obviously The Sims has been very successful over the next ten years. The next game from Maxis was Spore which I actually consider kind of a throwback to what the early Sim games were, as an evolution – pun intended completely – of SimEarth and SimLife. Do you see it the same way?
WW: Yeah, actually I learned a lot from SimEarth. SimEarth was the simulation of the entire earth through its evolutionary history, all the way from the formation of earth through the genesis and evolution of life, all the way up to civilisation; but it was really about global dynamics.
We had a weather model, climate model, evolutionary model and in fact I thought our climate model was pretty cool and it was fun just building a climate model that ran on a PC back in those days. But it was very, very science-y. From a player’s point of view, you had all these knobs and controls and graphs and it felt like being kind of put in the cockpit of a 747 that’s in a steep nose dive.
It’s all the gauges twirling around and basically people would start playing the game and pretty soon the whole planet would boil off or freeze up or life would go extinct, and it wasn’t really clear exactly what happened. I mean it was really hard to kind of go back and figure it out, so I think with Spore we tried to do something that was graphically much more rich but also something that… We had a terra forming model in Spore as well but it was something that was much more easily understood but still had some basis in reality.
(Excerpt from Spore)
WW: A major aspect of Spore was actually going through the ‘powers of ten’ idea where you start as microscopic life, you go through non-intelligent, larger microscopic life and then eventually become intelligent and move out into the galaxy.
Sporehad a couple of unique things about it. Number one is that most of the assets in Spore –the creatures, planets, spaceships, buildings – are player-created. That’s a big part of the game; as you’re playing the game, you design a creature, you design your spaceship, design your city, and when you create stuff in the game, it’s automatically sent up to our database and used to populate other people’s game installations.
So once you go up to the galactic level, you’re now flying. We had millions of stars, each of which had planetary systems and each one had unique life and civilisations because we had millions of players always creating this stuff as they played the game, so creating the game was the process of kind of making the game.
There was also this whole ‘powers of ten’ where you start as a microscopic single cell organism and eventually work your way up through larger and larger scales to the galactic scale where you’re kind of going between stars. So in some sense it was kind of like SimEarth but we expanded it kind of at the bottom and the top, you know in both directions scale-wise.
TGB: I know the space programme, especially the Russian space programme, is an obsession of yours. There have been allusions to it in many of your games, you could be an astronaut in The Sims. Obviously you had the galactic conquest phase in Spore. How come you’ve never made just a pure space-based or space-focused game?
WW: Space is big and it turns out stars are really far apart, and as far as I can tell, the speed of light is a kind of limitation. And when you take those things together, you know to build a realistic space game, you have to kind of look at very different assumptions. It’s not going to be Captain Kirk warping around a few days between stars. In fact I have actually considered doing a game based upon realistic assumptions in space travel.
In Spore it’s interesting because we had people going in between stars and doing all this stuff but we never say how long it takes. You know at that point there’s no clock or counter saying how long it took you to get from this star to that star.
But we actually built over a hundred prototypes for Spore when we were working on the space phase, most of which did not make it in the game. That’s kind of true of most of our games, for every ten prototypes we build, about one of them ends up with some future in the game. But some of the prototypes we built for Spore involved galactic dynamics and the way interstellar clouds could turn into stars and back again, and sculpting nebula, things like this, these kind of really interesting things that you might want to do in a space game. But again in terms of fitting it in with the concept of Spore, they were totally orthogonal to what we were doing in the game. So a game like Spore, and even like The Sims, in its later stages, these games get so very complex.
One of the big challenges is how can somebody come up to this game and, never having played it before, then understand it? You really have to ramp the player in and say here’s a very basic understanding of what you’re supposed to be doing and then from there, you kind of build complexity around them.
TGB: One thing I’ve noticed is you always seem to focus on these life systems. You like to explore and deconstruct them and figure them out. It’s actually something that you yourself have referred to as an affliction that you have. Why would you call it an affliction?
WW: Well it just influences the way I see the world. When I come into places I’ve never been before, I see things I’ve never seen before, I’m initially sitting there trying to reverse-engineer what is the overall system here. And I’m looking for patterns and trying, in my head, to build a simulation of the way this thing works, and this thing might be some new machine, a social system, it might be a party but it’s very distracting to always be reverse-engineering the world around you.
So it is like an affliction I think, almost like synesthesia or something but that’s the way I understand the world and so even with simulations, what I try to do is, ‘How can I deconstruct the world with these little blocks, these little legos, and reconstruct a model of it, an abstraction of the world?’ And as an abstraction you’re throwing away most of the detail and looking for the core things that will give you you know some rough behaviour of the whole system.
I definitely think of the world differently and part of it has been the objectiveness of interacting with people. Team building is a really interesting example. I’ve always tried to bring people into my teams that are a little bit better at the kind of social glue side where I, I tend to be very honest and direct with people and sometimes it is a little inappropriate you know. Not so much to the Asperger side of the spectrum but still it’s one of those things that I can do but requires more energy from me to kind of get into that very subtle social diplomatic interaction with people.
Q (from the floor): I was wondering if you have any thoughts or ideas about the convergence of games and movies?
WW: I think that at the most fundamental I would fall back from referring to it as ‘movies’ and talk about ‘storytelling’ and ‘play.’ To me, those are the two fundamental things we’re dealing with here basically. Play is a super set of games. Games have rules and structure, and so they’re embedded in play but things like SimCity really aren’t so much games in that they tend to be more open-ended play.
The best stories lead to play. The best games lead to storytelling. But they’re very different. I think storytelling is primarily based upon the idea of empathy, that I can understand the characters and feel what they’re feeling even though I’m not driving the characters, and they’re kind of stand-ins, emotional surrogates for me to experience what’s going on in their story.
I think play is very much based upon agency, the fact that I’m touching, I’m making the decision, I’m driving, I have the steering wheel which is very powerful because I think that there’s certain emotional… Games have an emotional palate that for the most part is inaccessible to storytellers. I’ve felt things playing games, I’ve felt pride, guilt, accomplishment that I’ve never really felt watching a movie. There are other emotions that I’ve felt watching movies that I’ve never really felt in a game so they both have different emotional palates but I think that they’re self-supporting.
They’re both also fundamentally educational technologies. When you think back to why we enjoy storytelling, why we enjoy play, we have a limited bubble of experience from which to build models of the world around us and we can only build a very, fairly rudimentary model of the world with the amount of experience we have over an entire lifetime. But we’ve compensated for that by learning to acquire more experience either indirectly from somebody telling us a story – so you can tell me a story and I can now incorporate that experience into my world model even though it never happened to me – or I can play experience and actually experience that in kind of a toy environment, a very safe environment, and so I can learn why a bridge might fall down before I become an engineer or even decide I want to do that as a career.
So I think that both these things were actually discovered by evolution millennia ago and that’s why our brains basically have been wired to enjoy these things, because they allow us to accomplish more elaborate world models with our limited base of experience.
Q (from the floor): In some ways the console market has matured, the graphic intense adventure genre seems to have been done and all the originality and innovation seems to be coming in the indie space. Where do you think the games industry will be two, three or four years from now?
WW: I think the game industry is heading towards a much healthier space right now than it was five years ago, and it’s extremely disruptive. It’s, from my point of view, kind of like the… explosion back a few hundred million years ago where we have all these branches now evolving that are just exploding. And it’s not just genres of games but platforms as well and delivery mechanisms. We didn’t have the ipad two years ago. We didn’t have smart phones a few years before that or Facebook or any of these platforms that are now major platforms.
I think the old model of [having] a console cycle every five to six years is obviously dead. It used to be a very predictable cycle that had happened over a couple of decades. Now I think consoles are going to be this thing that a certain group of people have a console in this room but the idea that you’re tethered to a location to play a game seems antiquated already.
All these new platforms coming out are causing people to rethink, not just what a game is but how people play a game. I noticed that now I’m too lazy to go in the other room where the computer is because I have my ipad in front of me and so I’ve actually ended up using my ipad a whole lot more than I ever would have predicted when I bought it. I just bought it to try it out and thought OK I’ll play with it for a couple of months and then put it in the closet but no, I think that for me sitting there, even when you talk to the TV people now, what they talk about is the two screen experience, that people are sitting there watching their TV show with their ipad or smart phone, looking at the actors, using IMDB whatever it is, and now shows are starting to integrate these live feeds so I can start doing stuff on my pad as I’m watching the TV show.
So I think we will have a new generation of platforms emerging five years from now that may be where half the market lives, you know, and it might be tablet computing or something between that and smart phones but I think the idea that people are untethered from a particular room is a very powerful long-term idea.
Q (from the floor): Your games have always been sort of difficult, and they always take a lot of investment before you actually get a reward. There’s a lot of games nowadays that sort of hold your hand or there’s a safe point every two seconds or something like that. Are our attention spans getting shorter and if so, how does that affect your future developments?
WW: I think that games in general are getting geared toward people, I wouldn’t say with less attention span but it’s more like the way they’re playing games, they’re playing them interstitially now.
It used to be somebody would go and sit down in front of their Xbox, put in a disc and sit there and spend at least an hour playing Counterstrike or whatever. Now you’re on Facebook, you click on your Facebook game, you play for a couple of minutes then go back, do some other stuff and check in with it every now and again or pop out.
So I think the rise of interstitial gaming where people are playing games during the cracks in their lives is one of the things that opened up the market for things like Facebook or mobile gaming.
I think there are still these sit down session-based games. In some sense they’re going to be kind of branching off in different directions. I think right now the difference is between a movie and YouTube where there’s no television in between. And on the movie side, it’s more like a Lawrence of Arabia movie where these games are built for 50 hours and it used to be people paying 50 bucks for these games and we pretty much had to justify that you know there’s 40 hours of game play here at least before you get to the end of the game, whatever that is, for more linear games.
The kind of games I’ve always liked to do though tend to be more open sandbox games where there’s a matrix of progression but it’s not like you have mission-based and you have to do A, B, C, D. Spore is a slight exception in that it did have these levels; you were clearly in this level or that level but they were meant to be replayable as separate games.
I think also the indie game scene, one of the things that’s caused a lot of the experienced designers to go to either Facebook or multiple gaming is the fact that the complexity of these games is an order of magnitude less of what we’re building like for the console market right now, the amount of time and effort. Most of the games I’ve worked on in some form or another have taken me five to seven years from initial conception to the day I shipped it. You have to be pretty patient to work [on] the same product for seven years. I’ve usually staggered them and have them kind of overlapping but it’s incredibly refreshing to be able to do an entire game project in the course of a year which is really a little bit closer to something like movies. Some movies of course can take five years but really most movie production happens on a shorter timescale so I think that there’s kind of an attraction from the designer’s point of view by making these smaller games. I think you’re still going to have these kind of long epics but I think we’re seeing right now the market being overtaken almost by these shorter attention span things.
TGB: I want to thank you so much for joining us tonight.