In March, I visited legendary computer game designer Will Wright for an upcoming IEEE Spectrum feature on Spore , Wright’s evolutionary—and revolutionary—new title coming in September. Wright is famous for his groundbreaking simulations, such as the urban-planning franchise SimCity and people simulator The Sims (the best-selling computer game of all time).
Spore boldly goes where no game has gone before, allowing players to create a unique creature that inhabits its own emergent society and world. The game unfolds in a series of stages. You start by creating life from a single cell, then design your own distinct being. From there, the creature evolves—forming a tribe, a civilization, and, ultimately, an intergalactic presence. Yes, it’s insanely ambitious. And from looking at the tired faces of Wright and his developers at their toy-strewn offices in Emeryville, Calif., I could see it was plenty challenging. But the payoff, Wright hopes, will be sublime.
IEEE Spectrum:Spore is unique because it consists largely of computer-generated content instead of content made by a development team. You’ve used the term ”procedural generation” to describe how content emerges during game play. How do you define this?
Will Wright: Basically the computer is generating the final asset as opposed to an artist pouring data in. In your typical game development, you have your giant slew of artists basically pouring game design into the CD-ROM. Just about all of our assets in the game are created by the computer. If you go back to the way games used to be made, like way back, this used to be a very commonplace thing, because we had so little memory on storage. In a lot of the old games, the assets were so tight on memory that we had to kind of generate the memory on the fly as much as possible. The algorithm ruled back in the 8-bit days. Then CD-ROMs came out, things like Myst , and the algorithms died off. I mean we still use algorithms, mostly for manipulating the data that the artists have hand-coded and put on the CD-ROM.
Spectrum: So, going into the development of Spore , what did you think would be the greatest challenge?
WW: It was probably the animation, because that was the hardest asset to imagine that we could teach the computer. It’s difficult because there’s so much knowledge that the animator brings to a task. We are so good at reading body language and subtle gestures and things like that, that [it’s hard to] teach the computer that level.
Spectrum:Spore lets players distribute their own content to each other directly. Why build this into a game?
WW: What we saw with The Sims was that people loved downloading tools that we had and creating stuff in the game. But there was a lot of jumping through hoops so they could browse through content and interact with it. We wanted to basically burn that into the game—in fact, make that part of the game play. So you weren’t an external content creator, but you were actually making content by playing the game. That was kind of step 1. Step 2 was, how can we get the maximum value out of that content? The game design in general already wants to have a lot of other content. You design one creature, but then you have all these other creatures to [interact] with. Or, here’s my one planet, but I want all these other planets to explore. So right off the bat, we had an environment where we could use unlimited amounts of content, and now it came down to how do we easily get some of that into this game? How do we keep the data rate really low so that, even if I’m not on the Internet, I could still have the local database with lots and lots of content? And then, technically, how do we choose this content to put in the game? What are the criteria that we’re using to put this piece of content in the game versus that piece? Each has a different strategy for what kind of content you’re bringing to the game.
Spectrum: You’ve also created a kind of social network that allows players to tag and categorize each other’s content.
WW: To me, the biggest advantage of the pollinator [the game's content distribution system] is that we have all these people filling it up. Other people will have different roles. There are some people who are going to be making things, specifically in the editor, then there will be other people that love to just organize things. They can go around tagging content and grouping these things into themes, which will then suggest to other people, ”Oh, that’s a good theme, I want to do that, too,” so they’re going to add to that theme. There’s more of a social process really of the creators plus the aggregators and organizers all working together in a way that adds a lot of value to casual play.
Spectrum: With so many problems to solve, how did you decide what to tackle—and what not to tackle?
WW: At the end of the day, you want a game that the player’s going to play and have an experience. Everything is for that. The next thing is picking your balance. We could have spent more or less time on the animation, for instance, more than on collaborative filtering. But you have a fixed amount of resources to spend on a project. And, you have to figure out, Now, where are we going to put those resources? How do we extend the least amount of development hours to have the maximum amount of player enjoyment? That’s the real filter.
Spectrum: What challenges are you anticipating will come out of the Spore universe when it goes live?
WW: I think we’re going to learn to do a lot more with this data. Because the data that people make—all different assets and planets and creatures and vehicles and whatnot—I think we’re going to want to build a lot of other gaming experiences around that data. I’d love to have a very focused game with just the vehicles or a much more detailed climate game around the planets or the biosphere. We’re going to end up with so much interesting data from the server side that we’re going to be looking for really cool, interesting ways to extract particular subsets of that data.
Spectrum: Will you play Spore after it comes out?
WW: After it comes out, I’ll spend a lot of time watching what the players do with it. I find that to be most interesting. After The Sims came out, I spent a lot of time watching the stories they were telling, the assets they were creating, what they were choosing to organize on the Web site. I spent a lot of time on the fan Web sites looking at the content they were attracted to and how they would aggregate and sort it. And that really influences where you go to from there—these other experiences that we take the same content into. That’s when the fans become an even larger designer. In some sense, we’re kind of codesigning this—especially for Spore , fans are going to drive future directions of it.
About the Author
David Kushner, a Spectrum contributing editor, is the author of Masters of Doom (Random House, 2003) and Jonny Magic and the Card Shark Kids (Random House, 2005).