People are beginning to make a living in the real world from building objects for The Sims and MMOs. What are your thoughts on that?
I?m fine with that. I like the fact that there?s a thriving player ecology. Anything we can do to make the fan community more vibrant is fine with me. In some cases, those activities can actually suppress the fan community and be a problem, so it?s not necessarily that that?s good or bad, it depends on the flavour or shape that it takes. For a lot of people, 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 other people because they don?t know what they?re doing. I?d say I?m kind of agnostic on that issue ? it has more to do with what its impact is on the player community, really. Our job is to make a game that a lot of people enjoy playing; it?s not to open new economic niches. If they want to and it works, that?s fine.
But it has to be good when people get that deeply into something?
Oh yeah. We found that with The Sims? websites, some of the big ones were getting huge amounts of traffic. They were started by someone as a hobby at the weekend, and then they were getting server bills for a thousand dollars. So, we put a thing in our terms of service that would allow them to charge for bandwidth reasons. So we found that a lot of Sims fan-sites were charging subscriptions ? $5 for three months or something ? and they were getting thousands of subscribers. People would come onto those fan-sites and download a lot of cool objects. Some of them were making, like, a quarter of a million dollars a year. In that case it was good, because people were willing to pay, and people were able to make a living off of it, so they were able to invest a lot of time in building really nice sites.
What?s your favourite one of the different phases of Spore?
Probably the space one ? that?s probably going to be the most elaborate. The editors, in general, I spend a lot of time in. I find them to be a lot of fun as well. In the space phase, a lot of the editors open up for free. 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.
I came to Maxis years ago and saw Sim Mars, which never saw the light of day. Were there other projects you started but which never came out?
Actually, I wasn?t working on Sim Mars ? it wasn?t one of my projects. But I did work on several projects that never saw the light of day for various reasons. There was one that I was really interested in a long time ago. I wanted to do a simulation of the Hindenburg. I did a lot of research on it ? it was going to be a combination of Myst and Flight Simulator, if you can imagine that?
Was that scuppered due to technological reasons?
Actually, it wasn?t ? we could have made it technologically. I wanted to make it photo-realistic ? you could go anywhere on the airship. You would wake up on the airship and it?s abandoned; you don?t know why, and it?s heading for Lakehurst. It?s going to blow up when it gets there, and you have to figure out what to do ? every time it would be a different reason, like a mystery game. And it was a full simulation, so you could flip every light-switch or turn every knob. But I found that too many people had associations between the Hindenburg and the Nazi Party. It?s a shame because the guy who designed the Hindenburg was one of the big outspoken opponents of the Nazi Party, but he had to sign this, like, deal with the devil to get the money to complete it. And of course the Nazis, as part of that, made him put a swastika on the tail. So forever on, people associate the Hindenburg as a propaganda instrument of the Nazi Party. So it was scuttled for purely socio-political reasons.
What?s your take on next-generation consoles? You're concentrating on the PC, but will Spore come to other platforms?
We?re looking at all the platforms for Spore, because we?re thinking about Spore as a franchise, not as a PC game. We?re going to do the PC game first, but really, what we?re trying to launch is an entire franchise that will be all across platforms. It will probably take very different forms depending on the platforms. We might even pull out parts of the game ? so you might be playing part of the game on a handheld platform, you might be playing the entire game, but maybe more avatar-based on a console. The consoles are getting kind of different now ? I think there?s a really interesting distinction between the Wii and the Xbox 360 and PS3. Something like the Wii offers a lot of interesting creative opportunities for the editors, with the controller. That?s been one of the ongoing problems with consoles: they don?t have a mouse. The mouse is a very good random-access device for putting on the screen; a console controller really makes you want the game avatar-based, so you move on character ? that?s why RTS games suck on consoles. With Spore, about half the game is avatar-based already ? the creature game and the space game ? and it would be pretty easy for use to make the intermediate levels avatar-based, so from the beginning, we thought about how we could move Spore to platforms including consoles.
You?ve spoken about games that scale from the portable level up to the PC. But you always seem to get a much less rich experience on handhelds.
As you would expect to.
Is that improving?
It?s not so much that you want to take a game and move it to the mobile platform, but you want to take the idea of the game and find out what?s fun to do on the mobile platform that would relate to it. If you take, say, a card game, like those Sporepedia cards. You could imagine that type of game would seem a lot more reasonable on a cellphone than simulating a whole galaxy. So we can take aspects of the game like that, which are more appropriate for different platforms. But you?ll still have access to the whole sea of content, which is cool. The content, because it?s so small on the server? Pull it from the same database on the PC game, you?d get the same creature in super-high-res, fully animated, while on the cellphone you?re just getting a little playing card, but you?ve accessed the same creature.
What are you saying about Spore?s release date?
They?d probably kill me if I say anything about it. Next year.
You can?t say whether it will be earlier or later next year?
It will be at just the right time next year (laughs).
How close are you to reaching the polishing phase of the game?s development?
Different parts of the game are at different stages. We focused on the parts of the engine that we thought were the highest risk. So there are certain parts of the game that are in the polishing stage right now, other ones at the very rough tuning stage, and other parts are still at the blocks-on-the-floor stage. But those are the ones that we were least worried about. We?ve been trying to focus most on the ones that we think are the biggest design risks. The other ones, I think, will come together pretty quickly. Also, we want to get certain areas pretty polished, so we kind of know what this wants to be. Things like the card game, for instance ? we haven?t quite nailed the details of that. Once this other stuff solidifies, that?s a pretty straightforward design task.
What were the biggest hurdles you found in the process of developing Spore?
Well, we had to develop a lot of underlying technologies that didn?t exist ? that was probably the biggest one. Secondly, the fact that we?re trying to integrate all these different genres of gameplay into one consistent interface. The genre of the game changes quite a bit from level to level, yet the control structure and the interface wants to be very consistent. So, how do you come up with a control structure that works for an RTS game, or Pac-Man, or a first-person shooter? One control system, that can change a little bit and evolve, but roughly works for most genres ? that was a big design challenge.
But I was struck, when I got a hands-on, by how intuitive it was.
The usability of the editors and the consistency across the levels were probably our two biggest design risks. So we did a lot of prototyping on those two exact problems for many years to get to where we are now. And we have a big design team, too, you know ? we have about six designers. Every designer has a level, plus they can collaborate across levels.
From what I?ve seen, though, the team itself isn?t that big.
No, it?s actually about half the size of The Sims 2 team, so it is very small by EA standards right now, and we?re pretty much at maximum size, which is good. First of all, we don?t have a content army of artists. We do have art staff, but they are focused on the very low-level parts and all the procedures for generating huge amounts of art. Our entire art team is probably smaller than the animation team on The Sims 2. The art team on The Sims 2 was at least 50 people; we have 18.
How big is the team overall?
About 75 people, I think.
What games have you seen recently that you have admired and enjoyed?
Guitar Hero is cool. That?s a brilliant game. I?ve been playing with my DS a lot. I?ve got a DS Lite and I just love that machine.
The DS is great because it?s Nintendo?s prototype for its big idea about creating new game experiences.
Yes. When I first saw the DS, I thought: 'What a goofy idea'. Then they came out with the DS Lite, which looks quite nice, and the software was actually pretty cool. People are actually using both screens and the stylus in cool ways, and every game seems kind of different. It feels like unique, interesting gameplay.
Are there any plans to keep on extending The Sims franchise?
Oh certainly, yes. Obviously, there?s a big market for The Sims ? it?s one of those things that still has a lot of legs in it. The tricky part is not to let it get overly complex, to keep it accessible ? because The Sims has always had a very easy, open front door for non-gamers to walk in and start playing it. I think The Sims 2 was right on the borderline. We kept a lot of the Sims players on The Sims 2, but we have to make sure it doesn?t get any more complex. This is something that happened to Sim City to some degree. As we went from Sim City 3 to 4, the people who loved Sim City thought it was great, but for people who had never played Sim City, it was overwhelming. I think civilisation kind of did the same thing. So it?s about how to keep The Sims interesting, and focus on the humanity of it, not trying to add too many features to it.
How much day-to-day involvement do you have with The Sims nowadays?
Not much. I?ll look at diversions of it now and then, and talk to the team periodically, but for the most part, Spore is my focus.
Do you know how many units of your games have been sold over the years?
I don?t know? The Sims is around 60 million, Sim City maybe 20 million ? so the whole figure is probably around 100 million.
SPOnG would like to offer a heart felt thanks to Will and all involved in coordinating this interview.