[In the writing of his history of the video game industry, Replay, author Tristan Donovan conducted a series of important interviews which were only briefly excerpted in the text. Gamasutra is happy to here present the full text of his interview with SimCity creator and gaming pioneer Will Wright.]
In this, the last in the series of interviews conducted for his book Replay: The History of Video Games being published by Gamasutra, Tristan Donovan catches up with game design legend Will Wright -- shortly after his departure from Electronic Arts to focus on the Stupid Fun Club.
Here, the discussion focuses on his entry into game making, the creation of SimCity and the development of The Sims. Along the way Wright talks about how constructivist education theories seeped into his work, why the Apple Mac made SimCity and how he disappointed a gay magazine.
How did you end up making games?
Will Wright: Actually, what got me into games was robots, because I was building robots as a teenager. Kind of these weird mechanical things out of random parts, and it kind of went from models, to robots, to games. I bought my first Apple II computer to connect to my robots to control them as I was building, and that's the point at which I really taught myself to program.
I was living in New York at the time. There was only one computer store in all of New York City. Some of the very first computer games were coming out then. These were like shrink wrap -- like Ziploc bags. Some of the very early games coming out were basically simulations, and I got fascinated with simulations of my robots, and simulating their movements and behaviors, and stuff. I also enjoyed games my whole life, and so I was intrigued by playing games on the computer -- having the computer as an opponent.
What particular types of games were you interested in?
WW: Well, when I was a kid, I used to play these war games. You know, the ones that had these 50-page rule books. I'd always kind of been into those as a teenager. I had a neighbor down the street that played them with me. It was really hard to find anyone else who could learn the rules, because there was so much investment in that.
Some of the early games were computer versions of these elaborate strategy games, and it was kind of cool, because the computer was always ready to play with you. You didn't have to go find somebody and spend hours teaching them how to play the game.
I remember on the Apple II there were a few that were programmed in Applesoft BASIC, and they were like turn-based games. You'd make your move, and then you'd tell the computer it's its turn, and then it would start thinking. And it would be the best part of 40 minutes for the computer to figure out its move, which really made it seem like it was really thinking hard.
As soon as I started learning about software, I started learning how inefficient BASIC was. Then I taught myself machine language and I got fascinated with things like John Conway's Game of Life -- cellular automata. That's basically how I taught myself to program. I started writing a little simple version of Life in BASIC, and then I wanted it to go faster.
How did you move from writing these programs for yourself to having a game published?
WW: Well, back then it wasn't that hard, because not many people were doing it. I taught myself to program on the Apple II, and that was about the time I started to believe I would try to make a commercial game. The Commodore 64 was just coming out at that time.
A lot of people had spent years learning the Apple II, but the Commodore 64 seemed more of a level playing field because everyone was starting from scratch on that. So I bought my early Commodore 64 right when it came out and dove into it and learned every bit of it.
I did my first game, Raid on Bungeling Bay, on that, right around the time I moved to California. There were about, I don't know, maybe three game publishers near San Francisco. Brøderbund was one of them. I just drove to each one and showed them this game that I was working on. I really liked the people at Brøderbund, so I ended up working with them.
Compared to what you did later, Raid was a very traditional video game. Why did you do that?
WW: For me, it was more I was learning the Commodore. Graphics were very important back then. I was trying to find things on the Commodore that you couldn't do on the Apple. I came up with the idea of this big scrolling window, and I'd always loved helicopters. So I just basically designed the end game around the technology, around what you could do on the Commodore that you could not do on the Apple.
While I was making it I had to build other programs to help me build that program. I had to build a program that would realign character sets. Another one would let you scroll around the world and place these little tiles to build these islands and roads and such. I had more fun with that actually than flying the helicopter around, and that's what eventually evolved into SimCity.
There's quite a gap between Raid and SimCity's release. From what I gather, Raid was a successful game. Did that allow you the freedom to spend a long time working on SimCity?
WW: It's funny because back then in '84, '83 when Raid came out, there was a lot of piracy on the Commodore market. Everybody had a copy of it, but we only sold something like 20,000 or 30,000 copies in the U.S. But luckily for me, it was one of the first American games licensed into the Japanese market on the Nintendo [Famicom].
It was cartridge-based so there was virtually no piracy at that point, and it sold about a million units in Japan. Back then the terms you got from the publishers was pretty generous, because they didn't spend much on marketing or anything like that. So I made a lot more money from the Nintendo version in Japan than I ever did from the Commodore version.
And that gave you the financial freedom to do SimCity?
WW: Yes. I earned enough off of that game to live for several years, and that's when I was working on SimCity. I had my daughter around that time, took about a year off when she was born. But also that's around the time I met my future partner, Jeff Braun, and showed him SimCity. At that point he'd been running a small Amiga company making font-editing software, and he wanted to get out of that and get in the game business. He wanted to start a game publisher, and so together we started Maxis. SimCity was one of our first games.