You can tell a lot about someone by what's on their desk, and Will Wright is no exception. He may have sold over 100 million copies of The Sims alone, but there's no solid gold plaque adorning his office door; instead there's a simple EA-branded sheet of A4, with his name printed across, that tells you you're in the right place.
Inside are the great passions of Wright's life: on the far wall a signed, framed poster of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey; on the whiteboard above his desk, printed images of galaxies and a hastily-scribbled graph; on his monitor, the latest build of Spore, which he's been fastidiously testing; by his computer, a toy model of a space craft.
Wright enjoys building palpable models in his spare time; by day it's the virtual building blocks of SimCity and The Sims that have made him one of the most important figures in videogames development.
Spore could well be the most complicated model ever constructed in the name of interactive entertainment: not for nothing was it originally known as 'Sim Everything', depicting the evolution of life from single-celled organism to galaxy-hopping civilisation.
Over the next few days, Eurogamer will be bringing you everything you ever wanted to know about Spore, with in-depth looks at the PC and DS versions, interviews with key team members - starting with Wright today - and a special behind-the-scenes look at the project on Eurogamer TV.
But we'll start the week with the man himself. Sitting comfortably in his office, we caught up with Wright earlier this month, a few days after he wowed the crowd at Comic-Con in San Diego, where he gave us his typically considered thoughts on life, the universe, and everything in-between. Watch the highlights on video or head further down for the full transcript.
Eurogamer: I saw you talk at Comic-Con last week (watch the full presentation on Eurogamer TV). Did you enjoy that, speaking to consumers rather than the usual industry audience?
Will Wright: Oh, that was an easy crowd [laughs], just because I'm one of those people; so it's kind of easy to talk to people like that.
Eurogamer: You talked a lot about your own personal interest in science-fiction. One of the phrases you used was, "aliens triangulate what it means to be human". A lot of sci-fi is concerned with that, with an exploration of the human condition. Would you say that with Spore, although its characters and world are essentially alien, it resonates because it is ultimately a human parable?
Will Wright: Definitely, because I think if you're going through the same story of evolution, an intelligent civilisation, and then eventually out into space, that we've gone through, but you're seeing it from an alien's point of view, it almost gives you a better perspective on what it means to be human.
I think in some ways it's a way of stepping back from humanity and getting a broader sense of our journey.
Eurogamer: Do you believe in God?
Will Wright: I'd probably be best described as an atheist. I'm open to the idea that there is some creator somewhere. I can almost envision humans one day being able to create a micro-universe. That's not to say we could ever interact with it, but it could be that the physics equations for a singularity are the same as for the Big Bang, which is that black holes in our universe could in fact be embedded universes that we will never be able to contact or get information from.
But if I can imagine that humans might one day have that power to create these universes, there's no reason why some other intelligence above us created ours. That's not to say that was the original designer, or the designer at all - maybe it was just an accident.
So at that level I'm open to the idea that our universe was created; but probably there's not a guy with a long white beard looking at everything we do, just personally those are my beliefs. [With Spore] we didn't want to go too far down that path: we leave the whole creation of the universe question open. Obviously as the player you're coming in and playing something like a god, directing the evolution of a species, but we never really state who you the player are.
Eurogamer: You describe yourself as an atheist; take the so-called militant atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who see faith uniformly as a bad, negative and dangerous thing. Do you see it more benignly, even if you don't necessarily believe?
Will Wright: Oh, I definitely see it more benignly. I see a lot of benefit and danger in religion like anything[...] I think our bigger fear was that we didn't want to offend any religious people; but looking at the discussion that unfolded from this thing, what we had was a good sizeable group of players that we might call militant atheists, and the rest of the players seemed very tolerant, including all of the religious players.
And most of the atheists were very tolerant as well. I didn't expect to hit hot buttons on the atheist side as much; I expected it on the religious side. But so far I've had no critical feedback at all from anybody who is religious feeling that we were misrepresenting religion or it was bad to represent religion in the game. It was really the atheists!
We have a number of team members that are pretty religious. And so in design, on the team, in our small, little microcosm of players out there, we tried our best to make sure we weren't overtly offending any religious people, but yet we wanted to include the idea, the concept of religion in the game.
Eurogamer: This project is unusually long compared with the standard videogame gestation period. You've been personally involved with it for seven or eight years - how do you yourself stay focused and motivated over such a long period of time?
Will Wright: I think that's more a property of me picking a topic I'm deeply, deeply interested in. If I had picked a topic I thought maybe would sell, but that I wasn't personally interested in, it would have been excruciating, but I'm just as enthusiastic about the topic and themes as I was when I started. At that point it's more just a matter of enjoying the process - really I've spent a similar amount of time on Spore as I did on The Sims.
Eurogamer: Is it difficult to adapt your concept to the technological changes that happen over time? There have been developments in this time, like social networking, that have had a big impact on Spore...
Will Wright: I'd say that the social networking thing was one of the larger changes that happened during design. The technology stuff wasn't really that much of an impact. If we were designing a game that was going to be a bleeding edge first-person shooter on the PlayStation 3, then the time-to-market issues would have been much more critical.
Instead we were trying to design a game that would work on a number of different platforms, would look nice... the underlying problems we were dealing with were simulation level of detail, procedural animation and stuff like that, that were kind of more platform-agnostic, so the march of technology helped us a lot, mainly in terms of us being able to hit a lower minimum-spec platform.
Eurogamer: You've talked previously about how you see games ultimately as toys, and the importance of play as an end in itself. I'd say that puts you in a similar ideological space as Shigeru Miyamoto. He recently described Wii Music as a toy, saying it was "more interesting" to him than a traditional videogame, which provoked an incredible backlash from hardcore gamers and sections of the specialist press. Do you still see the industry as quite "inbred", as you've said before: the same games, for the same people, by the same people?
Will Wright: Gamers kind of liked being this renegade group, and games were so complex that nobody would touch them, and that their parents hated them and all of that stuff. There's definitely this hardcore mentality from players when they see games, maybe the Wii or whatever, and they feel it's diluted what a game should be - it should be this hardcore experience where you're wearing your headphones and fragging your friends online.
But I think that's a good sign. It's great that games are breaking out of that niche, small, insular group.
Eurogamer: There's still this obsession with 'Hollywood' in gaming, being taking seriously and creating products that are 'movie-like'. Do you think this has in some way stunted the creative growth of the industry?
Will Wright: In a couple of directions, yeah. On the game design side, we've put way too much emphasis on linear storytelling, embedding that in our games - when people talk about, 'what's the story in this game, and who are the characters?' - when inherently I think games should be a much more user-driven experience where the user is unfolding the story and we give them more creative opportunities. That's not to say that games shouldn't have stories, I just think the story should be the player's story, and find more ways to celebrate and promote that, rather than the game designer's story that you're imposing upon them.
I think the Hollywood thing is kind of natural, in that most new forms of creative media look back to what was their predecessor. So with radio, people were there performing live theatre into a microphone in early radio, but then eventually it went off and became its own thing: traffic reports, talk radio, whatever. Television, the same thing - with early TV people were doing radio plays into mics in front of the camera, until they eventually realised there was a lot more power in the visuals.
[With] games, the real power is in the interactivity, the player driving the experience. But initially, early games, once they had the graphics, were trying to be movie experiences: here's the beginning, here's the back story, and then you rescue the princess at the end. So I think games creatively are now getting enough surefootedness, and enough technology underneath them, to give the player that freedom.
Eurogamer: You attempted an MMO with The Sims Online, which didn't prove a success; and you've described Spore as a 'massively single-player online experience'. Are you more interested in pursuing this course now, or have you learnt enough so that you would go back and look again and look at a more multiplayer-oriented title?
Will Wright: I think the reason I was driven to what Spore ended up becoming is that there are a lot of games out there that were single-player experiences, unconnected. There were a lot of games that were massively-multiplayer experiences, and there was nothing between the two. Yet there's a really interesting space of hybrids between the two that Spore became, where you have a lot of players connected through content, but it's not synchronous: it's asynchronous interactions.
When you design a massively-multiplayer online game you have to bite off a lot of major design limitations, like nobody can pause the game, nobody can cheat, you usually have to pay a subscription. But the biggest benefit I saw from that was the possibility of having a collaboratively built world, that's huge and always surprising. So for Spore we tried to figure out, how do we get the best aspects of a massively-multiplayer game without all these huge design limitations?
I think a lot of these limitations were what sank The Sims Online: we didn't have enough user-created content; to a lot of the people that were playing The Sims, the idea of paying a subscription was a really big filter - a lot didn't even have credit cards. So really I think it's interesting that nobody's explored this hybrid space between the two, and that's the reason we ended up there with Spore. That's not to say that one day we might not do a massively-multiplayer online version of it, but it's just not the most interesting initial unveiling of it for me.
Eurogamer: Looking at your own creative development as a designer - you talked a little at Comic-Con about growing up in the '60s, a time of great social upheaval, of the space race and a time when individuals and small groups could effect big change - to borrow a phrase of yours you've applied to videogames, "change the world a little bit". Is your design philosophy a direct product of growing up in that era?
Will Wright: That era and the eras afterwards - I think that the internet basically gave a whole new dynamic to social change. Even in the '60s you basically had broadcasters and consumers, whether it be games, movies, news, whatever. When the internet came around and all of sudden you had this idea of peer-to-peer narrowcasting - everybody could be a producer, everybody could make their own blog, their own YouTube video. There's a huge shift in the dynamics of the way culture plays out and ideas. Mimetic warfare - the idea of memes competing for mindshare.
I think games as a similar technology alongside the internet bring in this idea of empowering the player to create things, and explore new experiences and craft imaginary models they can share with other people. I think those two things, taken together, give something like games their power - to actually go in and get people actively engaged in something that might actually transfer into an interest or a change in the perception of the world around them after they walk away from the game. But also become and avenue for them to craft messages, experiences, narratives, content, that now get freely shared with other players.
Eurogamer: With Spore, as someone who grew up loving space and sci-fi and wanted to be an astronaut, you've finally gone there with videogames...
Will Wright: Virtually, yeah!
Eurogamer: Are you going to sign up to one of the commercial space flights? Maybe hitch a ride on John Carmack's rocket?
Will Wright: Oh, I might; I'll think about it. I would certainly consider it.
Eurogamer: Is that still very much an ambition you'd like to fulfil?
Will Wright: I think it would be interesting to go into space for a little bit; at the same time I've thought about it enough to realise that you're basically going to be in a tin can, and depending on whether it's sub-orbital, or orbital, how much you can actually enjoy the experience...
Eurogamer: It could be a massive letdown?
Will Wright: I kind of doubt it would be a massive letdown. Just the experience of knowing you'd been there is interesting. But also if you think about a sub-orbital flight, you're really just going 60 miles in that direction, and if you imagine going 60 miles sideways, it's not that far really. The view would be really nice for a little while at sub-orbital - orbital sounds a lot more exciting to some degree.
Eurogamer: Spore was originally dubbed 'Sim Everything'. So what's next? Obviously there will be other things related to Spore, but then do you undertake another project of this scale, or something smaller and more manageable?
Will Wright: There are a lot of other projects waiting in the wings that I've been doing early research on that when Spore ships I'm going to sit back, take a deep breath, and look at these projects and consider which ones to dive into.
Eurogamer: With the success of Creature Creator, are you interested in creating just prototypes, throwing them out there and seeing what happens without putting a vast world behind them?
Will Wright: Yeah, there's a lot to be said for backroom garage development, ground-up social stuff as well. I kind of like the idea of having a range of projects, some of them very short term, maybe one very long term - it's nice to have things a little out of cycle.
Eurogamer: What games have you played in the last year that you've enjoyed?
Will Wright: I played the last GTA a fair amount, which I enjoyed a lot. I've always liked Advance Wars on my DS; I've been playing a lot of Wii games as well. I just got the Balance Board and started playing some of those games.
The Wii is really very much about this visceral connection to the action, and really it's the bandwidth of the Wii that really excites me. When you look at most games consoles and even computers, we have a huge amount of output in terms of the graphics and the data coming out, but we have a tiny little straw of data going in, which is your mouse co-ordinates and the keyboard presses.
The Wii, the way it's reading the controller, you actually have a lot more bandwidth. It's still a straw, but it's a big straw - and for me that's the really interesting part about the Wii.
Eurogamer: There are sound business reasons for releasing games on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but do those systems excite you creatively?
Will Wright: I think they have their advantages. The graphics power of those things is probably the chief attraction of them. It used to be that games consoles had all these limitations compared to computers: no hard drive storage, low-res displays, no connectivity. And one by one they've either knocked down or at least equalised most of those advantages, so I see the creative opportunity on the major consoles like PS3 and 360 being roughly similar to the PC space right now.
Eurogamer: As someone who is seen as operating at the cutting-edge of games design, what would be your best guess be looking 10 years ahead at what the games we'll be playing will be like, and the platforms we'll be playing them on?
Will Wright: I think we'll probably have games that are even more diversely arrayed across different platforms. We're seeing a lot of games on cell phones, small handheld portables, plus the big home systems, web-based games.
I think you'll start seeing games that are structured to be playable on all these things - wherever you are you can play the same game, some aspect of it, whatever platform is available to you. I think the free movement and creation of content is going to be a big, big aspect of games at that point. I think also we're at the point now - and we're doing this with Spore a little bit - where the computer can learn a tremendous amount about the player by observing what they do, what they're good at, what they enjoy, and restructuring the game around you. In some sense, have the game self-design to fit you, and to a point where your game feels very unique, almost a reflection of your personality. My game, which might have started out as the same game, has evolved to fit me like a glove.
Those type of trends are much more exciting to me than better graphics, which is typically what people think about.
Eurogamer: With Spore, what would you hope; what do you believe will be its lasting impact on gaming?
Will Wright: I've been trying to think about Spore less as a product and more as a franchise or brand, looking at moving it in all possible directions. Whereas The Sims we kept expanding vertically, we kept selling expansion packs to the same customers over and over, I think Spore we want to expand horizontally; we want to say what other kinds of experiences, activities, formats, media can we bring Spore out. And at that point you have to say, what does the brand mean?
And that's where we've been thinking about Spore - as this brand that's the intersection of creativity and science. Science is an inherently interesting thing: a lot of the time it's not presented that interestingly. If you look at documentaries on cable television - if you're into that science it's kind of fun to watch. And there's some pretty good science shows for kids, but aren't that many fast-paced, really intelligent, very visual things for adults that feel like entertainment. That's kind of the direction I want Spore to move in.
Eurogamer: Finally, it's been a long road for Spore - looking at your original idea for what it might become, how does that match up now?
Will Wright: It's actually surprisingly close to what we were initially talking about. There are a couple of areas that ended up in there we didn't expect to be so developed. The social networking side where you can build Sporecasts, subscribe to buddy lists and stuff like that.
I think a few narrow areas, like the procedural music Brian Eno brought in for us, from the very beginning I didn't think we'd have that. But then also at every single game level, the last level of depth that we added to almost every level of the game was a little bit deeper... I didn't really expect every level to be so deep; I expected them to be a little more light and superficial in terms of the game genres.
Will Wright is co-founder and chief designer at Maxis. Spore is due out for PC, Mac, mobile and DS on 5th September.