As his wildly popular SimCity games attest, Will Wright clearly enjoys tinkering with reality. Since 1987 Wright and his colleagues at Maxis (a division of Electronic Arts) have created more than a dozen computer simulation games that let players build, destroy and rule virtual cities, hotels, islands, amusement parks and more.
It's not that Wright, 40, isn't satisfied with his own existence. In fact, he's sitting pretty after selling more than 7 million Sim games -- and releasing his newest title, the Sims, in 14 countries this month. An elaborate Tamagotchi-style neighborhood that allows players to manipulate their virtual inhabitants any way they see fit, the Sims is a natural extension of Wright's ongoing fascination with architecture and city planning. Wright, who was born in Atlanta, has been working on the Sims on and off for seven years but says he has no intention of stopping now. He has a raft of wacky ideas that he plans to surreptitiously incorporate in the game through the Sims Web site over the next year.
Graphics have come a long way since you started designing games. I was just looking at an old Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark game and our hero looks like a little rectangle running around on an Atari. Now, you can see Jones' face. It's not perfect, but it's a lot more realistic. Do those changes in the technology inspire you to make your games even more real?
Actually, I'd have to say that it's the opposite for me. What inspires me is how much people were able to read into that little rectangle. You only have to give people the briefest, most tentative scaffolding to hang something on and they'll build an elaborate narrative and fill in the gaps with their imagination. We humans are so good at that. And that was one of the things we were really trying to leverage in the Sims. We were trying to present everything at a certain level of abstraction so that anybody could come in and personalize the story just through interpretation. We can do a lot of really cool stuff with graphics and sound, but that's not where the magic happens.
The Sims characters can get into arguments, or slap each other. What sorts of considerations did you make about the extent of violence or realism in the game?
We were basically going through a minefield, and we had to thread our way through it taking the most prudent path. We didn't want to avoid violence entirely ... [but] there are certain aspects of violence we didn't want to touch at all, like child abuse. The domestic violence issue was a really thorny one. In fact, you'll notice that if you have a male slap another male, it's a very physical slap. But if you have a male slap a female, it's much more of an insult, kind of a British army slap with a glove. We made some hard calls there. In some sense there had to be failure states in these directions and we had to represent those failure states. But we tried to keep it at an almost cartoony level. When they actually fight, if you have them attack each other, it looks kind of like Road Runner, with the cloud of dust and the arms and legs sticking out.
What other moral dilemmas did you encounter?
Well, the two biggest issues we faced were violence and sex and how realistically we treated each one. Our initial release is worldwide in 14 different languages, so we were dealing with totally differing moral standards across cultures. We tried to figure out the one thing that we could do that is the safest in the most countries while allowing the most possibilities. The other side of this is that we wanted to keep this game as open-ended as possible. Some people are going to want to make their Sims fight or they're going to want to see more of a sex type of thing.
And will every country be receiving the same version?
Yeah. So I can predict that the Americans are going to be much more fixated on the sex aspects than the Europeans [laughs]. And you know, in Germany, oddly enough, they felt the violence should be more than what we had in the game. Basically, we wanted to stay as morally or ethically neutral as possible. But there were some things we didn't want to touch, like pedophilia.
It's fascinating that a computer game, which allows you to create a reality, ends up making people look at their own reality.
Absolutely. There's a funny kind of double standard, with people focusing in on certain aspects of the game like same-sex relationships or violence. In about 60 percent of the games out there, the point of the game is to kill. You kill other people and you very rarely hear moral discussion about that. I think it's kind of funny.
What were the considerations, if any, to including homosexuality in the game?
It gets back to the design goal that anybody should be able to do a reasonable interpretation of their family. We tried to make it so that the Sims won't do this autonomously, unless you start pushing them in that direction. If you have a man start flirting with another man, it potentially gets the [characters] over the hump and they could become lovers.
Do you expect people to portray themselves in the game, creating a reality similar to their own to see what happens, or will they make a world that has nothing to do with their own lives?
I've seen a lot of people in testing start out by doing their own family, but very quickly they'll diverge, into either a fantasy of what they would like to see their life turn into or this voodoo doll thing, like "Let me see if I can kill myself" or "What happens if my sister gets sent off to military school?" We wanted people to read a lot into this by giving them the right level of ambiguity. We were trying to facilitate as much interpretation of the story as possible.
What were your influences for this game?
There's a really good book called "Understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud. It's all about comics, but it turns out that a lot of the lessons he talks about are very applicable to what we were doing here. He talks about how when you're designing a comic book, the really interesting stuff happens "in the gutter," which is in between the panels of a comic. Because the panels are basically these moments in time -- these brief instances that a writer presents -- and then the reader is actually connecting the dots.
A good example is a panel that has a guy with an ax sneaking up on another guy so it clearly looks like an ax murder. Then the next panel is just a skyline with "Aaaaagggghhhh!" written across it. He was pointing out that the cartoonist didn't really say that the ax murderer killed the guy. It could be that he tripped over the table and he's upset that the guy got away. Or maybe it was the other guy yelling because he got chopped up. What you're imagining in that gutter might be really gory or it might be really exciting or tragic or whatever. But it's the interpretation that you're bringing.
Based on your history with SimCity, you know that most people's first impulse with these games is to see what kind of chaos they can cause.
Oh sure. That's totally natural -- the first thing you want to do is establish the boundaries of the simulation, so you want to push it as far as you can in each direction and find out where you hit a wall. In some sense, when you're playing the game you're trying to reverse-engineer the simulation in your head. In general, we've kind of designed our games to allow people to be destructive. We just make it very easy for them to get it out of their system. And they realize that the challenge in these games is the constructive side, not necessarily the destructive side.
And that's presumably where the longevity is too.
I think the longevity for this project is going to be a bit different than something like SimCity, though, because of something we noticed about halfway through development, and that was the power of the narrative. We were not writing a story, but anybody playing this game could not help but imagine a story as the game progressed. You know, one of the modes is the camera mode where you can actually take snapshots as you play, and capture them and put out a Web page, like a photo album of what happened to the family.
The coolest thing about this game is that ... you'll be able to write a really elaborate little story just by playing the game -- and then upload it to our Web site where other people can read it. If they like the family a lot, they can even download the family.
I have to say, I thought the voices of the Sims were amusing. They kind of reminded me of the teachers or adults in "Peanuts."
I think they were going for the same thing we were. They wanted you to imagine what your parents would say to you, which was different from everybody else. So when the parents were going "wah wah wah wah wah," I was imagining my mother saying, "You know, that's not a toy" or whatever the things are that your parents would say to you.
How many ways can Sims die?
Well, it's not fixed. One of the things about the design of this game is that we're going to be expanding it continually with downloads from the Web site, and we've already got new ways to die currently being constructed here. We're doing a lot of "Trojan horsing." So we're going to have objects to download that look totally innocent, like a nice new lamp. But in fact the lamp might include some dynamic totally tangential to the lamp that people don't realize. It's only when they put the lamp in that they realize this new social element has appeared in the game.
Like sickness, for example. We could easily do a communicable disease in a lamp that your Sims could potentially die of if it's not treated. What we shipped is probably going to end up being about 30 percent of what the game is by the end of the year. There's so much we wanted to do, but we knew we just couldn't manage it all in a reasonable time frame. So whenever we came across something like that we made sure that our underlying engine could be expanded in that direction.
There are no weapons in the game, are there?
What about adjusting the soundtrack?
Any of the music in the game can be replaced just by dropping MP3s into a certain directory. What a lot of people are doing is putting their favorite music in the stereo for their Sims to dance to.
Do you ever feel like you're playing God?
We're playing meta-God here by deciding what's in the game, but we try to pass off that responsibility to the player and say, "Here, you play God." But we are in some sense a metalevel above that. Potentially, other players can create things to add, and at that point we're basically giving up control. For instance, you can redefine the skins on the characters. There are a lot of Web sites that have skins that you can download. Some of these are famous people from TV or film, but we knew all along there is nothing we can do to stop someone from doing naked skins -- all they have to do is download those and their Sims walk around naked all day. Everyone is narcissistic at some level, so having a game about your life can be a powerful concept.