The Replay Interviews: Will Wright

By Tristan Donovan

[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.

I've read that you had a hard time getting SimCity published.

WW: When I started working on SimCity, I showed it to Brøderbund and they said, "Sure, let's do it." But they kept wanting to change it. I'd kind of programmed it to the point where I thought it was done, and they didn't think it was nearly done. They kept wanting a win/lose. They were expecting more of a traditional game out of it. But I always wanted it to be much more open-ended, more of a toy. So they never published it.

They never gave me any money for it either, so I never got the advances. I wasn't in any real financial obligation. So it just sat on the shelf for several years. You know, the Commodore version was all done; it was just never published.

When Jeff and I started Maxis, we just went back to Brøderbund and said, "Hey, we want the rights back," and they said, "Sure." Then we invested our money into programming the newer [Mac and Amiga] versions of it.

We were a very small publisher; we actually ended up working with Brøderbund as our distributor, so Brøderbund still got their slice of the pie. They were instrumental in launching Maxis; they were just really nice people, and they were showing us the ropes, and financially helping us, in terms of inventory management and all that stuff. We were like an affiliate publisher with Brøderbund for several years after that.

How did people react to the idea of a game without a goal, no win or lose? As far as I can tell there were very few titles before it that went against the traditional win/lose.

WW: Well, there weren't games that adults wouldn't feel embarrassed playing at that point. They were all arcade shoot 'em-up things. But by the time we actually went back and reprogrammed it all on the Mac and the Amiga, there was a whole different group of people trying to buy computers for the first time. Up to that point it was just hardcore techno-heads, technology geeks. But around the time of the Macintosh, you had a lot of people that were doing print layout, reporters -- a much broader group of people. They were actually buying computers to do real things and it was a more mature market.

And for those people, there were no games that really appealed to them. SimCity turned out to be that game. A lot of our original games, like SimCity and Sim Earth, were programmed on the Macintosh, and it turned out that a lot more reporters had Macs. So there weren't many games for the Macintosh, which meant that when we came out with the game, the reporters, the press were more likely to buy it and play it. And then we'd get a lot of coverage, so it was just kind of serendipitous. Even though the Mac market wasn't that big, it was squarely in our demographic and we got a lot of coverage.

Your education was at a Montessori school, wasn't it?

WW: Up to about sixth grade.

Did that influence your approach to games? Montessori education is about learning through play and experience and your games seem to echo that idea.

WW: Yes, I think it did, in a number of ways. It became more overt, more conscious to me later in life, as I got interested in Maria Montessori and her theories, and went back and started reading and studying the whole movement. You know, she represents one part of what's generally referred to as constructivist education.

There were people before her like [Friedrich] Fröbel, who was a German teacher who invented these things called Fröbel Blocks. He invented the whole concept of the kindergarten. But he was approaching it with a very constructivist, "Let's give toys that are creative to kids, and let them play and learn geometry and math."

But even since then, there are people like Alan Kay or Seymour Papert, the people applying sort of constructivist approaches to education through technology. I think of my games kind of like that. Really I'd much rather: (a) rather than educate somebody I'd rather inspire or motivate them, get them interested in the subject, and (b) I think that self-directed learning is far more powerful than if you lead somebody on a leash.

So initially this was a subconscious thing?

WW: Around the time of SimCity it was more subconscious. I think I just realized I enjoyed making things, and I thought other people would enjoy making things, as well, on the computer, and having them come to life. But then after that, I started reading more about the pedagogy of her [Montessori's] approach to education and stuff, so it became a little more self-conscious to me as a designer. But I think I always gravitated towards that process anyway.

How did the leap from Raid's world editor, to SimCity with its urban design theories, happen?

WW: First, it was just a toy for me. I was just making my editor more and more elaborate. I thought it would be cool to have the world come to life. So I started researching books on urban dynamics, and traffic, and things like that. I came across the work of Jay Forrester, who was kind of the father of system dynamics. He was actually one of the first people I found that actually simulated a city on a computer. Except in his simulation, there was no map; it was just numbers. It was like population level, number of jobs -- it was kind of a spreadsheet model.

So I took his approach to it, and then applied a lot of the cellular automata stuff that I had learned earlier, and get these emergent dynamics that he wasn't getting in his model. I found when I was reading all these theories about urban dynamics and city behavior, that when I had a toy simulated version on the computer, it made the subject much more interesting than reading a book -- because I could go to my computer model and start experimenting.

That just bought the whole subject to life for me and then, more and more, I started thinking, "Other people might enjoy this." But even then I never thought SimCity would have a broad appeal. I thought it might appeal to a few architects and city planner types, but not average people.

So when did you realize that it was anything but a niche game?

WW: I think our first big break was about three months after release in, I think, February 1989. At some point, some writer at Time magazine got hold of it, and wrote a full-page review in Time. It was the first time Time had ever really reviewed a computer game, and this guy just loved it. After that, a lot of other people started buying it. Our orders shot up.

Then, later that year, we came out with the IBM version, and the IBM was just hitting the market at that point. It was interesting, because SimCity came out, and typically with the game market, you release the game and most of your sales are in the first six months, like 80 percent of sales, and then they would dwindle off, and you would come out with another game.

SimCity was a totally different profile. In the first year it did very well, but the next year we actually sold quite a bit more than the first year, and in the third year we sold even more. It was actually increasing year-on-year. It didn't have this really short lifespan, like most games. So SimCity paid for a lot of mistakes, which was great, because we made a lot of mistakes.

Did any video games influence SimCity? It seems like it was influenced by urban dynamics and Life rather than other games.

WW: Not really. I think it had more influence actually from the Macintosh design. Probably the biggest inspiration for SimCity was MacPaint. When you think about it, there's this pallet of tools, you have a canvas out here, and you grab the tools and you draw with them. We always thought that MacPaint was really the underlying architecture for it. And even before MacPaint, there were things like Pinball Construction Set, which had a Mac-like interface.

What is it about John Conway's work that caught your imagination?

WW: It's so extraordinary, because the rules behind it are so simple. It's like the game Go. A lot of people I know lost major chunks of their life from both of these endeavors. From an outside person's point of view, it might seem totally pointless, but there's some underlying aspect I think they capture, both Go and Conway's Life or cellular automata in general, of reality and complex systems.

That they can arise from fairly simple rules and interactions, and that became a major design approach for all the games: "How can I put together a simple little thing that's going to interact and give rise to this great and unexpected complex behavior?" So that was a huge inspiration for me.

That approach is quite a departure from more linear games in that you, as the designer, do not know where it will end up.

WW: Yes. One of our first models for interactivity was like the Choose Your Own Adventure stories, which is a branching tree. Or even chess, which in some senses is a branching tree -- you don't have that many branches on a given move in chess. When you're dealing with a simulation, you can view it as a branching tree, but it's so dense that it's better to be viewed as this possibility space. It is a much more open-ended world, the possibility set is much larger in that it's meant to be sculpting the possibility set so that it has meaning to the player.

So a game like chess, there's just one goal structure. In a game like SimCity, because we're not formally defining success, there's a lot of psychology involved for the players. The first thing they have to decide when they play SimCity is, "What kind of city do I want? For me what is success? Is it a big city? Is it a city with low crime? Or low traffic? High-land value?"

Players can have different balances of those factors that they consider success, which puts more meaning into that possibility space. Different players can have different goal stakes within that space, and so the diversity of space will be much higher.

Did you have hopes for what people would learn from playing SimCity?

WW: I realized early on, because of chaos theory and a lot of other things, that it's kind of hopeless to approach simulations like that -- as predictive endeavors. But we've kind of caricatured our systems. SimCity was always meant to be a caricature of the way a city works, not a realistic model of the way a city works.

So we're kind of enhancing dynamics, emphasizing them in a way where you can start seeing ideas, these kinds of truisms in city planning that we manage to capture. Things like the idea that roads don't relieve traffic, they breed it. You think we need to build more roads, but when you put more roads in, it actually encourages more volume, and the traffic gets worse. Those are kind of counterintuitive dynamics that you can capture in a model like SimCity, even if it's not accurately modeling traffic elements in a real city.

J.C. Herz's book Joystick Nation says the road-building model of SimCity represents a bias towards public transport. Is it biased?

WW: Well any simulation is a set of assumptions. So there is bias in any simulation, depending on how you look at it. A lot of people thought when they played SimCity we were really biased to mass transit. It's interesting. One of the fun things is that a model like that gives you something to reflect against. In fact, when people start arguing with the model, that's when I think it's been successful.

First of all you have to clarify your internal model -- how does a city really work? Most people, they'll kind of roughly describe it, but they've never really thought in detail what the linkages are between different things. But when they're playing a game like SimCity, which is one set of assumptions, it clarifies their own internal assumptions. And then, when they can start arguing with it, it's crystallized in their internal model to the point where they can now argue against that model, so in some senses I think that's the point of it.

Is it the same case with nuclear power? I found a 1989 New York Times article where Jeff Braun says SimCity's approach to nuclear power is to tease people into thinking it's a good idea, doesn't pollute, generates three times as much power as a coal plant, but it will blow up and that's inevitable.

WW: The nuclear power plant, that's a good example, because a lot of times we will simulate things not the way they actually work, but the way people think they work, for entertainment reasons. So in the original SimCity if a nuclear power plant caught fire, it would blow up at some point -- which they don't do. I mean, they just don't blow up like that. But it's because people were expecting that.

It's like if you show a gun in the first act, you know somebody's going to shoot it later. Or like in Hollywood movies whenever a car crashes, it blows up. Cars don't blow up when they crash usually, but in Hollywood they always do. So a lot of the times, we will simulate things on purpose inaccurately just for entertainment value.

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.

So how did you keep the project alive?

WW: I was trying to get resources within Maxis, and nobody wanted to spend the resources on developing it. On the other hand, we had this small group in San Mateo that was doing tools and technology for our company, but nobody was using their tools. It was kind of this programmer thing of "not invented here", and so they were trying to make these code frameworks and things and the department was like, "No, I'd rather bring my own."

So we were about to pull the plug on this little group, because nobody was using what they were making, but they were really brilliant guys. This was like four guys.

So I said, "Look, just give me those guys over there." They weren't even in the same office, and nobody saw them anyway, and so they became my little black ops group. I went over there and they really got it. They worked for the first year trying to bring it up and getting it running, and we were making great progress. That was right around the time that EA came in.

We were on the public market at that point, and EA was doing due diligence, deciding if they wanted to buy our company or not. They were originally thinking they wanted to buy Maxis because of SimCity, but some of the executives at EA saw The Sims and were like, "What's this?" We didn't even tell them; nobody mentioned we were working on this project.

They actually felt very excited about it, and it wasn't longer after that EA bought Maxis. EA's management that came to help broaden Maxis were so excited by it, at that point there was no problem. I got plenty of resources on the team and it was all downhill from there.

So EA saved it in a way?

WW: Yes. It was like a total Monday, and as soon as Luc Barthelet, the general manager EA brought in, came in he was like, "Yeah, what do you need? Let's go for it." He was very into it, and had a lot of contributions in terms of us launching the community around it and all that stuff, so probably Luc more than anybody else was responsible.

One of the fairly unique things about The Sims was that it allowed same-sex relationships, which I think caused the U.S. age rating to go up to 14+.

WW: I don't know if that was the case or not. I don't remember. We were really skirting it; we kind of wanted The Sims to be a PG-type thing. There was nothing you'd see on The Sims that you wouldn't see on prime time television at all. The gay thing was really interesting, because I thought we'd have a much bigger backlash from that than we did.

Was there pressure to remove the Sims' default bisexuality?

WW: We programmed it such that the only time a gay relationship would actually occur is if you had two men or two women starting to flirt with each other, so you literally had to drive it and initiate it. They were bisexual in that sense -- if you initiated it, it really was down to their chemistry. They might get along or they might not, but it had nothing to do with gender.

So if somebody called us up and said "My Sims are getting... I don't like it," we knew that they were the ones who started them kissing. Fundamentally I wanted people, no matter what their family was, to be able to try to recreate it in the game. That was why we chose to do it. There was no pressure internally at all to do it one way or the other.

I was expecting more pushback once we released it, from conservative groups but there was virtually none. I was actually pleasantly surprised. I was interviewed by this gay magazine about a year after it was released. They wanted to cover the story about how we had to fight all these conservatives and I really couldn't give them anything. They were all disappointed there wasn't more pushback.

How do you feel about that journey from a game about architecture to one about these little people? Is it hard to move away from your original vision?

WW: No. I mean my log-cutting game turned into a game about city planning. [Laughs] My whole career's been like that, I think -- serendipitous discovery. The whole approach is that you want to always be on the direction that you're headed but as you're heading there, you're going to see little things that make you think "maybe I want to go that way a little bit or that way." If you're singularly focused on a destination, you might end up passing five or six great places along the way that would have been better had you seen them from the start.

Is that an usual approach to game design?

WW: I think it is to some degree. I don't know if it is now as much as it used to be. It used to be people were very focused on "I'm going to build a first-person shooter set in Greek society and I'm going to have these types of swords and here's what's going to happen in the last battle." People tended to be very explicit and very constrained about what they were going to design.

I think nowadays with things like the web and social networks and this kind of emergence of these very elaborate ecosystems that people are involved with, maybe it's getting a little more common. It feels more like you're dealing with an ecology now rather than an engineering artifact.

People in general do seem to have a clear understanding of how a film is made or an album is put together, but how games go from initial idea to final product still seems shrouded in mystery. Is that because there's no set way of doing it, or that the industry isn't very good at explaining itself?

WW: I suspect the early days of film were very much like this. At some point enough people have been making films for their whole lives that they started trying to fundamentally think about the structures and rules that they're operating under, the formalisms that they brought to the subject, and then they started opening the very first film schools.

At some point George Lucas and Steven Spielberg went to film school and were taught filmmaking as a professional, this body of theory from people who had spent lifetimes making mistakes. With game design, we're still in this apprenticeship phase, whereby most people practicing game design were not formally taught game design. Just now they're starting to go into schools and start programs to teach games and interactive design. So we're just at that point where I think we're going from the apprenticeship model.

There are very few programs right now, but they exist, and universities are scrambling to build these programs, but there's not enough people to teach them. Almost all the people that were in the games industry are still in the industry, still working. Films have been around long enough to reappoint people who've been in and out of the film industry, and decided to go into teaching, so they have a pretty good reservoir of talent to use over on the academic side. The game industry doesn't right now.

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