Will Wright needs no introduction – he is, simply, one of the games industry’s legendary figures. His hard-won reputation as one of the most cerebral men in the games world was forged with SimCity – nothing less than an experiment in virtual social engineering that played out on your PC – and The Sims, which is now, officially, the biggest-selling videogame in history.
So, how could he follow that? With Spore, possibly the most ambitious game in the history of the industry. More like five games condensed into one package, it goes from designing a single-cell organism right up to zooming around an entire universe, messing around with planets designed by other people which have been pumped down to your PC. Alas, we can’t tell you when Spore will arrive – Wright would only say “next year”. But we were privileged enough to catch up with the great man in his office (littered with radio-controlled tanks, and decorated with the Russian Space Programme memorabilia he collects) and perform a full and frank interview, in which he revealed that Spore may well reach platforms other than PC, that he once created a simulation of the Hindenberg (which was killed by political correctness) and that there was a period when Sims fansites could rake in $250,000 per annum. We’re in the wrong business. But here’s the entire, unexpurgated interview.
SPOnG: Where did the idea for Spore emerge from? You’ve mentioned the Powers of Ten film and your love of all things space-related.
Will: Actually the other big inspiration was the SETI programme – the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence – which kind of led me to the field of astrobiology. Astrobiology looks at the probability and form of life in the universe. It’s a subject which involves all these other subjects, like physics and chemistry, astronomy and sociology. It’s interesting because all of those different 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. So, it was a very interesting framework. It asks the question: “What’s the probability of life in the universe?” To answer that question, you have to look at all those different scales. So I thought those two ideas together – The Powers of Ten and astrobiology – roughly became the spine of Spore.
You could describe it as Sim Universe, couldn’t you?
Actually, I used to call it Sim Everything.
You started off with Sim City, then you got to the human civilisation level with The Sims, and now you’re building a whole universe. Is there a clear progression there?
Well, there are trends. We’re getting to where simulating things is easier and easier for us – with the amount of CPU power and memory we now have. When I first did Sim City, 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. The other thing is, we’ve found as we made the games we have, over time, given the players more and more creative opportunities. We’ve found that to be a really exciting and fruitful path to go down. Especially for non-gamers, who don’t really want to have their ass kicked by a computer player over and over 50 times just to get to the next level. The fact that they can sit there, make something interesting and share that with people – they find that to be a much more entertaining experience. So, that was the other trend: how do we take the tools we developed for things like The Sims and try to bring them way up to the next level so that the players, with the same number of clicks, are creating things that are much cooler, and a wider range of things, too.
The editors are key to Spore, aren’t they? Would you describe them as pioneering?
Really, the pioneering part of that is the animation.
The idea of forward kinematics, where the physiology defines the animation, has been a Holy Grail for the industry, and you seem to have cracked it in Spore?
It’s like a kind of deeper physical simulation, with the bones and the feet – how they would move, connect and pull each other. So, the animation system and the texturing system were technical challenges. We had to put smart programmers on them. 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, and a total redesign of the way in which the editor worked.
Those are the things that we had to start on very early, to make sure that we could solve them to a sufficient degree. But once we had solved those, to a degree in which we were pretty confident, then we could build on that and use those as the core elements of the game. There are some other things, like the simulation – the level of detail is something that’s not as obvious, but it’s just as important. We’ve got this entire galaxy of stars and planets and worlds, and buildings and cities and creatures, and even when I pull away from a planet – I’m way over here and I see that planet at low-resolution – when I come back to that planet, 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, and it’ll be hungry, say. So you have to prop up the illusion that you’re simulating millions of creatures across thousands of worlds, all simultaneously. That’s a tricky issue as well. It’s pretty solvable – it just requires a lot of hard thinking.
So there’s a lot of stuff going on in the background?
Oh yeah. Even when you’re away from a planet, it’s still being simulated at some level. It’s still advancing its technology and changing environmentally. All these things are still being simulated even though you’re not there.
Would you say Spore is all about user-generated content, which is a big buzz phrase right now?
Yes. There are two main things about it: number one is how do we make it incredibly easy and fun to make the content? So, 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? Which 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.
And you can request content from your friends, and see how many players your creations have gone to?
Yes, there’s kind of a popularity rating on the stuff that you’ve made. So there’ll probably be a meta-competition among people to making the coolest creature or building or whatever. We want it not only to be fun for people to make content in the game, but we want to reward them for making content that other people enjoy.
Is there any way you can exercise quality control over that?
We’ve had that issue with The Sims - because players on The Sims can create characters, put them up on a website and others can download them – and we have to put in a system so that if somebody, you know, makes the walking penis, other players can flag it. If it gets enough flags, it gets removed from the list, so we’re familiar with building those systems already. There’s a whole legal around that: we don’t want to be the ones editorialising the content. We have to give players that control, so they can object to content which is inappropriate and it’s automatically removed. Then we’re not liable for policing it all the time.
How often will people’s PCs poll the database?
It depends on what type of content level of the game you’re at. In some levels of the game, it will poll when it needs new content, but it will also be doing a lot of pre-caching – pre-caching a lot of content that it can reconstitute as needed. You should be able to play the game without being on an Internet connection as well, because we’ll have local databases. The size of the content in most cases is extremely small – the real cost is in reconstituting it. A creature might be 3Kb of data to bring off the server. When you reconstitute it, it expands to a full mesh with texture and animations, and it becomes several megabytes.
Have you thought about what sorts of rewards will be on offer for the best content?
Not really. That stuff’s easy. Now, it’s more about inventing systems that are hard. Once we get a better sense of how players are using it, and how the systems are working, we can do contests or themes, have so-and-so stuff-week, whatever we want. That kind of stuff will probably be done on the server on the website. We’re pretty familiar with running events from The Sims – that’s roughly the easy part.