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We’ve looked at the basic elements of game system and seen how the nature of the objects, properties, behaviors and relationships create different dynamics of interaction, change, and growth. We’ve looked at how player interaction with these elements can be affected by the structures of information, control, and feedback.
One of the challenges in designing and tuning game systems is to isolate what objects or relationships are causing problems in gameplay and to make changes that fix the issue without creating new problems. When the elements are all working together, what emerges is great gameplay. It is the job of the game designer to create that perfect blend of elements that when set in motion, produce the varieties of gameplay that bring players back time and again.
by Celia Pearce mission.
Will Wright is co-founder of game developer Maxis, Inc. He’s famous for thinking outside the box with his game creations and is the mind behind SimCity, The Sims, and many other hit titles. When Will started work on The Sims publishers tried dissuade him from the project on the grounds that no one would play such a game. The Sims is the current best-selling title of all time. This is an excerpt of a conversation between Will and game designer/researcher, Celia Pearce. The full discussion appears in the online journal “Game Studies” at http://www.gamestudies.org/0102/pearce/. It is reprinted here with permission.
On Why He Designs Games
Celia Pearce: I wanted to start out by talking about why you design games. What is it about the format of an interactive experience that is so compelling to you? And what do you want to create in that space?
Will Wright: Well, one thing I’ve always really enjoyed is making things. Out of whatever. It started with modeling as a kid, building models. When computers came along, I started learning programming and realizing the computer was this great tool for making things, making models, dynamic models, and behaviors, not just static models. I think when I started doing games I really wanted to carry that to the next step, to the player, so that you give the player a tool so that they can create things. And then you give them some context for that creation. You know, what is it, what kind of kind of world does it live in, what’s its purpose? What are you trying to do with this thing that you’re creating? To really put the player in the design role. And the actual world is reactive to their design. So they design something that the little world inside the computer reacts to. And then they have to revisit the design and redesign it, or tear it down and build another one, whatever it is. So I guess what really draws me to interactive entertainment and the thing that I try to keep focused on is enabling the creativity of the player. Giving them a pretty large solution space to solve the problem within the game. So the game represents this problem landscape. Most games have small solution landscapes, so there’s one possible solution and one way to solve it. Other games, the games that tend to be more creative, have a much larger solution space, so you can potentially solve this problem in a way that nobody else has. If you’re building a solution, how large that solution space is gives the player a much stronger feeling of empathy. If they know that what they’ve done is unique to them, they tend to care for it a lot more. I think that’s the direction I tend to come from.
On the influences of SimCity
CP: When you were first working on SimCity, what was going on in the game world at that time?
Were you responding to games that were out there, were you wanting something different? Were there things that influenced you at all in the game world or were you just totally in a different mindset?
WW: There were things that influenced me—not many though. There was a very old game called Pin-ball Construction Set by Bill Budge, which was great. He was kind of playing around with the first pre-Mac Lisa interface, which was icon-based. He actually put this in the game, even though it was an Apple II game. He kind of emulated what would later become the Mac interface. But it was very easy to use, and you would create pinball sets with it, which you could then play with. I thought that was very cool.
Also early modeling things, like the very first flight simulator by Bruce Artwick which had this little micro-world in the computer with its own rules, kind of near reality to some degree, but at a very low resolution. But yet it was this little self-consistent world that you could go fly around in and interact with, in sort of limited ways.
So those are some of the influences. But then mostly, stuff I read. I started getting interested in the idea of simulation. I started reading the early work of people like Jay Forrester, starting with that, going forward. When I did SimCity, the games at the time really were much more about arcade style action, graphics, very intense kinds of experiences. There were very few games that were laid back, more complex.
CP: They were more twitch-type games at that time?
WW: Yeah, the games that were more complex were these detailed war games. I had played those as a kid, these boardgames. With 40-page rule sets.
CP: Like what?
WW: Oh, like Panzer Blitz was a big one, Global War, Sniper.
CP: Were those ones with the hex-grid boards?
WW: Yeah, they had a 40-page rulebook, and you’d play with your friend. And it ended up being… I mean, I think it would be excellent training for a lawyer. Because you’re sitting there, most of the time, arguing over interpretations of these very elaborate rules. And you could actually combine the rules and say, “well, this was in panic mode so he couldn’t go that far.” “Well, my indirect fire has a three-hex radius of destruction.” So you’d sit there and argue over this little minutia of the rules. And that was kind of half the fun of it—both of you trying to find the legal loopholes for why your guy didn’t get killed. So I was familiar with that stuff, but I knew at the same time that most people couldn’t relate to that at all. But yet the strategy of those games was actually quite interesting. It was interesting to have a game where you’d sit back and you’d think about it, and the model was far more elaborate than you could really run in your head. So you had to approach it kind of in a different way.
On Experimentation as a Play Mechanic
CP: I wanted to ask you about this idea of experimentation as a play mechanic. That seems like a big aspect of your games, that play and experimentation are working together.
WW: The types of games we do are simulation based and so there is this really elaborate simulation of some aspect of reality. As a player, a lot of what you’re trying to do is reverse engineer the simulation. You’re trying to solve problems within the system, you’re trying to solve traffic in SimCity, or get somebody in The Sims to get married or whatever. The more accurately you can model that simulation in your head, the better your strategies are going to be going forward. So what we’re trying to do as designers is build up these mental models in the player. The computer is just an incremental step, an intermediate model to the model in the player’s head. The player has to be able to bootstrap themselves into understanding that model. You’ve got this elaborate system with thousands of variables, and you can’t just dump it on the user or else they’re totally lost. So we usually try to think in terms of, what’s a simpler metaphor that somebody can approach this with? What’s the simplest mental model that you can walk up to one of these games and start playing it, and at least understand the basics? Now it might be the wrong model, but it still has to bootstrap into your learning process. So for most of our games, there’s some overt metaphor that allows you approach the simulation.
WW: Like for SimCity, most people see it as kind of a train set. You look at the box and you say “Oh, yeah, it’s like a train set come to life.” Or The Sims, “it’s like a doll house come to life.” But at the same time, when you start playing the game, and the dynamics become more apparent to you, a lot of time there’s an underlying metaphor that’s not so apparent. Like in SimCity, if you really think about playing the game, it’s more like gardening. So you’re kind of tilling the soil, and fertilizing it, and then things pop up and they surprise you, and occasionally you have to go in and weed the garden, and then you maybe think about expanding it, and so on. So the actual process of playing SimCity is really closer to gardening. In either case, your mental model of the simulation is constantly evolving. And in fact you can look at somebody’s city that they designed at any point and see that it’s kind of a snapshot of their current understanding of the model. You can tell by what they’ve done in the game—“Oh, I see they think this freeway is going to help them because they put it over here.” So it gives you some insight into their mental model of the game.
CP: What’s the underlying metaphor of The Sims? The less obvious one, the garden-level one?
WW: That depends on how you play the game. For a lot of people, the mainstream game is more like juggling, or balancing plates. You start realizing that you basically don’t have enough time in the day to do everything that you want to do. And you’re rushing from this to that to this, and then you’re able to make these time decisions. So it feels very much like juggling and if you drop a ball, then all of a sudden, the whole pile comes crashing down. But other people play it differently. So it’s kind of hard. With The Sims I’ve thought about that, and it’s not as clear to me what The Sims is. I think that SimCity has a more monolithic play style, once people get into it, than The Sims does. In The Sims people tend to veer off in a different direction. Some people go off into the storytelling thing. So eventually the metaphor becomes that of a director on a set. You’re trying to coerce these actors into doing what you want them to do, but they’re busy leading their own lives. And so you get this weird conflict going on between you and where you’re trying to tell a story with the game but they want to go off and eat, and watch TV, and do whatever.
CP: Like real actors.
WW: Yes, exactly. Kind of like little actors who just won’t do what you want them to do.
On His Favorite Game
CP: Let’s shift gears a little here and talk about your favorite games. And not just limiting it to computer games, but any games you like. What’s your favorite game?
WW: My favorite game by far probably is Go. The boardgame.
CP: That’s no surprise to me.
WW: (Laughs.) That game is just so elegant in that it’s got two rules really, one of which is almost never used. But yet from those two rules flow this incredible complexity. It’s kind of the boardgame version of John Conway’s Game of Life, the cellular automata game. It’s not dissimilar.
On the Emergent Properties of Games
CP: When you were talking about Go, I was thinking that when you create a mental model of the environment as it is now, you’re also creating a model of how you want it to be. So in Go the mental models have to do with imagining where the players want the game to go, right?
CP: And then as the game fills itself out, as the emergent properties come forth…
WW: …and of course part of that model is modeling what the other player is likely to do. “Oh, I think they’re going to play very aggressively, therefore, my model of them says that this would be the optimum strategy.”
CP: So that’s interesting, because there’s also this aspect of imagination, which you alluded to earlier.
And that sort of brings me back to a question about SimCity and The Sims. Each of those games has a different level of abstraction from the other. You can really see the different choices that are made in terms of design. But in terms of this modeling idea, you briefly alluded to the use of The Sims from a directorial standpoint as a storytelling tool, and that in a way, there’s a little bit of a dynamic that goes on because the game doesn’t want to be, the characters don’t want to be used that way necessarily.
So I’m just curious how you grapple with that. I mean you’re obviously taking that into account. Are you making a way to use the game as a storyboarding tool, or continuing to play around with the tension that the characters are kind of resisting that kind of control?
WW: It’s actually very interesting in The Sims how the pronouns change all the time. I’m sitting there playing the game and I’m talking about, “Oh, first I’m going to get a job, then I’m going to do this, then I’m going to do that.” And then you know when the character starts disobeying me, all of a sudden I shift and say “Oh, why won’t he do that?” or “What’s he doing now?” And so at some point it’s me kind of inhabiting this little person, and I’m thinking, “It’s me; I’m going to get a job and I’m going to do x, y, and z.” But then when he starts rebelling, it’s he. And so then I kind of jump out of him, and now it’s me versus him. You know what I’m saying?
CP: Yes, I do. But one of things that interests me about the game is that you have these semi-autonomous characters. They’re not totally autonomous, and they’re not totally avatars either. They’re somewhere in between. Do think that’s disorienting to the player, or do you think it’s what makes the game fun?
WW: I don’t think so. I mean it’s interesting. I’m just surprised that people can do it that fluidly, they can so fluidly say “Oh, I’m this guy, and then I’m going to do x, y, and z.” And then they can pop out and “Now I’m that person. I’m doing this that and the other. What’s he doing?” And so now he’s a third person to me, even though he was me a moment ago. I think that’s something we use a lot in our imaginations when we’re modeling things. We’ll put ourselves in somebody else’s point of view very specifically for a very short period of time. “Well, let’s see, if I were that person, I would probably do x, y, and z.” And then I kind of jump out of their head and then I’m me, talking to them, relating to them.
At some level I want people to have a deep appreciation for how connected things are at all these different scales, not just through space, but through time. And in doing so I had to build kind of a simple little toy universe and say, here, play with this toy for a while. My expectations when I hand somebody that toy are that they are going to make their own mental model, which isn’t exactly what I’m presenting them with. But whatever it is, their mental model of the world around them, and above them and below them, will expand. Hopefully, probably in some unpredictable way, and for me that’s fine. And I don’t want to stamp the same mental model on every player. I’d rather think of this as a catalyst. You know, it’s a catalytic tool for growing your mental model, and I have no idea which direction it’s going to grow it, but I think just kind of sparking that change is worthwhile unto itself.
CP: But you’re more interested in setting up the rule space and letting the outcome evolve with the player’s experimentation.
WW: Right, I mean what I really want to do is I want to create just the largest possibility space I can. I don’t want to create a specific possibility that everybody’s going to experience the same way. I’d much rather have a huge possibility space where every player has as unique an experience as possible.
CP: One of the things that I think is interesting about what you do as a role model for interactive designers it that you enjoy the unpredictable outcome. When people do things that you didn’t plan on, that seems to be something that you embrace.
WW: To me, that feels like success.
About Celia Pearce
Celia Pearce is a game designer, artist, teacher, and writer. She is the designer of the award-winning virtual reality attraction Virtual Adventures: The Loch Ness Expedition, and the author The Interactive of Book: A Guide to the Interactive Revolution (Macmillan, 1997), as well as numerous essays on game design and interactivity. She currently holds a position as Lecturer in Studio Art at the University of California Irvine’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts.
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