SimCity’s Will Wright: ‘Web Colliding With Reality’

SimCity and Spore creator Will Wright
Photo: David Needle

SAN FRANCISCO — The richness of Web-based environments is starting to blur the distinction between games and reality, according to Will Wright, the gaming industry legend perhaps best known as the creator of SimCity and Spore.

“I think the Web is letting people think more about their identities and we’re starting to see overlap of [the real] and virtual environments,” Wright said during an onstage keynote interview here at the Web 2.0 Expo Thursday. “We’re at the point where we can pretty much hold up a cell phone to get someone’s profile. I think the Web is starting to intersect and collide with reality in interesting ways.”

Wright gave few details about what he’s working on next, but he did say he’s interested in games that intersect with the real world. “I think we’re getting to the point where we realize games are an interesting lens to help understand complex systems. The idea is you could use a game to map reality. People want it be about themselves, about their friends and where they live.”

Wright also is looking beyond traditional desktop games controlled by a keyboard and mouse or joystick. “There are a lot of problems with the asymmetry of the keyboard to the monitor. The Wii is very accessible — you just swing a tennis racket to play the tennis game.”

Speaking further on Nintendo’s popular Wii system, Wright said it represents a different direction from traditionally “immersive” games, where the idea was to get the player totally involved in what’s happening on the monitor.

“Most of the entertainment around the Wii is watching your friend act like a doofus, swinging the thing around,” he said.

Wrap your mind around this

Mobile devices like the Apple iPhone have the potential to bring a new round of games and entertainment services that are less immersive — that is, focused on the device itself, and the user’s location.

“Now, we’re seeing where you are matters. There’s an intersection of the real and virtual worlds,” he said.

Wright pointed to SimCity and services like Google Earth as opening up new ways to view information that is otherwise hard to “wrap our minds around.”

“In SimCity, you can speed up time and play over decades, compressing a long time span into an hour,” he said. “It’s a way to understand complexity and see the rhythms and patterns we wouldn’t normally see. The more we can take the real world and make it into a playful environment and think in totally different ways, that’s real education — putting complexity in a world we can digest.”

Users of Wright’s latest work, Spore, have definitely found a lot to work with in the online “playful environment.” He said over 100 million user-generated virtual assets have been created by players. While hardcore gamers have migrated to massively multiplayer games, Wright says part of the reason for Spore’s popularity is that it’s what he calls a “massively single-player game.”

In the multiplayer world, the best players gain assets and points to reach the top. Wright doesn’t like that. “You can’t let anyone get super powerful in a multiplayer game. With Spore, we looked at the benefits of building worlds collectively, but everyone is king of the hill on their own hard drive.”

“I think we’re just scratching the surface of this kind of hybrid model,” he said.

Moderator John Battelle asked Wright what he thought of Second Life which shot up in popularity a few years ago, but has struggled of late. Battelle called it the Twitter of 2006.

Wright said Second Life is a platform, not a game. “I’m not sure what the destination is. I like that you’re able to create so many objects, but the sophistication level needed to do that is pretty high.”

He added that for most users, programming isn’t entertainment and it’s a delicate balance to provide deep functionality and ease of use.

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