Will Wright

Editor's note

It's been 33 years since Nolan Bushnell debuted Pong, the first commercially successful video game, and in spite of the predictions, society has not collapsed. In fact, video games have become a fact of everyday life. The video-game industry has continued to grow, becoming as viable and pervasive an entertainment habit as music or movies.

So with this issue, The Onion A.V. Club expands into the world of video-game coverage: Game reviews will join our weekly film, music, DVD, and book reviews. This inaugural issue also offers interviews with two gaming luminaries: Atari pioneer Howard Scott Warshaw, and Will Wright, creator of SimCity and The Sims.

The Onion A.V. Club also extends a hearty welcome to a new contributor who comes to us from Hollywood via the Internet. Each week, actor/author/gaming enthusiast/ icon/renaissance man Wil Wheaton, who maintains an online presence at wilwheaton.net, will take a look back to games past with his Games Of Our Lives column, reaching beyond Pac-Man and Donkey Kong to find the dusty arcade games and worn-out cartridges that paved the way for the games of today.

It might not have been obvious from Pong's first flickers and bleeps that games would enter the cultural conversation in any significant way. But with each year, their presence becomes a little stronger. Would The Matrix's vision of virtual reality have had as much impact in a world without Myst? What does it mean when a popular game series like Grand Theft Auto mimics film in a way that allows players to take on bad-guy roles? And where would the world be without cinematic game adaptations like Alone In The Dark? Okay, bad example. But The Onion A.V. Club is now happy to steer readers toward better ones, this week and each week thereafter.
–Keith Phipps

Will Wright doesn't control the world, but he does determine how game-players control it. After making his game-programming debut in 1984 with the fairly straightforward shoot-'em-up Raid On Bungeling Bay, Wright changed the direction of his programming career. Calling on gamers to exercise skills in civil engineering, time management, and public aesthetics, the original SimCity let players design, maintain, and even destroy virtual cities of their own creation. It took off slowly, but by combining his efforts with Jeff Braun, his co-founder in the game company Maxis, Wright eventually turned SimCity into a breakout hit.

More sims followed–including SimEarth, SimAnt, SimFarm, SimCopter, and more SimCity permutations, among others–before Wright and Maxis applied their simulated-reality skills to humanity itself with the 2000 release The Sims. Players build houses, families, careers, and social network for their Sims, simulated humans who can be guided through careers, form families, fall in love, plunge into despair, and even die. (Note for new players: Be careful around the stove.) The Sims boils human existence down to the complex interaction between a handful of needs, a splash of free will, and the unpredictable forces of fate–it could be the apotheosis of Will Wright's career, if only because when it's played too much, reality starts to look like the game.

Wright followed The Sims' massive success with more Sims-related titles, including themed expansion packs, an occasionally troubled online version, and last year's expansive sequel/overhaul The Sims 2. On March 1st the Sims world will get a little bigger with the release of the first Sims 2 expansion pack, The Sims 2: University. The flesh-and-blood Will Wright recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his creations.

The Onion: You've said that part of SimCity came out of the fact that you enjoyed building the buildings of Raid On Bungeling Bay more than knocking them down. Was that just a glib line?

Will Wright: No, that's quite true. Toward the end of Bungeling Bay, I had created this elaborate system for scrolling around the world and creating the islands and the roads and the buildings. I found that I was having a lot more fun doing that part than just playing the game and going around bombing stuff. After Bungeling Bay was finished, I kept playing with that editor. I wanted to add more behavior to it–I wanted to add traffic, and see the world kind of come alive and be more dynamic. That's what got me interested in reading about urban planning theories, urban dynamics and simulation. It became a kind of test-bed for me, where I would go and read urban planning theories, then go code them up in the simulator. What was a very dry subject in books became very fascinating when I had this guinea-pig city that I could do these experiments on.

O: All your games involve a great deal of research into real-life mechanics. Which comes first: Is it a matter of researching it, or building the game, or does one process inform the other?

WW: Well, I'm interested in reading about a lot of different subjects, and I tend to get obsessed with things. As a kid, I would get totally obsessed with something for six months or a year, and try to learn everything I could about it. I still kind of do that; I just found a way for people to pay me to do it. Once I get obsessed with a subject, I keep stepping back further and further from it and try to figure out, "What is the basis of my obsession? What is it that I think is really cool about this?" I try to figure out how I can communicate that to other players in a game. Basically, how does the game become a caricature of that subject, or some representation of that thing? It becomes a toy. How do you turn these subjects into toys where players will naturally enjoy interacting with those dynamics?

O: Have you ever found a subject that you could not convert into a game?

WW: I had a few that I spent time on, and had a lot of roadblocks. I wanted to do a tactical weather simulation, something where you could sculpt storms, create tornadoes and thunderstorms, and things like that. It had to do with these three-dimensional fluid-flow maps. I experimented with a lot of ways to visualize that, so you could get an instinctive feel for the three-dimensional flow field. I showed it to several people, and it became pretty apparent that a lot of people have a hard time visualizing to that level. When you read about the way that tornadoes form, it's a very interesting kind of process that I thought would be cool to simulate. But in terms of giving the user a very discrete way to manipulate the system, that's where I really hit the roadblock.

O: SimEarth seemed like the logical extension of SimCity, but why did you go small again with SimAnt?

WW: It was one of the subjects that I was always drawn to. I was always fascinated by social insects. Ants are one of the few real examples of intelligence we have that we can study and deconstruct. We're still struggling with the way the human brain works. But if you look at ant colonies, they sometimes exhibit a remarkable degree of intelligence, sometimes almost similar to that of a dog. But the individual ants themselves are really quite stupid and robotic. We've been able to study social insects and really understand how that intelligence emerges from a collection of very simple little parts, to a degree that's far ahead of the understanding of the brain and its processes. That's, at the lowest level, what's always fascinated me about ants. Kids in particular, they see ants, and what ants do and how organized they are, and there's something almost magical about it. It surprised me that no one had ever done a game about ants, and I kept waiting and waiting, and they never did. So it felt like something that I had to do, because I wanted to play it.

O: Getting back to the human brain... Presumably, the idea for The Sims existed at some point before the game did. When did you realize that technology had caught up to the point where you could simulate humanity in a meaningful way?

WW: The first time I really seriously thought that it felt like a buildable concept was as I was finishing SimAnt. In SimAnt, you're basically controlling these land colonies on a very tactical level. We simulated the ants very much in the way that real ants work, where they drop little pheromone trails, and change their behavior. Also in SimAnt was this strategic screen, where there was this entire backyard with a house that you were slowly trying to invade and occupy. There was a little simulation of a guy who lived in the house who would sit and watch television, get food from the fridge, mow the lawn, stuff like that. I realized at the end of SimAnt that the simulation we built for the ants was almost more intelligent than for the guy, because the guy was being done using traditional programming, whereas the ants were done using this distributed environmental intelligence of the pheromone trails. I began wondering, could we build a more robust simulation of human behavior if we adopted this ant model, where we distribute the intelligence not through the agents, but through the environment? Then I started experimenting with some techniques, and that got the ball rolling for The Sims. We needed to build a very robust model, because the user can throw any variety of situations to the Sims, and the Sims have to respond intelligently, because we don't control the environment. We also don't control the characters. The player can make whatever characters they want, and put them in any environment they choose to build, and then that agent has to behave appropriately. So that's a much more open-ended design problem than designing a very specific AI for a game where I'm also designing the level, and the player is very constrained.

O: You pioneered the idea of open-ended games like The Sims, which really has no discernable goal other than what players make for themselves. Have the areas of play that users have chosen to concentrate on surprised you?

WW: Yeah, but I was hoping that they would surprise us. So the fact that I'm surprised was almost expected; at least, that was the success case. I hope that they do things that we could never imagine them doing with this game, which they in fact did, quite a bit more than I was even hoping. I like the idea that our game players are, in some sense, becoming the co-developers of the game, that we're giving them more powerful tools, and they're able to take those tools and make interesting experiences with them. It's not just that we're using our tools to make an experience, and everybody's going down the same rail, even the meta-games that they create on top of The Sims. So it's not just the customizations that they make, but the way that they use the game to create whole new games on top of it. Like in Sims 1, people were actually able to do these little story albums, which were originally meant to be, "Here's my family album, my family over time." But people ended up using them to tell very elaborate stories, like small novels. For Sims 2, we have the extension of that, which is the moviemaking feature. There are over a thousand movies that people have uploaded to our site now, that people have made with Sims 2. They're quite elaborate, and really amazing to see. The game is not just something you sit down and play, but becomes a tool of self-expression for the players. They're actually using The Sims to make birthday cards for each other, or make movies for their cheerleading squad, or whatever.

O: Did you anticipate people imposing narratives on their Sims?

WW: Oh, yeah. We were counting on that. It's about even balance in a game between the technology of a computer and the psychology of a player. There are certain things that the computer is very good at doing. It can tackle all these numbers, and simulate all these intricate scenarios. But there are a lot of things that the computer sucks at doing, and those things are where we want to offload it into the players' imagination, and use their imagination as the co-processor. Like in The Sims, they don't speak English. They speak this kind of gibberish language. In fact, when you're playing the game, and you hear them speak this language, you do get emotional intonations from them. Most people are basically filling in the blanks, and imagining the conversation in their head. That's a much more effective, realistic-feeling conversation than if the computer were spitting out computer-generated text, or scripted conversations. In that case, we're actually levering the player's imagination as a co-processor to fill in the blanks where the computer is weak.

O: Have you ever happened on uses of The Sims that have disturbed you?

WW: Not really. There are some fringe things–there were several adult sites for the first Sims, and there probably are for the second one as well. Most of those are things that any average player would probably have to go looking for to find. They weren't things that kids would trip over. I've seen some pleasantly disturbing movies that people have made with Sims 2, but that was the intent, like horror movies that people make. They're not really fundamentally disturbing. They're just kind of spooky-creepy-horror kind of things. No, I'd say, for the most part, not.

O: One of the more interesting choices you made was in making sexuality fluid. Was there a philosophy behind that, or was it a matter or making programming easier?

WW: It wasn't a matter of the programming. One of the things we fundamentally decided when we designed the first Sims was that we wanted people to be able to put in their family, no matter what kind of family it was, without any judgments, like, "Oh, we don't allow those kinds of families in our games." In general, we try to make our games... not as politically correct, but as inclusive as possible. The same thing is true just in general gender issues. The only difference between males and females in The Sims is whether they leave the toilet seat up. Otherwise, they have the same social abilities, the same sexual options, whatever. The idea is that games should promote some sort of gender equality, especially in a game like this, where players are meant to read in and become the authors. If I was doing a specific story, and I wanted to do a game about The Sopranos, and I wanted to convey these particular characters that have these certain biases, that's one thing. But if the game itself is an open vessel that we want the players to pour their own imaginations into, then it feels like we want to put the least number of limitations on that system as we can get away with.

O: What were your goals with The Sims Online?

WW: Sims Online looks very, very similar to The Sims visually, interface-wise, and content-wise. But if you actually sit down and play them, they're radically different games. Whenever you go into a multiplayer game like that, you can't speed up time, you can't be terribly powerful and be able to wield that power over others. Because of these fundamental multiplayer design issues, it ended up being a fundamentally different game. In Sims Online, we were trying to take the familiarity people had with the tools, the characters, and the situations, and build their own environments–basically, build a world out of these tools. That's why there wasn't a lot of content besides the objects and basic architectural tools that we gave them. We left it up to them to decide to build a store, a nightclub, a house, whatever. That was the general gist of it: "How do we get players to build a world?"

O: Did the way it developed surprise you?

WW: It surprised me in a lot of ways, primarily the sexual dynamics that went on. The players took a lot of ownership over it, and some of the social things that went on in the game were very surprising. There was a whole mafia that developed in it, and even though we had tried to keep players from trying to hurt or inhibit each other, they found ways to kind of socially annoy other players, and use that to enforce their mob power. They thought they were protecting the game, because they had this very particular view of how the game should be played, and they were going after what they called "the griefers." It was layer upon layer of these kinds of strange social dynamics that over time started evolving, like coral, on top of each other.

O: What were the challenges to improving on the original Sims when you made Sims 2?

WW: Probably the biggest single challenge was that the core of The Sims' success was that it appealed to people who had never played games before. A lot of women, a lot of casual gamers were playing The Sims. We pretty much knew that we wanted to bite off certain technical things in The Sims 2, primarily like 3D, closer cameras, and facial animation, which all of a sudden puts more of a load on the player–they have to operate a three-dimensional camera. I'd say the primary challenge was, "How do we improve a game with technology that had advanced over four or five years, without closing the door to the new-player experience?" We still wanted people who had never played the original Sims to be able to pick up Sims 2 and start playing it. That was probably the single biggest design challenge.

O: In an old interview with Wired, from around 1993, you theorized that in 15 years of so, online gaming would be the norm rather than the exception. It's 12 years from that interview, and you seem to be half-right so far. So what will it be like 15 years from now?

WW: I think I would actually fall back a little bit from that prediction, and say that online gaming is going to be a big, significant chunk of the entire gaming audience out there. I'm thinking that it may not be the norm; it may be less than half. But over the next 15 years, the thing that's exciting me right now–and I think this will happen a lot sooner than 15 years, probably five or 10–is that we have the ability for the games to inherently become more malleable underneath the player. The game itself can be changing, reprogramming itself, adding new content, adjusting its difficulty, uniquely to each individual player. The game can look at what you do in the game, what you buy, how you use content.

O: Are video games art?

WW: I would say yes. The use of "art" as a term, to me, is fairly meaningless, but I see games as a place where you can do tremendous amounts of expression. I think under most reasonable definitions of art, definitely.