Will Wright: Games "falling way short" as a medium

The veteran designer believes the industry is far from realizing games' potential; he also says EA's Sim City server problems were "inexcusable"

Will Wright is the veteran game designer who gave the world such classic titles as Sim City, Spore, and The Sims. Wright has moved on from the company he founded, Maxis (now a part of Electronic Arts), and has been working on new things at his small startup Stupid Fun Club. Wright gave a lecture at the University of California's Santa Cruz campus recently, entitled "Gaming as a lens on the world." In the lecture, Wright spoke about the progress of game design. He feels the technology barriers are falling, and the more interesting problems left to solve are psychological ones; "That's what we're hacking," he said.

"No game designer ever went wrong by overestimating the narcissism of their players," Wright said, alluding to H.L. Mencken's famous quote, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public." By that, Wright meant that it's important to give players a chance to share (or show off) their progress and achievements in a game. Many games are about failure design, and properly designing the failures players will experience is a key to having a good game, since players spend most of their time failing in many games. In effect, Wright said, game designers are saying "Here's a set of interesting problems; buy these problems from me."

Games have recapitulated the development of art, Wright feels. Art has gone from crude to representational to almost photographic, and then has become interpretive. He feels that games are following the same path, especially as graphics have become so real.

In response to audience questions, Wright noted that he's working on a new startup company, which he said was growing out of his Stupid Fun Club company. Later, Wright confirmed to GamesIndustry International that he's hoping the company will leave stealth mode later this year. Wright's new company is Syntertainment, which "lives at the intersection of entertainment and reality" and is "dedicated to changing the world through uniquely fun and lasting user experiences," according to the company's web site. The Jobs section notes the company is looking for a mobile apps developer with experience in iOS and Android.

"No game designer ever went wrong by overestimating the narcissism of their players"

Will Wright

In an exclusive interview after his lecture, GamesIndustry International spoke with Wright about the Sim City Online launch (which Wright had no role in), the state of games and the industry, and where EA might be headed.

Warren Spector says the industry needs to grow up, and Wright agrees that there is a great deal of progress to be made. "I think we have an extremely powerful medium here at our disposal, and I think we've only realized a small fraction of its potential," Wright said. "It wouldn't take too many things to really impact a lot of people. Relative to what we have as a medium, with what we could be doing with it, we're falling way short."

Wright does see some green shoots out there, though. "Oh, lots of them, yeah," Wright agreed. "The fact that it's now ten thousand Darwinian developers out there with no restrictions on what they do, coming up with all sorts of crazy's much, much more healthy than it was ten years ago, when it was a few large publishers controlling ten million dollar purse-strings."

The volume of new games makes Wright optimistic compared to where the industry has been. "I remember ten years ago at every E3 you'd walk around asking your friends 'What's new?...' 'nothing,nothing,nothing,'" Wright noted. "Now, every week somebody tells me about some weird little app that came out. Not big budget, but they're interesting and fun out of the box. It's a much more level playing field, I think. They are putting marketing dollars behind these things, but still it's not five big publishers controlling ten titles a year."

Wright's familiar with the new consoles coming out this year, but he's not really excited by them. "There will be some innovation there, but the mobile/tablet market feels like a wider frontier to me," he said. "I think it's because you're not necessarily stuck in the living room; you're untethered. The world can become your playfield."

"That was basically inexcusable, that you charge somebody $60 for a game and they can't play it. I can understand the outrage"

Wright on EA's botched Sim City Online launch

Noting that Noah Falstein has become chief game designer for Google, Wright mused about what Google might be planning to do with games. "They've done a few, like that map-based game Ingress," Wright said. "I'm sure they are [doing Google Glass games], doing prototypes internally. I think Google doesn't have the entertainment DNA that Microsoft has, and that's probably the major advantage Microsoft currently has over Google. So Google probably feels like they're playing catchup in that area."

Wright thinks Google will be trying to encourage many apps for Google Glass. "Bootstrap some apps, almost like Apple did. They got their app market bootstrapped much faster than Android. By the time Android came out there were 100,000 or more apps for Apple. Google will probably do something similar with the head-mounted display market."

When the discussion turned to the launch of Sim City Online, Wright was quick to declare his first thought. "I feel bad for the team," Wright said. Beyond that, Wright had some definite opinions about the launch. "I could have predicted - I kind of did predict there'd be a big backlash about the DRM stuff. It's a good game; I enjoy playing it a lot." Still, Wright understands the audience response. "It was kind of like, 'EA is the evil empire, there was a lot of 'Let's bash EA over it,'" Wright said. "That was basically inexcusable, that you charge somebody $60 for a game and they can't play it. I can understand the outrage. If I was a consumer buying the game and that happened to me, I'd feel the same."

The struggles of Electronic Arts - layoffs, reorganization and the CEO Riccitiello leaving - didn't seem to be that critical to Wright. "It's hard to talk about EA as this monolithic thing with one agenda," Wright explained. "If you move back it's like all these different studios going in slightly different directions; it's almost more like a loose federation. It is going through a lot of restructuring right now, but I don't even have the time to tune into it."

The DRM issues that EA has had with Sim City Online, and the controversy over rumors about Microsoft's new console requiring it to be always connected because of DRM, do seem to have a foundation, according to Wright. "I think people care if it doesn't work," he said. "If you can't play it on planes, stuff like that... I think there are some very valid concerns about it. Also there's a perception; I don't expect to play World of Warcraft on the airplane, because my perception is it has to be on the 'Net. Sim City was in this very uncomfortable space, like the uncanny valley, almost; [it was caught] between was it a single player game or was it a multiplayer game?"

Looking to the future, the game industry is seeing growth in many areas, but some areas are clearly shrinking. Wright sees that "non-linear" situation continuing. "There's going to be at least five more years of that," Wright said. "The future is becoming less predictable." Games are, however, increasing in importance to the younger generation. "It's just as important to them as movies, and probably more so than books."

Wright will be participating in a live Q&A at this week's GameHorizon Conference in Newcastle. Stay tuned!

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Latest comments (7)

Michael Levine President, PILEATED PICTURES9 years ago
Why is it ok for Clash of Clans and Dragonvale to force you to be online to play? They are making millions a day and no one is complaining?!

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Michael Levine on 6th May 2013 5:09pm

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Johnny Hsu Employee, EA9 years ago
I wish Wright would have spoken about the unveil of a 3D SimCity back at E3 1997. The audience at the time basically threw up all over the notion of a 3D SimCity. I wonder what Will was thinking when Maxis informed him they were working on a 3D SimCity for 2013.
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David Serrano Freelancer 9 years ago
"Many games are about failure design, and properly designing the failures players will experience is a key to having a good game, since players spend most of their time failing in many games."

With all due respect to Mr. Wright, games are falling short as a medium because video and computer game designers view themselves as challenge and failure designers instead of what they actually are: play designers. And this disconnect creates a irreconcilable conflict between what the designers want the function of games to be vs. what the average consumer needs the function to be.

Former HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant summed up the problem when he said: "you play basketball, you play baseball, you play football, but you don't play boxing. Because boxing is serious stuff." Larry Merchant understood what video and computer games designers do not: when the rules and goals of a game fall outside the parameters of what the average person defines as play, the activity is transformed into something else entirely. It becomes serious stuff instead of play. And unfortunately, too many designers (and academics) want the function of games to be a virtual crucible instead of what the average consumer needs it to be: "an activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose."

So until the development community collectively reconciles this conflict between form and function, video and computer games will continue to fall short as a medium. Because as Neal and Jana Hallford warned "if you start punishing [players] for their curiosity, you’re only going to drive away the very people who want to enjoy your game." And this is exactly what's happening with the vast majority of consumers in the existing and potential audiences.
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Show all comments (7)
James Berg Games User Researcher 9 years ago
@Michael - Clash of Clans is almost completely playing asynchronously against other players. You could replicate that offline, but not in the same way. The entire game is -based- around online play.

@Andrew - Not sure what version you're playing, but CoC for my iPad2 has zero advertising. It's mtx driven, but actually done in an alright way.
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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee9 years ago
For all the flaws and criticisms of the industry that can be pointed out, I hope we don't forget how to celebrate it.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 9 years ago
It's all bullshit talk until they do something... like make a Game Designers' Guild.
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Mike Arnold Editor 9 years ago
Dear David,

it feels so good to have a companion on this. Sometimes, I felt like a loner pointing out to the fact that games design and content are two different things. Content and story, should be the predecessors of games design. Moreover, it seems as if the industry is still un-aware of the huge responsibility it has for corporate social responsibility.
In my endeavour to convince people of this - including abandoning of ultra, unwarranted violence in games- I have received a lot of back-lash and recrimination, but no support. Games have evolved from Pong to agenda setting, time structuring and educating entities (MMO, Shooter, AR et al) with tremendous sway on youngsters and old folks like me.
It is time to leave the kindergarten days of limited ramifications of your deeds to tremendous aftermath of your product’s content and presentation / implementation.

Thank you for boosting my morale

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