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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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Steve Peterson avatar
Steve Peterson: Steve Peterson has been in the game business for 30 years now as a designer (co-designer of the Champions RPG among others), a marketer (for various software companies) and a lecturer. Follow him on Twitter @20thLevel.
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