Game Industry Legends: Will Wright
Insights into game design and the limitations that have disappeared
Will Wright is among the legendary designers in the game industry. He began designing and programming commercial games in 1984, and went on to form Maxis Games in 1987 with Jeff Braun. The SimCity game he published in 1989 has been a classic, with sequels SimCity 2000 and SimCity 3000. Maxis went on to publish many other Sim games, many designed by Wright such as SimEarth and SimAnt.
Maxis was purchased by Electronic Arts in 1997, which led to Wright designing and publishing The Sims in 2000, which would turn out to be the most successful computer game of all time, spawning numerous expansions, sequels, and even a social game. The Sims franchise has generated over a billion dollars in revenue for Electronic Arts. Wright also designed Spore, released in 2008, based on evolutionary principles.
Wright left EA in 2009 and formed Stupid Fun Club, where he works on new ideas in entertainment. GamesIndustry International caught up with Will Wright recently, and we discussed the nature of game design, innovation, and the future of games.
Q: What was the first game you did, and what year was that?
Will Wright: The first game I did was called Raid on Bungeling Bay, it was published I think in 1984.
Q: How big was the team that worked on that game?
Will Wright: One.
"I think we're seeing a lot more experimental game design happening now as a result, and I think it's much healthier actually for the industry"
Q: You did it all.
Will Wright: Except for the box design. I wrote the manual, did the art, did the sound, did the programming, etc.
Q: I suppose the budget, when you're doing it all in your spare time, isn't really a consideration.
Will Wright: No, there wasn't really a budget back in those days. My first game was published by Broderbund, and I didn't take any advances on it, and I was just kind of working on this for a few months out of my home. The royalties were much higher, on the other hand.
Q: Was that for the Apple II?
Will Wright: Commodore 64 was the first version. Eventually it was licensed on the very first Nintendo system, the NES. It was one of the first American games in Japan. It actually sold quite a bit more... a lot more on the Nintendo than it ever did on the Commodore, because there was so much piracy on the Commodore, and Nintendo was a cartridge-based system. I made almost nothing on the Commodore version, but a good amount on the Nintendo version. Piracy was rampant on the Commodore.
Q: There's quite the contrast now with the budgets and team sizes that you're looking at. Back then, you had an idea and you did it by yourself. Now if you have an idea, usually you have to get a team together and figure out how to pay for all that. How do you think those changes have affected game design? Positive, negative, something of both?
Will Wright: I think it kind of maxed out maybe 5 years ago. Nowadays I think it's swinging back the other way, so people are doing a lot of app development, web-based stuff, Facebook stuff, that is at a lower scale of effort than a triple-A console title. I think we have more diversity now, in terms of opportunities. I think 5 years ago, yeah, it was more like if you really wanted to make a serious game you had to get together tens of millions of dollars of budget, a giant team, and it was a multi-year endeavor. Now we're seeing a much wider diversity in the scale of development. I think it's starting to swing back the other way a little bit.
Q: Do you think that's more attractive to a lot of designers, to work with a smaller team?
"I can use games to fill the empty slots in my life"
Will Wright: Oh yeah. It is, for certain designers, and also I think it affords a lot more experimentation. When you're going to drop twenty or thirty million dollars on a title people tend to get very safe, and then when you go to established genres, and they want to do focus groups and all that stuff. If it's three or four guys in a garage doing an app, they can do whatever crazy thing they want to. So I think we're seeing a lot more experimental game design happening now as a result, and I think it's much healthier actually for the industry.
Q: There's quite a variety of platforms now to choose from.
Will Wright: Yeah, and some of them are fairly expensive to develop for, other ones aren't. Of course, the economics of these things are fairly different as well, so you're not necessarily going to make $500 million dollars on an app, but it opens the door to a lot more people not just experimenting with game design but also learning the ropes, working their way into the industry.
Q: What are the biggest changes that strike you in reflecting on the last couple of decades in the industry?
Will Wright: I think over the last five years or so it really is the diversification, not just of platform, but alongside of that, of the players, the demographics. Games really used to be something that were targeted to 16-year-old boys. Now we have people of all generations, genders, walks of life, playing games, a lot of them on their cell phones, or on Facebook, or whatever. I think that the explosion in platforms has also driven a very healthy diversification of our audience.
Q: It's what we all talked about for many years, the ability to sell to a broader audience, and now it's finally here.
Will Wright: Yeah, and now it really is happening. Of course, it's disrupted the economics for a lot of people that were basing their business on the very predictable model of every four years there's a new console, etc. But again I think it's a very good thing.
Q: Do you think as a consequence that consoles as we know them are pretty much doomed? Is there going to be another successful new console generation?
Will Wright: I don't think they're doomed. I think they're not going to become the mainstay of the market like they had been. I think there'll probably still be dedicated game machines going forwards, sitting on a shelf next to your HDTV. I think that they're going to be catering to a very specific kind of player, which probably isn't that different from what they were catering to before. It's just that a lot more people are now playing games, and they're not playing it on that device.
"I think that as a society we're starting to take games a bit more... well, I don't want to say seriously, but we're starting to see the value in games"
Q: As you say, that changes the nature of the industry as people try to address all these different players. Do you attribute a lot of this to mobile and social games? What kind of impact do those games have on design?
Will Wright: I think that the social factor has become much larger, and also what I would call the interstitial factor, which is that rather than people doing what you might call session-based gaming, where I'm going to go sit in my room and play Halo for an hour, I have the opportunity to pull out Angry Birds and play for two minutes while waiting in line at Starbucks. I can use games to fill the empty slots in my life, a bit more ubiquitously.
I think in some sense that playing games is becoming more ubiquitous in our lives, in a very similar way that storytelling is. You can go see a $200 million Steven Spielberg movie in a theater, and at the same time you might be standing around the water cooler telling your friend what you did last night. Both of those are storytelling, at different scales. When you think about just your normal everyday life, talking with people, interacting, you're telling stories all the time. They surround you. You go on the web and you read a story, or you read something in a newspaper or your friend tells you a story, or you might go home and watch a story on television. So story surrounds us all the time at all these different levels, and I think gaming is in the process of doing the same thing. Gaming used to be something that maybe you'd do at night-time, for a couple of hours in front of your Xbox. Now gaming is something that you can pull out of your pocket and play for two minutes here or there, or check into your Facebook thing, do something on FarmVille, whatever. But it's something that's becoming more and more ubiquitous in our lives.
Q: That's an interesting analogy. Games really are permeating society. Do you see the trends in gamification, and serious games, and education as becoming more important?
Will Wright: Yeah, I think that play has always been important. I think that as a society we're starting to take games a bit more... well, I don't want to say seriously, but we're starting to see the value in games. People are starting to understand how strong their motivation can be. When they talk about gamification it's kind of like 'How do we make doing your taxes more fun?' or tracking your work productivity. People are realizing that games are an extremely powerful.. in fact it's really a form of cultural language, a way to think about things in a more exploratory, playful sense. But also goal oriented, with metrics, tracking, performance, etc. A lot of those things that games are really good at are things that people want, either in work, productivity, or education. So I think they're starting to see the value points in games and trying to figure out how to bring those into other areas.
Q: Some people have said there's a dark side to the metrics; some of the games, particularly social games, they're pushing our buttons in an attempt to get to our wallets.
Will Wright: Oh, they certainly are! So does television; advertising didn't start in games, or commercialism, how you're going to extract money from a consumer. Games, probably more than these other forms of media, are more purely applied psychology. As a result you have the ability, when successful, to influence a person's behavior.
Q: They're Skinner boxes that are really fun.
Will Wright: Yeah, and because they're interactive it's a much more typically effective form of engagement than something that's passive and one-way.
Q: Do you think that we're seeing some more interesting designs, with the experimentation out there? Are there examples that you can cite that struck you as interesting design ideas?
Will Wright: Yeah, actually a lot of it comes down to simplicity. When we were in the console wars, all the games were about more and more complexity, in deeper environments and larger worlds. What strikes me about some of the cool apps that I enjoy are just how utterly simple they are; the concepts are simple and understandable, and you can get into it in under a minute. Yet they're deep as well. There's a game on my iPad I've played for a while, Osmos. Very elegant little game; you have some blobs, and you tap on the blobs, and they eject these little particles pushing you across the screen, kind of Newtonian physics, they absorb each other... it's hard to describe. It's a very elegant, very relaxing game, actually.
Q: It seems that when freed from spending huge amounts of money developing a game perhaps you can experiment more with the design.
Will Wright: Not just free from the economic constraints, but also open to the idea that maybe not all the players want to run around shooting each other with guns, maybe there's some players that want to do something a bit more meditative or contemplative or creative.
Q: I get the feeling a lot of the designs we saw in the past were there because they were easy to grasp. "I'll just do a good job of firing a gun at somebody" and that was sufficient for a design.
Will Wright: It was really market-driven as well, and typically in the game industry what would happen every year is that the executives would go back and look at the previous year and they would say, "Oh, RPGs are up 10%" or "RTS is the growing category" and then they would invest accordingly. If you really went back and looked at it, the real issue is "What was the cool game last year?" If the best game was Warcraft II, then of course the RTS titles will appear to be going up 30%, because that was the cool game. It's almost like they were chasing what they thought the market was saying - "We like this genre" and "We don't like that genre" but in fact the market was just saying "These are the best games."
Q: And you could make a "best game" in any category you wanted.
Will Wright: Yeah, exactly, the "best game" could have been a flight simulator, or an RPG, and it was really more about the quality of the experience than it was about the particular genre.
Q: Where do you see things going from here? As you say, there's a lot of change going on in the business... how do see that playing out over the next five, ten years?
Will Wright: I think with the massive exploration that's going on we're going to be seeing probably whole new genres pop up. I think also we're just getting to the point now where games are able to build a very detailed understanding of the player and react and change accordingly. I think we're just at the cusp of that, where games will basically start evolving to fit the players on an individual level. Part of this is just as a result of the metrics we're able to capture, but it's also a component of how malleable the games are going to be. How much they can handle crowd-sourced content or procedural generation, things like that, where the games have the ability to adjust and modify themselves to the individual. To me that's the most interesting and powerful change I see that's on the horizon. I haven't seen too many examples of this, but it's something that excites me greatly.
Q: The marrying of procedural content generation with the metrics you can get now from games could be very powerful.
Will Wright: Yeah. Right now games are an individual experience; you and I are going to go into the same game but have different experiences, but that's something we could push much much farther than is happening right now.
Q: Without paying legions of people to create different experiences that you and I access.
Will Wright: Yeah. There are a lot of games experimenting with crowd-sourcing, where the players of the game are creating stuff, expanding it. There are so many ways we could apply that. Step 1 is basically understanding what the player wants, and then step 2 is creating that thing.
Q: Software toys have been a big part of your work. How do you see these changes affecting that genre?
Will Wright: I think of toys as a much broader category than games; games are kind of a subset of toys. Again, as we go to a broader demographic, I think that essentially toys can appeal to a much wider group of people than games. They tend to be more creative, more open-ended, more about self-expression.
Q: They tend to be more approachable, too.
Will Wright: Yeah, I don't think they're quite as intimidating either, for some people. A lot of game genres cater more and more towards a specific group, like first-person shooters, flight simulators, to the point where if a new player went into multiplayer Halo right off the bat he'd get creamed every time. That becomes a big barrier to entry in terms of growing your player base.
Q: Whenever you would do a game, you'd say I have to give my fans more of what I gave them in the first game.
Will Wright: You listen to all your fans and they always say "You should add this" or "You should add that." They never say "Take this out, take that out." They say "add more, add more!" There's an old saying that I love about design, it's about Japanese gardening actually, that "Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove." I think a lot of designers think the opposite way - "What else can we add to the game to make it better?"
Q: The tendency seems to be that you appeal to your audience more and more intensely with each iteration; the problem is that tends to narrow your audience.
Will Wright: Exactly. And over time, you start losing those people, because they go into other things. You can definitely get into a dead-end that way.
Q: Do you think that the economics of games are changing in favor of smaller groups, and do you think that trend's going to continue?
Will Wright: Well, I don't think it's going to continue and continue and continue until the groups are back to one! I think we're going to strike a nice spectrum of development. There'll still be large, multi-million dollar teams, but there'll be a lot of smaller teams. I suspect it's going to end up somewhere closer to the film industry. You get a lot of people out there doing little independent films, with a small number of people involved, and of course you still have a lot of Hollywood studios doing giant blockbusters as well, plus you have people doing things on their iPhone or Handicam and sending it to America's Funniest Home Videos. I think it's going to start looking more and more like that distribution. A lot of web sites do little Flash games and stuff like that. I think you're going to see a curve, with a small number of teams that are 100+, spending millions of dollars, a large number of one and two-person kids in garages making apps and Flash games, and a curve between those two extremes that will be dictated by the economic models.
"I think we're just at the cusp of that, where games will basically start evolving to fit the players on an individual level"
Q: To me it's a very exciting time. I know it's nerve-wracking for some executives that things are so much in flux.
Will Wright: I think it's a great time too. I think it's almost like the Cambrian Explosion of games. We're seeing all these new life forms appear very rapidly and of course part of them are going to end up being dead ends, but that's fine because we're exploring the space, but there'll be a whole bunch of new life forms that pop up that we never even thought of ten years ago.
Q: I know you're still more or less in stealth mode, but are you excited by what you're working on now?
Will Wright: I'm excited by the possibilities. As a designer, I don't feel there are any meaningful technological hurdles or obstacles to what we want to do. Back when I first started you were always hitting up against the hardware limitations of the machine - I can't push enough pixels, I can't do this and I can't do that, so you very much had to design around the technical limitations. Right now, when I just look at how much power I have in the iPhone in my pocket, it's amazing; it's incredible. The connectivity, all the other aspects... the sensory data, etc. plus the social data and metrics. I don't feel like I have any meaningful technical limitations any more. Really, what I can imagine is the biggest limitation - that's the biggest bottleneck for me.
Q: Isn't it harder sometimes when you're not given limitations on your design? You have a completely blank canvas of any size, with all the paint you want, and you can paint any subject... where do you start?
Will Wright: I think a good design is roughly half technology, half psychology. More and more the trickiest part by far is the psychology side of it. We're kind of hacking human psychology, and that does have lots of interesting constraints. I think that's the battleground, and it's a giant area where you can spend your time figuring out how to get somebody interested in this, and why are they going to keep doing it, and what's the compulsion loop. Those become the very challenging design bits.
Q: Is there a component now that games are a worldwide phenomenon, that you need to think about different cultures?
Will Wright: That's been happening for quite a while. We did The Sims back in 2000 in something like 14 languages simultaneously. Even back then we had to spend a lot of time just thinking about the cultural aspects of the game. The Sims don't speak English, so we do things through body language and vocal intonations, and even back then I spent a lot of time trying to understand cultural gestures to make sure the stuff we were doing was culturally independent and not offensive to anybody. It was kind of surprising that the OK symbol, with your thumb and forefinger, means "You're an asshole" in Germany. In America, a thumbs up means good, in Iran it means "F**k you." Just simple things like that we had to understand in a cultural sense.
Q: Is there anything that's really surprising you or amazing you or disappointing you about where the game industry has come in the time since you've been in it?
Will Wright: It's been fairly unpredictable and it's evolved so rapidly in the time that I've been in it. The technology has accelerated much faster than I would have expected. There was a time maybe 15 years ago where I think a lot of people felt we were in danger of becoming this niche medium catering to 16-year-old boys who want to shoot guns. I'm really glad to see that we didn't fall into that trap. I think what's happening right now with the diversification, even though it's economically very disruptive, I think creatively it's the best thing that could have happened for our industry. I feel like the possibilities that we have right now in front of us are tremendous and exciting. It's kind of interesting that this is an industry that's remained so interesting throughout my entire career. It's never really gotten steady and predictable, which is great.
Q: I think predictable would be about the last word that anybody would apply to the industry right now.
Will Wright: Yeah, as a designer, to me that's great that it's not predictable.