SDCC: Will Wright’s Spore exploits Geek Addictive Tendencies

Will Wright, the visionary behind the world-changing games SimCity and The Sims, is a dangerous man. At least, he is to people like my eighteen-year-old self, who spent far too much of the summer after The Sims was released working for a video game company by day and playing Wright’s game from midnight to 5:00 a.m. each night. Based solely on this anecdotal evidence, I predict that a whole lot of people will spend this fall—or years to come—similarly entranced by Wright’s new game Spore, which will make its debut this September. Spore is like SimCityin micro and macro, allowing players to design a species and take it from its beginnings as a single-celled organism to an intelligent species to a planet-conquering, interstellar power.

Even knowing Wright’s impressive pedigree, I was hardly expecting him to be such a funny, personable speaker. How can you not be instantly enamored with someone who starts a panel on (arguably) the most important new video game of the year with a motivator parody about comic convention attendees and their propensity to virginity and ends it with a Russian German Space Minute about Wernher Von Braun? But it was the material between those two points that Wright’s audience was hungering for, and he delivered it in spades, in the best panel I’ve seen so far at CCI.

[A detailed summary of his talk follows behind the cut…]

But first, a small disclaimer: please be aware that some of the ideas reported here have been simplified considerably for translation to the page, so blame me (and the lack of accompanying diagrams) rather than Wright if anything below is less than perfectly eloquent. I hope you’ll forgive the elision that is necessary to give you a taste of what you missed without reproducing the panel word for word.

  • Wright started by speaking a bit about fandoms and explained that “my own Otaku is centered around 2001: A Space Odyssey“. Wright spoke of 2001’s HAL as a formative influence, as it had caused him to marvel at “the idea that the first alien intelligences we meet are going to be the ones that we invent.” It was only later that he realized that the vision presented had been fictional: “I didn’t realize that adults didn’t know everything…of course [he had expected them to] know what the future’s going to be.” Eventually, Wright began to see robots and aliens as a way of understanding humans  more deeply. This drive to understand also led to a strong interest in models that can evolve dynamically.
  • The modern concern about kids getting absorbed in game worlds mimics the story of a gentleman who was so fixated on a newfangled device that he didn’t notice the narrator walking into the room. As it turns out, that device was not a handheld game player but a book.
  • Next, some musings on shifts in popularity of communication mediums, including how “[in medieval monasteries] books were kept as breeding stock for more books” and Alexander Graham Bell’s then-absurd claim that “it is my firm belief that one day there will be a telephone in every town.”
  • There’s also the trend that new technologies are often first used for important things, like solving specific problems, but eventually become entertainment (DARPA to the internet, Turing machines to video games). Fortunately, most of these technologies, eventually wrap back around to the creation of art once they reach maturity.
  • Amusing side notes: Will’s theory about how Gilligan’s


    is a “spiritual predecessor to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman,” and his surprise at “how much the term ‘Blade Runner’ comes up when talking about city planning issues”
  • “Play is the natural thing that we’re born into this world knowing what to do. Storytelling, we have to be taught.” “I wonder” is a driving force for creativity: what would happen if we sent James Bond after Osama Bin Laden?
  • During the development stages of Spore, the creators thought about their “favorite science fiction genres and what they represent in terms of narrative”. They “ended up embedding a huge amount of cultural references [to science fiction]” in the game and constantly asked what science-fictional verbs, such as “invade” and “create instant happiness,” you could recreate with the game.
  • “We spent a lot of time looking at pulp science fiction covers [and] had one of our artists go back and try to reconstruct the most common elements.” They also made mockups that attempted to portray Spore as if it was itself a product of the pulp universe.
  • During design, the thought process always went back to powers of 10, conceiving the universe from the very small to the very large. The approach was accurate enough that they were able to get a number of biologists to use the game to explain their current thoughts on evolution that will eventually be turned into a National Geographic-sponsored documentary.
  • Wright spoke of the phenomenon where people grow less confident in their abilities as they grow up (ask a group of kindergartners if they can sing, draw, act, almost all of them will say yes; ask a bunch of university students and most will say no). “Evolution was the process of teaching us what we couldn’t do.” By the same token, many adults will say they’re not creative, but the moment we give them tools to aid creativity they are eager to use them.
  • By the power law distribution, there’s certainly lots of stuff out there that’s crap. But if you can push the entire curve higher by increasing quantity, you vastly increase the amount of room that’s under it. Wright then provides a staggering example: EA released the Spore Creature Creator, a standalone encapsulation of some of the early portions of the game, on June 16th. Their hope was that all of the early adopters would have created a library of a million creatures by the time the full game was released on September 7th. Instead, they saw 100,000 creatures created within 22 hours of the game’s release, and reached their target of a million within a week. There are now over two million creatures in the Sporepedia. Or, to look at the same figures more whimsically, the Sporepedia reached the 1.6 million mark—thus containing about as many species as we currently estimate exist on Earth—within 18 days. Wright argues that “God took about seven days to do the same thing,” so we can quantify the creative power of the Spore fan base as .38G.
  • The raw figures, though, don’t get across the breadth of some of the creativity on display, where creators made thousands of new species, but also worked to mimic animals—or even mechanical objects—from our world, often utilizing means like exploiting a bug that makes flesh invisible and shows the creatures’ bones. EA will in turn provide access to as many tools as possible for fans to show their work to the world at large, such as imbedded YouTube uploads and the MashON SPORE Comic Book Creator.
  • Wright then spent awhile showing us some of the later stages of the game, including demonstrating some of the strategies to capture competing civilizations and unify them with your own (sending an advertising blimp to invert them to materialism or an elite missionary force of holographic televangelist to subdue with religion) and giving us an idea of the mechanisms for editing ships, tanks, and buildings. There’s even a procedural music generator for the world’s audio theme (though you can pick some by Brian Eno if you don’t want to make your own).
  • Don’t forget that all of this creativity will be harnessed to embroider the fabric of everyone’s world: any time you make something in the editor it will automatically get sent to the pollinator. This will eventually add up to an environment so big and deep that “you could play this game for your whole life and never visit everything.”
  • And once you use those ships to make it into space, the game begins its attempt to “convey the beauty of space” and give users the chance to get a sense of what a real galaxy is like (though in a real galaxy it’s not quite as simple to use gravitational lensing to find black holes and gradually build a map of various places in relation to each other). Wright views this as part of his plan to turn all of the sciences into “fun, immersive toys.”

All in all, Spore sounds like it has all the earmarks of a cultural product that will be akin to high-grade crack cocaine for science fiction fans. Have you delved into the SCC yet? Are you planning on it? Tell us about your experiences.


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