GDC 06: His Spore-ness addresses adoring throng

Sims creator Will Wright brings in capacity crowd, then gets academic during his keynote; says research, obsessiveness, prototypes are all key to the design process.

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SAN JOSE, Calif.--Legendary game designer Will Wright capped off the 2006 Game Developers Conference's keynote speaker series on Thursday, treating conference attendees to a one-hour talk entitled "Why I Get Obsessed with My Game Design Research."

Wright--the brains behind the popular SimCity and The Sims franchises--was originally slated to discuss "What's Next in Game Design." Instead, the frenetic, fast-paced lecture addressed a host of subjects that ranged from the intellectual to the whimsical.

Conveying his passion for game design research, Wright not only discussed the creative process behind his upcoming "evolution game" Spore, but also interspersed his design wisdom with several minilectures on astrobiology--the study of possible extraterrestrial life.

The juxtaposition of the two topics made for a talk that was at the same time captivating, hilarious, and somewhat schizophrenic. Wright himself joked that he planned to "interweave the two [subjects] for maximum confusion."

"Most of the games I've done were inspired by one particular book I've read," Wright remarked, later adding that he had read over 100 books in researching Spore. Wright also cited several interviews he conducted with experts like Stanley Miller (a noted biochemist) and David Brin (a sci-fi author).

Drawing from his experiences, Wright stressed that game designers need to "enjoy being obsessive." Wright pointed to filmmaker Stanley Kubrick as a major influence and "creative hero." "[Kubrick] was totally obsessive about his research," Wright remarked, describing his admiration for the director's attention to detail in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, Wright also warned that game designers need to know "what 90 percent [of the research] to leave out" of their designs.

Perhaps more than any other take-home point, however, Wright emphasized that "games have the ability to change our players at a very deep level." Wright argued that games motivate players to learn, even if they fail to teach specific subjects and facts. Focusing on his fascination with aliens and robots, Wright explained that such humanoid sci-fi fixtures "give us a better understanding of who we are," letting us explore "the boundaries of humanity."

Wright more generally described how entertainment such as television shows, movies, and games can be used to subversively convey important messages. For instance, he pointed to Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove as a film that used black humor to spin serious political issues in a fresh, more palatable way. Examining his own work, Wright remarked that he hopes Spore conveys scientific lessons such as "galaxies are large" and "space is a wonderfully three-dimensional, dynamic thing," as well as broader messages such as "life is diverse" and "anyone can be creative."

Wright's lecture itself was not without subversive messages. In a segment that he called "a side rant," Wright argued that NASA can accomplish more scientific finds with missions manned by robots than with humans. He then proposed that, given the amount of money already spent on the war in Iraq, America could buy a Hubble Space Telescope for "every member of the UN."

In a more light-hearted digression, Wright spent several minutes telling the dramatic survival story of Russian spacecraft Soyuz 23. The story, which he called his "Russian Space Minute," was typical of his frenetic, humorous lecturing style.

Nonetheless, Wright's forays into astrobiology and astronomy gave the lecture an unmistakably academic vibe. Wright addressed a variety of topics such as Drake's Equation (which attempts to predict the number of extraterrestrial civilizations), the chronology of Earth's development, and Rare Earth theory (which argues that stable, Earth-like planets are very rare).

Linking the two strands of his presentation, Wright repeatedly described how his astrobiology research ultimately influenced Spore. In particular, he demoed one complex simulation that explores where life best propagates and evolves in a spiral-armed galaxy. Wright also documented several failed prototypes, such as autocatalytic chemistry and cellular process simulations that "were not that compelling."

In general, Wright stressed the importance of simulation prototypes in the ideation process. He argued that prototypes provide a way to attack design risks early. For example, he described how the Spore team addressed the technological risks of pollinated (shared) game content and procedural animation to prove that the ambitious game concept would be feasible. Wright also suggested that games made by other people can serve as useful game-concept prototypes. In regards to Spore, Wright mentioned his own experiences with existing space games like Homeworld and Microsoft Space Simulator.

In closing his lecture, Wright reiterated that computer games have the ability to "change your players," and that "eventually you're going to become a teacher," even if only through the filter of the game. He ended, "That's something we shouldn't squander."

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