It is hard to measure the impact Will Wright s game SimCity has had on the industry. At the time of its release in 1989, the game was so radically different from any other piece of interactive computer entertainment that for many years the project had trouble finding a publisher. Now the game s influence can be seen in the countless builder games released every year. Sid Meier readily admits that SimCity was one of his primary inspirations in making Civilization . Astonishingly, Wright managed to surpass SimCity with his grand triumph, The Sims . AgainWright came totally out of left field with a game that he had to fight to get made. While the majority of games released in the last ten years take only evolutionary baby steps of improvement, with The Sims Wright created something truly revolutionary that was the most original game design seen in years. Talking with Wright is an experience in itself, as one is instantly made keenly aware of why he has developed such brilliant and innovative games.
How did you first become interested in game development?
I got totally into computers shortly after I bought an Apple II around 1980. I just got infatuated with games. As a kid I spent a lot of time building models, and I bought some of the very early games, such as the very first version of Flight Simulator with the wire-frame graphics. You had to write your own machine language patch to get it to run ” that was funny . But just the idea that you could build your own little micro-world inside the computer intrigued me. So I saw it as a kind of modeling tool. At some point I just got so into these things that I decided I would try to make one myself , and that was right around the time the Commodore 64 was first coming out. So I bought one of those, figuring that it would be better to start on a new machine where everybody was on a level playing field, because other people had learned the Apple II years before I decided to do this. So I bought a Commodore as soon as it came out and just dove into it, and learned it as quickly as I could. And that s what I did my first game on.
So how did you come up with the design for Raid Over Bungeling Bay ?
Back then just about all the games were arcade games, you know. I had always loved helicopters, so I wanted to do a little helicopter game. And then I was looking at the Commodore. It was driven probably more by the technology than the game design side. I found that the Commodore had this really cool trick where you could redefine a character set, make it look like graphics, and then smoothly scroll it around the screen. So you could give the impression that you were scrolling over this huge bitmap, when in fact all you were doing is moving ASCII characters around on the screen. And when I saw that feature, I thought that would be really cool looking, because I knew the Apple couldn t begin to move that much in the way of graphics around the screen that smoothly. So I designed the game around that feature in a way.
I understand the game was much more popular in Japan than it was in the States.
I think that was right when piracy was probably at its peak. We sold around 30,000 copies in the U.S., which was average for a game like that. But then everybody I ve talked to who had a Commodore back then had played it. Whereas the same game on the Nintendo in Japan sold about 750,000 copies. It was a cartridge system, so there was no piracy.
Do you still look back on the game positively?
Oh yeah. I look back on it with fond memories. It was a learning experience. It was one of those times where you realize that the last ten percent, getting the game out the door, that s the really hard part. And unless you plan for that last ten percent, it s just a killer. So I learned a lot of lessons from it. And back then programming wasn t nearly as elaborate as it is now. Every game was written by one person and that game was about eight thousand lines of machine language. So you could totally control the memory and totally control the machine. It was a good learning vehicle. It s kind of a shame that the programmers who learn to program nowadays are coming at it from a totally different point of view.
You mean because they re using higher level programming languages?
Oh yeah. Which isn t necessarily bad, I guess. But you still have the old hacks like myself. There were eight bytes of memory free on that machine when I finished that game, and I felt bad that I didn t use those last eight. And there are a lot of tricks you do when you re running out of memory, because the memory was the ultimate concern. There were some cool little tricks for that.
I read that the level editing tool for Bungeling Bay was your inspiration for SimCity .
It was a character set that actually described a bunch of islands with little roads and cities on them. And so there was such a big area that I developed my own little character editing program to draw this scene that I could scroll around really smoothly, like a paint program. I found that I was having so much more fun with the paint program than I was with the game that after I finished the game I kept playing with the paint program. And it eventually evolved into SimCity .
So you wouldn t cite any other games that inspired SimCity ?
I d say the biggest inspiration, if there had to be one, was the work of Jay Forester, who is considered the father of system dynamics, and one of the very first people to use a computer for simulation. So when I started getting the idea for SimCity , I started going to the library and reading. He did a lot of his work back in the 50s, working with very primitive computers and very primitive models, but yet he was the first person to try to simulate a city. And he did it with like twenty variables : one was population, one was production, one was birth rate, stuff like that. Very simple models.
System dynamics is a way to look at a system and divide it into, basically, stocks and flows. Stocks are quantities , like population, and flows are rates, like the death rate, the birth rate, immigration . You can model almost anything just using those two features. That was how he started system dynamics and that was the approach he took to his modeling. I uncovered his stuff when I started working on SimCity and started teaching myself modeling techniques. I also came across the more recent stuff with cellular automata , and SimCity is really a hybrid of those two approaches. Because his approach was not spatial at all, whereas the cellular automata gives you a lot of really interesting spatial tools for propagation, network flow, proximity, and so forth. So the fact that pollution starts here, spreads over here, and slowly gets less and less, and you can actually simulate propagation waves through these spatial structures. So SimCity in some sense is like a big three-dimensional cellular automata, with each layer being some feature of the landscape like crime or pollution or land value. But the layers can interact on the third dimension. So the layers of crime and pollution can impact the land value layer.
What made you think that such scholarly techniques could lead to something that people would find fun?
At that point I wasn t trying to build something that people would play for entertainment value. It s more like I was just having fun doing this on my own. At the same time I was reading about urban dynamics, just on the theoretical side. And having this little guinea pig city on my computer while I was reading about the subject made the subject so much more interesting. So I could read a theory and then try to figure out how to formalize it, code it, put it in the model, and see what the results of it were.
At what point did you start to think it might be something that other people could have fun with?
After about six months or so I started attaching some graphics to it. It was fairly abstract to begin with. And then I started thinking, you know, this might be an interesting game. I had actually done my first game with Broderbund Software, and I showed it to some people there and they thought it was pretty cool. They agreed to pick it up, and we had a contract for it and everything. And I worked on it for about a year to the point where it was where I wanted it to be. And they kept thinking it wasn t finished. They kept saying, When is it going to be a game? When is it going to have a win/lose situation? It was very unusual for its time, and this was about five years before it was actually released. This was around 1985, and we didn t actually release it until 89.
They didn t think it was enough of a game to fit in with their other products?
They just didn t see how they could possibly sell it. And I just left it there, and they left it there, and that was that.
So were you pretty discouraged?
I always thought it was a cool little thing I did; I never really thought it would be a mainstream thing. But I thought it would be worthwhile getting it on the market. So later I met my eventual partner, Jeff Braun, and I showed it to him. And he thought it was really cool. He really, really was into it. He, in fact, thought there was probably a big market for something like that. At that point, the two of us decided to start a company ourselves , and that s when we started Maxis.
So it had sat around, unpublished, for a number of years?
Yeah, for a couple of years. About the time we decided to start Maxis, the Macintosh had just come out, and the Amiga was coming out, and we decided we would rewrite the game for those computers. So we hired a couple of programmers, and I recoded the simulator in C. It had all been in assembly before. We had these other programmers helping on the graphical front ends on the Mac and on the Amiga, and those were actually the first versions that were released. We actually did go back and release the Commodore version about a month after we released those.
So originally SimCity didn t have a mouse-based, point-and-click interface?
No, actually it did. The Lisa had come out while I was doing it on the Commodore, and I actually had implemented a cursor-based system with icons. The interface was on a Commodore, but it still had that iconic, paint-program kind of feel. It looked like MacPaint in a way. So, in fact, it did have a similar graphic front end but at a much lower resolution.
Did the design change much from what you had originally done?
It got more elaborate, more layers were added, and there was higher resolution on the map, but it had the same basic structure for the simulation and the same basic sets of tools. But, for instance, there were only roads, there weren t roads and highways. The map was 80 by 90, instead of 128 by 128. Of course, the graphics were much lower resolution; they were about four pixels square for a tile, instead of the eventual sixteen. But the core of the model and the tuning of the model didn t actually change that much. And it actually didn t change all that much for SimCity 2000 or 3000 .
So Maxis finally got it out to the market by self publishing it?
It s actually kind of interesting. After we had redone it on the Mac and the Amiga, we knew we could afford to produce it in the boxes and all that, but we had to have a distributor. And in fact we came back to Broderbund and showed it to them, and when they saw the Mac and Amiga versions they were much more impressed. Plus it was years later, at which point the market was getting into much more interesting games. At that point they offered to become our distributor, and so we had an affiliate publishing relationship with Broderbund. We were incurring most of the financial risk because we were the ones paying for the boxes and all that, so they weren t really risking that much on it. The people at Broderbund were really nice people and I hold no grudges against them at all. They helped us a lot in getting Maxis off the ground. And the Carlstons, the people who started Broderbund, were my role models for business people. They were just really nice people to deal with.
Did you come up with the term software toy ?
I think I did, because I was giving a talk at the Game Developers Conference, way back, and I decided that would be the name of my talk. It was Software Toys: The Intersection of Creativity, Empathy, and . . . something. Some high-falutin sounding talk.
How would you distinguish between a software toy and a game?
Toys can be used to build games. You can play games with toys. But you can also engage in more freeform play with toys. It doesn t have to be a goal-directed activity. I think of toys as being more open -ended than games. We can use a ball to play a game such as basketball , or we can just toss the ball back and forth, or I can experiment with the ball, bouncing it off of different things. So, I would think of toys as a broader category. Also, toys can be combined. I can strap Barbie to my R.C. car and drive her around, thus making up a new activity by combining toys. Games tend to be isolated universes where there s a rule set, and once you leave that universe the rule set is meaningless. Another way to think about it, and this is a more recent version of the same idea, is that I tend to think of the games we do in more of a hobby kind of way, whereas most games are thought about more in terms of a movie or cinematic form. Movies have a beginning and an end, there s a climax, there s one particular story line, and a lot of games are built more on that model.
Our games are more like a hobby, which you approach in a different way. Like with a model train set, some people get totally into the scenery and the details on the cliffs and the hills. Other people get into the little village in the middle. Other people get into the switching on the tracks. And sometimes these will play off of each other when a community builds around a hobby. You ll have certain people in the community who are very into certain aspects of the hobby and they have expertise which they can teach to other people. And you have sub-specializations within the community. People can create things and trade them, or they can just share ideas. I tend to think of hobbies as being a bit more community based than the cinematic model. That s more of a shared experience, it s a kind of cultural currency: Oh, did you see that movie last night? What did you think?
But with a software toy like SimCity, only one person is really playing it at any one time.
The community I m referring to now more than ever is the online community. I can go online and I can start trading strategies with people, or I can upload my city or my family or my stories, or I can make skins for The Sims . And if someone gets really good at it they can have a standing in the community: Oh, he makes the best skins. So there s this whole community on the web that develops around the game, with people creating things and sharing things.
Which is more possible now than when SimCity originally came out.
Back when SimCity came out, it was really just a few sporadic message boards on some of the online services like CompuServe or later AOL. It was mostly just chat discussions and things like that. There wasn t really a forum where people could meet. It wasn t really a very involving online community. But even before we had our first web site, people were already uploading their cities to AOL and trading them. There were big sections with hundreds of cities trading. CompuServe was the first place where large collections of cities started to appear, not too long after the game came out.
The biggest complaint I ve seen about SimCity , and I ve seen this mostly from other game developers, is that since it is not a game and there aren t any goals, it doesn t hold the player s attention very well.
I think it attracts a different kind of player. In fact, some people play it very goal directed. What it really does is it forces you to determine the goals. So when you start SimCity, one of the most interesting things that happens is that you have to decide What do I want to make? Do I want to make the biggest possible city, or the city with the happiest residents, or the most parks, or the lowest crime? Every time you have to idealize in your head, What does the ideal city mean to me? It requires a bit more motivated player. What that buys you in a sense is more replayability because we re not enforcing any strict goal on you. We could have said, Get your city to 10,000 people in ten years or you lose. And you would always have to play it that way. And there would be strategies to get there, and people would figure out the strategies, and that would be that. By leaving it more open-ended, people can play the game a lot of different ways. And that s where it s become more like a toy.
Simulations in general-give you a much wider game-space to explore. There are probably no two cities in SimCity that are identical and created by different people. Whereas, if you look at a game like Zelda , I m sure there are tens of thousands of saved Zelda games that are identical. Computationally you can look at this as the phase-space of the system, or how many variables does it take to describe a current state of the system. Another way of looking at that is it s how much creative exploration the player is allowed. How unique is your game from my game? In some sense that implies a certain level of creativity available to you. In some situations that can also be interpreted as how many different ways there are to solve a given problem. So if we start with the same exact city that has a lot of traffic, there are a huge variety of ways that we can attack that problem successfully. In a lot of games there s a locked door and until you find that key you re not going to be able to unlock that door.
So it provides the player with a lot more variety.
There s a lot more variety, but also, because every player can take a unique approach, they can be more creative. And the more creativity the player can realize in a game, the more empathy they tend to feel with that game. Especially you see that in The Sims . If they spend all this time building up a family and running their lives for months, people really start to empathize with those characters because they have invested so much time in the creation of them. And the characters, in that sense, are a reflection not only of themselves , but it s a reflection of their current understanding of the game. Same with SimCity . You can look at somebody s city in SimCity at any time, and the design of the city is a reflection of what they understand about the model. From their understanding that was the best way to build a road network at that point.
But once they come to understand the game better. . .
It changes, exactly. You can go back to an old city and say, Oh, right, that s when I thought highways really worked well, before I learned that they didn t. So in some sense it reflects your mental model of the game.
But if you play Zelda a second time . . .
Your mental model doesn t really evolve that much. You learn the surprises , but your model of the underlying mechanisms isn t really all that different once you ve played the game through.
I m a bit curious about the disaster feature in SimCity . It seems strange that players would want to spend a lot of time building something up and then just destroy it with a tidal wave or a fire.
Yeah, I always thought that was kind of curious myself.
You must have anticipated it, though, since you put it in the game from the very beginning.
No, actually, it wasn t in the original Commodore version. I later added it, though. When I first started showing the Commodore version, the only thing that was in there was a bulldozer, basically to erase mistakes. So if you accidentally built a road or a building in the wrong place you could erase it with the bulldozer. What I found was that, invariably, in the first five minutes people would discover the bulldozer, and they would blow up a building with it by accident . And then they would laugh . And then they would go and attack the city with the bulldozer. And they d blow up all the buildings , and they d be laughing their heads off. And it really intrigued me, because it was like someone coming across an ant pile and poking it with a stick to see what happens. And they would get that out of their system in ten minutes, and then they would realize that the hard part wasn t destroying it, but building it back up. And so people would have a great time destroying the city with a bulldozer, and then they would discover, Wow, the power s out. Wow, there s a fire starting. And that s when they would start the rebuilding process, and that s what would really hook them. Because they would realize that the destruction was so easy in this game, it was the creation that was the hard part. And this is back when all of the games were about destruction. After seeing that happen with so many people, I finally decided, Well, I might as well really let them get it out of their systems, I ll add some disasters to the game. And that s what gave me the idea for the disaster menu.
Plus you had the disasters randomly occur.
Yeah, that seemed obvious after I had the disaster menu, that they should randomly happen, but I didn t originally have that.
SimEarth seems to be a logical extension of SimCity . How did you come up with the idea for that game?
It was more my interest in certain subjects that drove me to it. I was very interested in certain theories , most notably the Gaia hypothesis, and also general environmental issues that a lot of times are counterintuitive. I thought it would be interesting to have a model of a global ecosystem. I learned a lot from SimEarth . Actually, I was very proud of the simulation of SimEarth , and pretty disappointed in the game design.
How do you mean?
It wasn t a terribly fun game. It s actually a very nice model, and we did a lot of research of the current climatic models, and I have still never seen anyone do an integrated model with an integrated lithosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere together like that. And we were getting some effects in the model that were real effects, that really show up, that even some of the more elaborate models that NCAR [National Center for Atmospheric Research] makes weren t capturing. But as far as the game goes, I started realizing that you can roughly look at all of our Sim games and divide them into one of two categories: the economic ones and the biological ones. And, in general, the economic ones have always done better.
Which ones would you include in that group ?
SimCity , SimTower , SimCity 2000 , The Sims , and SimFarm , though that s a bit of both. The biologicals would be SimAnt , SimEarth , and SimLife , roughly.
Why do you think the economic ones have been more successful?
I think it has a lot to do with how much control you have over the systems. The biological systems tend to be very soft, squishy things that you can do something to, and then it kind of reacts and adapts. It s not really clear what you did to it, because it ll then evolve around you. Whereas in the economic ones you have much better credit assignment. When something goes wrong, you can say, Oh, it s because I forgot to do this. I should have bought one of those. I think people can reason through their failures and assign credit to the failures more easily with the economic models. Plus the idea that you have money and you make money this way and you spend money on that all seems very natural to people, whereas when you get into the complex things like diversity, food webs, and things like that, people just don t have an instinct for it.
And nothing s more frustrating than playing and not understanding why you re losing . . .
Right, exactly. And so in SimEarth people would be playing and all of a sudden their planet would freeze up and they d have no clue why it happened . And I, as the simulation engineer, couldn t tell them either!
One thing I like about SimEarth was how it could play tones that would communicate information about the state of your planet.
I always wanted to do more with that, but I never really got around to it. There s been some interesting work on data auralization. Instead of visualization, you can take complex data and map it to sound, because there are certain sound ranges that we re incredibly good at discriminating. There was actually some work done at the Santa Fe Research Institute in those areas. One of the things that they did that was remarkable was taking seismograph data, from earthquakes and whatnot, and mapping it into sound waves, using pretty much the same waveform just mapped to a different frequency. And they did the same thing with underground nuclear tests. From the seismograph, if you look at the waveforms, they re pretty much identical. It s really hard to tell any difference at all between the nuclear test and the earthquake. But when you map it to sound, there s a very definite tinniness to the nuclear test, which you can instantly recognize. And it s interesting that, no matter how they mapped the waves visually, they couldn t find a way to discriminate between them. But as soon as they mapped it to sound it was obvious.
So you thought you could better communicate to the player the condition of their planet through sound?
Well, it was just kind of a stupid little experiment in that direction. At some point I d like to sit down and do it right. The one that I thought worked pretty well was where it would map your atmosphere into tones ongoingly, starting at the North Pole and going to the South Pole. And if you left that in the background with the volume down, it was pretty useful, because you could tell changes from that much sooner than you could actually see them reflected on the visual graphs. And so, as a kind of threshold alarm, I thought that worked pretty well. Because you could actually be doing that subconsciously. After a while, you start getting used to this little tune, and then all of a sudden when the tune changes, it comes to the foreground of your mind. And it can be doing that while you re doing other things, so you don t have to be sitting there staring at the display all the time. I always thought that was pretty cool.
SimEarth is a pretty serious game compared to many of your other titles. Why did you opt for that approach?
I didn t want to do too much anthropomorphizing in the game. One of the precepts of the game is that humans just happened to be the evolved intelligence on this planet. It could have just as easily been trichordates or something else. So I was really trying to avoid a human-centered approach to the game. And, really, the focus of the game was supposed to be on the planet. I m trying to put myself back in my mind-set back when I worked on that, it was so long ago. I mean, it s one of those things that once you get into the subject you re just fascinated by it. I m still to this day just blown away by continental drift and things like that, stuff that most people think sounds pretty boring. So it s kind of hard to express the passion I had for that subject. SimAnt was the exact same way. Still, I think ants are just the coolest thing around, and I don t think I clearly communicated that with the game.
SimAnt does seem to be a lot wackier than SimEarth or even SimCity .
It s hard to take ants too seriously. Also, SimAnt really surprised me. It s the first time I did a game that appealed to a totally different demographic than I was expecting. SimAnt was actually a big hit with ten- to thirteenyearolds. Parents would buy it, and the kids would play it, and the kids just loved it. Still to this day a lot of people tell me, I loved SimAnt; it was my favorite game. And it did very well. It s just that I was expecting it to be more older people that would appreciate how amazingly interesting ants are as an example of distributed intelligence. In some sense, I was trying to use a wacky approach to show how intrinsically interesting ants are as an information processing system. But in fact, I ended up appealing to twelve-year-olds who just loved playing with ants.
An ant simulator seems to be a pretty strange premise for a game. Why did you choose to do it?
I d have to go into why I love ants. SimAnt always seemed obvious to me. I was always wondering why no one had ever done a computerized ant farm, and I kept expecting someone to do it for years but they never did. The time just seemed right. Most of my games have been influenced heavily by things that I have read. So, SimEarth was kind of inspired by James Lovelock and the Gaia hypothesis. SimAnt was definitely inspired by the work of EdwardWilson, who is kind of like the myrmecologist. He s written a lot of books. He actually wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book the year that SimAnt came out called The Ants , which was just an amazing resource. We used a lot of his books heavily in building the model for SimAnt . In fact, we probably couldn t have engineered the model without his work, as we probably could not have done SimEarth without James Lovelock s work.
Did you encounter any resistance to doing as unique and strange a game as SimAnt ?
No, not at all. I think I met more resistance on SimEarth because everybody was expecting SimCity 2 and I really didn t want to do SimCity 2 , I wanted to do something different.
SimAnt seems to be a lot more of a game than SimCity or SimEarth .
I think probably SimAnt was my slight overreaction to SimEarth . When SimEarth came out I realized at the end that, God, this is like sitting in the cockpit of a 747 in a nosedive. That s what it feels like to most players. So I wanted SimAnt to go in the opposite direction: something non-intimidating, something lighthearted, something fun, something where it was really clear what went wrong. Though I never could quite tell how successful it was, one of the things I really wanted to do with SimAnt was to have the idea that you have this light, easy to get into game, but you get more and more serious about it. That s why we had this little online database about ants, the little encyclopedia. And the idea was to get people interested enough, just through the game, that they would actually start reading this little encyclopedia and a lot of it would pertain to the gameplay. So you could actually learn new strategies for the game while at the same absorbing all this cool information about ants.
The game reminds me of a very strange wargame.
It s kind of like an RTS game. In SimAnt we did some wacky things. SimAnt in some sense was very experimental. There were some weird things in there, like the mystery button. On the interface, there s one button that has this big question mark, and it s the mystery button. Every time you press that button something very strange happens, and usually it s different. There are thirty different things that can happen, and they re totally weird things. Like, all your ants die. Or your ants double. Or a giant rainstorm starts. Or you switch sides. Totally non-linear, random things happen when you click that button.
Kind of like the disasters from SimCity taken to an extreme . . .
It s almost meta-level disasters. Things that would all of a sudden erase your game or give you twice the number of your opponents. Like the disasters in SimCity , what a lot of people would do is they would play and play and play for hours and when they were ready to stop, just before they would quit they would burn the city down just for the hell of it. In SimAnt people would play the game for a while and then, just before they quit, they would hit the mystery button to see what it did today.
Your next project was SimCity 2000 . How did that come about?
Well, actually, before I did that, I had spent about six months working on the very first incarnation of The Sims . I had actually done a little prototype and some coding. At that point Fred Haslam was working on SimCity 2000 . He was the guy who I ended up doing it with and who had done SimEarth with me. SimCity 2000 wasn t going nearly as fast as everybody liked , and they didn t like the graphics and all this stuff, so I got dragged into it. At this point, the company was really depending on SimCity 2000 being a best-seller and all that, so I basically dropped everything I was doing on The Sims and dove in with Fred. And, in fact, I took the code shell I had written for The Sims , and we actually ended up using it for SimCity 2000 . In fact, if you go back and look at the source code for SimCity 2000 , to this day the draw routines say DrawHouse and DrawYard, because it was the original code shell for The Sims . So then I got into that, and Fred and I, basically we started from scratch. Fred and I work together really well, and we did it in almost record time, for that complexity of a game. We did it in about twelve months flat.
So the idea was to improve on what had worked well in the original SimCity ?
Roughly. Also, at that point, we had hundreds and hundreds of fan letters saying, Oh, you should do SimCity again and add this and add that and add the other. And I read through all those letters. And there were a few things that were very common. And so we added the really common and obvious suggestions: altitude, mountains , a water system, more road types, that type of thing. Beyond that it was all of the things I wished I could have done in SimCity that, now that computers were faster and graphics were better, we could do.
So, compared to SimAnt, it seems a lot less wacky. Was that because you were working with the company s prize franchise?
It was wacky enough I think, in its own way. It had the expected SimCity wackiness, plus a lot of things that were not in the original SimCity . We had a lot of hidden things in SimCity 2000 that people didn t realize for a long time that helped its longevity. There was the Loch Ness Monster in there. It would only appear every two or three months that you played the game, and it would only appear for about four seconds. And so there were a lot of rumors about it. Two months after the game had shipped, people started saying they had seen this monster in the water, and most people didn t believe them because it was so infrequent. And it was almost a year after we shipped the game that someone actually managed to take a screenshot of it. And then you had Captain Hero. Only under certain weird conditions you would get this superhero that would fly around and fight your disasters for you. So we had a lot of stuff like that hidden in the game. The original SimCity didn t really have that level of depth.
Did you feel constrained since you were just doing a sequel?
Not really. At that point I was more in project management mode. I had a pretty clear idea of what the design would be, since we were basically just doing a sequel, which is always easier. It was more just making sure the engineering was good and the performance was decent. It was a pretty tight piece of code. The original SimCity 2000 ran in 1.3 megs on a Mac. So, for what it was, it was actually pretty tight to work in that little memory.
Was SimCopter your next project?
That came quite a bit afterward, since I was actually working on The Sims in the background while I was working on SimCopter . So, at that point I had a programmer dedicated to The Sims . In fact, in SimCopter , the behavior of the people that walked around were actually using a very early form of Edith, which was the programming language we developed for The Sims . A lot of people at Maxis decided we really wanted to try something where you were doing a 3D game inside of SimCity . So that was the original premise for SimCopter . They asked me: Can you design a game where you re doing something in 3D in SimCity ? Whatever it is, driving around, flying around, whatever. So SimCopter was the design I came up with. It was the first 3D game I ever did, and actually the first 3D game a lot of our team ever did as well. So we were definitely going up a learning curve a couple of years behind a lot of other people. The biggest problem with SimCopter I don t think was in the game design, it was in the graphics. They were really substandard for when it came out.
Did you like the way it turned out? Or did you not care so much since you were more interested in working on The Sims ?
Well, I was actually concentrating on SimCopter . We didn t have a big enough team on it, we basically had four people doing it. And to do a 3D product at that point in time, that was just not enough at all. So I felt like I was really resource constrained on the product, plus we had this hard schedule that we absolutely had to make. For various reasons we could not miss Christmas, which meant we really couldn t aim too high. Had we had another six to eight months to work on it, graphically I think it would have turned out much, much better. The gameplay and tuning I m still pretty happy with. It could have used a few more missions. But there was something really neat about having a city that you d built in SimCity over many hours, and then all of a sudden being in it in 3D and seeing the people and the cars and flying around it. There was a real eerie quality to that. It worked well.
Now, you weren t involved at all with SimCity 3000 . Were you just burned out on the whole idea of doing another city simulator?
Yeah, that s pretty much it. You hit the nail on the head with that. It was a running joke around Maxis that whenever the SimCity team would come to ask me for advice I would go running. They finally gave up. You know, the day they shipped SimCity 3000 was one of the happiest days of my life. They proved that we have a team within Maxis that knows how to build SimCity without my involvement. And before, when 2000 came around, there was just nobody else to turn to. I had to work on it or it just wasn t going to happen. Whereas now we have the expertise in-house to do SimCity , a really great, talented team. The franchise is in good hands from my point of view.
So you were pleased to not have to be involved with that.
That s an understatement. Just doing one sequel for me was excruciating. Once I got into it, I had fun with SimCity 2000 . But there are just so many games that haven t been done at all that I d like to do, as opposed to going back and redoing games I ve already done. Probably my favorite part of designing a game is the research and learning a new subject, and just totally diving into it. And, I ve spent a lot of time reading about urban dynamics and city planning. I still love the subject, but I m kind of burned out on the research in that area. There are so many other subjects I d love to dive into and learn right now.
I do have one question about SimCity 3000 . When I originally saw a prototype for the game it was fully 3D. But when it shipped it was back to the classic isometric viewpoint. Why did that change so radically?
Well, for a number of reasons, and it was a pretty hard decision to make. In retrospect, I m convinced it was the right decision. Part of it had to do with user interface. A lot of people who play SimCity , who tend to be a much broader group, a lot of the more casual gamers, have a hard time moving around and controlling a 3D camera. And when you put on top of that the idea of editing a system and then give them a three-dimensional camera, it takes what used to be a very simple, Lego-like thing, and turns it into an AutoCAD. What am I looking at? Oh, I see, I m facing the building two inches away. It becomes that kind of experience. So that was part of it. The other part was the technology. Without going with really severe restrictions on what you could build, we just couldn t have a decent frame rate and have the level of detail that we could have in an isometric viewpoint. We re getting to the point today where it s pretty much feasible . But you deal with real RAM limitations of texture memory and real polygonal limitations. At the time that we were working on it, there weren t enough people out there with 3D hardware to require that. So we would have had to have a software solution that was acceptable. There were a lot of reasons, but I d say the two primary ones were performance and user interface.
So you actually started The Sims right after you finished SimAnt .
A long time ago, yeah. I also had a couple of projects that I started and then killed along the way.
Anything of interest?
Well, I had project Z. For a while there I had project X, Y, and Z. X was what we were calling The Sims for the longest time. Y was SimCopter . For Z, I wanted to do a simulation of the Hindenburg. And I really researched that and really enjoyed it. This was a really odd idea. But it was a combination of Myst and a flight simulator, if you can imagine that. It was going to be a very elaborately rendered, beautifully, meticulously drawn virtual Hindenburg that you could walk through and explore, every little nook and cranny. But it would also be completely functional, so every valve that you would turn would have the real effect, and every switch that you would flip would do what the real switch did. And you would find yourself all of a sudden, on the Hindenburg, over the Atlantic, heading to Lakehurst. You would be the only one aboard, you d be on this ghost ship. Basically, history would keep repeating itself, and if you didn t do the right thing you would always blow up when you got to Lakehurst. And so it was going to be kind of a mystery game. And we were going to take the top ten or twenty theories for why the Hindenburg blew up, there are quite a few of them actually. And every time you started a new game it would pick one of those at random. So every time you played the game it wouldn t be the same reason why it blew up. So there d be a totally different set of things you d have to do to prevent it. In fact, you could also go up to the control cabin and pilot the thing, you could fly it around to different areas. You d actually have to learn how to fly a zeppelin from scratch, which for one person is quite difficult.
That s really quite different from any of your other games.
Yeah. You know what really killed that project the most, the reason why I really gave up on it? It seems like a really minor reason, but it was the fact that the Hindenburg had a swastika on its tail. And even if we took the swastika off, a lot of people have this association in their mind of the Hindenburg as a Nazi symbol. Which is unfortunate, because the guy who designed and built the Hindenburg was one of the fiercest opponents of the Nazis, and he actually had to sign this pact with the devil to get the thing built. And so the Nazis actually paid for its final construction. So, anyway, that was one of my failed game designs.
So did The Sims stay pretty much the same throughout its development?
It definitely went through a focus change, from architecture to more about the people, but not a major one. In fact, I uncovered a tape, just beforewe finished The Sims , which I had forgotten I had. It was a tape of one of the very first focus groups we did back in 93. And on the focus group tape, the moderator describes the concept that I had written down of The Sims , and it s remarkably close to what we ended up shipping.
Did the focus group like the idea?
No, actually, this was probably the most negative focus group experience I have ever seen. It was actually quite remarkable. They universally hated it.
Was that why you couldn t get staff for the project at first?
Yeah, that was part of it, that certainly didn t help. It wasn t my idea to have the focus group in the first place. Our marketing people said, Hey, let s have a focus group and make sure about this. Of course, when everybody in the focus group said, There s no way I d buy that, that made it a little more difficult for me to sell the idea.
So how did you finally get a chance to make it?
I convinced everybody to at least give me one programmer to work on it in the background. It was a guy named Jamie Doornbos, who was the eventual lead programmer. A really bright, young guy out of Stanford, a good science student. He was the one that was developing the behavior model with me in the background. We were trying to figure out how we could simulate an open-ended system where the behaviors were expandable and they had the level of intelligence that we would require for the game, so that they could basically live out their whole home life and we could simulate it reasonably. So Jamie and I probably spent a year and a half just working on the behavior model, as a little research project. At some point it just started really working out, and really looking pretty good. And that s the point at which I started getting more people on the team. And even then, I had to fight and kick and struggle for every person I got.
After your success with SimCity , it s surprising that no one trusted you.
But in fact, it s funny, because just recently I started on a couple of other back- burner type things. The last one I did, I started telling people this idea, and everybody said, That s great, that s great, go do it, here s a programmer. And in a sense it was disappointing. It s much more satisfying when everybody says, That sucks, no way that will work out and then you go disprove them, rather than if everybody says, Oh, that ll be great and then if it doesn t turn out to be great . . . So in some sense I miss the struggle.
What was your original inspiration for The Sims ?
I think the original inspiration for The Sims came from a book called A Pattern Language written by a Berkeley architecture professor named Christopher Alexander. It s a very interesting book, it s kind of controversial in the architecture world. It s almost like the Western version of feng shui. He s got two hundred fifty-six design rules, and each one looks at some aspect of human behavior and then derives a design rule that you can use. And the very first rules are where cities should be placed on a countryside. As you move up the rules, to rule ten or fifteen, it starts talking about the design of cities and neighborhoods, and circulation systems within cities. And then you move The Sims up to the higher rules and it s about how to design a neighborhood block and where you should put the schools and play-centers. And then it moves in closer, and it s about how you should place your house in the yard, and how you do private and public areas in the house. And as you move up to the highest level, it s about where you should put your flower planters on the windowsill and how to place a park bench. So the rules go through all these different scales , but they re all based on aspects of human behavior. And they try to extrapolate. The fact that we like to have private spaces, and a lot of our activities at home we consider private activities, and other ones are public activities. And so the design of the house should reflect that. There should be some pretty clearly private areas in the house and more clearly public areas. So, that s the way he looks at an aspect of human behavior and then extrapolates a design rule from it. And then he gives examples of how you might implement that design rule. So basically he s coming up with one proposal for a grammar of design. And a lot of people have odds with the particular grammar he came up with, but I always thought his attempt was very noble.
So you thought you could come up with a simulation that would simulate his rules.
It wasn t even his rules I was after. What I was after was trying to get this linkage between human behavior and design. If you look at most architecture magazines nowadays they re about what textures are in this year, what colors, what fabrics , or what decorating styles. They have very little to do with human behavior. Architecture used to be about how you design spaces to facilitate human actions, tasks , and activities. He wrote an earlier book called Notes on the Synthesis of Form which drove home the point a little more clearly. He actually did a lot of third-world design, where he would go in and study these tribes or cultures, fairly primitive people, and look at their activities. Which activities did they do together and what groups of people collaborated on these activities. And from this he was actually able to extrapolate some design rules for their culture. How their houses should be laid out and how their towns and villages should be arranged. And I just thought that was a very refreshing approach to architecture, getting back to the functional reasons for and requirements of architecture as opposed to the aesthetic and architecture as modern art sort of approach. If you look at a lot of these modern architecture books you see these houses in there that I would not want to live in. They re really cool looking, and they look really pretty, especially when they re empty and they re so stark. But I couldn t imagine living in them. There s this big disconnect.
So originally it had to do more with building your house?
It had more to do with enabling behavior and interaction through design. And in some sense it still retains that. Just with not quite the same amount of focus.
When I played the game, I got much more wrapped up in the interpersonal interactions.
Yeah, I think that s where the focus really changed. We didn t realize how engaging the social part of the game would be. The original concept was that you were trying to keep this family happy at home. The idea that you would have these visitors that you would develop these long-term relationships with was definitely a later concept.
So that just grew organically out of other aspects of the game?
It had a lot to do with the success of our behavioral model, which was working better than we thought it would. Or, at least, people s interpretation of our behavioral model. Which is to say we were fooling them better than we thought we would.
So you re saying that people perceive the behavioral model as more impressive than it actually is?
In fact, that became also a big focus of the design. There was another book that became very influential later in the design, a book called Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. And he makes some very good points that are very applicable to game design. One of the ones that we used the most is the idea that the activity is a collaboration, in this case between the game designer and the player. And also that the level of abstraction that you present to the player gives them a very significant clue as to how much of this they should be modeling in their head versus on the computer. So, in fact, when somebody s playing The Sims and interpreting the experience, they may not realize it but they re doing a lot of the modeling in their head, not on the computer. The computer will sit there and it will pop up this gibberish conversation. Most people will actually sit there and roughly interpret what they re saying. They ll say, Oh, I see, he s upset because she didn t take the trash out. And they ll be simulating in their heads the other side of the model to a greater level of detail than the computer ever could. People can t help but look at a sequence of events and overlay some kind of narrative on it.
We noticed that a while back, so we really decided to make use of that. And so when we designed their conversations and the iconic language and even their gestures, we tried to leave them open to interpretation so that the players can come in and have fairly creative interpretations of what they re seeing on the screen. And then later we were watching people play the game in early playtest sessions and some of the narratives they were creating were so entertaining and funny that that s what gave us the idea to put in the scrapbook feature. With that, they can actually record their particular narrative of what is going on and then share it.
Did you think The Sims was going to be such a big success?
I always thought The Sims seemed to have much more potential than SimCity ever did. I was never that confident about SimCity . And I m not sure why I was that confident about The Sims , but just because it hit so close to home with human nature, I always suspected that people would like playing with people, as close as they could possibly get. And most games don t let you get that close to people, or if they do it s in a very scripted, linear format. It s not in an open-ended format.
Usually it s more in a Zelda sort of way, where you can talk to this character but they always say the same thing.
Exactly, and instantly the model breaks in your head and you say, Oh, it s just a robot and it s repeating the same thing over and over. And if we could keep it open-ended, and we didn t try to get too close to the people and left the interpretation in there, people could reasonably believe that these were little creatures with desires and relationships and all these things.
Among all the praise, I ve seen a lot of little complaints about the game. Like there aren t any weekends, or you can never play with your sims outside of the home environment. Do you often hear such complaints about your games?
That happens a lot. It s happened probably more with The Sims than any other title I ve worked on, probably because more people consider themselves an expert on the subject than they do on ants or planet thermodynamics . It s hard to look at SimEarth and say, Well, I really don t think ocean currents have that much of a thermal transfer rate with the atmosphere. But anybody can look at The Sims and say, Well, I don t think we would slap her for that. We re more experts in that field, so that s kind of natural. The other thing though, is that, judging by the things that they feel that they re missing, people don t realize how much of it is actually clicking and working. Because there were so many hundreds of things that had to work before they were complaining about weekends. For weekends to be the big concern, that implies that a lot of the other stuff that we were sweating over is actually working.
Was deciding what to include and what to leave out a function of how much time you had to complete the game?
That was certainly a big part of it, although whenever we hit one of those situations we tried to leave the game open-ended so that we could expand it in that direction with a download. We haven t fully demonstrated how much we can expand the game with downloaded objects. Also, it s easy for people to say that they want weekends, but they re not thinking through all of the ramifications of it, which we did. And most people, when I sit and explain why we don t have weekends, all of a sudden they realize why not and say, Oh, you re right, I guess I don t want weekends.
So how did you decide what limits to put on the simulation?
That very much was a resource issue. We could have put in the nightclub and the work and all that and added another year to the game s development. At which point it would have been past its best time. Another thing is, we could have done all that on a similar schedule, but done everything a lot worse . I figured I would much rather do the house really well than do everything poorly. Which I think is what would have happened, realistically , knowing how projects go.
So your advice to game designers is to focus their designs?
You also really have to understand what the core of the fun is going to be in the game. And if you re adding this stuff just so you can put more bullet points on the back of the box, but it s not actually making the game more fun, it s totally wasted effort. There s an old Japanese saying that I love, and it s about gardening : Your garden is not complete until there s nothing else you can remove.
So you think that adage applies to game design?
Oh, very much. If you look at the amount of stuff we took out of this game, it would probably surprise you. Like the needs, for instance. You know, we have the eight needs. At some point it was twelve, and then it was ten, and then it was eventually eight. We were actually much more concerned with simplifying the game than we were with expanding it. And our interface. Our interface went through eleven iterations ” total, complete redesigns of the interface. And each one ended up dropping a button here, a button there, or we found ways to combine functionality. I really thought that The Sims , if it was accessible, would appeal to a very wide audience, but it had to be incredibly accessible, through the interface. It couldn t be your standard strategy game interface, or we would turn off most of our customer base. So we went way out of our way to do that interface. Most people don t even realize how elegant parts of it are. I mean, parts of it are still fairly clumsy, but there are some things that we really sweated over, that are minor, minor details, but ended up making a huge difference. A lot of it is minor things that add up, like the pie menus . You can either click, drag, and release an object, or you can click, release, move over, and click again. So we re basically mirroring the Windows functionality that most people are used to.
Having the 3D head come up and respond, look in the direction you move the mouse. The fact that every single bit of text in the interface has embedded help. A lot of people don t realize this, but you can roll over any word down in that interface, and it will actually highlight as you roll over it, and if you click it comes up with a pretty elaborate explanation of what it is. So we did a lot of embedded help. And things like that just add up. There s no one thing that really makes it work. We probably ran a hundred playtesters through this thing in the last year of development. And these were things where one of the other designers or I would sit down and watch them play it for an hour and write notes about all the mistakes they made and misconceptions they had. So we did a lot of playtesting on the interface. If it turns out that five people made the same conceptual mistake that you rotate by doing this, or they were trying to drag an object by doing that, then we would try to figure out a way to solve that without breaking it for all the other people.
You ve always had the iconic interface for your games, but yet each interface is quite a bit different than the one before it. Why is that?
It s really hard to just do an interface out of context. You really have to take a look at what the game needs, and how you re going to interact with things in the game. That s going to determine a lot of your interface. You also have to take a look at the environment you re living in, which is to say, what are the other applications and the other games doing? There were things that we did in The Sims to maintain consistency with SimCity 3000 . Like the right button scrolling, where you right-click and drag, and the edge scrolling ” we tried to mirror SimCity there. And in general you just learn. I think that each interface I ve worked on for a game has been better than the last one. Also, as games reach a wider and wider audience of more casual people, that puts even more requirements on that interface. It just has to be that much easier if you re going to capture these people. It used to be hard-core computer people playing these games, and they would put up with anything. Now it s people who are much more casual, and if they find the interface frustrating in two minutes, they re going to put the game down.
In general, I d say the PC designers, myself included, are still catching up to the console developers. This is something the console people learned a long time ago on the Nintendo and Sega because they were dealing with a casual, wide audience, younger kids for the most part. So they ve had much more accessible, simple, and understandable interfaces long before we have on the computer side.
For The Sims you have a hybrid world with 3D characters walking around in an isometric world. Was that for the same reasons as in SimCity 3000 ?
Yeah, since the editing and building of the house and all that, if we had a full 3D camera and all that I don t think there s any way we would have made it as easy as it is now. Also we would have had some real graphic load issues. We could not have gotten the detail we had on the objects if they were geometry.
Was there ever pressure to make the game 3D since so many other games were 3D?
About three years ago it seemed like everything was going to 3D, and if you weren t 3D you were just dead. At some point that kind of hysteria passed and people started looking at the top-selling games and realizing, hey, you still had Age of Empires , SimCity , and all these very good selling games that were not 3D. In fact, if you look at the top-selling games, a minority of them are 3D. So now the idea that consumers would accept a non-3D game is a given. There isn t this idea that it has to be 3D whether it makes sense or not.
I very much enjoyed the way the characters talk in The Sims . Was that a disk-space limitation, or did you go with the gibberish speak in order to leave it open to interpretation to the player?
Even if we had had five CDs worth of recorded voice, that stuff would have gotten really repetitive. And my biggest concern was that it didn t get repetitive and that you didn t hear the same string over and over and over. In fact, we recorded hundreds and hundreds of voice strings, each one with different emotional nuances . And we decided that the voice was entirely for the emotional content: you could tell if the person was flirtatious, upset, laid back, or tired by the tone of the voice and the cadence. But the way it works out is, because you don t get the semantics, because you re not hearing the words, you naturally sit there and imagine the words fairly fluidly. But the emotional context you get very easily. You know: Wow, she sounds pissed.
So, yeah, I m actually really happy with the way that worked out. You hear them talking over and over and over, but it s very hard to hear the exact repeats. Because in fact you are hearing a lot of the waveforms repeat eventually. But we actually designed that language so it was very hard to detect. And that was a long slow process, figuring out how to do that. Originally, we were planning to use a real language, but a really obscure one that people didn t understand. And we did a lot of tests with Navajo and Estonian. And they were still too recognizable. Even though you wouldn t understand the language, you would still recognize that, Oh, that was the thing I just heard . A lot of it had to do with the number of hard consonants in an utterance, and also the cadence and rate at which it was going. It was a long process to get that figured out.
It seems remarkably progressive for a game to include the homosexual possibilities that The Sims does. Why did you choose to allow that?
One of the things we knew that a lot of people were going to do with this game was model their real family. And the last thing I wanted to go in and do was say, Oh, we re not going to recognize your family. So we wanted to give people a reasonably, fairly open-ended way to construct whatever family they came from or could imagine or wanted to play with. But we were dealing with an ethical and moral minefield that we had to thread very carefully . And there were a lot of things that we left out of the game on purpose. And there were a lot of things that we really wanted to have in the game at various levels, and homosexuality was one of the things that we really wanted to have in the game, in some way.
What sort of things did you leave out on purpose?
There were a couple of things that became somewhat issues and we did slight modifications. One of them was the domestic violence issue. When the characters get upset, they can slap each other. I don t know if you ve noticed, but there are two types of slap. There s one slap where they rear their arm back and then whack and it s as if they re breaking their jaw. And there s another one that s kind of an insulting British Army slap. Whenever you have people of the same gender slapping, they use the really hard slap, like a man slapping another man or a woman slapping another woman. But whenever you have a man slapping a woman or a woman slapping a man, they use the polite slap. Because before, when we had the strong-armslap, and you had a husband slapping his wife, it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, just from the domestic violence point of view. And that was one of those things where we were right on the edge and being very careful, but not losing the feature.
So it retains the emotional content without being too violent.
Right, and it doesn t make people think about serious domestic abuse. And, in fact, it was funny, because we also have an attack interaction. If they really don t like each other they can actually get in a fistfight. But because we did the fistfight like a cartoon fistfight ” there s this big cloud and you see arms and legs poking out ” no one had any problem with that. Even if it was a man and woman, it was always so cartoonish that it was never an issue compared to the slap. There were certain places that we just didn t want to go with the game at all. For example, pedophilia. And in general they don t kill each other. The sims will not directly kill each other, though objects can kill them and various disasters can kill them. So, yeah, there were certain things we decided we would leave out, certain things we wanted to get in, and others that we had to be very careful how we treated.
With the inclusion of homosexuality, were there ever any concerns that senators who up until then had been concerned with violence would now be outraged by The Sims ?
Actually, there was and it s very surprising to me that it hasn t materialized in the least. Not at all. There has just been no reaction to that, and it just really surprised me. I thought primarily if it came it would come from the Christian conservatives or some other group like that. Maybe they just don t play these games, maybe they could care less, I don t know. Yeah, but we ve had absolutely no problems with that at all. We ve had a couple of people on the bulletin boards, probably fourteen-year-old kids complaining, but you can tell their age by their spelling.
It seems like there were a lot of moral decisions you made in designing the game. For instance, the gameplay seems to be geared toward improving your career so you can get more stuff. It seems pretty materialistic.
Yeah, that was actually the intent. That s what most people interpret when they see the game, and even when they play it for a while they think it s very materialistic. It s only the people that play it a long time that start realizing the downside. Just about every object has some built-in failure state or maintenance requirement. If you keep buying stuff, it will eventually go bad or die or need to be cleaned or whatever. So in some sense it s like you re filling up your house with all these potential timebombs. And so at some point you end up spending so much time fixing these things and doing this, that, and the other, that these objects you originally bought to save you time end up sucking up all your time. And this is pretty long into the gameplay that you start realizing this. But it was very definitely engineered that way. So in some sense it s the people who first start playing the game who say, God, I can t believe how materialistic this game is. But then it s the hard-core players that say, God, I m not going to buy that much crap next time I play.
I guess it s open-ended enough that players can try to concentrate on the social aspects instead of object acquisition.
In some sense the social side has the same dynamic, where you make these friends, but the friendships decay over time. And your friends, once they decay to a certain point, will actually call you up and say, Hey, you better invite me over, I haven t seen you in a while. So once you make about twenty friends , you ll start noticing that every day they re clamoring to come over, and that they re sucking up your time in a different way.
What can you tell me about the scripting language Edith?
Well, that was the thing that Jamie and I were working on for the longest time. It s a programming scripting language, it s visual, and we actually developed our own editor and debugger, all integrated with the game. So, in fact, you run this from within the game and you can program and debug and step through objects while you re playing.
So you can use it to add new objects to the world?
In fact, almost all the behavior in the game is in these objects, including the social interactions of the people, and it s all programmed in this language. The primitives of this language all sit atop C level code routines. The C level code routines are things like routing primitives, variable peeks and pokes, and things like that. But the language itself is very clean, and there are about thirty or forty primitives that it s all built out of. The main thing, though, is that it s all machine-independent tokenized code that travels with the object. Which means that you can drop a new object into the game and instantly the people know when to use it, when it s appropriate to use it, and how to use it. And the animations, sound effects, code, and everything is all contained within the object that you download.
So you created the language to make it easy to add new objects.
Yeah, that was the original specification of the language. We wanted to have a language we could write all the behavior in that was totally expandable, at the object level. That way the behavior of the people within the house is totally a function of the stuff in their house and we could always add new things, even Trojan Horse things, into the house.
Such as the guinea pig object.
Yeah, the guinea pig object is an example. Actually, in the design we were thinking that they should get sick, and we had planned to do sickness, but we just ran out of time. But then we realized, Hey, we could just make that a download. Of course, nobody s going to download sickness, so we hid it in the guinea pig. It s funny, because some of the early reviews of the game said, It s got all this stuff, but it doesn t have sickness. I don t know why. Of course, those are probably the same people that complained when we gave it to them. The reason we re releasing this language is that eventually I want the users to start making these things.
And you made it simple enough so that you wouldn t have to be a hard-core programmer to use it?
You d have to know how to program, but you wouldn t have to be a hard-core programmer at all. I mean, this is a much simpler language than Visual Basic.
Doesn t it bother you that, with a tool like that, the game is never completely done ?
Yeah, I think, again, if you go back to the hobby model, hobbies are never done. They re just a continually growing thing. And they grow pretty much as a function of the amount of people involved in it and how committed they are. And the more powerful tools they have, the stronger the hobby itself becomes, and it infects more people.
I also read a quote from you where you said: The real long-term attraction of The Sims is as a storytelling platform. Now, when most game developers talk about stories in games, they re talking about them in that Zelda sense. To those people, something like The Sims doesn t have any story at all.
There s a big distinction between Zelda and The Sims . You re creating the story in The Sims; in Zelda you re uncovering the story. In some sense, the stories are just one aspect of player involvement. There are actually all these different levels. Some casual people will just play the game a few hours and have a good time and put it down. Other people will play it longer, and get into designing really cool houses, and maybe even uploading them on the web site for people to see. Other people that get into the game even deeper will not only build interesting families and cool houses, but will use that to tell a story and upload it to share it with other people. And the even more hard-core people will start editing custom skins or wallpapers for the game and start sharing them. And then pretty soon they ll be able to create their own objects, custom objects, and put them on the web to share. So there are these different levels of player involvement. And each level higher is a much smaller number of people. But in some sense they re feeding the people beneath them. We have something like ten thousand homes on our web site that people have uploaded, but those ten thousand homes have been viewed over one hundred thousand times.
So it s like a pyramid scheme.
Exactly. There are like thirty people out there making really good skins for the game. But there are probably thirty thousand that are downloading them and using them. So, for your really hard-core, talented fans, if you give them the tools and the ability to create content for the other ninety-nine percent, they will. And it will just benefit both sides. It gives them an audience to build these things for, and gives the audience cool stuff for the game that might eventually draw them in deeper. It ll increase the likelihood that these casual people eventually become those hard-core people.
So someday everyone on the planet has to be playing The Sims .
Right, so this is kind of like the zombie scheme, where the zombies go around, and then they start eating brains and turning the other people into zombies . . . At some point when it s five zombies against the world it doesn t look too good, but once you get a critical mass of zombies and they start converting other people into zombies fast enough . . .
On The Sims you are listed as just a game designer, while in the past you had served as both a programmer and a designer. Did you do any programming on the project?
I did quite a bit of programming in the Edith code. I didn t touch the C code in The Sims . It s probably the first project that I didn t do any of the C coding in. I did a lot of programming of the social interactions and stuff in Edith, but for the most part, even then, it was more a question of me going in and tweaking and tuning the algorithms the way I wanted. We had a really good team on The Sims , a really great team of engineers . So I didn t feel any need at all to go into the code.
It s not something you miss?
Oh, I kind of missed it. I enjoyed going into Edith and hacking stuff. But there was just so much to be done on the design side that I didn t have the time to waste programming. Not to say that programming is a waste of time, but I was never a great programmer. I was always persistent, and I could always make cool stuff out of computer code just because I was persistent. I mean, I know great programmers, and I m not one.
So you didn t have any trouble communicating your vision for the design to the engineering team?
There were problems, but not for any lack of foresight or intelligence. Just because it was a complex thing. In fact, I didn t know what we were building for a long time myself; a lot of it was experimental. But yeah, in terms of the programming staff, I could always sit down and explain the dynamics I was looking for and be very confident of getting them.
You also made the transition from doing everything yourself on SimCity to working on a large team for The Sims . How big was the team?
It depends on what you count as the team. You know, there were probably sixty people who worked on it at some point, but what I would consider the team grew to about thirty.
So that s a pretty big shift fromworking in a small group. And the management required for that big a team is quite significant.
It is, and it has a huge amount to do with the quality of the people involved. And Electronic Arts also, they came in with a totally different orientation. Before they came in, I had about four or five people working on The Sims . And it was actually a very good little group and it was working out great, but I just couldn t get any more resources. When Electronic Arts came in, they came in and said, What do you need? And that was the point at which we just started really building the team up. But Electronic Arts also has a very strong concept of production and what producers do. They have like ten levels of producers , and they put a very heavy load on the producers . So it s one of those things where if you get the right people in those slots, this stuff works pretty well; you can actually manage a pretty large team efficiently . If you get the wrong people in those slots, it s a total disaster, absolutely unmitigated disaster. At that point hiring practices become important, and how do you interview and make sure you get the right people, and how do you quickly find out if you don t have the right person. So it s a model that works with the right components and the right people, but if you get the wrong people, you ve blown it.
We basically got the right people. At the same time, in our situation at Maxis, Electronic Arts brought in this one guy to run the studio, to replace most of our old management. His name was Luc Barthelet. And Luc and I hit it off from day one. We get along great. Luc is not your typical manager in any possible sense. I mean, he s very technically literate. So for SimCity 3000 , they were having problems with the traffic model, and he came in and wrote the traffic code.
Yeah, the C level code. So it s unusual that you can have somebody running a studio that can also write some of the trickiest code in one of your simulations. And Luc s that kind of guy. There s really an art to management, and what Luc is great at is knowing exactly at what level you need to be concentrating on any given day. And so there was this point when it was crucial that we got this one feature in SimCity 3000. It was going to have a big impact on the success of the product, and that was the day he pulled out his compiler and started working on the traffic code. In most of the cases, it was, How does the German distributor feel about this product? and he d be on the phone to the German distributor. You really have to pick your battles. And if you pick the right battles , you ll only have to win five percent of them. So anyway, there s this certain business savvy that certain people that Electronic Arts brought in had in abundance , that I was very impressed to learn from.
How did The Sims Online come about, and what were the initial design goals?
EA wanted to explore the online space. We had kind of a hit with The Sims and we wanted to leverage the franchise into the online space; that was how the project came about. Early design goals were to make an online game that was extremely approachable that felt very different, kinda more in line with The Sims world, and where primarily the players were constructing the world they were then playing in. Also, we wanted to put more emphasis on the social connections between the players, almost as an alternate topology that the players were playing within.
What was the process you went through adapting such a distinctly singleplayer game to be multi-player?
A lot of it was weird tactical issues. The first, most apparent thing when anybody played The Sims Online was the fact that they couldn t speed up time. We had to have one timeline for everybody, obviously. How we were going to let the players customize the environment was kind of an ongoing discussion. We had all wanted to have players be able to bring in custom content. It turned out to be extraordinarily hard to achieve for a number of reasons.
Why was that?
It had to do with bandwidth issues and validating the content, making sure it was robust enough that it didn t crash somebody s application. For us it was the first big online game we d ever built. And in fact, if you looked underneath the hood of this thing it s ten fairly elaborate pieces of software running on different platforms that all have to be synchronized for the thing to work. It proved to be a very, very high friction environment for design. On the other hand, we had a lot of assets for The Sims expansion packs that we were getting pretty much at half-price, because they were being developed anyway, the art assets and everything. We reprogrammed most of them, to some degree. But still we had this large content pool that was a big leg up, that we weren t developing just for the online game.
Within The Sims Online we were trying to have different metagames the players could pursue based around different lot categories. So we were trying to make different viable economic paths, for someone building a romance household or an entertainment house or a skill house or a work house. Then we were also looking at different nested social groups that we wanted to have in the game. First there s you, and then you might have a close group of friends that you connect with through the friendship web, then you might have some longer term playmates that you bring into a household and become roommates and that s a larger social group, and then above that we had the neighborhood where different households could form associations together. To this day they re still kind of working on the next level, which would be levels above the neighborhood, the clubs, eventually evolving into a form of governance.
How did you design the game such that those social webs would work well and not just be a big mess of people?
Well, the design changed a fair amount, but initially we wanted to have a pretty tight linkage between who was in your social web and who you actually spent time playing with. We wanted people to formally acknowledge who their friends were, in a Friendster kind of a way, and then have that visible to other players. So I can find friends of my friend or see if we had somebody in common that we both knew. And so that became a major component of the game, people declaring friendships or enemies and then having this structure appear, the friendship web that you could peruse, basically a social network graph. In that we rolled in certain reward structures so that if you had beyond a certain number of friends, you would start earning more social interactions for your avatar. For a lot of people that became the primary game. Other people, there was a whole other game based around the graphical topology, or the houses that people were building. And that was more of an economic game, where players would earn money, then spend it on their house to build a cool place that they would hopefully attract other people to. And so it became kind of this game of who can build the coolest house that everybody wants to spend their time at. Kind of a capitalist, economic model. So players were competing to entertain the other players. And that was the basic dynamic we were going for; we wanted to reward players for entertaining each other rather than killing each other.
You mentioned before how you are unable to adjust time in The Sims Online . That s a fairly critical feature in the original version of The Sims .
Yeah, when you re going from the offline Sims to the online Sims the first thing you notice is you keep trying to speed up time and there s no button for it. Because you spend so much time in the offline Sims with time zipping by, getting to the interesting parts.
Was that a problem you tried to solve?
There were things we did, but we couldn t get around the central fact that everybody was on the same timeline. For instance, whenever you tell a sim to go somewhere in The Sims Online , they pretty much run everywhere to minimize the routing time. We experimented a lot with transportation time and cost between lots, and we ended up doing that in a slight way, but for the most part we found that just wasn t fun ” having a lot that s further away takes longer to get to. So there wasn t a lot of topology to the world in that sense. Although we started adding a little bit of topology to it, in terms of your motives will be drained as you were moving between lots, and the further you went the more your motives were drained, so the more you d have to recharge at that lot. So we wanted to have some feeling of locality. But aside from that, a lot of your interactions got sped up, so that when you sleep in The Sims Online it happens about five or six times faster than The Sims offline. So those interactions that you were basically just using to fill your motives, your bars, where it wasn t an interesting activity but more of just a maintenance thing, we sped those up relative to the offline Sims . So we did a lot of adjustments to try and alleviate the time issue.
In the end did you feel it sufficiently solved the problem?
For the most part, yes. Once we adjusted that stuff, at that point it didn t feel like a big deal. The trick was, don t put the player in a situation where they re sitting there waiting for something to complete and they don t have anything to do. We have other things that do take longer to happen, but you re actually making decisions or there s a mini-game involved.
Did you spend a lot of time trying to make the game like the offline Sims ? Or did you just view The Sims Online as a separate game?
It was pretty apparent to us really early on that it was a totally different game. It looked a lot like The Sims . That was the weird part is people look at it and say, Oh, that s The Sims. And then they play it and realize it s an entirely different game. First of all you re controlling just one person, you don t have that God-like control, there s no cheating allowed, you can t speed up time, the other people are real people doing God knows what. The original concept was that we were going to build something that would not be as elaborate and would be a peer-to-peer experience. And due to some business decisions it was decided we should be building an online persistent world with a monthly subscription. So about six or eight months into the project we dropped everything and went in a totally different direction to support that. Originally we were basically designing a game that did not have a secure economy, that was based more around the idea of custom content flowing around, and was probably even closer to an IM [Instant Messenger] graphical chat room.
I ve heard the game called the world s most expensive chat room.
Actually that was one of our design goals, even with the persistent one. We were aiming really for a very casual crowd of people that were totally different than played online games. And so at the very basic level, we decided that if nothing else it had to be the ultimate graphic chat room. We were actually looking at two targets. We were looking at the AOL customers and The Sims players. At the time when we started this project there was this pretty tight relationship between AOL and EA, which isn t such a big deal now, but at the time it was considered a pretty major aspect of the project. In hindsight looking at it, I think that the game needed to be a lot more exciting and have more obvious goal structures in it. I think also that the online subscription cost really killed us because if you look at our player base and how many of them don t even have credit cards. They re not hard-core players at all.
These are the players of The Sims offline?
Yes, right. Even the AOL customers, a lot of them.
Don t AOL customers need to have credit cards to subscribe?
Well their parents do, that s the thing. A lot of the people who are actually spending time on AOL are actually twelve- and thirteen-year-old kids. Their parents get AOL for them. I, as a hard-core gamer, amreally reluctant to pay ten dollars a month to subscribe to a game like that. To get a casual player like that who has bought maybe one or two games in their life to do that . . . In talking to people it turned out to be a just huge barrier to entry to playing the game.
Would you do the game significantly different if you were designing it now?
Yeah, I would change the game design significantly and I would look for an entirely different business model. Until we could find a different business model I don t think I d even bother trying it.
Did you make a lot of adjustments to the game after it went live?
Yeah, we were doing it quite a bit. A fair amount of it was just tuning level things; retuning objects that were in the world, reward structures, and so forth. Other parts were actually reengineering the reward structure or the activities. We spent a lot of time on the boards, before and after release, where we would post our early designs on the boards and get feedback from the players, way before the feature was actually implemented. And we would make modifications to the feature based on that early feedback. We had three areas of the boards. One that was just blue sky ideas that we were thinking of. Next we had one for things that were in design and we were actually posting our design documents for players to read. And then the last one was This is about to be deployed. So we had three levels of designs that were flowing through where the players had pretty high visibility and knew what was coming. And they felt like they had pretty good interaction with the design team. On the other hand, if you look at the interaction, about half or more of the features we describe on the board, invariably half the players would say, Oh, we love it, and the other half of the players would say, Oh, we hate it. It s not like it was always really clear feedback as to what was good or bad. Because we had players in the game doing totally different things with totally different motivational structures. So, you just can t please everybody all the time.
So how did you decide what to add?
Some of the things we pretty much felt like they were fundamental things that we had to push through design, even if the players were half and half for and against. At that point we just had to go with our own gut feeling, our own design sense. I think part of it is it s good just in general to give players the ability to have feedback. If they know that you re listening to them, that s half the battle right there. The players are seeing that it s an even split, so if you fall on one side or the other they re not going to really blame you. But if ninety percent of the players say that sucks and you go ahead and do it, that s when they ll nail you.
How did playtesting proceed on The Sims Online ?
It was a little tricky because our really early tests were just in-house tests with thirty or forty people playing, and we didn t have nearly the critical mass we needed to validate a lot of the features. So it wasn t until we actually got into beta testing that we got a real sense of the way players were going to behave. We also had different types of players flowing through the game at different points in time. In the beta test we had a very different kind of player than we had five months after launch. And they valued the features entirely differently.
The early people were more socializers , the later people were more goal seekers, in general. Also, the players got more casual over time, basically, just in terms of how game savvy they were. I think it felt like it got younger over time. We were collecting a lot of metrics on the players that we would study every day. And we would study the trends on these metrics, in terms of which objects they re buying, what they re doing, what social interactions they re choosing, how many friends do they have, and all these things, looking for patterns. It was amazing how sometimes just one little thing that was unbalanced would radically change the play pattern of everybody. And these were mostly economic balance issues, some of them involving exploits. Somebody would find an exploit based around one of the job objects in the game, and all of a sudden the next week everybody would be using that job object and nobody would be using any of the other ones. We actually probably found a lot of our exploits and bugs quicker through the metrics than we did through players reporting it or testers finding it.
So did the change in your audience over time make the game hard to balance?
It felt like we were always trying to balance against a moving target. Sometimes we d try to lead the target, but I d say it was always a fairly chaotic process. We could usually look at the metrics and say, OK, that s out of balance, and then we d have two or three different possibilities for bringing it into balance. And as we started balancing that thing out, all of a sudden something else would kind of go wacky, and we d look at that. And of course it s all interrelated too. There were some social trends too that were longer-term things, fads that happened in the world, that nobody foresaw at all and that started affecting things.
What would be an example of that?
There s a map in the game where you can see thumbnails of the houses as you scroll across this map. The thumbnails are about 50 pixels across or so. At some point, somebody decided to decorate their roof, and they did it in a way where they used different colors on the roof tiles, and when you made the thumbnail of it, it ended up as this nice little picture. Somebody did Madonna or Michael Jackson or something. So somebody did that one day, and then everybody said that s cool, and then within two weeks there were ten of these in the world, and two weeks later every other roof was decorated with some image. It was just one of those things that nobody had really foreseen, and it took one player to figure this out. Somebody wrote a program that would actually scan an image and then automatically configure a roof in the game. But things like that were happening all the time.
Did you like to see those sort of emergent behaviors?
Oh yeah, that was really what we wanted to encourage as much as possible. Especially ones like that, that weren t affecting other people. There are other ones that were more problematic , like there was this whole mafia organization that started in the game, which became a big deal. It became probably the largest point of conflict in the entire game. It was pretty organized; they actually had capos and this whole hierarchy reporting structure, and there were hundreds of players involved in it. And they saw themselves as the guardians of the game. They actually would go out and grief players that they thought weren t playing it right or that were trying to ruin the game. So they were basically vigilantes. But then other people thought they were just picking on people for no apparent reason. And so there was this other group pissed off by the mafia that was opposing them. That became this big power struggle in the game. We had these friendship webs, and as one of the things on this friendship web we were rating who the most popular person was in the game by how many incoming friends they had. And there was one woman who very rapidly went to the top of that list and she was the one that actually founded the mafia. Because she had this incredible social network already in place, and she leveraged that to become the head of the mafia. She became very notorious. Some people loved her and thought she was helping the world; other people thought she was the worst griefer in the whole game.
Was that something you felt you needed to put a stop to?
We had certain specific terms of service, so if somebody violated this terms of service and somebody else reported it, then we had an obligation to go in and deal with it. These mafia people were very, very good about just skirting the edge of that, and so they almost never did anything that was over the boundaries of the terms of service. In other words, you re allowed to go in and make somebody an enemy. That s just part of the game design. Basically, you get the rewards for having lots of friends, and you lose those rewards if you have more enemies. So, one of their tactics was they would decide that there was a person that was doing something bad or had slighted them or had scammed a newbie or whatever they didn t like. Then they would put out the word through the mafia network, and then fifty of them would descend on that person and all declare him an enemy, which would remove all of the social things that he had earned. That was the way that they were griefing. So it was actually within the game rules.
But we were following this quite a bit, and it was really interesting the social turmoil that this caused in the game. In some sense it was good; I think the game really needed more of that. Because what it caused people to do was polarize, and get together and talk about this, and what are they going to do. Basically having a common enemy on either side caused people to bond together more strongly. A few weeks after this had happened, something interesting happened. It wasn t really clear if somebody was in the mafia or not ” you couldn t really look at somebody and tell, and frequently they wouldn t let you know. And this wave of McCarthyism swept the world, with people accusing somebody of being in the mafia: No I m not! Yes he is! Things would be whispered about various people. It was just kind of interesting how all these human social behaviors manifested in this little microcosm.
I guess that s one way to know when you ve succeeded, when you ve created a system that allows those sorts of behaviors to happen.
At least you ve enabled a certain amount of human nature to flow into it.
Previously you mentioned using metrics to assess the state of the game before making adjustments. Did you find you could trust metrics more than the feedback from players?
I think they were both valuable . The metrics would give you no insight into intention or motivation. They just say that more people are doing this today than tomorrow, and you have no idea why. Then we would actually go and talk to people or look at message boards and try to uncover the actual motivations behind the behaviors. Also, a lot of people would say they hated an idea, but then you put it in the game and all of a sudden... Games are so emergent sometimes that even if you tell the players what you re about to do, they can t really imagine the actual result of it in the game. So, sometimes you have to discount what the players are telling you, if it happens to be something that feels like it s going to be a very non-linear, non-intuitive kind of dynamic. But you still know that you have a PR issue, that you have to sell the players on the value of the feature.
Are you working on The Sims 2 currently?
Not really, no. I m working on something else right now.
It s curious to me how you could make a sequel to a game as good as The Sims without just making the game more complicated but not necessarily better.
Yeah, that s kind of a sticky point. Any player will look at a game and say, Oh, that would be so much cooler if they added this, that, and the other. And, really, you get to a great game not by adding a bunch of stuff but by figuring out what to take out. And that s the really hard part. On the other hand, the technology has progressed, probably the players are a little more advanced. You obviously want to do something different with it. It is a struggle with a high-profile sequel like that because with the first Sims we were this little game and the fact that we succeeded was all upside. With something like The Sims 2 , it kinda feels like all they can do is fail. There s all these expectations heaped upon the project. But I think you have to figure out what the core of the original game was that people enjoyed and which parts of the original game were irrelevant or tangential to the success. And those are the areas that you have opportunities to go in and expand, modify, rethink. And of course technology has progressed, but there are a lot of considerations that go into it.
Are you glad to be working on something other than The Sims ?
The very first prototype I made of The Sims was in 93, so it s been over ten years. Actually I worked on SimCity about ten years, from the very first version of SimCity to the last one I worked on, which was SimCity 2000 , and ten years is about my limit on anything. [ laughter ] And so since The Sims Online, I ve kind of gone on, and I m in a totally different space right now, which is really fun. What I enjoy is finding other maxima in the game design space, and occasionally I ll find a nice maxima like SimCity or The Sims . And then of course the company wants to keep exploring that maxima, doing a lot of things, basically build a franchise. But at some point I just have to walk away and go look for another maxima.
Were there guiding principles that people had to follow when designing and developing the Sim family of games?
Well, we basically always saw them as being for the most part non-violent, although we have broken that rule on occasion. But for the most part we ve considered that one of our distinguishing features. A lot of our employees who work for us really want to work for Maxis because Maxis is known for their non-violent games. I don t want to sound like I m making some moralistic statement, because I love Doom and Quake and those things myself. Some of my favorite games are wargames. I play wargames heavily. I just think that there are so many people making those games that we don t need to, and they re doing a good job of it too. So I d rather be making games that nobody s making. But from the public s point of view, we do have this reputation for tending toward the more non-violent, more educational, more socially relevant games.
Do you ever feel constrained by making Maxis-style simulation games? Do you ever want to make Raid Over Bungeling Bay II ?
In some sense SimCopter was almost Raid Over Bungeling Bay II . There were a lot of Easter eggs hidden in SimCopter . In fact, you could get an Apache and lay waste to the city. In fact, if you had the Apache and you came across a nuclear power plant, you could blow up the entire city. Even in The Sims , a couple of times, I tried to get away from the political correctness here and there. So there are a lot of things we did in The Sims that aren t terribly politically correct, that didn t even make sense, you know, more of the wacky side. We didn t try to let the Maxis thing constrain us, but the domestic violence thing was probably a good example. You ll see a lot of games where there s a much higher level of violence, much higher than a man slapping a woman. But we were sensitive to how people would be interpreting this, knowing that families would be playing it.
Your games always seem to have this strong educational component. I was wondering, how do you balance that with making the game entertaining?
I was never concerned with education until the game was fun. Any educational value a program might have is totally wasted if people won t play it. Probably the one game which I learned that the most from was SimEarth . SimEarth was potentially the most educational game I ever made, but yet it wasn t fun. A surprising number of people bought it; I m still surprised by the sales figures. I think most of them played it for two hours and then put it away. So I really think the fun has to come first. And the educational side, it s not something that you tack on, it s got to be fundamental to the design. In The Sims , it was all about learning to extrapolate design from behavior. That s a fairly deep lesson, it s not just a fact that I m going to teach you. It s more like a way of looking at things. If the entire design is true to that, it might be educational at some deep level even though you might play the game for hours and not think of it as educational even once. One of the main things that SimCity teaches ” it s not explicit but it s there ” is the shape of chaos. The fact that the best-laid plans can always go wrong, and that the system is more complex than you think it is. Building a road to solve traffic doesn t always solve traffic; it frequently breeds traffic. Those types of lessons are hard to explain in other media. But when you ve experienced them through a process like SimCity , you really get the lesson much deeper. It s experience rather than exposition.
Do you ever have to compromise realism to make the game fun?
Oh, all the time. There s also a frequent thing that we did in our games where we would decide to match expectation and not reality. In fact, nuclear power plants don t blow up. They just don t. But when everybody saw it, they said, Oh, a nuclear power plant, can I make it blow up? It s just what they thought of. So there are a lot of things we do just because people expect them to happen that way for fun, even though it s not realistic.
With the open-ended nature of your games, do you have to spend a lot of time in playtesting them?
We do, but it s invaluable time. You spend that time, or else you go spend months building the wrong thing and solving the wrong problems. We just had what we call kleenex testing on one little component of The Sims multi-player that we re working on. We have this one data display that s convoluted and twisted. And the programmer just got it implemented a few days ago, so we scheduled five people to come in today. We call them kleenex playtesters because we use them once and then they never come back, just because we want people who have never seen it before, with totally no preconceptions about it. We don t even tell them what it is, we just say, Look at that, play with it, and have them describe to us what they re seeing and what that represents. We got some very consistent feedback from all five people today where we understood that three of the variables we were communicating they all understood , the other three they had no clue about. So for the last tester, we turned off the last three variables that everybody was having trouble with and it was perfect. We do this at every stage of the project now. It s not just at the end when we have the whole thing working, we do this with little components, even the art prototypes . And this was a lesson that was really driven home to me by the late Dani Berry. She s the one who did M.U.L.E. and all those things. She was drilling this into me years ago, that playtesting is probably the most undervalued thing that any game designer can use, and you really have to do it. And I started taking her advice and she was right. It s just invaluable.
Whether it s SimCity or The Sims , you seem to have a knack for coming up with unique and very original game designs around complex topics. I m curious about how you go about coming up with new design ideas.
I think every designer has a totally different technique. So I think if you ask every game designer out there how they design a game you re going to get totally different answers. I guess a lot of times my own internal process is fairly opaque even to me. I ll try a lot of different ways to look at a subject and not get stuck into one viewpoint or one approach. And for me the value is in a set of diverse approaches that I execute in parallel. Each approach is one way of looking at games or entertainment or whatever; some might be very analytical approaches, other ones might be very emotional or kinesthetic approaches. And, usually, and this is the opaque part, something in my head is actually telling me, Oh, I m getting better traction on this approach. Or What about this one? This is a really weird way to think about it. So a lot of times I try to imagine what s the strangest way for me to approach a subject or a challenge, just on the assumption that ll take me down a different path than most people will go down to get there. They might end up in the same spot, but if I take a totally different approach to the problem I m likely to uncover some maxima that other people are not seeing. Every year I try to give a talk at the Game Developers Conference to talk about design and process and all of that, and I m never quite satisfied, because I still feel like my internal process is fairly unknown to me. That s the only reason I really give talks, I don t really enjoy talking at all. I m not really a social person, I m a pretty introverted guy, actually. But I find that when I have to prepare talks, in fact I m having to dig into my own experience and self-reflect on my own thought process. So I actually find it more valuable to myself than probably the people who actually hear the talks, because it forces me to become consciously aware, at least to some degree, of my internal process.
In Understanding Comics , Scott McCloud talks about the two types of creative people: those who enjoy examining their process and those who don t want to for fear it will break.
I m not worried about breaking it, it s just that it s buried down in there pretty damn deep, and it takes a lot of digging for me to get to it.
For both SimCity and The Sims , you had trouble convincing anybody that they would be popular. Do you think there are many games out there with the same problem that never see the light of day? What do you recommend someone with a wacky game idea should do?
Oh, I m sure they re all over the place. It s kind of depressing to think about it, how many wonderful masterpieces there are out there. For me, it s just that I ama very, very persistent guy. I think if you re really, really persistent, if you really want something, you can make it happen. It might take years. With SimCity it was like five years to actually get the first version out. With The Sims it was like seven. Aside from that, based on my track record, I don t know if I m the one to be offering advice there. Whenever something unusual comes out like The Sims , I like to think that all of a sudden people say, Hey, that was really off-the-wall, and it sold great! Maybe that might help to green-light some other off-the-wall projects at other companies that were having problems getting approved. But I think realistically they re more likely to say, Oh, we want a game just like The Sims . Unfortunately, that s probably the lesson they re going to carry from it.
Will Wright Gameography
Raid Over Bungeling Bay , 1984
SimCity , 1989
SimEarth , 1990
SimAnt , 1992
SimCity 2000 , 1994
SimCopter , 1997
The Sims , 2000
The Sims Online , 2002