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Posted Tuesday, February 12, 2008 1:00 PM

Exclusive: Will Wright Gives Level Up the Scoop On Why Spore Is Taking So Long to Get Right--And Why It Will Be Worth the Wait, Part II

N'Gai Croal
 The Cell stage from Spore, developed by Maxis and published by Electronic Arts

In Part I of our world exclusive Q&A with Maxis chief designer Will Wright, we discussed what caused Spore to overshoot his original projected release date by nearly two years; how Facebook, YouTube and Flickr became metaphors to navigate user generated content withing the game; and why hardcore gamers shouldn't worry that Spore isn't "game-y" enough for their highly advanced palates. In the second and final part of our interview, Wright shares some tidbits on the Wii version of Spore; explains the machinima tools; and reflects on the irony of building a revolutionary title on the back of classics like Pac-Man and Civilization. Enjoy.

Once someone has their initial toy box experience, they then decide, "Okay, I'm going to start at Cell and progress through." How much time did people collectively or individually want to spend in each of the stages before moving onto the next? Especially because like you said, there's an arc of evolution, but at the same time they're separate genres, and as you already said, different people respond to each of genres differently.

One of the things that we also decided not that long ago, based upon a lot of this focus group testing, is that we were actually going to put in difficulty levels in that the player selects, so when you start playing you can start at easy, medium or hard. We found that a lot of players that preferred playing with their toys in the world, where the world was pushing back at them less hard--those were closer to Sims players. Whereas the gamers wanted to go in and really play some hardcore fighting games in Creature or Civ.


We decided that it when you select the planet at the very start of the game, you select a difficulty level, so players can surf that as well. That's going to influence not just difficulty, but also the pacing in some of these games. Some of them are like a lot of RTS games or empire-building games, where you start out very lean on resources and you're digging yourself out of the hole; on the hard setting, it's going to feel a little bit more like that. On easy, I think the pace will go a little bit faster through a level. So it's going to depend primarily on the difficulty level. And once you get to Space, that's the point at which you can sit there and play the thing for 30 hours if you want, and it feels little bit more like an MMO at that point.

A Wii version has already been announced. What can you say about what that's going to play like in terms of structure, control, etc.?

I can't say much about it except the fact that the overriding kind of factor in my mind and Lucy [Bradshaw]'s, in terms of looking at what direction that team goes with it, has been to make really good use of the controller. What interests me about the Wii is that in some sense you have a much higher bandwith controller than you have with any other console or even a PC. How do we abstract the maximum Because one of the biggest advantages we have is our procedural animation system, which means that we can have an infinite of variety of animations that we can make the creature do because it's done procedurally. So that's a natural kind of strength of having a higher bandwith input device--it should really feel like I'm puppeteering this creature very directly, as opposed to I'm just indirectly controlling with a few buttons here and there. The rest of the design is totally going to evolve around that.

A lot of the prototyping they've been doing is, "How do we make you feel like you have the most control over this creature, even in a very subtle ways, by moving this controller around?" and then make the gameplay serve that, because I think if I had nothing else, but a really fun creature to drive around the environments, and I felt like I was really controlling in a very expressive way I would have a blast with just that alone. So that's a really good starting point.

One thing we talked about in our original interview was that with all of these different areas that you were pushing into, it was almost like Dave in "2001: A Space Odyssey" going out to the furthest reaches of space and time, but coming back, or maybe it's more like Prometheus--

I hope not. [Laughs.]

--discovering these things, and bringing them back. When you have time to look at some of the games that EA currently has in development or has recently released, what are some of the things that you guys have come up with that you think are going to be relevant to your fellow game designers at EA?

I think certainly the way we deal with content is going to be something that could be used in a lot of different ways across gaming. The way that players think about content in the game, because you're already dealing with a trend in gaming of players being given more and more creative control of the game experience, and games also having social currency around the game play experience, either with things like achievement ladders on Xbox Live or fan Web sites or whatever it might be. So I think that's a big part of it. Thinking about other aspects of the game, the creativity tools--a lot of computer intelligence can actually make a player feel more creative, giving them a higher amount of creative leverage in the game. That's something that we found universally appeals to everybody.

You know, I liken it to when I first got my computer way back when, my first Apple II. I'd go out and buy software at the one computer store in New York City, and every piece of software felt like something brand new that I'd never seen before. It was like another magic thing that the computer can do. The first time I saw a spreadsheet it was like that; the first time I saw a 3-D modeling package; the first time I played the Pinball Construction Set--each one of those felt like kind of a minor miracle like, "Oh wow, this magical device can do this thing now." Games used to feel that way.  Some of the very first games that I bought--each was basically showing me a trick that I my computer could do that I never imagined it could do. It seems like as games have gotten more mainstream, and more genre-based, it's kind of lost that magic. So now when you see a game, it's like "Okay that's a little bit better first-person shooter than Half-Life," or "That's a little bit better so-and-so than this," and it feels very evolutionary instead of revolutionary.

Recapturing that magic where come up to the computer, and in ten or twenty mouse clicks you've done something that really surprises you, that you didn't think you could do or the computer could do, but really the credit comes back to yourself, that "Wow, I didn't know I was so good at building cities or designing space ships or whatever." In some sense, it's a self esteem generator. You should go up to the computer, and you should walk away thinking, "Wow, I didn't know I was so good at that."

Are you guys going to put "It's a Self-Esteem Generator" on the box?

[Laughs.] I don't know if it's so much a marketing slogan, but I think it's a good design philosophy. You want the player to walk away feeling better about themselves then before they walked up to a computer, rather than the other way around. We have the ability to build systems that unlock creative potential within players. It's amazing just with The Sims how many people ended up making these amazingly elaborate machinima movies using The Sims 2. I bet you half them had never picked up a video camera in their life, but they got so good at playing The Sims, and then they started making these wonderful films, and sharing it, and getting feedback. People saying, "Oh, I love your film", and all of a sudden they're like these little independent film makers. And it was only because the computer was encouraging them the whole way; at some point the game went from being an entertainment diversion to a tool and they started seeing it that way. It's like, "Oh, not only have I learned to play this game real well, but in some sense I've learned to play this instrument really well, and other people enjoy looking at the creative output from me playing this instrument."

What are the machinima tools like within Spore?

We have that built in throughout the game where you can capture game footage at any time, photos and stuff. In the Creature Creator--this is another thing we went down the path of, "What would we really want to do with this?"--I can design a creature, have them play all these animations, move them around on either a set backdrop or a black screen which is essentially a green screen, so I can actually mix it in with other footage, and composite it. There's also a one-button upload in that moviemaking feature to YouTube.  So I can actually make a movie in the game, and with one click of the button upload it onto YouTube. Again, this is where we wanted it to blend from the game world to the world of Web content so that it felt like this game was another creative tool pouring into some of these sites. Plus you can take pictures, email them to your friends, and all that stuff within the game.

Going back to what you said about games now feeling evolutionary rather the revolutionary. You've created a game that sounds like it will be revolutionary, but you've built it on top of established genres, and established metaphors, and then tried to weave all of that together into something new. Do you see something ironic in that? Or is there something here that actually ties into what you studied and researched about how the processes of evolution and design work?

It is interesting because as you go through the game you're not just going through different genres, but the genres you're going through are almost in order of historical appearance. So you start with this Pac-Man like thing; then you go into what's more like a third-person shooter; then you go into the the RTS-like stuff; and then you end up in an MMO. So you're kind of recapitulating the development of games is a medium. But in some sense games are built upon predecessors, and they borrow concepts, and metaphors, and control schemes. So that actually served us pretty well. First-person shooters I think were influenced by things like Pac-Man, in terms of how you control your character. The feedback that you got from an RTS was based upon things that you got in the early first-person shooters, etc.

The homage part of Spore has been one of my favorites in that I've always wanted to put in homages--not just to games, but to a lot of movies. So especially as you get into the Space phase of the game you know it feels like this mashup of every sci-fi cliché you can imagine all stuck into one thing.  What we're really trying to achieve actually at every level of the game is what we call "narrative density," which is that each of these levels has a lot of inherent storytelling within it. So when a player goes through the level I want you know as much as possible the players to feel like the story that they experience in Civilization or in Tribe was very unique to them, and if they compared it to another person's experience playing Tribe that they hear a very, very different set of stories. To me that basically implies narrative breadth in the game design, which at the end of the day I think is one of the really interesting metrics for game aesthetics.

When The Sims first came out one, I was following the Usenet groups. With The Sims the Usenet groups were actually the first to start playing it--the hardcore gamer groups-- and at first you know people were saying, "Ah, it sounds like a stupid game," But a few people were playing the game and coming on and saying, "Oh, I was playing The Sims last night, and I made this guy starve," or "He went into the bathroom, and I locked him in." They would describe these stories as to what happened when they played the game, and every story was completely different. I mean no two were the same it wasn't like, I" saw this cutscene, then I got the sword, then I killed the dragon." And the other people listening to the stories got very intrigued like, "Wow, I didn't know you could do all that stuff. I didn't realize that the breadth of possibilities was that large within the game." So I think that gamers--even non-hardcore gamers--recognize that the more narrative breadth in a game the more interesting it is to them, because the more personal it is to their experience.

When we talked about the game back in '05, you spoke about procedurally generated music. Where did that end up?

Well, that was one of the things I was really at the outset very skeptical of because I never really heard any decent procedurally generated music. At some point in the project, though--probably right around then--we hooked up with Brian Eno who ended up working with us on the procedural score. So actually we ended up with over probably--about half of our music is now procedurally generated within the game based upon things you make.

We found it was so fun,  we've actually built this little kind of harness where Brian and our sound engineer could play around with the underlying levers on the procedural engine. This is one of those things that became so fun to play with, we decided we had to surface it the player. So in the game right now, when you're designing a city, one of the things that we allow you to do is open this little device and compose your own theme song for your city--


--and it's actually using the procedural generator. So I can hit the "roll the dice button," and it generates a new procedural melody with rhythm, or I can actually grab the notes, and if I want to even put in my own tune on the notes. We've basically turned the procedural music generation into its own little toy and embedded that within the game as well.

I asked you this back in 2005, and after this interview, I've got to ask it again: this seems like everything is in there. What's left for you to do after this game is done?

[Laughs.] Oh, there are so many ideas and things to do, and so little time. I've never felt I was constrained by lack of ideas, in the least. There are plenty of things I would love to do. You know Spore is--it's one I'd say strong, fanatic, artistic vision, but it would be really depressing if I couldn't think of a game I could do after that. You could say the same thing about The Sims: The Sims is a game about all of life, what could you do beyond. This is just one particular triangulation of the world through a particular set of lenses. There's going to be a lot of learning after Spore. For me, the first half of it is when we ship the game; the second half is when we see what the players do with it. I know that's going to surprise us, and it's going to open up new areas to explore that we didn't even think of right now.

So it doesn't feel like your ultimate game. You don't feel like this is your magnum opus, the thing that you were meant to do?

Well, I'd like to think--it feels like something that you know has been latent in me for a long time. I've spent a lot of time, many years, thinking about this; all of the stuff I wanted and the aspirations I had for it. Coming to the end of it, it's feeling really nice to see it all working; the vision really becoming tangible. That doesn't mean that it is the end of my creative aspirations. [Laughs.] I mean at the end of the day it's going be an artifact that our team throws out into the world, and the world takes it, and does stuff with it, it will grow.

I'm really interested in the franchise, because I've always thought about Spore from the very outset not so much as a game, but as a franchise. I don't think I can talk too much about some of the other stuff we're doing around this, but we're looking at doing a lot of stuff way outside the game space, with this kind of franchise theme. Because I really like the idea of conveying science as a toy, or just education as a toy, but I think science especially is really applicable to that process, and I don't think games are the only way to do that.

Will, thanks very much for your time--oh, I forgot to ask the last question, the most important question of all. When is it going to ship?

I've been told I can tell you that it's going to ship in September, and then we're going to get you an exact date before your story goes to print. Right now we're hammering out what exact day in September, but I can tell you it's in September.

And do you all ready know what you're going to do after you ship the game? I don't mean professionally. It's like what they say to the quarterback, "You've just won the Super Bowl, what are you going to do?" So Will, "You've just shipped Spore, what are you going to do?"

Oh gosh, I don't know. I'll tell you over a beer one day. I've got a lot of ideas I'm kicking around, including other games so….

Excellent. Will, as always, thank you very much for your time, and I can't wait to see the game in person.

Well, thanks. Good talking to you, N'Gai, and good luck with the article.

To read Part I of our Q&A with Will Wright, click here. For our world exclusive interview with Maxis vice president and Spore executive producer Lucy Bradshaw, click here.
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Member Comments

Posted By: SuperEffective (February 12, 2008 at 5:03 PM)

I was listening to a kinda bad game podcast last week about whether or not 'politics' should be in games, or whether games are 'mature' enough (and the idea was pretty much ignored because they were thinking that for something to be 'political', it has to be the equivalent of American History X: preachy, messagey, and without humor) and I was thinking about how Wright's games *always* have a political component to them.

The Sims might not be what he literally thinks human nature is, but it's a stab at it that doesn't lack a point of view. I really wish Spore all the best as far as sales go (meaning I hope that the casual crowd goes totally nuts for it) because Wright does great work. When people talk about mature and accessible and expanding the market, it's pretty much just Nintendo and Will Wright at the moment.

Posted By: colemanm (February 13, 2008 at 11:16 AM)

Will Wright continues to advance the medium with everything he does.  The fact that they created a game that's so revolutionary, and at the same time serves as an analog for the advancement of the games medium (from Pac-Man, to third-person adventure, to RTS, to MMO), is incredible.  Skepticism was all I could muster for Spore before reading this interview (and seeing an actual release date).  Now my anticipation for it has surpassed that of most other games for 2008.

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