Q&A: Will Wright on the rules of Stupid Fun Club
The celebrated designer explains the origins of his new studio's name, why he left EA, and what he thinks about Spore.
The first rule of Stupid Fun Club is apparently to talk about Stupid Fun Club. That's the name of the new company announced today by Electronic Arts and Will Wright, influential designer behind Sim City, the Sims, and Spore. This morning, EA revealed that Wright would be leaving the publisher to start up the aforementioned company. Formerly an employee of EA, Wright will now be a partner with it, given that the two are the principal shareholders of the new venture.
As news of his departure rippled through the gaming world, Wright took time out to answer a few questions for GameSpot. During the course of the interview, the AIAS Hall of Famer explained the origins of Stupid Fun Club, why he decided to split from EA and set up his new business in a historically difficult economy, and how he feels about his most recent major EA release, the heavily hyped Spore.
GameSpot: Why choose the name Stupid Fun Club?
Will Wright: [Laughs] Well, it confused our bank pretty nicely. When we tried to open our bank account, we told them the name and they laughed. It took us quite a while to convince them that was actually the name.
GS: Your games in the past have been pointed to specifically as examples of games that can be more than stupid fun, so I assume it's tongue-in-cheek and not a change in direction for your career.
WW: Well, it depends on how you look at it. I think there are going to be things coming out of the Stupid Fun Club that clearly reflect the lineage of games I made in the past, especially gaming experiences. But there are going to be some things that feel like they're out of the box, kind of neat ways of looking at entertainment. Stupid Fun Club is more meant to be just off the wall and odd.
This started many years ago actually, with friends I met doing Robot Wars together. That's when we originally coined the name, because it's kind of ridiculous to invest hundreds of hours building these things and then destroy them. But it's great fun, and it's really stupid.
GS: Is there another company you can point to as an example of what you want to be and how you want to handle Stupid Fun Club?
WW: Not exactly. There are some things that have aspects of the way we structure the Stupid Fun Club. In some sense, what I'm really looking at is the evolution of the entertainment industry.
I don't think the [audiences] are making huge distinctions between the formats that the producers of these things make. If I'm into Star Wars or Lost, I might go to the Web site or buy the toys. To me, it's the IP that really matters, that strand of consistency and quality through it.
But if you look at the way entertainment is produced, you have these companies that are very specialized in TV or toys or games, and later on they think, "How do we turn this into a movie or a TV show." We want to focus on it from the core outward.
It also takes a lot of the learning I've had in games about how you get people emotionally involved by making games very user-centric. We're trying to take some of those ideas into other fields.
There are aspects of other companies out there that I really respect. Companies like IDEO, the design company; Marvel, the way they've managed their brands; and Lucas as well, for the way they've approached merchandising and things like that.
GS: With the owning of original IP and expanding into multimedia, this sounds like Oddworld Inhabitants. They haven't exactly struck it rich. Is there a problem with this idea coming from the gaming sector?
WW: Well, we tend to think of brands as things that were born in linear entertainment. Typically when people think of brands they think of something with characters and storylines and environments, like a Star Wars or a Batman. Coming from the interactive side, I tend to think a little more fluidly about what a brand can be.
Look at a brand like Lego, for instance. It's a toy, but it's also a style. There have been games done with it, and in some sense it's inherently playful and involving. So when I talk about a brand, I'm thinking more in that sense than in the, "Let's develop a fictional world of characters that we can develop a movie about or do a TV show with" sense.
GS: You've garnered success in gaming as a creator. What's the impetus to expand into different media? Is it just good business?
WW: It's more about opportunities. When we were doing the Stupid Fun Club, we built all these robots and we started making them talk and interact with each other. We started noticing that certain technological things that are available now are opening up new design possibilities in entertainment. If you work from there and ask what technology is enabling now, what the core experience is that you enjoy doing with this thing, and how we expand on that.
Now, not every idea is going to want to go into every format. Certain ideas will go in a limited number of directions and that's fine. You don't want to dilute it by trying to monetize it in every possible field. But the opportunities that we have--the ideas we've sparked working at the Stupid Fun Club--are very real in my mind, and they cross these media very naturally. So it's kind of hard to say we're going to start with just one thing when really you want the synergy between the two.
I think there's a lot of synergy we're seeing between certain aspects here. The toy industry in particular has been slowly declining because kids are playing video games. On the other hand, you've got social networks like Club Penguin or Webkinz that kids are playing and getting into as a toy. But really it's a Web experience. In the player's minds, they're [grouping] together all these things. When they think of a brand, they don't think this is a toy brand and that's a television-show brand.
GS: What will you be able to do differently now that EA wouldn't have been on board with?
WW: I think EA recognizes their core competency is in the game space, and I would not expect them to do a really good job of producing a television show. With the Stupid Fun Club, we're open to working with different partners who are very competent in their areas. We're going to do most of the development outboard of the Stupid Fun Club, so the actual project development will be with these partners, like Electronic Arts for games. But we're going to be very involved with the ongoing development of those concepts.
That's the primary thing, that we can now think about these games from the center of entertainment outward into these different formats. Whereas within EA, it was always about how do we make this a big game, and then later we might think about other opportunities. But it wasn't a square-one part of the strategy.
GS: Why choose now to leave EA and strike out on your own venture?
WW: It's something that we've been in talks with EA for almost a year now, so for me it's kind of a long-term plan and I was just in no hurry to do it. We'd been developing a lot of these concepts within the Stupid Fun Club and people would come by over the years and say, "That's great, I would buy that." It got to the point where venture capitalists were offering us real money to fund these projects.
With Maxis, I'd already been down the whole "Take VC money, do the IPO, do the acquisition" thing. I saw a lot of dysfunction in that model that was interesting to experience once, but I didn't want to go through it again.
As I started talking to EA about this, we started realizing they were very interested in the game properties coming out of this. We started exploring the idea of them funding the Stupid Fun Club as a VC would, but because their interest is in the game properties coming out, they have no interest in us becoming liquid and doing the IPO and all that. So we basically got EA to come in as our VC without committing to a path to liquidity. So we can keep the group very small and very focused and not deal with that whole business path.
GS: How soon will we start hearing about the first projects from the Stupid Fun Club?
WW: I think it'll be a few months away. It's going to depend on how things develop from here, but we've got several projects in the works right now and it's just not clear when they'll be announced. That's my best guess yet.
GS: Should we expect to see the projects that are games released through the EA Partners program?
WW: Well, EA has the first right to release game ideas that come out of the Stupid Fun Club. Whether it's through the EA Partners program or not has yet to be determined.
GS: With your last big project for EA, Spore, there was discussion about whether or not it lived up to years and years of expectations. Did it live up to your expectations?
WW: My own expectations were always more on the toy side of Spore and getting fans involved. And we're still learning about Spore from what the fans are doing with it. In terms of the content, what the fans have done with it vastly exceeded our expectations.
It's kind of like The Sims 1.0. When it first came out, we learned a huge amount over the first few months about what players wanted and the directions they wanted it to go, and The Sims incrementally improved with each expansion pack. We were adding in features the fans were requesting the most, and we'll be doing the same with Spore as well. So in some sense, this is the point the fans get to come in and vote on the direction of the franchise.
Actually, Spore's done very well with EA internally, based on their forecasts within a very tight economy. They seem quite pleased with its performance.
GS: Do you think the years and years of people looking forward to it helped or hurt the game, ultimately?
WW: I think it was probably overhyped, like a lot of games end up being, primarily because the development time was so long. From every project you learn and apply those learnings to the next project. I think there were certain things from Spore that were great, like releasing the Creature Creator early was a big win. But the people who are playing Spore, it's a very different demographic than we were expecting right off the bat, almost like Sim Ant.
We have a lot of young kids playing Spore, as young as 3 years old sitting on their parent's lap describing the creature they want made. This is the type of stuff we learn when we release something. Certain levels weren't deep enough for the hardcore gamers, and we're going back with the expansion pack and addressing that. But then other markets we didn't expect at all to be picking it up. We never expected a 3-year-old to be playing with their parents.
For more on Stupid Fun Club, check out the company's Web site.