The PC game Spore is Will Wright's most ambitious project. As well as mixing genres, it is the first major game with a procedural engine to make creatures move realistically
Interview by Steve Boxer Thursday August 3, 2006 The Guardian
One of the most revered characters in the games industry, the 46-year-old developer Will Wright, burst to prominence with SimCity in 1989. The open-ended PC city-building game and its variants sold more than 20 million copies, but Wright really hit the stratosphere with 2000's The Sims. The biggest-selling game, it has now sold, as a franchise, around 60 million units.
Technology Guardian: You are working on undoubtedly your most ambitious project - the PC game Spore, which you describe as "Sim Everything".
Will Wright: Yes, Spore has five distinct stages, and mixes games genres. In the first - which is essentially a tutorial - players must design a single-cell organism which is able to survive in the wild and evolve. In the second, players design a creature which must establish itself in the game world, and evolve until it achieves sentience. The next phase is a tribal one, in which your creatures struggle to establish a city, and in which the tools you give them and the architecture you design for them define their personality. The next stage documents their increasing sophistication, and involves creating vehicles. Until, finally, they achieve the ability to travel through space and colonise or interact with other planets.
Apart from mixing action-adventure, real-time strategy and space-simulation gameplay, Spore innovates in two areas. Its central database will suck up creatures, buildings, vehicles and planets created by players and redistribute them to other players, introducing the concept of user-generated content to the gaming mainstream. And it will be the first major game to sport a "procedural" animation engine, which ensures that the creatures you design, no matter how freaky, will move realistically.
TG: Was Spore inspired by the 1997 film Powers of 10, made by Charles and Ray Eames?
WW: Yes. Actually the other big inspiration was the Seti (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) programme, which led me to astrobiology. Astrobiology looks at the probability and form of life in the universe. It's a field that involves other subjects like physics and chemistry, astronomy and sociology. It's interesting because all of those sub-fields end up mapping to different scales, like the Powers of Ten. So you have very small things at the molecular or cellular level, and very big things at the stellar or galactic level. Those two ideas - The Powers of Ten and astrobiology - roughly became the spine of Spore.
TG: You started by simulating cities on a macro level with SimCity, then zoomed in on people in The Sims, and now you've combined both with Spore. Did advancing technology help that?
WW: When I did SimCity, the idea of simulating a city in the computer's memory was a really tight fit. Now, I can run a model like Sim City in the tiniest little thread. Also, we've found that we have, over time, given the players more creative opportunities. We have found that to be a really exciting and fruitful path to go down, especially for non-gamers, who don't want to have their ass kicked by a computer player 50 times just to get to the next level.
TG: Is Spore all about user-generated content, a big buzz-phrase right now?
WW: Yes. There are two main things about it: Number one is how do we make it incredibly easy and fun to make the content? How do we make the game reward you for making cool stuff? And number two: how do we get the maximum use out of that? This is really about how we move it around between players. So the content pollination part of that - where it goes up to the server and comes down to other people - is one of the fundamental aspects of Spore. Your world never runs out, you have continual expansion packs coming from other players.
TG: Is there any way you can exercise quality control over that?
WW: Players on The Sims can create characters, put them up on a website and others can download them, and we had to put in a system so that if somebody makes the walking penis, other players can flag it. If it gets enough flags, it gets removed from the list.
TG: Was developing the procedural animation engine, which uses a creature's construction to determine its movement, the biggest technical challenge in the creation of Spore?
WW: It's a deeper physical simulation, with the bones and the feet - how they would move, connect and pull each other. The animation system and the texturing system were technical challenges. The editor was more of a design challenge - how do we make something that is as powerful as Maya, but that the average Sims player can use? That required a lot of prototyping and testing. Those are the things we had to start on very early. Other things, like the simulation - the level of detail is something that's not as obvious, but it's just as important.
We have this galaxy of stars and planets and worlds, and buildings and cities and creatures, and even when I pull away from a planet and come back to it, I know I have to instantiate cities and vehicles. If I now pull all the way down to one creature, it's going to have a certain activity - it'll be hungry, say. So you have to prop up the illusion that you're simulating millions of creatures across thousands of worlds, simultaneously. That's a tricky issue, it just requires a lot of hard thinking.
TG: What's your favourite one of the different phases of Spore?
WW: Probably the space one - that's going to be the most elaborate. The editors, in general, I spend a lot of time in. In the creature phase, working with the creature editor, you have a certain number of DNA points you can spend. Once you get into the space phase, you can open up genetic engineering, which now allows you to build anything in the creature editor for free. You can go hog-wild with the creature-building at that point.
TG: People are beginning to make a living from building objects for The Sims and massively multi-player online games. What are your thoughts on that?
WW: Anything we can do to make the fan community more vibrant is fine. But in some cases, those activities can suppress the fan community and be a problem. When you are selling something like a high-level WarCraft player and some idiot buys it and comes into the game, they ruin the experience for others because they don't know what they're doing.
TG: What's your take on next-generation consoles? You're concentrating on the PC, but will Spore come to other platforms?
WW: We're going to do the PC game first, but what we're trying to launch is an entire franchise that will be all across platforms. It will probably take different forms depending on the platforms. You might be playing part of the game on a handheld platform; you might be playing the entire game but more avatar-based on a console. Something like the Wii offers a lot of interesting creative opportunities for the editors, with its controller. That's been one of the ongoing problems with consoles: they don't have a mouse. A console controller makes you want the game to be avatar-based - that's why RTS games suck on consoles.
TG: Are there any plans to keep extending The Sims franchise?
WW: Certainly yes. The tricky part is not to let it get overly complex, to keep it accessible. I think The Sims 2 was right on the borderline. This is something that happened to SimCity to some degree. As we went from SimCity 3 to 4, the people who loved SimCity thought it was great, but for people who had never played SimCity, it was overwhelming.