Will Wright talks Spore, Leipzig, next-gen

The full article is by Andrew Park, of GameSpot. I’ll quote and comment a bit here as usual. Here’s the Wikipedia for Will – worth reading, as he’s arguably the most successful game designer in history, as well as this point in time. Will and Jeff Braun co-founded Maxis in 1987, and they released SimCity in 1989. SimEarth, SimAnt and SimCopter followed. In 1995 Maxis went public, but after Maxis posted a loss and the stock price dropped, Electronic Arts bought them in 1997, and promptly laid of 40% of the Maxis staff. Will was able to sell The Sims as a project to EA, though, and it released in 2000 and became Will’s biggest success yet. Sims eventually past Myst as the best-selling computer game of all time. I just checked that Wiki data and don’t believe it’s true any more: the figures I have are that The Sims base game has sold 6.3 million copies – but Vivendi has just announced that World of Warcraft has sold 6.6 million copies. The Sims is untouchable as a franchise, though: there have been seven expansion packs for The Sims, and Online version, and Sims 2 is now very successful and selling its own expansion packs. In total, the franchise has sold over 58 million units.

One of Will’s most important contributions to gaming has been his demonstration of the appeal and success of “software toys” – which cannot be won or lost as a traditional game is. He always has and continues to challenge assumptions in a deeper and more successful way than anyone else I can think of in gaming. For instance, he calls his latest project, Spores (Wikipedia here), a “massively single-player online game.” From the Wikipedia:

Spore is, at first glance, a “teleological evolution” game: the player molds and guides a species across many generations, growing it from a single-celled organism into a more complex animal, until the species becomes intelligent. At this point the player begins molding and guiding this species’ society, progressing towards a spacefaring civilization. Spore’s main innovation portends to be Wright’s use of procedural generation for many of the components of the game, providing vast scope and open-endedness. Wright said “I didn’t want to make players feel like Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins. I wanted them to be like George Lucas or J.R.R. Tolkien.” [2]

All that was just background . Let me sneak in a screenshot, and then get to some quotes and comments from the interview. I’ll pile on 11 more cool screenshots at the bottom.

Spore Screenshot

On to the interview:

One of the most intriguing features of this open-ended game is how it will focus on “procedurally generated content”–that is, content that’s created on the fly by the game in response to a few key decisions that players make, such as how they make their creatures look, walk, eat, and fight.

I’ve posted previously on procedurally generated content, from a SIGGRAPH 2006 course on procedurally generated cities.

WW: Our team is probably around 80 people right now. We have a disproportionately large number of programmers on this team and a small number of artists, because of all the procedural content. So, probably 40 percent of the team is programmers, which is pretty high. The art staff is probably about a third of the size of [the art staff assigned to] a typical EA game. And all our artists are very technical as well, so they’re doing a lot of the programming and scripting.

This is yet more proof of the importance of programming skills, at the same time that the trend for computer science enrollment has dropped by over 60% in the last four years. The game development trend lately has been for far more resources and money to be spent on the art assets needed to make a great computer game than on the actual computer code. As Will has in the past, I think he is again leading us toward a better way (for some games at least) by emphasizing procedural generation and user control of all that great art asset content, instead of requiring hundreds of artists producing fixed assets.

Will Wright: We’ve basically got all the levels playable at this point, so we have a lot of tuning ahead of us, because we’ve finally integrated all the different styles of [gameplay]. At this point, it’s basically iterating on the gameplay, doing a lot of tuning, finishing up some of the [art] assets, interface, design…stuff like that. So, in some sense, we’re in the home stretch. Although the home stretch is pretty long nowadays (laughs).

then later:

GS: Finally, we’ve heard a few different dates get tossed around for the release of Spore. When is the game scheduled to launch?

WW: We’re saying the second half of next year [2007] for now.

In the final stretch, but over a year still untilo release. Yeah, big game. ๐Ÿ˜€

GS: Much of the game is based on procedural content. Tell us about how the game takes user input and turns it into, for instance, animation for creatures based on their bodies.

WW: It’s pretty technical–it happens at different levels. First, you’re sculpting the outer form, using the torso, which is like clay, then the parts that you stick on[to the torso]. But even the parts have a lot of “morphability”; you can stretch and bend them in all sorts of interesting directions. And from that, we generate a mesh and a skeleton. Next up is painting; we use procedural textures and layers to make a lot of different combinations, but most of these things get compressed to a very high degree so we can send them over the Net cheaply. And then, the last level is the animation, which is the hardest.

We found that the state of research in digital animation was fairly limited and almost exclusively based around human animation. The first people I hired on the team were actually specialists in that field to crack that problem, and because we didn’t know what players would make–whether [created creatures] would have seven legs, or tentacles, or whatnot, so we had to approach the problem on a more fundamental level than people were approaching it with human character animation, where you know you have a biped that’s roughly five or six feet tall.

Fascinating, ain’t it?

GS: How did the editor end up being something that average players could understand and use?

WW: The other problem we faced was: How could we make the easiest system for players to edit and create their creatures? The real hard part there, for the most part, turned out to be figuring out what Z-depth the player was inferring. At the highest level, what we’re trying to do is build a 3D editing system that an average Sims player can use, right? Something that has roughly the power of Maya, but that a casual gamer can approach.

[After testing,] we were able to go back and say, “I think we should infer from this, or from this part, or from the way they turned the camera in this direction,” so we added a lot of subtle cues to help the computer roughly guess what players were thinking while they were moving things around.

Go Will! Reminds me of someone trying to come up with a programming environment with the power of Visual Studio, but that a casual beginner can approach. ๐Ÿ˜€

WW: Because it’s procedural, we can reduce what players do to a fairly small number of parameters, so your creature is, maybe 3 megabytes in size, and you can compress that down to 3 kilobytes. Which means that we can send it over the Net very cheaply. We also store a huge database on [players’] local hard drives, or cache them very cheaply as well. So, when players make these creatures, we’re actually sucking [the creatures] up onto our server and using them to repopulate everyone else’s world.

How’s that for secret sauce? This content will be attributed, rated by users, rated by popularity, etc… – so people have encouragement to contribute great stuff, recognition when they do, and users have a way to find and use the best of it.

GS: We saw at E3 that Spore’s creatures may not live just in the game or in editors, since the game catalogs them using an interface that looks a lot like a collectible card game…

WW: We’re looking at how we can leverage all the stuff in the game and bring it outside. So we’re exploring all those things right now; we’re not really announcing any of it yet. But I think the amount of ownership that people feel over this content they create is amazing–just in testing, watching people create a creature, how proud they are of it, and how much they want to bring other people to the screen and show it off to them.

Yeah, he’s ahead of his time again.

WW: I think [Spore] definitely wants to go beyond being a computer game. I think the essence of Spore as a franchise is creativity. So, we have these editors with which players will be making huge amounts of content, and the question is: How can we leverage that content into other game styles, maybe other platforms, and other experiences? I think that’s what will distinguish Spore as a franchise from a lot of the other games out there–it’s not totally dependent on peer-to-peer, head-to-head gaming. That’s why I don’t feel Spore is as constrained to its original platform.

This is interesting on many many levels. Yeah, it’ll be fun to see where Will takes all this. The most interesting thing about it will be seeing what players create with the tools that he puts in their hands.

Oh, here are a bunch of those screenshots I promised:

Spore Screenshot

Spore screenshot

As powerful as Maya, and anyone can use it? ๐Ÿ™‚

Spore screenshot

Spore screenshot

Spore screenshot

Spore screenshot

Spore screenshot

Spore screenshot

Spore screenshot

Spore screenshot

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