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The Replay Interviews: Will Wright
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The Replay Interviews: Will Wright

May 23, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 5 Next

Your next two games -- Sim Earth and SimAnt -- were also heavily influenced by books. In those cases James Lovelock's Gaia theories, and E.O. Wilson's The Ants. Are the books where the ideas come from or do the ideas come first and the books come into it as research?

WW: I read a lot of books, and occasionally those books, or certain subjects or approaches, become very interesting to me. Generally they're not that accessible to the wider audience, so I'm trying to make it more accessible. It's almost more of a translation function.

I've always been interested in science, psychology, things like engineering and so I'm reading books in those general areas. Typically a lot of the interesting stuff happens at the intersections between fields. Academics are very tightly wound in their own little silos, the geologists over here, the biologists over there, and the chemists over here.

And they never talk; they have different languages. But the really cool stuff is the stuff spanning all of these, and in a game we're not bound by these academic departments.

The pheromone communication ideas used in SimAnt fed into The Sims, right?

WW: Yes. SimAnt was actually a big inspiration for The Sims. My very first prototype was done shortly after SimAnt.

I've read that home design software was the inspiration.

WW: I was always interested in architecture, and so one of the original things that was a really inspiration for The Sims was this book, A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander. He's very much into trying to apply formula. He's a physics guy that went into architecture and was frustrated because architecture wasn't enough of a science. But at the same time, he's got a very interesting humanist side. He felt all the principles of architecture should be clearly reducible back to fundamental principles, which is what he kind of tries to do in that book.

Basically his book's interesting because it's like random access. He's got 256 patterns that are organized in these rough groups, but each pattern is really just a couple of pages. For every pattern he has some statement about humans and their needs, and human psychology. The patterns started from the very large, like how you'd place a city within a region, down to where do you put a bed in your room or a bench in your backyard.

But every single pattern starts with some observations, and from that he extrapolates design-wise, pattern-wise, that says this should always be [like this]. It might be that humans have a need for privacy, and so a house should have private areas and public areas. It's really random access rules that you can apply to any design or architecture design problem, no matter how large or small.

Sounds almost made for creating a computer game…

WW: Yes. In some sense I wanted The Sims originally to be an architecture game where it was analyzing these patterns. So the people in The Sims originally were just there to score the architecture. They were inspired by the ant behavior we'd done in SimAnt, so we were kind of following pheromone trails in a weird way.

But swapping the pheromones for priorities of desire, such as how much do I want to look at a fish tank compared to watching TV?

WW: Right. Everything we put in the world is advertising the need for development, and depending on their needs, the Sims basically get attracted to certain pheromones. But fundamentally, in most computer games, when you have behavior, you have a really good sense of what the environment is.

Very rarely is the player designing the environment, and with such a wide degree of possible designs. We had to drop a sim in any possible situation and have them behave reasonably intelligently.

So it was fundamentally a solution to that problem of, how do we come up with a robust model of human behaviour that we can drop into any situation and have it perform? Ants seemed like a really good model for that. And as we got the humans working, they worked a lot better than we thought they would, the behavior model. They became much more fascinating to watch and track and interact with, and so they quickly became the emphasis of the game once we got them running.

We always wanted them to be in there autonomously and it was really fun to override their autonomy and start controlling them. We actually had to dumb them down a bit, because they were so good at meeting their needs that there was no reason for the player to ever intervene.

Were things like doll houses a big influence on The Sims? It's a common comparison.

WW: Yes, in fact my original name for it was Doll House. We did some test marketing and found out that the name didn't go very well with males [laughs].

From your answer, and from what I've read, it seems there was a lot of opposition to The Sims. Why?

WW: It sounded so mundane. You're cleaning the toilet, taking out the trash, and at that point most games were about saving the world and flying a jet fighter. It didn't seem like an aspirational game in that sense. At the same time I've always noticed -- and even felt myself -- that people inherently are narcissistic. Anything that's about them is going to be 10 times more fascinating than anything else, no matter how boring it is.

In The Sims, one thing that almost everybody does, usually right off the bat, is they place themselves in the game with their family and their house and next-door neighbors. Now, for the first time, they were really playing a game about their life. They become the superhero on screen, even though it's not so super.

It's not only interesting because it's about them -- it's surreal in a creepy way. It's kind of weird that you have these little doppelgangers that you can torture or take off into a different fantasy life or do what you want with. So for me that was the edge that The Sims had. Instead of having this high-tech weapon and killing Nazis, it was its surrealness in an almost David Lynch way, that brought the edge to it.

It seemed to tie in with the rise of reality TV, where you had 10 people sat in a room not doing very much being watched 24 hours a day…

WW: Right. That surprised me more, that television went in the same direction, because it used to be on television you want to see these glamorous people, people in exotic places, and now it's average Joe drinking a beer, arguing with his wife [Laughs]. That's the voyeuristic aspect as well and The Sims feels very voyeuristic in that sense.

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 5 Next

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