"From Sputnik to Spore: Will Wright's New Way Of Game Creation," a workshop held at 11:45 on the Tuesday before E3, saw Newsweek Editor N'Gai Croal interviewing the industry giant on the creation of his forthecoming Spore.
"The powers of ten idea was always something in the back of my head for a long time," said Wright about one of his main inspirations for the design of Spore. "I always loved that idea of having that perspective on the universe." The second main inspiration for Spore was Drake's Equation, which Wright saw parallels to. "The symmetry intrigued me," he said. "It always becomes an internal design challenge. 'Ooh, I wonder if I can do a game that does X Y and Z?"
"If you look at the universe, gravity, cosmology, it's fairly predictable. A star is a fairly complex thing, but it's nowhere near as complex as a bacterium. I think that the role that life has in the universe is dramatic. Look at a lifeless universe and how deterministic and predictable it is, and then throw in some life. It can change the entire evolution," said Wright. "So really [Spore] is the story of life thrown into a lifeless universe. I thought the contrast of the two was kind of fascinating."
Another big inspiration for the game's design came simply from looking at the players of Wright's most popular project, The Sims. "The players all the time just end up totally surprising us what they do with it," he said. "Looking at The Sims in terms of customization, they started using it as a storytelling platform, with sort of simple HTML pages with Sims 1, and movies with Sims 2. I got intrigued with the idea of games as a way of self expression for the player."
A big concept of Spore is the idea of shifting diverse scales up and down, from bacterial survival to universe exploration. This is, of course, not a new idea to Wright, whose original Sim City - an urban development simulation - was followed up by Sim Earth and Sim Ant, shifting in two extreme directions.
Spore's core design team is smaller than that of Wright's The Sims Online, for intentional reasons he elaborated on. "When you get to about a hundred people, the amount of friction and inertia is tremendous. If you make a design change, it's about a month's process to see it executed," he said. "And so after Sims Online I said I'd never work again with a team that large. With Spore we're at about 75 people, which is really small for EA. I think about a quarter of the team or less are building content, so we have as many core art staff on Spore as just animators on Sims 2." A good majority of his team, he says, is focused on building design tools for the player. "The joy of creating is what I really want to focus on," he said.
When Will Wright was a child, he enjoyed building models. "When I got my first computer I realized it was the ultimate modeling tool, I could create these models that are dynamic," he said. "With games I try to bring that joy to the player, building a city, or a family. So you can think of the games more as tool sets or model sets."
When discussing innovation in general, Croal asked Wright to comment on the Nintendo Wii controller. "I think it's going to open new design possibilities," said Wright. "I think it's going to come down to things like precision, and what kind of games do these map well to? Can you play older games using these controllers? I think the jury's out on that. I've never seen controllers have a big impact on design per se."
Wright said that thinking back, some of the most immersive game experiences he's had have been simply playing Quake late at night with the lights off - using a standard keyboard and mouse setup, suggesting that a new controller interface might not necessarily be 'the answer.'
"On the other hand, I think some of these things will be front doors for people who don't play games. If you hand some people a modern controller, it's actually intimidating. They might look at these multicolored buttons and go, 'Oh, if I press the wrong one I'm going to lose.' So I think the Wii controller for some people will be liberating. If it grows the market it could be cool, and I think that will happen in some way, but it remains to be seen just how much."
Surprisingly, Wright revealed that a big part of the design process of Spore is from game players at large, particularly those in vocal Internet communities. "We want the players to be able to map their own expectations into this," Wright said. "And we talked to players and listened to what they're saying, when they talk about how they're going to play the game, and reading message boards. So really the players are designing the game. For example they'll say 'Oh I can't wait to do this' and we'll go 'Oh, we'd better put that in the game now.'"
Finally, perhaps of interest to our student readers, an audience question asked Wright to specify which schools were producting his best hires. "It's a very short list," he said. "We're getting the best results from Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech, and USC. We're getting a few from Stanford and MIT here and there." He does, however, see that list growing. "We're seeing a lot of universities bootstrapping their interactive design programs now, so I think three or four years from now that list will be about twenty schools."