The Game of Life

Will Wright gives us an early look at 'Spore'

The Game of Life

Among the countless sequels, shameless movie tie-ins, and Grand Theft Auto copycat clones, video-game fans scanning the shelves at their local electronics store will soon find a box adorned with the simple word "spore." Players will take it home, install it on their laptops or desktop PCs, and launch one of the most refreshing digital playgrounds ever clicked through.

That is, if the six-years-in-the-making epic lives up to the extraordinary hype swelling around it.

And there's no reason why it shouldn't: Spore is the brainchild of Will Wright, the creator of such commercially successful and critically heralded franchises as SimCity, considered the original "God game," and The Sims, the bestselling computer-game series of all time, with more than 70 million units sold. To put this into perspective, a computer game that sells more than 500,000 units is considered a huge smash. Or, to put it another way, the series has generated more than $1.6 billion in sales; Hollywood's most successful film, Titanic, grossed $1.8 billion. So you get the idea.

Wright isn't just a celebrated designer in the multibillion-dollar interactive entertainment industry – he's an undisputed master with the Midas touch, adored by game makers and game players alike. But Spore, to be published by Electronic Arts this fall, is poised to be his deepest "life simulation" to date.

We spoke with Wright, one of the keynote speakers at SXSW Interactive 07, via e-mail about creating Spore, the game-design process, and his unparalleled success.

Austin Chronicle: What were your inspirations in creating Spore, and will we see a direct result of them in the game, or is it more of an abstract influence?

Will Wright: The concept of Spore was inspired by a lot of different things. It's a combination of influences. I've always liked "Powers of Ten," the [Charles and Ray] Eames movie. And, I got very interested in the [Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] project and astrobiology. The whole idea – in the beginning – was an astrobiology game. But as you look at astrobiology and SETI, all the factors you're dealing with resolve all the way down to the chemical level. So that spans the powers of 10 very nicely. So basically, it was a matter of molding all these things into one consistent, coherent concept. That concept allowed me to reference some of my favorite games and movies. People who play the game will pick up abstract references to everything from Pac-Man, in the way you play through the cellular level of the game, to my favorite movie of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey, in how you might play the space level. In fact the space level is so open that you can really play out any of your favorite space stories, like 2001, or Star Trek – whatever you want to do. And because it's so wide open, players can input their own references, in the types of creatures or spaceships they build to the relationships they explore. We've basically given players the tools to build their own personal universe. With Spore, we want players to be George Lucas, not Luke Skywalker.

AC: It's been said by some game designers that the first 15 minutes of a game is critical in order to win the player over. Do you agree or disagree with this "first impressions" philosophy, and why? How will Spore capture the hearts (and clicking fingers) of gamers in the first 15 minutes?

WW: You want any form of entertainment to be engaging. And, in playing the first 15 minutes of Spore, I think there is a lot to love. It's dealing with some pretty amazing concepts – the magic of the creation of life, evolution, your place in the universe. The cell game is really beautiful; it's artistically impressive. And the initial cell editor is simple but elegant – it guides people into the game and eases them in to feeling comfortable with their creativity, and they get to really define what they want to make. Then you get to evolve that cell into something that takes its first step onto land – it's pretty cool stuff that I think people will be captivated by.

AC: Please explain in detail how the Internet will be utilized in Spore game-play. Any community features? Downloads? Multiplayer play?

WW: Spore isn't a multiplayer game; in fact, we joke that it's a massively single-player game. Players can enable Internet connectivity so that everything that they create in their world, from creatures to buildings to vehicles, is uploaded to the server and then shared with other players, delivered directly into their games. At the same time, your game is receiving things that other players have created. As you play through the game, it's building a model of how you play and searching for content that will fit your needs. We're not only tracking what you need in terms of competition, we're also building a model of the player's aesthetic. So if you keep picking things from the shopping catalog that are like supercute, Disney-like, then it will start offering you and downloading more stuff that matches your aesthetic. So in some sense you're teaching the computer your aesthetic, and it's building a model of that. And when it makes a request to the server, it's taking that into account, so the world will slowly start to represent your aesthetic choices.

We could have made Spore an online multiplayer game. We thought about it. In fact, technically, based on all the stuff we've already done for it, it wouldn't be very hard at all. We've already solved all the hard problems we would need to do a persistent online-world version of Spore. The hard part is, what happens when you come to a planet, and the planet's offline? Which would be the case. In fact, one of the reasons why I kind of went down this path is that nobody has really explored the hybrid model. And this really is a hybrid, where we try to get the benefits of an online game, which is all the people building the world collectively together, without the liabilities, which is that the 14-year-old can kill you or that you've invested all this time in your planet and somebody comes along and blows it up. ... So trying to get the best of both worlds, figuring out what the sweet spot is between the features available through a shared universe experience and then the power available to a single-player experience. The intersection of those two things is kind of where Spore ended up and why it ended up there.

We will have community features – whenever I encounter content from another player, I can see who made it and what its stats are. I can bookmark that person if I like their stuff and have their stuff ... like I can find my best friend and say make sure my best friend's stuff comes into my game, so I encounter their worlds first. And, we will track the most popular content. You will also be able to see how your creations are faring in the outside world.

AC: To what do you attribute your success?

WW: Curiosity about the world. I'm always trying to figure out the way the world works. I will read about something or hear something, and then dive in and start exploring that subject matter. I want to know how all the pieces fit together. That has led me to so many interesting ideas that have later become games. I am also pathologically persistent. The games I make take a long time; I began researching Spore six years ago, The Sims took more than five years, and SimCity was four or five. To stick with an idea that long takes quite a bit of persistence. If you stick with it long enough, in my experience, you'll be rewarded. It's very satisfying when you've done something for that long – and it's really consumed you, but it's only been shared with a small group of people, your team maybe and other people exposed to the development process. When it actually sees the light of day and people enjoy it and it does well – it's a great feeling to share a labor of love like that.

AC: From a creative standpoint, what is the biggest problem with the interactive entertainment industry today?

WW: I'm hoping that we see more creativity and experimentalism, new genres developed. One of the big advantages of a large company is the fact that you can afford to take more risks. A company like Electronic Arts has a stable of franchises that produce for them year after year. The Sims and Madden are two examples. Because of those predictable successes, it buys you the option to roll the dice on a few unpredictable projects like Spore. If it fails, you haven't lost your company. With a small developer, you get one chance to roll the dice, and if it comes up six, you win; otherwise you lose. ... And, as the industry has become more mature and consolidated, the existing genres have solidified to some degree. In the early industry, there weren't these well-established genres. Every single game was different, unique, and interesting. Over time these games have clumped together: real-time strategy, adventure, flight sim. Getting outside those boxes is always a struggle in any environment – where you're trying to explain to people that you're making this new game, and they are always wanting to put it into this pigeonholed box. Is it a real-time strategy, or is it turn-based strategy, or what? That, I think, is more of a conceptual challenge, when you come up with a new idea that doesn't fit into any existing genre. How do you invent a new genre or discover a new genre? I am really pleased with the success of new and different gaming platforms like what Nintendo has done with the Wii and the Nintendo DS. I think that those platforms will encourage game makers to experiment with new types of game-play. There are a lot of really interesting ways to use the Wii's controllers.

AC: What did you learn from the success of The Sims – perhaps, even a surprising lesson – that made you rethink the game design concept for Spore?

WW: After The Sims launched, I spent a lot of time on the community site. I was really surprised by how people used the game to tell stories and then wanted to share these stories with other people. They created whole worlds that they wanted their friends to see. I was really amazed by that. I wanted to build that functionality into the game, so that creating and sharing were baked into the basic game-play. That's probably the most significant way that The Sims influenced Spore.

AC: Quentin Tarantino once said the sign of a good film is that it makes you want to go home, eat some pie, and talk about it. What will gamers talk about with friends after playing Spore?

WW: In watching people play with the game, I have seen that people want to go talk about their creations – share their vehicles or their creatures with their friends. There is a lot of personal pride that goes into creating something that can come to life in the game. But in addition to that, I think that the game will spark them to think about their place in the universe.

AC: What one computer game would you bring to a desert island, and why? (And, no, there's no Internet connection.)

WW: That's a tough one. I think I would want to bring the Chinese board game Go. That game is just so elegant in that it's got two rules really, one of which is almost never used. But yet from those two rules flow this incredible complexity. It's kind of the board game version of John Conway's Game of Life, the cellular automata game. It's not dissimilar. end story

Keynote Speech

Tuesday, March 13, 2pm, Hilton Grand Ballroom

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