Interview with Will

Friday, January 7, 2000 - 22:00

Whether he is simulating an ant colony, the world, or a family in his latest upcoming creation, The Sims, Will Wright doesn't just think outside the box, he blows the box to smithereens.

Interview on GameSpot

Will WrightThe SimsIf anyone says the game industry doesn't think outside the box enough, they haven't met Will Wright, Mr. SimCity. While the rest of the industry is off building yet another science-fiction or fantasy game, Will Wright is no doubt thinking about an entirely new way to build games. After all, who thought a little game about planning a city would be any fun? Whether he is simulating an ant colony, the world, or a family in his latest upcoming creation, The Sims, Will Wright doesn't just think outside the box, he blows the box to smithereens. With his continual push for innovation in gaming, Will Wright from Maxis is one visionary who continually acts as a catalyst for change.

1. If there were one moment from gaming you'd put in a time capsule to represent the 20th century of interactive entertainment, what moment would it be and why?

Will: You are in a dark cave. There is a passageway to the north. The floor is littered with rocks.

> pickup rock

I don't know how to do that.

You are in a dark cave. There is a passageway to the north. The floor is littered with rocks.

> get rock

I don't see a rock here.

You are in a dark cave. There is a passageway to the north. The floor is littered with rocks.

2. Do you think the gaming industry is underestimating one aspect of interactive entertainment that will take us all by surprise in the early 21st century?

Will: As more games let players customize game content (game-levels, character skins, and so on), the process of development is becoming more and more of a collaboration between the developers and customers. I think the one experience that most gamers are missing right now and would really enjoy is the process of creating games.

It seems to me that gamers are hungry for this sort of ability, to put their creativity and individuality into games, just the same way that people enjoy modifying their cars, houses, and wardrobes. It's amazing how dedicated game fans are and how much effort they're willing to put into this.

Unlike car enthusiasts and others, the gamers that create cool new things for and in their games can freely share them with other players. This not only creates more game content for everyone, but also becomes a centerpiece of the communities that build up around these games. I think as gamers can start to add new dynamics and behaviors into their games (rather than just static data), we'll see a whole new horizon open up.

3. If there's one thing wrong with the gaming industry you'd want to change in the new millennium, what would it be and why?

Will: Compared to most other media, games are far too specialized in the areas of science fiction, military, fantasy, and sports. There are thousands of other interesting subjects and themes out there, which are covered well in other media, but for some reason, games, for the most part, totally avoid them.

There's been a chicken-and-egg thing happening here. Many early people in the industry had strong interests in these subjects (with the possible exception of sports), so they tended to create games with these themes. As these games were consumed by similar techies, over time, they became the established genres we know today. This is possibly one of the main reasons why the game industry appeals to a rather limited segment of the population (compared to books, TV, and movies).

4. There is a lot of talk about interactive entertainment becoming the dominant form of entertainment in the 21st century. Although it's a broad question, dream a little and tell us how far your vision stretches for what interactive entertainment can eventually represent and become?

Will: Imagine two kids playing together. Let's call them Calvin and Dennis. One minute, they're playing with toy soldiers in the dirt, the next, they're building a small dam across a trickle of water. Maybe they go inside and play a board game or watch TV. In each case, they are building a shared world that resides partially in the real world and partially in their imaginations. The play between them is both designing these worlds ("This can be the fort," "Let's make a road now") and interacting with them ("The dam is breaking").

Now, let's add a third player to the group; we'll call her Janus. Except the third member of this group is not a person, but rather a computer of some sort. I'm not concerned here with the form Janus takes. Perhaps she's some sort of VR eyeglasses or maybe a direct spinal tap. I do think she'll be portable, so she can be used anywhere (even outside in the dirt).

Janus collaborates with Calvin and Dennis to design and simulate imaginary worlds. She can also play in them like the other players. She can take on assigned roles, suggest new activities, insert chaos into the play, and over time, will even learn about her friends. She'll keep track of what they like and dislike, what scares them, even what concepts they don't understand yet.

As they play in the dirt, Calvin might ask Janus to make some soldiers. Then, they might see little hi-res soldiers crawling around in the dirt in front of them (via a heads-up image overlaid on the real scene by the VR glasses). Janus might playfully decide to have the soldiers all hide in crevices until the boys can capture them by touch, or maybe she'll play a trick on them by sneaking up behind them with a 50 foot soldier that shows them how big they seem to the little ones.

Whatever Janus turns out to be, I just hope she's not predictable.

5. Now that you've told us where we might be one day, where do you realistically see games in two, five, and ten years down the road? When do you think your vision might become a reality?

Will: In two years, we'll really start to hit diminishing returns from our graphics engines. Additional CPU horsepower will start looking for other areas to improve. The newest areas of advancement will be sound, physics, and behavior (AI).

In five years, behavioral engines will become much more robust and begin to be licensed much in the same way that graphics engines are licensed today. Machine intelligence will still be very much in its infancy however.

In ten years, adaptive systems in all computer applications will become the norm rather than the exception. These systems will observe everything you do and attempt to redesign the games you are playing as you play them. Two players might buy the same game, but after playing it for several months, there will be little resemblance between them, as they evolve to appeal to each individual. In a very real sense, the game players will become the game designers.

My vision in about 30 years away. We're quite close to the interface hardware now, the AI will be the bottleneck.

6. What do you think distinguishes you from other visionaries in the industry? Conversely, what do you share in common with them?

Will: There are two things that have really had the most impact on my work as a designer: reality and creativity. It seems to me like there are so many cool subjects out there in the real world to wrap a game around that we haven't even scratched the surface.

I especially like playing games that change my perception of the real world in which I live. Many people who've played SimCity have remarked on how after playing for a while, they start to see their real city in a whole new way. They start to notice the way things are zoned, the traffic patterns, and the long-term development of their environment. I'm noticing the same effect now when I go home to my family after playing The Sims all day at the office.

Many games are also still rather linear or else the game state space is quite small (all the possible states of the game). This implies a lack of creative freedom for the player. I like focusing on designs that allow hundreds of solutions to the problems faced by the players rather than the more typical two or three. The idea that each game is not only different for each player, but also that it's a reflection of the player's value system appeals strongly to me also.

7. In 25 years, what do you think society will remember about gaming in the late 20th century, and more importantly, what do you think society should remember?

Will: Over the last 20 years, we've been building little toy worlds for people to play in. These worlds have generally been very limited, small, and unrealistic. But at the same time, these worlds have had a tremendous impact on driving the underlying technology, both hardware and software.

Computer games are to the computer industry as auto racing is to the auto industry.

It seems to me that more of the substantial, practical solutions in areas such as artificial intelligence, graphics, user interface, and simulation will be coming from the game industry in the future. Computer and video games are solving pretend problems in ways that can be readily applied to real problems.

8. If you or your company had to make one new year's resolution this year, what would it be and why?

Will: Pace ourselves. It's too easy to burnout in this business.

9. Where will you be for the millennium, and what do you hope to be doing at midnight?

Will: I'll be at home, hosting probably the largest party I ever plan to throw. Each guest will be asked to recreate one event from the last millennium. We'll start at 8:40 pm in the year 1000 AD and replay history at the rate of five years for each minute of the party. As this is 200 minutes before midnight, we'll hit 2000 right then.

10. Far too often, our industry doesn't do enough to highlight up and coming designers and those who tirelessly work behind the scenes to bring games to life. Is there one person you think deserves more recognition? If so, introduce us to this person and tell us why you think he or she deserves acknowledgment.

Will: The lead artist on our internal SimCity team is a guy by the name of Ocean Quigley. He has had a tremendous impact not just on the future of the SimCity line but on all our products. He happens to be an excellent technical artist, but more importantly, he is what you might call a conceptual artist as well.

Ocean has a knack for shaping the conceptual model that the players are building in their heads during gameplay by subtle tweaking of the graphic style, presentation, and interface. He's just now beginning to use this superpower on our internal programmers and producers by producing mockups that are so compelling that the programmers can't help but to code them up, and the producers can't resist turning them into new products.

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