Will Wright - Video game designer

The IGDA sponsored this speech; as a game developer, I wanted to see what the IGDA claims to stand for and what the benefit of joining might be. I hold serious reservations about paying 200 bucks to belong to a "non-profit" society which is aligned if not tied to CMP. This is the company which publishes Game Developer Magazine, Dr. Dobbs Journal, and the owner of tradeshows including the Game Developer's Conference.

It'd be cool to join as long as there was accounting of the money's use. But a quick investigation of the website as of July 15, 2001 reveals there is none publicly available. It feels weird that 2 out of 3 website-listed management directors of the IGDA are CMP employees. While I know it's natural for people who are good at managing to assume that role in other organizations, it implies that CMP controls the IGDA.

Reinforcing this idea is the fact that the mailing address for contacting the IGDA is in fact the same address for Game Developer's Magazine, Game Developer's Conference, and the Gamasutra site. The bay area IGDA just formed, and the CMP reps claim the IGDA to be international in scope. Yet the contact info on the website is only for the bay area. If the organization is national and international, should not all chapter contact information be presented?

As of September 25, 2004, the bay area chapter has been forked into San Francisco and Silicon Valley chapters. As of March 18, 2007, the mailing addresses of the IDGA and the Game Developer Magazine are different. Michael Capps of Epic Games serves as Treasurer of the IDGA and is on the advisory board of the GDC. The 2007 staff of GDC, Game Developer Magazine and the CMP game group, and the IDGA advisors otherwise seem distinct.

The IGDA is co-opting legitimate meetings of game developers like the New England area's "Post Mortem". This adds legitimacy to a non-profit organization with close ties to the CMP corporation, and more eyeballs to their magazine and tradeshow. But it has yet to be seen what the clubs and public at large will get out of this besides discounts to the tradeshow and a few free fully-paid admissions to the tradeshow for students.

The student scholarship the IDGA funds is not really a scholarship, but a self promotion. The free fully-paid admission to GDC is called "The Newbie Scholarship". This scholarship with a derogatory title, a $1250 tax rebate for the GDC, could otherwise really give a full-time student money for an appropriate college degree. Or help foot the bill for a junior- or senior-year internship program.

I can't join this thing. A non-profit organization poised to promote the interests of game developers to the public, to government, and to scholastic institutions cannot remain so closely and blatantly aligned to CMP's corporate interests.

As of May 2008, I am a member of the Association for Computing Machinery, but not of the IDGA.

Bay Area International Game Developer's Association (IGDA) inaugural meeting @ Autodesk, June 28, 2001

Read the bay area IGDA's summary of the meeting . The organizing rep for the bay area IGDA - Peter Leahy - tries to recruit old-timer game dudes for a book The Illustrated. History of Games. He and Rob Huebner discuss the structure and international nature of the IGDA (chapters in Japan and other countries). It is clear to me that IGDA and CMP's Game Developer Magazine and Game Developer's Conference are aligned in purpose, to back their magazine ad and tradeshow interests. After introducing the guy who conned Will into speaking (Noah Falstein), that guy introduces Will Wright. (Will is the designer behind the legendary Sim series of games for Maxis - Sim City, Sim Ant, and the wildly popular the Sims and its several expansions. -ed)

Will greets audience and admits that this speech is re-presenting his lecture from 2001 GDC (this means you can probably find a video or audio copy somewhere). I miss the beginning as I fumble for pen and paper. Will's presentation is a well-timed and thought out series of Power Point slides, full of serendipity. It is cute, serious, and very smart. I feel at the end that this dude is obsessed with hacking systems, a wind-minded genius, and an entertainingly good speaker (for a game developer).

The Game Developer's Conference (GDC) lecture on design

When you're lazy, find someone else to blame it on. If you're designing stuff (in or out of games), look outside of your field for inspiration. Describes a series of design elements (including environmental, aesthetic, functional, interactive, linear media, I can't keep up). Next series of slides show how a chair's properties are also its design elements. Christopher Alexander (sic) is one of my heroes. A slide of CA's head slapped on a comic-book super-hero body is next, and lightning bolt on the chest of the hero begins to flash. Laughter.

Notes on the Synthesis of Form and Pattern and Language are books by CA. Synth discusses the elements of design by craftsman (unselfconscious) vs. elements of design by professional (self-conscious, functional, usable, safe, more). Failure of any of the listed elements/branches = total failure. As an example of failed professional design, there's a slide of a famous Bronx dev. center (which I amazingly recognize from a book on how to illustrate architecture and use color with markers -ed.) meant as a comforting home for kids.

Architectural snobs laud the structure as a great building with many good qualities, but the building fails overall because in actuality it's a modern steel cage that alienates its intended audience. The form was advanced over the purpose. Make products (implies games) more broad and simple, increase appeal and ease of use.

P and L is about creating organic structure. Homeworld (PC 3d space resource management RTS) is an example of game design with lots of branches that could fail. The slide diagrams the design structure of HW as an organic branch stemming from the game box at the bottom. As a designer, you have to surf these branches and pay attention to the balance. Poor attention at any point could frustrate or confuse the user, and break the entire experience.

My next heroes are Charles and Ray Eames (sic). The authors of "Powers of Ten" short film, (which displays the powers of ten in scale through understandable forms - ed) and the creators and designers of a famous lounge chair and other consumer goods. Lessons from this field of chair design are also applicable to game design.

The chair is kind of a symbol for designers. Every designer tries to do a chair. If Shigera Miyamoto (infamous Nintendo game designer, his latest - Pikmin -ed) were a chair (shows a warm and inviting curvaceous pink futuristic-styled chair with ottoman - comfortable but seemingly from the outer-space notions of the 60s). John Carmac (infamous designer/programmer of Quake -ed) as a chair is a bare-bones wooden hand painted boxy Mondrian affair. Sid Meier (creator of Civilization, Gettysburg) is a leather reclining loafer. Peter Moleneaux (creator of god-game genre, especially Populous and Power-monger, latest Black and White possibly also Archon -ed) is a black chrome and padded leather psychoanalyst's bench. My own chair is simple and boxy (literally, it's a slide of a box with a vertical board for a back, and that's it. -ed)

I am building a toy set, designing it for my friends.

Hierarchy, networks, and landscape are overlaid in any game. In Sim City for example, there's the tech tree, roads, traffic, power, terrain. The interrelation of structure gives insight when you rotate and look at stuff. Right away it helps solve your problem.

The next slide shows a series of looping arrows. It illustrates success over time at different levels of ability. These are feedback cycles, these loops are failures. There's success and failure at each level. Mastery of a low level leads to mastery of a higher level. The designer is constrained by the same cycles. You should design for failure. Make each failure interesting, hook the player.

The next slide illustrates The Sims skills and mastery tree. Success of basic controls leads to fulfilling the needs of a sim. Mastery of need fulfillment leads to job skills and economic growth. If the player succeeds in the sim's job that leads to mastering the social structure (friends). Mastering friends leads to increased family skills.

A slide of Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes is next. Players have a "Calvin factor". People love to be bad. Hide this, keep it out of the open. Let them discover it. I play a lot of Tribes. But I began to play with the goal of making both sides peaceful. Why should we fight? And I would sneak around with just a healing pack and heal the enemy. And the player would turn around like "hey, thanks" and he'd see that I was the enemy. But wouldn't shoot me, since I didn't have a weapon, I had just healed him. And eventually I'd get that guy on my side. It's a really challenging game.

I still play with toys, I play with my daughter. Slide is a picture of a home-made astronaut Barbie doll. This is cosmonaut Barbie.

The spread of disease is like the spread of a game. It travels through these vectors; there are the press, who spread it to the hardcore gamers. They spread the game to their hardcore gamer friends, the casual gamers, and their girlfriends and spouses. The Sims are like an STD. They spread the game to their family, and eventually the mainstream press hears. And they spread it back to the other vectors.

Games have a contagious period. Slide shows two sloping bell curves spread over time. The 1 week curve has a lower peak, and the 2 week curve has a high spike. The graph shows the number of people infected. by the game is stronger when the game is played longer. If you increase the contagious period, 2 weeks gets you five times as many players. We spent 25% of our time building community, the web site, etc.

The development of The Sims stems from the development I did on Sim Ant. We tried to build a model for the ants, ants leave this trail of pheromones for other ants to follow and respond to. We called it "anal communication trails". It turns out to be a very successful model. Can we drive people from environmental cues?

Next slide shows a fitness landscape. It's a 3d graph with a surface mapped across 3 axis - Z-axis = fitness (successful genetic performance). X- and Y- axis show genetic divergence. Neighbors in space are more similar. There are several success and failure spikes. We used an evolutionary model. (much missing as Will describes the use of the fitness landscape and how it works). This landscape is always in flux.

In The Sims we modeled a similar happiness landscape. The slide changes to show a similar graph in actual Sims terrain, with sim in the center. Around the sim are a refrigerator on one peak, a friend on a slightly lower peak, and some toys on another peak. When this sim starts out, he's hungry, lonely, and bored in that order. He'll head for the fridge, and when that need.is met, he'll seek his social, and then his fun.

The next slide shows a fitness landscape. Success is the z-axis and x-axis is material success, y-axis is social success. The graph is a spike from success that slopes down to a gutter, and where the material and social success axis meet, there is also a gutter. The gutters form a 'Y' shape, reveals there are 3 segments of success.

We found that players who follow the middle road between material and social success are able to reap the most reward. Too much success on either axis leads to a minimum performance, where you actually have to go back, to sacrifice some of your success, to get to a more successful path. There are game play metrics attached to each saved game, and there are thousands of saves uploaded to our website. We analyzed these.

The next slide is a corporate fitness landscape, with profit as the success axis (z-axis) and companies as the spikes.

I like tangents. Some Japanese gardens are little models of parts of Japan. A game's interface must look like a garden; obvious and simple. Compares gardens to 3 game hierarchy elements. Rocks are symbolic icons for a garden, some gardeners are master of a type of rock. Older gardens are story-telling devices, built to show each episode of the story. Then the garden becomes a read and solve puzzle game. Over time, gardens became more sensory. Built around classic spatial tricks like foreshortening. Crooked. paths extend the space. Some gardens are designed for every month to keep you coming back. Oh, that's the winter version of that garden.

I spent a week with Miyamoto in Japan, we spent lots of time in gardens. There's a sense of art in games and gardens, what to leave out. Japanese gardeners have a saying, your garden is not complete until there's nothing left to remove. In Zen gardens, you can reflect upon and see patterns, they're a tool for meditation. Not stagnant, but fluid with ideas. I hope games will be as adaptive as the Japanese garden.

Every game designer should learn Go. The Chinese stones game, there's only 2 rules but they create a huge game system.

Abstraction, imagination, projection are important to game playing. When computer games began, they were 80% human processor, 20% machine processor. Now it's more like the reverse. Scott McCloud, in his book Understanding Comics shows how to choose the right level of detail for your character's face. The more generic, the more the character represents everyman. Choose the right level of detail for your project. If your project becomes more like a photograph, there's only one interpretation available.

In The Sims you can't zoom in too closely. You can't hear exactly what the sims are saying. Imagination takes over. Let the brain beat the computer. Will proceeds to play the internet-available prank phone call, where audio samples of Arnold Schwarzennegger (sic) from Kindergarten Cop are played to an unsuspecting lady. The victim of the call responds to appropriately played audio samples, and has an entire 3-5 minute dialog. You provide the tool, let the people connect the dots.

The ecology pyramid is compared to the building of a game community. Instead of the predators at the top of the food chain, the makers of the tools for game play occupy the top of the community pyramid. Below them are; web masters, content artists, story tellers, collector-players, casual players. Game developers kick-start the community to pass stuff down the pyramid. Gives examples of numbers of each from The Sims. If we grab the casual player and get them into the collector loop, we see more involvement, it becomes more of a hobby.

We did a 1000 person survey. There were 4 main types of players of The Sims. The reality TV, the trophy collector, the voyeur (mostly females in this demographic, and the most likely to torture their sims), and the doll-housers.

There seems to be a trend of making open-ended games. How can we make them more successful? How can we add drama? Maybe the computer could be taught to recognize stories. On one side we have the player and his story in his mind, on the other side we have to get the computer to understand there's a story present. We can bridge this with adaptive mapping.

Like language parsing and analysis in older text-based adventure games, there could be a story parsing engine. The first step would be to classify (parse) the situation. Maybe you have locked one of your sims up in a house. The computer decides, OK this is now a horror story. The next step is to change the camera and the scene, to add effects appropriate for that genre of story. The computer changes the camera angle to a more hand-held and angled (unsettling) effect, lowers the lighting, and adds flashes of lightening. Threatening and scary. The next step is for the computer to influence and assist the story. Maybe it adds a chainsaw and candelabra to the scene, and invites some neighbors over. (it sounds like Will is advocating replacing true story-driven games written by authors for some computer-generated. model. This instantly pisses off my wife, a writer).

As players head towards the peak of the story event, add dramatic moments, barriers for them to overcome. (This is said with a slide of a success map up, and the player's path indicated across it. A barrier literally blocks the player from reaching the peak of success.) Daily user result sharing across a network could be used as a tool for improving the computer's game mapping. The computer eventually is able to provide a variety of situations - comedy, romance, horror. Customized to your play style, preference. The computer can retune the game daily. Every day you would play a slightly different game. Then the game becomes something like the movie The Truman Show.

Questions and answers

Were you intentionally going after a broader market (with The Sims)?
Definitely. Before it had a title, we used. to call it "the doll house game". The interface simplicity is crucial. We went through more than 10 revisions until we came up with the simplest one. We brought roommates in to play the game together. That altered the design.

Can you talk more about the 4 different types of Sims player?
The four types, sure. The trophy players were compelled. to get each of the top careers, most expensive items, most friends. They beat each goal. The reality TV players played out real life; they made a house with themselves, their friends, their families. The doll-housers tended to be around 15 years old, and were into the content; they collected. all the new doodads from the web site, and made some of their own. The voyeurs tended to be older and female, more casual players. They liked to control things. Each group is roughly the same size.

Tell us about the demographics of the players of The Sims.
There's a spike at 18 years old. We don't know anything about players under 13 due to legal reasons, protection of minors. There's also a demographic of players over 50 years old - grandparents who play with their grandchildren as a shared activity. Around 30% are older than 25, and around 40% of players are female. Many people registered their games, for the free downloads. Especially doll-housers and voyeurs. 50% of registered users were expansion pack buyers. We made a remarkable return by keeping people involved.

Are there things about games for girls in The Sims that you carried away with you?
Well 50% of our staff on The Sims were female, it makes the game well rounded.

Does hanging out with cool game dudes help inspire you?
I hang out with and am inspired by all kinds of game guys, mostly the ones who live in a dungeon and talk about their game with passion. When I see that (passion) and I see (games in) development, I get excited.

What about the beginning moment of playing The Sims hooks the player?
The players get hooked first with the creation of the family and the house. Then discovery of objects takes over.

Have there been any attempts by you or others to use The Sims to communicate?
Says something about online dating, giving the most bandwidth to the players. I start to fade out.

The Sims really have Western (American -ed) values. What was the international reception like?
There are international gestures, German and French. We sold it like American TV. It's not international culture, but it's understood internationally. The gibberish talk and pictures help. We released The Sims simultaneously in 14 languages. Thai was the hardest.

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