Game developer Will Wright discusses benefits of failing

Will Wright, creator of _The Sims_ and winner of the Entertainment Technology Center’s second annual Pausch Prize, speaks at the 2010 Game Developers Conference. (credit: Courtesy of the Game Developers Conference) Will Wright, creator of _The Sims_ and winner of the Entertainment Technology Center’s second annual Pausch Prize, speaks at the 2010 Game Developers Conference. (credit: Courtesy of the Game Developers Conference)

Renowned video game developer Will Wright was awarded the second-annual Pausch Prize by Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) on April 28. The prize recognized Wright's success in mixing art and technology. He is responsible for creating The Sims, which is the best-selling PC game series of all time, as well as Spore, SimCity, SimAnt, and several other titles. The Tartan had the opportunity to talk to Wright during his visit about his experiences, his views on the gaming industry, and his advice for current students.

TT: One thing that Randy Pausch is famous for around here is the First Penguin Award — which is in a way rewarding failure and rewarding big risks. In your experiences, how have you seen payoffs for taking risks, and what have you learned from things you’ve worked on that haven’t turned out the way you thought they would?

WW: I probably learn more from the projects that fail than the ones that succeed. When I’m hiring people, that’s the first thing I ask them — how many failures have they experienced? The people who have just been on successful start-ups or successful projects generally haven’t learned that much. It’s somebody who’s been through two or three failed start-ups.... It’s really kind of amazing if they’ve learned lessons from those. [They have] much more street smarts.

The kind of stuff we do with simulation [games] encourages failure-based learning, which is something that schools — something that traditional education typically tries to protect the students from. So I think failure-based learning is extremely effective. It used to be like the old model — you would be an apprentice of somebody, and you’d build chairs, and you’d build 100 bad chairs, and over time you’d get better and better and better — and then we kind of reversed it, and instead we send you to school. We’re not going to let you build a chair at all. We’re going to teach you how not to build a bad chair. And so they drill you with all these rules of thumb, and formal structures about how to avoid failure, but you never grew up experiencing it.

TT: Going off of that, related to _Spore, which is your most recent big project — if you’d had more time or more resources to push that, what's somewhere you think you could have gone with that, that you just didn’t get around to doing?_

WW: I think if we’d known the audience that it was really going to connect with, we would have aimed it younger, because it really clicked with a younger audience than I was expecting. Which isn’t the first time that’s happened — it happened with SimAnt as well. I think that if we really wanted to hit that older demographic we would have gone for deeper, more emergent gameplay across levels. I think we realized from the very beginning that in every level, if the possibilities open wider and wider and wider, most of that space the player was using would be unplayable. Which is why we had to kind of constrain it, you know, from stage to stage.

But for young people — they were enjoying more of the creative aspects. It was amazing how many players were really into Spore that were like 3 years old. And they would be sitting on their parent’s lap, with the Creature Creator, telling the parent, oh, ‘Give it two heads!’ and ‘Give it five arms!’ you know, and you had this kid with incredible imagination, and you had a parent with hand-eye coordination driving the mouse, and it was a good synergy between the two.

TT: Yeah, I guess the kid is then watching their character in almost a movie.

WW: Just having it come to life was delightful for them, almost absent gameplay. But also they were just building these crazy creatures that the adults would never think to build.

TT: Where do you see your kind of games — simulator-type games — being five or 10 years down the road?

WW: I think you’ll see more games kind of like that, basically taking a slice of society, of the world, and turning it into a toy. Very playful. We’re seeing a lot of these things now, in different directions, whether it’s Farmville, or something like that, or a cooking game on the Wii. These are games more about reality than they are about dungeons and dragons. But also we’re seeing a huge spread in demographics. We’re seeing women play games, or older people or younger people. Just the demographics [are] exploding now, so we’ll see different kinds of flavors of simulation that we haven’t seen before.

TT: With the big push into 3-D gaming and also motion-based gaming, do you see that as contributing to that [expansion], or working separately?

WW: I think they’re kind of orthogonal. I think we’re seeing diversification across almost every dimension of the platforms, the demographics, the game genres — they’re all just kind of exploding right now. There’s a strong indie game scene, there’s strong programs like here, at CMU. Whole new crops of people are coming into the field that are very skilled and qualified, right out of the gate. Whereas in my generation it was a few people, just kind of learning on our own, through a lot of failure. So it was more of a trickle.

TT: One thing that a lot of students here, especially, have — they have a lot of really innovative, crazy game ideas. What would be your advice for them to [advance] those things to be reality?

WW: Well, I think as a designer you have to kind of be the champion of a project. So you have to learn to be very persistent. Usually if I have an idea and I tell people about my idea and they say, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea,’ then I get less interested in it. It’s when everybody pushes back on me and says ‘That’s crazy; you can’t do that’ or ‘That wouldn’t work,’ you know, that’s when I get really stubborn about it. And I think that’s a quality that if they do have a really strange new game idea, they have to learn to fight for it. And, you know, find ways to make it happen. It’s actually more satisfying, and it’ll end up being a better game with more people pushing back on you.