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Will Wright interview

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Icon interviewed Will Wright, veteran computer games designer and the creator of SimCity and The Sims, for our February issue. Here is the full transcript of that interview, which appeared in the magazine in condensed form.

icon You’ve said in the past that SimCity was inspired by the fun that you had designing urban layouts for the game Raid on Bungeling Bay – that you wanted to communicate the same joy of design.

Will Wright It wasn’t just SimCity – a lot of our games have been inspired by various designers. Games take so much of their inspiration now from the media – movies, books, TV – but really a more appropriate source of inspiration we have found is things like architecture, and product design, because those are inherently more interactive design fields. SimCity was actually originally inspired by Chris Alexander, and going back and looking at design in general I’ve found a lot of inspiration from Charles and Ray Eames, Jay Forrester, Jane Jacobs, all the people who are sort of spanning the division between design, theorist, and a specific field – you know, urban design, architecture or whatever. I find that triangle really interesting to draw inspiration from.

icon How have these ideas manifested themselves in your games?

Wright Chris Alexander I find particularly interesting because he was writing about architecture, but not in terms of form – a lot of architecture is totally stuck on the artistry of the form, what the form of the building conveys emotionally and all that, and in some senses I think that architecture has run off the beaten track [in focusing on form] when really what their job is to design spaces for human interaction. And Christopher Alexander approached the whole thing much more like an anthropologist and he would go and study culture and understand what people spend their time doing, and in what sized groups, and what they need around them to facilitate that activity, and then design from the ground up from there, so rather than starting with the abstract form, what is the artistic statement we are making with this building, he would say what is the human interaction I’m trying to facilitate with this structure, and so the Sims really started out as an architectural game – you were designing a house and then the people were the scoring system. They came in and you were looking at how happy they were and how efficiently your house met their needs. In SimCity, in a similar way but on a larger scale, you were designing this layout to facilitate certain forms of human interaction, so really design is serving human interaction at the end of the day. That’s the point of pure design. And I really wanted to put the player, in both games, in that role of designer, where you design something, and then the simulation takes over and shows you the fitness of that design.

icon In the 15 years since the release of SimCity, what have you learned about architecture and cities? Do you see them differently?

Wright Typically people think of a city or a house or whatever as this static structure, but when you look at it through time, when you fast-forward through decades in a few hours, you start seeing it as this organic, living thing; it has circulation systems, it has cycles that it goes through – some are economic, some are transportation – population demographics, and when you start seeing a city or even a house as a living organism adapting on a long timescale, then it feels more like an organic entity rather than a static entity, and I think the more talented designers that I draw inspiration from think of these things, they’re not just designing these things to sit there and serve a particular purpose, but they’re part of a greater whole, embedded in another series of designs. When you design a chair it will sit in a room which is designed in a certain way, which will be in a building which is designed in a certain way, which will be in a city which is designed in a certain way. And the layers of design interact with each other on each scales.

icon And they’re continually changing.

Wright Yeah, and on different timescales as well – they might redecorate this room every five years, they might refurbish the building every two decades, they might tear down this building and build another one every hundred years. So there are all these concurrent processes embedded in each other.

icon Since designing these games, have you been contacted by architects or planners, or mayors or so on?

Wright I know Chris Alexander personally, he’s a really nice guy, we talked about interactive software, he has this whole theory about design patterns in architecture [which applies] to software as well, I’ve talked to architects who’ve used SimCity teaching design in the classroom as well. I think designers, especially industrial designers, already have a very broad outlook on the world and how they do things in a very almost scientific way, so to them games are just a new, more interesting, maybe more complex, design artefact of the built environment.

icon Tell me a bit about Spore.

Wright It was really the integration of three different ideas. Number one was the work of Charles and Ray Eames, especially Powers of 10, looking at the universe at different scales, from very small to very large. Secondly the field of astrobiology, thinking about other potential life in the universe, and astrobiology is interesting because in some senses it collapses all sciences into one; it involves physics, chemistry, biology, even sociology, astronomy, cosmology, so it’s a really interesting hub to understand all of the sciences and how they relate to each other. And thirdly we saw with The Sims especially players enjoying the process of creation, creating just huge amounts of custom characters, and buildings and furniture for their sims, so I was interested in a kind of game where by playing the game you were actually designing things, the essence of the game was designing an entire world from the ground up, and that what you created was automatically shared, pollinated, with other players, so as you were playing the game you were actually filling up the universe for other players, and making this vast universe of content that you could then explore at the end of the game. So these came together to form the idea behind Spore.

icon So, creating an entire ecology…

Wright Yeah, creating an entire galaxy of worlds. Players playing the game are actually creating millions of things as they play, and having a central repository where this stuff is collected and then redistributed, that makes further gameworlds for everybody else as they play. I’m looking forward to seeing what people create with it. Because they have some very [powerful] tools with which they can create things in the game, and I think will surprise them with what they can create in five minutes in the game. Compared to any game that we release, a lot of work gets invested in the tools, and it’s been incredibly satisfying, and I think we’ve hit a level with the tools where you can just make something amazing.

icon Online gaming and social virtual worlds like Second Life – is that where the future lies?

Wright You’re going to see a lot of games that are very connected like that, but you’re still going to see still a lot of small games that you play on your cell phone or on your web browser. I think that games are really just diversifying into all these little niches. So it’s definitely a really interesting area games are going. I think rather more fundamentally that the people playing the games are slowly becoming in some instances the producers as they create stuff and it gets shared, and this isn’t just true of the game world, it’s true of Youtube and other things on the web, there are a lot of instances now of people using the more elaborate tools that are available to them and enjoying creating stuff that other people can enjoy and consume. So I think that games are in some instances just reflecting that overall trend on the net.

icon What can an architect learn from the way that people play games like SimCity and The Sims?

Wright One thing that’s interesting is actually how many people really enjoy design at some level. Right now our design aspirations are channelled into certain areas like our wardrobe and how we decorate our house, I think the idea that things that are customisable, not just things like your desktop and what you put on your screensaver, but things like more flexible architectural spaces, where people can reconfigure it over time, things like multipurpose furniture, the idea that you’re not necessarily giving somebody a product that is a single use, don’t change it, it’s intended for this purpose, those days are slowly dwindling. I think we’re actually looking at people who appreciate the flexibility of reconfiguring things and designing things and customising things for themselves.

icon You’re credited with inventing the concept of the open-ended game, where there are no win conditions or specific goals that must be met, or time limits …

Wright Yeah, I wouldn’t even consider them games in that sense, they’re more like toys. I can give you a ball and you can play with it and bounce it around as a toy, or you can put rules around it and play a game with it. I think the type of simulations I do are like that. You can just play with them and mess around, or torture your Sims or build an elaborate mansion, or you can play the game and respect the rule structure and try to work your way up the career ladder. A lot of our players play with cheats, so that they have an open-ended spreadsheet for designing a city, and they’ll have unlimited money and not be constrained by the simulation. So in that sense it’s very much a toy. Other players actually want to play with the rule structure and set property tax to fund growth and stuff like that, so I think it’s broader than just a game.

icon The user-generated buildings for the game are one of the features I love about SimCity 4. You must be enormously gratified by the amount of creativity and time that players invest in developing content for other players.

Wright It’s always surprised us whenever we’ve given the players the opportunity to participate in the creation process, in every case they’ve exceeded our expectations. What they’ve done with the tools that we provide always is just so far beyond what we thought was possible and in some cases that reflects the power of parallel exploration, almost Darwinism. Evolution works, we have thousands of different organisms, all subtly different, all trying different strategies and exploring a space, you have parallel exploration of a solution space. And the same thing happens when you have a million players all out there making stuff – the power of parallelism is so strong against a small number of smart people always trying to do their best, it seems they’ll always win.

icon So including that opening for user-generated content is a key part of your strategy.

Wright What’s very exciting is the fact that we have the opportunity to connect everything and very freely transport this stuff around, because it’s information, without having to shift physical stuff between people or having to replicate it. But of course information is very different, it’s mass-less, which gives it different properties in the emergent nature of design.

icon And in The Sims people can design their own furniture.

Wright And architecture as well, so people can design very elaborate structures that they download, or even replicating places like Fallingwater or whatever.

icon This user-interactivity – do you see applications in architecture?

Wright It’s almost more at the level of how much we can consider this a profession that only licensed people should be doing versus allowing average people access to that field of design. And that was one of the things that also inspired me about Christopher Alexander’s work, was that his real motivation is to inspire ordinary people to realise that they could actually design spaces, so when he wrote A Pattern Language he was actually writing these very fundamental rules of thumb that anybody could follow, and figure out where to put a bench in your garden, how to situate furniture in their house, how to design their new bedroom, how to design an entire house, or how to situate a neighbourhood in a city, so he was writing these fundamental rules of thumb that were condensed based on his observations of human interaction. It’s almost like a Western equivalent of Feng Shui, these kind of design rules that can be learned and applied in everyday life at whatever scale you wanted to.

icon What can architects learn from games?

Wright I’m actually very interested in architecture as a field because it’s one of the few fields where they study design as a process separate from the artefact that they construct. So they study how houses and buildings work, but they also study how different design processes within architecture have played out. And so it’s self-aware design in a way that you rarely see in other design fields, where they try different approaches, different strategies, for solving a problem and they’ve studied the design process separate from architecture as a field.

icon Does this have lessons for you in product design and game design?

Wright Well, software design is a very different kind of design, it involves aspects of cinematography, sound design, user interface, psychology, architecture because we design these space that people interact it and move around in. In some senses I don’t know of any other field that brings so many different design elements into it, and active, weighed differently, and mixed together, so as a very complex design field, understanding the process of design, what’s the best way to go about this thing when you have to take 50 things into consideration, it’s really helpful to have some knowledge of design techniques and processes that you might try. Because it’s always evolving; there’s really no professionalism at that level in game design right now. It’s still very much a by-the-seat-of-your pants, try-what-works [area].

icon In a way, it would be sad to lose that.

Wright Well, you know, it took 50 years for film schools to really start popping up, with teachers teaching the theory of cinema, and there a lot of people working towards that goal in gaming right now but we’re still 10 or 15 years off some critical body of theory to occur. But the point is it’s still going to be a run by example, run by failure model.

icon The potential of these millions of amateurs working in this parallel way to produce content is great, but where are aesthetics in that equation? What happens to notions of visual order and taste without an arbitrating authority?

Wright I think market dynamics work well. I don’t necessarily mean economic market dynamics. With a million people making stuff, and a million people consuming stuff, and they have some choice in what they consume, you’re always going to have a small number of things bubbling up to the top as the best in whatever ideas. There’s this idea that you find a lot in economic and sociology and the nature of evolution called parallel distribution, the 80/20 rule – of a hundred things that people have made, five of them will be very nice, two of them will be pretty good, and the rest will be not so great. And that seems to be true in so many areas. So really what you need is a way for people to preferentially choose what they like from the choices available and what’s on the marketplace. And then you can use that for choosing how to redistribute that content.

icon Online now, with virtual worlds basing their economic models of virtual item sales, creators are put in a strongly advantageous position, they can make real money.

Wright You basically want to incentivise people, especially if what they’re creating has value to other people, they should enjoy the benefits of that value. That puts you in the role, if you’re creating these worlds, very much in the role of the government, where you might want to collect a bit of tax, but for the most part of it you don’t want to upset the economy, because you have people choosing to attach value to objects, people collecting value for things that they make, and what you will want to do is nurture that system.

icon Are there any principles that you find apply equally to designing a house, a city and an organism?

Wright What we’ve found universally is that when players make something, and the more unique it is to themselves, they tend to attach a lot of empathy to it, they really care about it, even if it doesn’t work that great compared to something that a professional has designed, the fact that they have made it makes all the difference to them. It becomes an extension of them: this is me in the game now, it’s not something that the designers made, and kind of put me in this suit, and so in some sense the actual identity of the player is flowing into the game at a critical level, and that’s what you really what, players expressing their identity via creativity. They become, in their minds, the primary author of their experience.

Interview William Wiles
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