[At a Gamasutra-attended SIGGRAPH keynote, renowned designer Will Wright took attendees on a tour through the various meanings and impacts of perception, user-created content, the entertainment business process and the “hive mind.”]
Having calculated the average age of his audience and their information bandwidth beforehand, renowned The Sims franchise creator Will Wright delivered one of his trademarked, 270 slide, mind-bending keynotes at New Orleans' SIGGRAPH on the subject of "Playing with Perception" by discussing his cat Argon’s quantifiable cuteness rating of 65/100.
Or more to the point, the rating of a particular photo of Argon, since another of Argon rates lower. The difference was all in constructing the camera’s POV and the cat’s position to conform to popular stylistic patterns evinced from high-ranking images at kittenwar.com.
A Look At Perception And Cognition
Argon’s “posed” picture has his feet close to the camera making his head, and therefore Argon as a whole, look smaller and cuter. This ended up being a fine opening metaphor as Wright provided a blitzkrieg bop through the various meanings and impacts of perception, user-created content, the entertainment business process and the “hive mind.”
Wright’s look at perception and cognition covered both the capabilities of wetware and our cognitive and symbol manipulation prowess. He demonstrated that the capacity of our pipe for visual perception is much fatter than the pipe for cognitive processing, pointing out that we are constantly running mental scenarios ("playing out possible responses to a given situation") before we consciously act on them.
He addressed the difference that real and symbolic versions of situations have on our response. His example? If we were walking in the jungle the way we pre-process and react to an actual tiger vs. a framed-oil of a tiger would be very different.
That said, “playing with perception” goes beyond the speed and bandwidth to the way we assign meaning to images and their elements. Group a girl, a cat, and a tree together the right way and you’ve got Alice in Wonderland.
How you style them gives you the classic Sir John Tenniel, animated Disney, post-modern American McGee or the upcoming Disney live action Alice. The different styles and approaches play with the way we perceive the character and the story.
Wright also pointed out that the way that IP flows across media delivery platforms and through the corporate structures that develop and distribute them alters the form of the IP as well. He offered a hilarious series of visual iterations of certain pink kitty and automatic weaponry to illustrate a variation on this theme.
Today's Content Creators
So what does any of this have to do with games and entertainment?
First, in sheer, bandwidth mode, it addresses the tools of content delivery. Bigger is not better. Wright showed a graphic placing an iPhone screen sized rectangle on top of an IMAX screen-sized rectangle. “The iPhone screen is 100,000 times smaller than an IMAX screen, but watching an IMAX movie on the iPhone isn’t 100,000 times worse an experience” Said Wright. “It’s about filling the pipe with meaning.”
But it’s not just the commercial content creators that fill the pipe today. Individuals are now able to create content and data meaningful to them in a geometrically bigger fashion than they were just decades ago. What’s more, they’re able to share it more easily, so what does that mean for entertainment in general and games in particular?
Some current entertainment examples leap to Wright’s mind. One of those examples is the activity around the TV show “Lost” and the way its writers initiated it and exploited it “Is not the water cooler model in entertainment any more, it’s a hive mind.” Says Wright. Lostpedia is one effort of the viewer community to enhance the viewer experience.
The hardcore players/problem solvers have an outlet to actively create a resource that lets them share with and trump each other and it significantly enhances the experience of the casual viewer as well. “The entry for Jin ( a secondary character in the show) in Lostpedia is larger than the entry for Barack Obama in Wikipedia,” grinned Wright.
User-Created Content And The Value Of Data
Of course, Maxis’ experience with The Sims and Spore back this up. User created content was not core to The Sims, but it was useful. "We had 100,000 user created assets in a few years," said Wright. "So for Spore, we decided to look at how of the artistic process can be automated and then use the technology to make (content creation) more fun and improve our content overall."
The success of this strategy was immediately clear after the release of the Spore Creature Creator before the game was even released. The Sims' high water mark of 100,000 assets after several years was beaten in 22 hours, and a million assets were created in a week.
"This proved that the value point was in the data," said Wright. "The goal became to move that data into different directions" These directions included opening up the Spore API and allowing creators to move their models out of the game via Maya format export.
"The data becomes the hub for other experiences," he added. "The IP sits on the data model and the community a data hub for entertainment moving forward. The game becomes a tool set for creativity." Says Wright.
So to Wright the challenge for the future is reaching and entertaining the new world, literally. To Wright, the world has not moved from hierarchical to flat, but from hierarchical to interconnected. "More and more I have to think of entertaining the hive mind," says Wright.
And he ended his talk (which covered innumerable additional points that could not be addressed in the space here) on slide 270, exactly on time, in one and quarter hours.