Q+A – Will Wright

Will Wright is remarkably calm for a man who in 2002 will launch what likely will be the most popular online game ever. The game designer has a lot riding on the next few months. The enormously popular interactive computer game The Sims has come a long way since the first title in the franchise, Sim City, was launched in 1989. It spawned several sequels. None have matched the scope and ambition of the upcoming Sims Online.

Even non-gamers have heard of The Sims, a game where you create a life in which your wits, skills and personality determine how far you’ll go. Interaction is already a huge part of the game; fans can download furniture, clothing and more from fan sites. But Sims Online will go exponentially further; not only will your “life” options be vastly expanded, but also the fusion of traditional game play with chat and interaction among players will make it an utterly unpredictable, ever-evolving experience. Just like real life. And just as in real life, a small fraction of the players will be the movers and shakers who make it interesting for the masses.

When it’s up to speed, do you expect this to be the biggest game ever, in sheer number of participants?

In terms of numbers? I think it’ll be big, yeah. Our constraints at first won’t be how many people we can get to play it, but how many people we can handle playing it. Lately you’ve seen a lot of big online games launching where a bunch of people jumped online and the whole thing ground to a halt–a horrible experience for everybody involved. That’s what we don’t want to happen. We can control how many accounts; we can meter out the number of people involved. That’s what we’re planning to do. We don’t want to make it bad just because twice as many people jumped in one day.

The buzz is that this will bring online gaming to the mainstream; it won’t be just for the gaming elite or those without lives.

That’s kind of the design approach we’re taking. We’re taking pretty significantly different design approaches to the existing games for that reason. We want people to come in and have an interesting social experience without feeling they have to be a hardcore game player or invest a huge amount of time playing it. A lot of people are more into it for the quality of the experience rather than the quantity. We need different paths that players can take in the game. Most online games are fairly monolithic; in order to succeed, you have to kill a bunch of monsters, get up to Level 10, etc. We’re imagining people coming in from different areas. We want people who are into AOL chat to come into this and feel they’re in the ultimate chat environment. But we don’t want the game play to threaten them. They might not understand The Sims that much; they should be able to walk around and do a lot of chat until they feel comfortable. At the same time, we want Sims players to come in and leverage their understanding of Sims game play and succeed in the game. Eventually, they might get into the social aspect. We’re envisioning people coming in with different perspectives and backgrounds and putting those people in the mix together. What makes for a very interesting situation is when you have several people in the same game together but all pursuing different goals. It’s when everyone is trying to chop down the same tree that it’s boring. When people are working at cross-purposes in a game, that’s when you get the diversity of reality.

So while Sims game play is obviously the core of this, you’ve designed it to go in very different directions?

It’s very significantly different game play. The original [Sims] was very much a time-management game. We want this one to feel a little more relaxed and laid back. People will want to spend a lot of time socially interacting with the other players. We don’t want the game play to get in the way of that; we want the game play to encourage that. We’re redesigning a lot of the game so that you can do things more efficiently in groups, or by forming loose or tight associations and communities with other players. There will be roles and niches for players to occupy as leaders of these communities or groups. If you can get together with the right mix of people, you can be working at cross-purposes yet still cooperate with each other. The whole trick to a game like this is to have fairly meaningful social interaction with other players right off the bat. That’s what gets people to stick to these games. It’s not our brilliant game design; it’s the interesting people they’ve met online and enjoy hanging out with.

So does this require players to be online at the same time, playing in real time?

Some of it is synchronous. But some of it can be totally asynchronous. One of the things you can do in the game is become roommates with another player and share a house or a business or a place, whatever you decide to build. You actually get a bigger area for building if you have more roommates. You can also build a business from the ground up. You don’t have to build a house; you can build a comedy club or a gym or a business. People can only visit your comedy club when you’re online and it’s open. But if I have eight roommates, chances are there’s always one of us online. Our comedy club might be online 24/7 because of that. Doing it asynchronously is an advantage.

What will fans of the original game see for upgraded language and communication skills? How much did design figure into that?

You can actually chat; there’s text chat. But we’ve also vastly expanded the social interaction menus. In The Sims 1.0, usually on the menu there’s only four or five social interactions at one time. Online there’ll be 60 you can do at one time. You can click on your own avatar and make it look pissed off or happy or tired. You’re more directly controlling it; they’re more a puppet to express yourself through. If you’re bored at the party, you can make your avatar look bored. There’s still text chat, but there’s a lot of nonverbal communication you can use.

What’s your business model to make this profitable? Word is the initial software will run about $50, with a $10 monthly subscription.

It’s not set in stone; we’re waiting to see how the whole market evolves. There’ll definitely be a monthly subscription price. Part of it depends on the design. One of our primary costs is bandwidth; if we can keep the bandwidth lower, we can keep the price lower. We’re not committing to [figures] right now.

You have a trial-and-error philosophy, but you’ve managed to keep a focused vision on how the game should be.

From a design point of view, you have to have a sense of which direction you want to go, but you have no idea of where you want to be. I have no idea where we’re going to end up, but I know we need to be going in that direction, because it feels like the right direction. Occasionally we’ll see rocks in the way so we’ll turn this direction or that direction. Then we’ll see something really cool and say ‘Hey, let’s head over there.’ The overview of design for me is just having the instinct, the compass, for what’s the right direction to go. You never know where you’ll end up, but you have the instinct that the richest soil is over there. Eventually you’ll find that rich soil and plant your flag there.

You’re putting a lot of control in the hands of your players. Will chat and interaction carry the day, or will the game itself?

Fundamentally, I still want the creativity to be a huge part of this. It’s still a very constructive environment, which is one of the big differences from most online games. What I’m interested in here is how you mesh the social with this–what happens when you have this collaborative creativity, or maybe different creative skills coming from different players, which makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts. One player is good at architecture; another is very good at decorating. Another is very good at socializing with visitors coming over. The three of them might get together and do a venture online because they work together so well. You get this cascading ecosystem of creativity through the interaction of the players. That’s the kind of dynamics I’d like to enable in the online game.

So overall, different players will have different goals in the game, correct?

It’s basically a diversity of experience. For many people, it’s going to be a light, Web-browsing experience where they go online and check out the cool places other people have made. For the really hardcore people who want to invest a lot of time and effort in this, it’s going to be running this giant online casino or some very involved thing. Other people are going to be somewhere in between. Probably most players will start out as the light browsers. They should be able to really enjoy themselves; they’re primarily being entertained by the efforts of those 5 percent, the hardcore people. So we have the hardcore people being rewarded for entertaining the casual people. But the casual people can aspire to become the hardcore if they choose.

The design you’ve come up with is a fascinating mix of templating combined with the potential for unlimited customization.

This game is much more about creativity. The most valued currency in this game is the creativity of the players–not only in what you can build but also the creativity of your role-playing and how you interact with other people. The fans [of The Sims] have always astounded me; whenever we’ve given them the freedom to be expressive, it’s always blown me away how far they’ve gone with it. It’s always much farther than I would have guessed. So I’m trying to figure out how we can put a mirror up to that and reflect it back to other people. Frequently a lot of people are inspired when they see other people do amazing things. It inspires them to do amazing things. That’s where you get this self-fueling growth, this explosion of effort. That’s where I’d like to see the thing go.