Will Wright is the creative mind behind some of the most beloved, and successful, simulation games in the world.
The Sims continues to expand with new games across multiple platforms, while SimCity rebooted and expanded to mobile. That said, it’s been a while since Wright has made a new game—and that trend won’t end with his new project, Thred, a free “toolkit to share your favorite ideas” that's now available on iOS and coming later this year to Android. (But Wright is thinking about a location-based game idea for his new app.)
We caught up to Wright to talk about the evolution of his own creativity, the closure of Maxis, and explains why he’s excited about augmented reality.
PCWorld: What have you been up to lately?
Will Wright: With the Stupid Fun Club we did a few experimental things like a TV show and some toy stuff. But the TV show we did proposed plotlines and let fans vote on them from the storyboard level. So I got interested in that.
And I was spending all of my computing time on my mobile to the point now where I hardly even use my PC. I use my iPad a little bit, but I spend probably most of my time on my mobile device. I felt like that the content that I was consuming on my phone was legacy content. It was surfing the Web with tiny little type and hard links to tap or photos. That was about it. It wasn’t really a content form that was made specifically for mobile.
So those two things intersected in my head and I started going on the path of what would be a more natural, browsable content you could explore while standing in line at Starbucks with your phone in one hand. The idea was to browse very, very quickly, get a sense of it, dive into it wherever I wanted to, pop back out, but also create that content on the go. So I got interested in the content side, and the content doesn’t have to be stories. In fact, right now I’m trying to design a location-based game in the [Thred] system. For a lot of people, browsing the Web is their basic form of entertainment.
How have you designed Thred for anyone to use?
Anybody can make a panel with links, and those links can be based on location, people, hashtags or other stories. Basically, it’s a hyper-linked system very much like the Web, but designed for mobile. We’re calling it the story web.
At some point, a lot of the threds that people create in this app will become interlinked through some path or another. So on one end we have all these different kinds of raw data sources connected to individuals, but those individuals can pull something off the Web, or start with a blank slate, or just press a button and say, “give a thred right now where I am,” and it will create an instant panel.
The idea is that we have all these users creating these things based on the data sources they find interesting with the ability to link them together through hyperlinks, and eventually that might be the major form of discovery through this app…just like you surf the Web but on something that was designed to be more location-based and designed to be consumed on mobile.
Do you envision Thred as being a new platform for developers to create content on?
My interest is less in giving developers tools, and more in giving regular people tools. What really excited me when we did The Sims was when players started creating these amazing movies and stories using the tools within the game. All of sudden we realized that this was a tool of self-expression for them. I love the idea of bringing that creativity to the masses.
Even the concept of what a developer is has evolved since The Sims launched, especially with crowd sourcing development like Epic Games and Daybreak Studios are using.
With crowd sourcing it makes a lot more sense because you have somebody doing the core of the spine, but then encouraging other people to come in and add content within that. That’s very much in line with what we have on Thred. I think a developer in that sense—are a couple of guys going out making crazy skateboarding YouTube videos filmmakers? They found an easy way to share their passion. And some of them have just huge numbers of subscribers. It’s amazing, and I doubt these people before YouTube had any clue that they would ever be running a channel with regular viewers and hardcore fans.
What are your thoughts on Maxis being closed?
Oh, it was sad. I knew a lot of people in that studio. I think quite a few of them took jobs at EA, but they were great, great people and some of them came to be scattered in the wind.
We’ve seen SimCity evolve to mobile. Do you still see that as a franchise that will live on down the road?
Oh, I’m sure SimCity and The Sims are both going to be around for a long, long time. In general—but not always—EA’s superpower was the ability to manage a long-term franchise. They’re kind of hit or miss in terms of creating new franchises, but they’ve got enough resources and the company has slowly been turning itself around, so I’m sure they’ll survive and belong in the future.
You’ve been a fan of augmented reality technology. Do you think AR would get you back into creating games?
The path I’m going down now with Thred is closer to where I would get to that. Some things, where we could have the synthesized data about each individualized user, and figure out how to filter out the 1 percent that was relevant to somebody in their current situation, and it might be something that’s special. It might be plural. It might be social. For me, it’s kind of a data classification and situational awareness problem. Of course, games can be built in that, but I think these are the fundamental things that give that power.
What would your ultimate AR device be?
I think about that a lot. I can imagine in my head the kind of augmented reality system I would love to be using. It’s not Google Glass, but it’s something that would understand me very, very deeply and understand when there are opportunities or things that would interest me that I’m not aware of. It would be this system in augmenting my senses.
What do you play for fun these days when you’re just gaming?
I surf the Web on my mobile, or every now and then I’ll sit down in front of my PC and play World of Tanks for half an hour. For me it’s a shooter for old people.
Wargaming did come out with World of Tanks Blitz for mobile.
I know. My stepson has been playing that and showing me that, but what I like about the original is the mouse and keyboard. I like the slow pace of it because if I play any other shooter, some 15-year-old kicks my butt. But you can only turn your mouse so quickly, so it really equalizes the playing field.
Wargaming just held its World of Tanks Grand Finals in Warsaw, Poland. What do you think of e-sports’ popularity today?
It’s cool. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t celebrate the best gamers. It’s kind of amazing how deep some of the skill sets on these players are.
As a game developer does that give you an even elevated sense of what it takes for some of these guys to be able to play at that elite level in League of Legends or StarCraft 2 or World of Tanks?
It amazes me how versatile humans are, whether it’s an acrobat is Cirque du Soleil or it’s a fighter pilot managing this huge information stream. E-sports kind of falls in that realm. It’s amazing what humans can learn to do.
What are your thoughts about where video games seem to be heading today?
They’re still diversified, which is great. Mobile opened a huge opportunity with the whole app thing and totally disrupted the economics of the whole industry. There was a window there of a few years where anybody with a couple of friends could put out an app and make a lot of money, but now it’s getting so crowded…but that’s not necessarily bad. It’s extremely Darwinian and I feel that if you have something that’s really cool, you can go by word-of-mouth.
It’s still tricky. You have to understand what you’re doing, and there’s a lot of savvy in the social marketing, but it’s a different kind of skill set. It’s a skill set that can be approached with a few thousands of dollars instead of millions of dollars, so that is all-in-all a good thing.