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Discover Interview: Will Wright

The master of the computer god game tackles alien life and dreams up a world that would make Darwin drool.

By Alan Burdick
Aug 1, 2006 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:45 AM
Dan Chavkin


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Will Wright followed a typically eccentric path into computer-game design: some college classes in computer science and architecture, a few homemade robots, no university degree. A deep interest in science, however, infuses all his creations. SimAnt, in which players try to corral an ant colony into conquering a suburban home, was modeled on the insights of ant expert Edward O. Wilson. For SimEarth, a global-ecosystem game, Wright consulted with biologist James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia "Earth as organism" hypothesis. SimCity was inspired by urban-dynamics models developed by MIT scientist Jay Forrester. The Sims games, beneath their animated-dollhouse exteriors, are time-management experiments, based in part on a trove of data gathered by sociologist John Robinson on how Americans spend their hours.

Wright's next game, Spore, due out next year, simulates the entire cosmos; he refers to it jokingly as SimEverything. The player starts as a microbe in a cell-eat-cell world and gradually advances onto land, evolves sentience, develops culture, forms tribes, cities, and civilizations, and finally acquires the ability to move freely through a breathtakingly vast universe of planets, stars, and galaxies. Everything is malleable: A player can create a creature with, say, 3 legs and 15 eyes and stretch it like clay. The animating software then figures out how best to make it walk, run, and stalk prey. A player can create ringed planets and watch the moons orbit leisurely for hours. Meanwhile, the many worlds in your Spore cosmos are pollinated automatically from an online database of plants and animals created by other players.

"As you play, you create the elements of the universe, which are used to populate other players' worlds," Wright says. "In a sense, you're creating the universe for other players. We're making the player the game designer."

Through your games, you come across as a guy who's trying to decipher the natural world bit by bit, through computer simulations. That's not far off. When I was a kid, I liked taking things apart to see how they worked. Computer simulation is similar, it's reductionist; you've got these parts, you want to see how they interact, so you build a model and compare it to the real world. When you formulate a model, you quickly see your misperceptions. That's the value of simulation in science, to spotlight our ignorance.

Modeling is one of the things that led to an understanding of chaos theory. Back in the 1960s, Dennis and Donella Meadows, a husband and wife team, tried to model the world in terms of things like population, food production, standard of living, and so on to get some sense of where the world was going. When they ran their model, it basically showed the whole world population crashing—quickly, by 1985, according to them. Of course, that didn't come true. Looking back, it became clear that just a couple of variables were off by a few percent and got very amplified. The scientists didn't foresee the green revolution in agriculture—the use of fertilizers and pesticides. So their food production numbers were just a bit low, but it compounded year after year. One little thing off a little bit can have a huge impact on the eventual destination.

What were you doing at age 10 that steered you toward game design? Building a lot of models—plastic, wood, whatever. That evolved into making things with motors, and that evolved into robots. Robots got me into computers. One of my favorite robots was one called Mr. Rogers. I built it when I was about 20. It had three wheels and an ­ultrasonic sensor for mapping the room and was attached to an Apple II. I still love robots; it's kind of a background hobby. My daughter, Cassidy—she's 19, she's in art school—was doing Robot Wars and BattleBots with me for many years.

Spore takes its cue from astrobiology, both in its spatial sweep—from microbiology to galaxies—and in the interplanetary spread of life. What turned you on to the subject?

Well, I've always had an interest in the SETI program, which led me to astrobiology and to Drake's equation. Drake's equation is ­simple. Basically, you take the average number of stars in the galaxy and you ask what percentage have habitable planets. Then you ask ­what ­percentage of those couple of planets does life arise on? ­And on what percentage of those is the life intelligent? What's the average life span of that civilization? You crunch all those numbers together and get one that tells you how many intelligent species are out there asking themselves the same question. For some reason, most of these models leave out panspermia [the theory that life may have originated elsewhere in the cosmos]; I love to think panspermia's gotten short shrift. Anyway, all the factors lead back to how unique we are. Stars and galaxies are complex and interesting, but they're still nowhere near as complex as life.

One thing that interests me is that all the factors in Drake's equation map to different size scales. It's almost like an index into science at different scales: chemistry, biology, sociology. As humans we're stuck at the scale of our bodies, but there are all these different levels above and below us; each one has its own dynamics, its own processes, its own timescale. I've always been intrigued by Charles and Ray Eames's Powers of Ten book and movie. They really tried to give an overall sense of where we are in the universe, to give some perspective on the history of life. That awareness can make you feel insignificant. But in some sense, it's also the reverse. If we're the only life around, what an incredible responsibility! It's humbling and deeply empowering at the same time.

So Spore is an existential game?

One of my original goals was to give players the equivalent of a drug-induced epiphany. I've been surprised, given Spore's epic scale, that it has such broad appeal—that the average person finds some meaning in it. Of course, every player finds a different meaning: how big the universe is, or the existence of different timescales, or how precious life is. The important thing is getting people to step back and enjoy the view.

The Spore universe plays like a planetarium show; you've clearly worked hard to model orbital and galactic motions accurately.

You should see all the stuff that's not in the game! We did a huge number of prototypes, modeling almost anything you can imagine, from autocatalytic chemistry to the dynamics of interstellar gases. For a brief while, we considered making gas giants playable, but not having a solid surface makes game play difficult.

I'm told you collect artifacts from the Russian space program. I've always had a fascination with it. I'm impressed by their approach and the success they've had compared to NASA. And they've done it at one-fifth the cost. These days you have to hire the Russians to get you into space, not NASA. I like to collect their stuff, take it apart, see how it works. It's incredibly durable, and cheap. I've got control panels from the Mir space station and the complete interior of a Soyuz spacecraft. I'm going to Russia next week, actually, to Star City and some other places. A lot of the coolest stuff is down in the basements of these aerospace corporations. I'm going with several friends; it's sort of a space junket.

Would you ever go up in space? Oh, sure, I'd do it under the right circumstances. But not $20 million to fly in the Soyuz.

Do you play computer games besides the ones you design?Oh, yeah. I spend maybe five hours a week playing games. On the PC, I still play Battlefield 2 and Advance War on my old Game Boy. Lately I've been into Guitar Hero. It's a game for PlayStation 2 that comes with a guitar controller, which has buttons on its frets instead of strings. You try to play along to real rock songs, and there's this whole little audience on-screen that'll boo you off the stage if you stink. When you get it right, it's really satisfying.

What makes a game compelling to you?In the kinds of games I focus on, I'm interested in amplifying the players' natural abilities. I want a player to feel surprised: "Wow, I made this thing!" Then, because you feel ownership over it, you start feeling things like pride—or even guilt if you run the situation badly. People talk about how games don't have the emotional impact of movies. I think they do—they just have a different palette. I never felt pride, or guilt, watching a movie.

A lot of what makes things fun generally is people challenging themselves, learning new patterns. You're building a model in your head that will help you predict what the system's going to do and enable you to perform in that system more accurately. That's why kids play, I think. From a very early age, that's how we relate to the world. We look for patterns, we poke and prod: If I do this, what happens? That's how we learn causality.

So games are fun because they allow us to play with time?Partly. You can think of games almost as time machines. They allow us to explore the possibility space around a given starting point. You can hit Start Over and do the Groundhog Day thing: Relive the same day and try doing this, replay the same day and try doing that. You can control time in a way that you can never do in real life and get some sense of how chaotic a system can be.

Storytelling is the same way. Say I'm a caveman and I almost get killed by a tiger. I can come tell you that I left my cave and a tiger almost got me. I'm sharing an experience and can now influence your behavior. Next time you leave the cave, you'll look out for the tiger. That's a time machine for experience—lessons that we might learn.

You've collected and analyzed thousands of hours of data gathered from people who play The Sims online. To what extent is playing The Sims a behavioral experiment?

It's an interesting kind of Rorschach test. The way in which people play the game says a lot about their personal interests and creativity. Some focus on giving their Sims skills, climbing the career ladder, building McMansions. Others focus on romance or building a family. Others are into creating a cast of characters and saving it on the Web; for them The Sims is more like a set of actors and sets with which to tell stories. It's up to you to decide how you want to make your Sim happy. SimCity is like that as well. We don't tell you that you have to build a big city, or a happy city, or a clean city; people come up with their own goal state that has a lot to do with their own value system. The game almost asks them, OK, what do you think a good city is? Or a good life?

You've modeled planetary dynamics, ant colonies, even the way players play your games. What's left?Do you know about fitness landscapes? It's this idea that you can map evolutionary fitness. If you were this genetic combination, you'd be this fit. If you were that genetic combination, you'd be that fit. Any given population is basically climbing a fitness landscape. It's cross-correlated: The shape of the landscape is dependent on what all the organisms are doing, so even as an organism evolves, the landscape is always changing.

I did some modeling of this—fairly long-term models of creatures evolving on different landscapes. Interestingly, the results I got were very similar to punctuated equilibrium [an evolutionary theory championed by Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould]. You'd see regions of stability for long periods of time, then diversity would go up, then suddenly the whole system would go into chaos, you'd have this mass die-off, and then it would go back up pretty rapidly.

You're doing this for fun? That's what you do on the weekend?Yeah, pretty much just for fun. I get really into biology. I find it more and more fascinating, especially macroevolutionary stuff. Actually, I think the idea of evolution is one that a lot of people have a hard time wrapping their minds around. They think, oh, you've got this one mutation and then the creature is a little bit better at seeing, therefore it survives. But, in fact, it's much more of a numbers game: You have thousands of creatures that have a slightly better chance of seeing, and statistically they survive 1 percent better. People aren't used to dealing with the numbers and the timescales involved. But once you look at it from that point of view, evolution just seems so much more plausible. It makes perfect sense.

In Wikipedia, Spore is described as a "teleological evolution" game. Do you think the game will bring natural selection to the masses?

You can look at it in a number of ways. What's ironic, really, is it's intelligent design. As a player, you go through an arc of being this lowly little cell, being attacked by pond scum, to eventually becoming a god. At the godlike level, you can almost do the whole creationist thing if you want: "I will create a planet; I will create species; I will put them on the planet." But you're a god without a whole lot of foresight. You put all this stuff on a planet, and it might go kerflooey. You might make a really badly balanced ecosystem. You're not necessarily an omnipotent god. That's even more fun. You have these godlike powers, yet the repercussions of them become totally unpredictable to you.

If you could rebuild Earth in any way—add or subtract any creature or process, for instance—what would you do?What's my starting point? The Paleolithic?

Now, whenever, any time you want. The world is your oyster.Hmmm. Well, the development of life was amazing and maybe incredibly improbable, so I wouldn't want to mess that up. The development of intelligence was possibly even more improbable; I wouldn't want to modify anything until that happens either. Even then . . . I wouldn't want to touch it, actually. If I started now, maybe I'd do something to increase the odds of humans surviving on Earth. But maybe not! Can I give you James Lovelock's answer? I'd probably eliminate cattle entirely. They're the Earth's second-largest producers of methane, which is a serious greenhouse gas. The clearing of rain forests is done mainly to accommodate livestock, so getting rid of cattle would help protect biodiversity.

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