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Fun Zone | Game Design

The Wright Stuff for Interactive Entertainment

October 19, 2000|SCOTT STEINBERG | steinbergs@hotmail.com

Will Wright, creator of the acclaimed "Sim City" series, has never balked at flaunting his ideas in the face of convention. His latest project, the best-selling "The Sims," simulates life itself. What kind of megalomaniacal madman would be responsible for such a diabolically delightful dollhouse?

Question: To what do you credit your success?

Answer: Luck's a big factor. It's hard to predict what's going to be fun to someone else. It's much easier to figure out what I would enjoy playing and design that. Execution is also extremely important. A lot of the credit goes to the teams I work with, who bring so much to each product.

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Q: Previous "Sim" games catered to a broad scope. Why suddenly get so personal?

A: I've always wanted to do something more personal, but didn't feel like computers had the power to approach humans. It's actually easier to simulate a city than a person. We're so attuned to human behavior that we instantly notice personal discrepancies, whereas we wouldn't notice a lousy traffic model. Finally we got to the point where computers could process believable [artificial intelligence].

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Q: Nevertheless, how does one simulate something as complex as reality?

A: There's something I noticed called the simulator effect. People read more into these simulations than is actually there and project their imagination onto them. We intentionally left aspects of "The Sims" ambiguous, so they were open to player interpretation. A good example is the speech. Sims communicate in gibberish, not English. Thanks to recorded voice strings, though, you pick up emotional nuances from their dialogue. Via this level of abstraction, the user's invited to imagine the conversation. Therefore characters become much more real in the user's mind.

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Q: What kind of research went into "The Sims"' development?

A: The scale was tremendous. We referenced architecture, psychology, theater and time management studies. Research was also done on material possessions and stereotypical TV sitcom stuff--affairs, fights, etc. All things told, it took 4 1/2 years of nonstop work to put the product together.

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Q: Your games are always replayable. Why is that so important?

A: Most titles are developed under a movie model, with a finite beginning and end. I think in terms of a hobby model, like a train set or a dollhouse. Users can focus their creativity into it and become the director instead of the game designer. This particular approach makes you consider a game's "state space," which is to say how many unique configurations it can adopt. Loosen the space and you give users the opportunity to explore, which is what they really want.

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Q: After viewing thousands of games, how do you retain a fresh perspective?

A: When I think about design work, I don't think strictly about games. I look at fields like architecture, biology and stage magic. There are always lessons to be extracted from these topics and brought to game design. I also don't think in terms of genres. It inhibits one's creativity.

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Q: Ever get the impression that you push the boundaries of interactive entertainment too far?

A: I'm not sure what too far would be. Interactive entertainment's a relatively new medium. Television and film have been around so long they've established norms. This industry resembles the Wild West. Nobody knows the rules; we're trying to figure things out by doing them. I'd be more worried about not going far enough.

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Scott Steinberg is a freelance writer specializing in video games.

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