Will Wright Feature Interview

By Chris Remo, Nov 15, 2005 10:00pm PST

Still damp from the rain outside, I sat quietly in a San Francisco bookstore along with game industry professionals, fellow journalists, and assorted literary types last week to hear Heather Chaplin read aloud a selection from her new book, Smartbomb. Co-written with her husband Aaron Ruby, Smartbomb chronicles the still young history of the video game industry. Unlike how much of today's mainstream media frequently examines (and condemns) the medium, Smartbomb looks at the field from a very personal perspective. During the years of researching and writing, Chaplin managed to interview many of the pioneers of gaming, from Shigeru Miyamoto and Sid Meier to John Romero and John Carmack. When I arrived at the event, she had just begun reading the chapter on Will Wright, creator of myriad games sharing the "Sim" prefix. Wright, I think most of us would agree, is a stupefyingly intelligent guy. He essentially revolutionized game design with SimCity, he builds functional robots in his spare time, and he's currently working on Spore, a game that aims to simulate the entire history of a sentient race starting from a single-cell organism. So, pretty clever then. The Wright being describing by Chaplin in her excerpt seemed to be pretty intimidating, too, the sort of person who would make you immediately apologetic for having taken up his time, even if you were doing so to inform him that his house was on fire.

It was a bit of a relief to me that, when I introduced myself to him, he was actually a pretty nice guy. Before that happened, though, Wright spent some time fielding some general questions. John Romero was supposed to be there as well, and I suspect the two of them would have made an enormously entertaining pair, but I'm not one to complain at any opportunity to see Will Wright speak.

The main thing Wright emphasized at this particular venue was that games still have a long way to go, and both developers and gamers still have a lot to learn. He likened the current state of gaming to that of Hollywood in the 1920s, when the medium was only just starting to produce works that would live up to what the form would become, but such works and their creators were few and far between. He noted that game development has still yet to produce a codified and complete design language, which he views as a crucial element in allowing the medium to progress. Any craft or art has an accepted design language, and it allows the practitioners or creators of that medium to more easily convey complex ideas, which leads to more meaningful discourse and thus evolution.

At the moment, Wright pointed out, the core industry--made up of its designers, its press, and its hardcore consumers--is largely inbred. Most come from similar backgrounds, which in the case of its designers means technical ones, and in the case of the press and the hardcore gamers it means, well, having played hardcore games. The problem here is that, while that system certainly provides an audience that knows what it wants and a development community that knows how to deliver to that audience, there isn't much impetus to move forward since the whole collective can basically afford to view the industry through tunnel vision. People expect the same games with updated technology, and developers are quite good at producing them.

While it might seem surprising to some given Wright's technical background, he actually very much spoke in support of the notion of non-technical designers gaining wider acceptance in the industry, as well as designers who may be from a technical background but not from the traditional computer science route that many consider a prerequisite. A large number of Maxis employees were hired straight out of college, with degrees in subjects such as media arts and various facets of game development. The benefit and potential harm of a game design-oriented higher education are major points of contention these days, but Wright seemed to firmly believe it's a positive step that can only help diversify the industry.

He claimed that games are "consuming all other entertainment forms," bringing together all kinds of media--film, music, literature, less obvious fields such as architecture, and of course traditional games--into one form with infinitely more possibilities available to it than the sum of its parts. And yet, for all of that, the apparent goal of most games today seems simply to provide a technically impressive interactive movie experience.

Wright doesn't really see this as living up to the medium's full potential. One sticking point for him is the crucial difference between primarily narrative forms such as literature or film, which rely on empathy for the story's characters to evoke emotion, and games, which rely on giving the player a sense of agency; that is, the player must have (or at the very least, must seem to have) involvement and observable influence in or over the events of the game. Wright's games are, of course, all about agency. There is little predefined emotion; the empathy the player feels with the subjects of the games emerges from the player's agency over the situations, not in spite of it as is frequently the case in a game with a distinct narrative arc.

Rather than being comprised of an existing design fleshed out with elements from disparate sources, Wright's games are almost entirely all design, with hardly anything else getting in the way. Of course, Maxis and EA have released (more than) their fair share of The Sims cash-in clones, but in terms of Wright's actual design process, his ideas exude a kind of simple elegance that belie their underlying depth. Much like what one assumes must be going on inside his head all the time, his games are essentially enormous webs of interconnected possibilities, all in the service of what is essentially a toy. Regardless of whether you enjoy his games, it's hard not to be impressed by the fundamental design prowess that goes into them.

Clearly, Wright is a proponent of that approach, putting the actual design before all other elements. Of course, gaming has taken many forms, and will continue to do so. When I got some time to chat face to face I asked him what he thought of gaming in terms of its feasibility as a storytelling medium, which to some gamers is simply what gaming is. As I expected, the first name out of Wright's mouth was that of Tim Schafer, noted designer of acclaimed character-heavy titles such as Full Throttle (PC), Grim Fandango (PC), and Psychonauts (PS2, Xbox, PC).

"I think it's viable," he responded, "in fact I have seen some excellent work in that area, primarily the work of Tim Schafer comes to mind. I love all of Tim's games. It's his pure talent as a storyteller that almost overcomes the fact that he's using games as a storytelling medium."

That's not all, though. Wright sees games as actual games to a higher degree than most of us are accustomed, and that factors into his interpretation of many game genres, not just the sandboxy ones. "I see his [games] as story toys. It's primarily a story yet there are all these toys and little branches of the story that you get. I think Tim uses the medium about as effectively as you could for storytelling, and a lot of that comes down to the fact that he's so talented with it."

Despite his appreciation for Schafer's work (I once heard him affectionately refer to Grim Fandango as "Casablanca on acid"), Wright still seems to believe that the pathos and narrative achieved in those games is not something that is easily attained, simply due to the fact that, again, games are inherently more about granting agency than evoking empathy. "That's why I think I've seen so few games that are not his achieve that same level of artistic success," he said frankly.

I was curious if he has any other examples. He paused, then answered, "Jordan Mechner comes to mind, with The Last Express."

Mecher, whose work spans across various media besides games, is best known for his seminal Price of Persia (PC, SNES, SMS, GEN), a platformer whose breathtaking animation was leaps and bounds ahead of its time. However, he really should be just as well known for his underlooked The Last Express (PC), an adventure game set on the Orient Express in 1914 just on the eve of World War I. The game presents a fascinating cross section of the world's political landscape at the time amidst a plot of intrigue and suspense, and does it in an amazingly nonlinear and stylized fashion. The game has a clear narrative but the actual gameplay is a real-time exploration of many possibility spaces, which is of course right up Wright's alley. It's worth playing if you can track down a copy.

Given the nonlinear nature of The Last Express, I thought of Facade, which can perhaps be described as an interactive marriage crisis simulator. The player is cast into the middle of a domestic argument between two friends, Grace and Trip, and is free to walk around and interact with their apartment and say anything at all by way of the game's text parser. Grace and Trip will respond (or attempt to) by way of a procedural AI system. The narrative of the game is thus driven by the player, and the brief experience can end in a many ways, encouraging multiple runthroughs. Of course, something that ambitious doesn't always work, so for every great encounter the game gets right, there are several times the player is fruitlessly battling with the text parser. It's still impressive, though, and the game has provoked a lot of discussion about what's possible with in-game characters.

I was curious what Wright thought of the game; like his upcoming Spore, it makes heavy use of procedural techniques. He found it to be an intriguing project but one which will need some big changes before it can be scaled up to function in a full game. "From a technology point of view, the issue with that is that the size of the experience doesn't scale linearly with the complexity of the underlying beats that they fill the system with. ...If you were to double the number of beats under the hood, the apparent experience would get maybe fifty percent more elaborate, which means that if I wanted to make that experience ten times more elaborate, which is where it would need to be, you'd have to add maybe a hundred more of these things than currently exist. The curves don't match, so I don't think it scales technologically to give a fully interactive solution." The point he raises is one which I have discussed with the actual creators of Facade themselves, Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern. With today's content development tools, the pair don't see their technology as necessarily being scalable up to the size of a full game. Rather, they hope to incorporate elements into full games, perhaps by way of NPCs.

Wright went on to give a more general answer. "In terms of taking that approach to a generative story, and making the generative story occur within a large enough space to be interesting, they need to make the scaling of the number of under the hood elements to be nonlinear with the outward experience. It needs to be more synergistic at the beat level." It's hard to tell for sure if Wright thinks that's an attainable goal; his game Spore essentially relies completely on generative procedures, foregoing precreated content in favor of player-created content, but something like Facade has much more of a reliance on empathy and narrative--which of course Wright isn't convinced are all that suited to games in the first place.

Back to the subject of the general state of gaming, I pointed out that there are some major differences between the games industry of today and the film industry of the 1920s--or, for that matter, just about any other form that has only just begun to hit its stride. For one thing, gaming comprises at least three major and surprisingly different mentalities: there are games as storytelling devices, games as competition, and games as toys.There are of course even more distinctions, but even that simple reduction is in stark contrast to what one sees if looking back on the early development of music, theatre, film, or literature. Those forms took decades or even centuries before they started to reach the kind of starkly divergent paths that gaming has courted basically since its inception.

Wright responded, "Well, books, movies, and TV are all basically used for storytelling. Games, as you mentioned, can be hobbies, they can be sports, or they can be storytelling. They encompass a much larger space of possibilities or what the user is doing. Are they creating something? Are they learning something? Are they communicating something? Is it a shared collaborative social thing? Games can be all those. In fact they represent a much larger space than books, films, and television put together." I brought up the subject of the design language, asking if it would have any implications on that state of affairs. "It's going to encompass all these different things," he said. "Not every game is going to include all those elements, but the language has to span those different disciplines. There are going to be games at the intersections between all these different dimensions."

On a slightly more mundane notes, I was curious if there was anything Wright had been playing lately that he found particularly interesting or noteworthy. His response: "Nothing terribly compelling, you know." Oh.

I paused visibly, hoping to encourage Wright to continue. Fortunately, he did, and the answer was slightly surprising. "I'm really interested in the Revolution," he said, "to see how the controller works out. That looks pretty cool. It looks very interesting to me. I like the idea of taking the games more outside the box and more into that close-body kind of space." Might he be toying with the idea of a Revolution game? Sadly, I have absolutely no idea.

"The handheld space is interesting, how that's developing with the DS in particular," he went on. "The computer gaming side seems more about evolution and polish, but there's still something to be said for that. Civ IV, which I'm looking forward to playing, I'm sure is a really excellent game. I haven't played it yet, but I can't wait to."

Speaking of PC games, I couldn't help pestering Wright about Spore. As I expected, he wasn't able to share much in the way of details. "It's going well," he said. "It's a challenge. Quite a challenging project, but I've got an amazing team on it, and I'm actually very satisfied with where it's going." Wright is confident, but he gives his answer with an air of humility I hadn't been led to expect from a man who apparently withers people with his steely gaze on a regular basis. He pauses for a second, then concludes, "I think we're going to pull it off."

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