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Will Wright speaking at the Game Developers Conference in 2010
|Born||William Ralph Wright
January 20, 1960
William Ralph "Will" Wright (born January 20, 1960, in Atlanta, Georgia) is an American video game designer and co-founder of the game development company Maxis, now part of Electronic Arts. In April 2009, he left Electronic Arts to run "Stupid Fun Club", an entertainment think tank in which Wright and EA are principal shareholders.
The first computer game Wright designed was Raid on Bungeling Bay in 1984, but it was SimCity that brought him to prominence. The game was released by Maxis, a company Wright formed with Jeff Braun, and he built upon the game's theme of computer simulation with numerous other titles including SimEarth and SimAnt.
Wright's greatest success to date came as the original designer for The Sims games series. The game spawned multiple sequels and expansions and Wright earned many awards for his work. His latest work, Spore, was released in September 2008 and features gameplay based upon the model of evolution and scientific advancement. The game sold 406,000 copies within three weeks of its release.
After graduating at 16 from Episcopal High School, he enrolled in Louisiana State University, transferring two years later to Louisiana Tech. Beginning with a start at an architecture degree, followed by mechanical engineering, he fell into computers and robotics. He excelled in subjects he was interested in—architecture, economics, mechanical engineering, and military history—but was held back by his impractical goals such as language arts. His earlier dream of space colonization remained, and was joined by a love for robotics. After another two years at Louisiana Tech, in the fall of 1980, Wright moved on to The New School in Manhattan. He lived in an apartment over Balducci’s, in Greenwich Village, and spent his spare time searching for spare parts in local electronics surplus stores. After one year at the New School, Wright returned to Baton Rouge without his degree, concluding five years of collegiate study.
During a summer break from college, he met his first wife Joell Jones, an artist currently living in California, on vacation to her hometown of Baton Rouge. In an interview published in February 2003, Will claims that games were absorbing so much of his time, he decided that perhaps making games was the way to go. Wright's first game was the helicopter action game Raid on Bungeling Bay (1984) for the Commodore 64.
Wright found that he had more fun creating levels with his level editor for Raid on Bungeling Bay than he had while actually playing the game. He created a new game that would later evolve into SimCity, but he had trouble finding a publisher. The structuralist dynamics of the game were in part inspired by the work of two architectural and urban theorists, Christopher Alexander and Jay Forrester.
I'm interested in the process and strategies for design. The architect Christopher Alexander, in his book A Pattern Language formalized a lot of spatial relationships into a grammar for design. I'd really like to work toward a grammar for complex systems and present someone with tools for designing complex things.
"Any human institutional system that draws on the intelligence of all its members is a metabrain. Up to now, we have had high friction between the neurons of the metabrain; technology is lowering that friction tremendously. Computers are allowing us to aggregate our intelligence in ways that were never possible before. If you look at Spore, people are making this stuff, and computers collect it, then decide who to send it to. The computer is the broker. What they are really exploring is the collective creativity of millions of people. They are aggregating human intelligence into a system that is more powerful than we thought artificial intelligence was going to be."
In 1986, he met Jeff Braun, an investor interested in entering the computer game industry, at what Wright calls "the world's most important pizza party." Together they formed Maxis the next year in Orinda, California. SimCity (1989) was a hit and has been credited as one of the most influential computer games ever made. Wright himself has been widely featured in several computer magazines—particularly PC Gamer, which has listed Wright in its annual 'Game Gods' feature, alongside such notables as Roberta Williams and Peter Molyneux.
Following the success of SimCity, Wright designed SimEarth (1990) and SimAnt (1991). He co-designed SimCity 2000 (1993) with Fred Haslam and in the meantime Maxis produced other "Sim" games. Wright's next game was SimCopter (1996). Although none of these games were as successful as SimCity, they further cemented Wright's reputation as a designer of "software toys"—games that cannot be won or lost. In 1992, Wright and his family moved to Orinda, California.
Wright has a great interest in complex adaptive systems and most of his games have been based around them or books that describe them (SimAnt: E.O. Wilson’s The Ants, SimEarth: James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory, SimCity: Jay Forrester’s Urban Dynamics and World Dynamics, Spore: Drake’s equation and The Powers of Ten) Wright’s role in the development of the concepts from simulations to games is to empower the players by creating what he dubs “possibility spaces”, or simple rules and game elements that add up to a very complex design. All Maxis, and later games that Wright had a hand in designing, adhere to these design principles.
Maxis went public in 1995 with revenue of US$38 million. The stock reached $50 a share and then dropped as Maxis posted a loss. Electronic Arts bought Maxis in June 1997. Wright had been thinking about making a virtual doll house ever since the early 1990s, similar to SimCity but focused on individual people. Originally conceived of as an architectural design game called Home Tactics, Wright's idea changed when someone suggested the player should be rated on the quality of life experience by the homeowners. It was a difficult idea to sell to EA, because already 40% of Maxis's employees had been laid off.
When Wright took his idea to the Maxis board of directors, Jeff Braun says, “The board looked at The Sims and said, ‘What is this? He wants to do an interactive doll house? The guy is out of his mind.’ ” Doll houses were for girls, and girls didn’t play video games. Maxis gave little support or financing for the game. Electronic Arts, which bought Maxis in 1997, was more enthusiastic. Wright’s games are so different from E.A.’s other releases that it was hard to imagine the two being united in the same enterprise. But the success of SimCity had already established Sim as a strong brand, and E.A., which by then, fifteen years after its founding, was becoming a Procter & Gamble-style brand-management company, foresaw the possibility of building a Sim franchise.
EA published The Sims in February 2000 and it became Wright's biggest success yet. It eventually surpassed Myst as the best-selling computer game of all time and spawned numerous expansion packs and other games. He designed a massively multiplayer version of the game called The Sims Online, which was not as popular as the original. By November 2006, The Sims franchise had earned E.A. more than a billion dollars.
In a presentation at the Game Developers Conference on March 11, 2005, he announced his latest game Spore. He used the current work on this game to demonstrate methods that can be used to reduce the amount of content that needs to be created by the game developers. Wright hopes to inspire others to take risks in game creation.
As for his theories on interactive design, Wright says the following:
“Well, one thing I’ve always really enjoyed is making things. Out of whatever. It started with modeling as a kid, building models. When computers came along, I started learning programming and realizing the computer was this great tool for making things, making models, dynamic models, and behaviors, not just static models. I think when I started doing games I really wanted to carry that to the next step, to the player, so that you give the player a tool so that they can create things. And then you give them some context for that creation. You know, what is it, what kind of kind of world does it live in, what’s its purpose? What are you trying to do with this thing that you’re creating? To really put the player in the design role. And the actual world is reactive to their design. So they design something that the little world inside the computer reacts to. And then they have to revisit the design and redesign it, or tear it down and build another one, whatever it is. So I guess what really draws me to interactive entertainment and the thing that I try to keep focused on is enabling the creativity of the player. Giving them a pretty large solution space to solve the problem within the game. So the game represents this problem landscape. Most games have small solution landscapes, so there’s one possible solution and one way to solve it. Other games, the games that tend to be more creative, have a much larger solution space, so you can potentially solve this problem in a way that nobody else has. If you’re building a solution, how large that solution space is gives the player a much stronger feeling of empathy. If they know that what they’ve done is unique to them, they tend to care for it a lot more. I think that’s the direction I tend to come from.”
Wright believes that simulations as games can be used to improve education by teaching children how to learn. In his own words:
“The problem with our education system is we’ve taken this kind of narrow, reductionist, Aristotelian approach to what learning is. It’s not designed for experimenting with complex systems and navigating your way through them in an intuitive way, which is what games teach. It’s not really designed for failure, which is also something games teach. I mean, I think that failure is a better teacher than success. Trial and error, reverse-engineering stuff in your mind—all the ways that kids interact with games—that’s the kind of thinking schools should be teaching. And I would argue that as the world becomes more complex, and as outcomes become less about success or failure, games are better at preparing you. The education system is going to realize this sooner or later. It’s starting. Teachers are entering the system who grew up playing games. They’re going to want to engage with the kids using games.”
Wright was given a "Lifetime Achievement Award" at the Game Developers Choice Awards in 2001. In 2002, he became the fifth person to be inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences' Hall of Fame. Until 2006, he was the only person to have been honored this way by both of these industry organizations. In 2007 the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awarded him a fellowship, the first given to a game designer.
He has been called one of the most important people in gaming, technology, and entertainment by publications such as Entertainment Weekly, Time, PC Gamer, Discover and GameSpy. Wright was also awarded the PC Magazine Lifetime Achievement Award in January 2005.
In 1980, along with co-driver and race organizer Rick Doherty, Wright participated in the U.S. Express, a cross-country race that was the predecessor to The Cannonball Run. Wright and Doherty drove a specially outfitted Mazda RX-7 from Brooklyn, New York to Santa Monica, California in 33:39, winning the illegal race. Wright only competed once in the race, which continued until 1983.
Since 2003, in his spare time, Wright has collected leftovers from the Soviet space program, "including a 100-pound hatch from a space shuttle, a seat from a Soyuz… control panels from the Mir", and the control console of the Soyuz 23, as well as dolls, dice, and fossils. During E3 2004 he passed off an old lapel pin commemorating the Soviet space program to a reporter.
He once built competitive robots for BattleBots with his daughter, but no longer does so. As of November 2006, Wright still had remnant bits of machined metal left over from his BattleBots days strewn about the garage of his Oakland home. Wright was a former Robot Wars champion in the Berkeley-based robotics workshop, the Stupid Fun Club. One of Wright's bots, designed with the help of Wright's daughter Cassidy, "Kitty Puff Puff", fought against its opponents by sticking a roll of gauze onto its armature and circling around them, encapsulating them and denying them movement. The technique, "cocooning", was eventually banned.
Following his work in BattleBots, he has taken steps into the field of human-robot interactions.
We build these robots and we take them down to Berkeley and study the interactions that people have with the robots," says Wright. "We built this newer one that has a rapid-fire pingpong cannon. It will fire about 10 per second. So we give people this plastic bat and we say, 'It's set up to play baseball. Do you want to play baseball? It's going to shoot a little ball and you try to hit it.' And all of a sudden it's like da-da-da-da, and it's pelting them with balls.
After building his reputation as one of the most important game designers in the world, Wright in 2009 left Maxis, the Electronic Arts owned studio he founded. His first post-EA venture was the Stupid Fun Club.
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