Are there any games, besides Spore, that you thought were innovative in 2008? Which is your favorite?
2008, lots of them, love Rock Band, I was looking at some of the indy games like Braid, very nicely done, a fine jewel of a game. The scope of these games is what is important, they feel retro, because it’s not a huge gigantic feat with hours of game play, you can get into them in a couple of minutes. I have always liked the Wii stuff; it feels so out of the box. I have also been spending a lot of time playing games on my iPhone. The amount of power in the iPhone is more than what was in my first computer. X-Plane is a great game, and Cartoon physics is also a favorite and the iPhone is a very intriguing gaming platform and people are using the accelerometer in creative ways.
What are your plans and hopes regarding parts you had to leave out of the game, such as the plant editor and the molecular and aquatic stages?
We have a long list of things that we want to put in Spore that are either a) part of the original vision or b) things that we developed along the way for our own purposes, and now we have a shelf full of parts. When we look at what people are doing with spore, we can say “what can we pull off the shelf to give people new experiences in the directions they want to go.” So its partially informed by what the players are doing now with the game and where we see them hitting brick walls or barriers and partially informed by what we have, that we can realize very quickly, as well as things that we are experimenting with using the data we got.
When we were in development, we had 10,000 items that the developers had built in Sporepedia, and now we are over 70M, so that’s a vastly different data environment than 10K and there are ways to go in and organize the data in meaningful and interesting ways, and even abstract out from it. We can actually learn from the data and abstractions and use those in interesting ways. So we have the off the shelf parts and what the players are doing and a huge data pool, so between the interaction of those lies the really cool things we are going to do with Spore.
There are a lot of things we are experimenting with. One of the really hard things that we always wanted to do was to cross breed creatures. When you look at the topology of the creatures it’s a fairly complex problem, yet if we can organize the data across the right dimension, chances are some user made something that is a perfect interpolation between 2 creatures. Then, we can find another user created creature that is the perfect hybrid. All of these things become available to you with data that would be hard to detect without the algorithm. Once you have the data set, it changes the landscape of what’s possible.
Do you have a favorite creation you have created on Spore and if you do, what is it?
In one of my old builds, I created a collection of space crafts and artifacts, and I created all of them, there were only about 30 things, but I had the Mir, the Hubble, the Mars Rovers, and lunar pods. Of all the old NASA artifacts, the Lunar Lander was the hardest one I would say, with all the detail.
What do you think are the most unique creatures you have seen created with Spore creature creators?
That’s really hard because every time I see one that surprises me, I see something more surprising later. There are interesting categories players have made either doing real things that aren’t creatures or behavior creatures. There is a whole set of people doing buildings – chairs or tables that walk around...there was one point where people realized exploits that they could do in the editor to make the limbs invisible and as a result they were able to make these skeletal creatures that were very cool especially when you see them animated. There were some that were just art pieces - like modern art. There was one in particular that I think was called Spindle that kind hard to describe, but it looked like a sea creature, it had all these spines around it in a spiral pattern around the core, and when it moved these waves would move through the spines and the animation system would just bring it to life it in this beautiful way, like a beautiful piece of art.
[Are you ever amazed at how people have used your work to create things that are out of the box?]
I’m amazed at just how quickly they explore that space they can create using the editor. After we released the game I realized we explored maybe 1% of what was possible; within a few months the players had explored about 30 or 40%, just a tremendous parallel exploration of the solution space. Part of it is being amazed at how big the space is, the possibility within what is essentially a fairly simple editor and secondly how efficient a parallel exploration solution space is once you get a million people involved. It just exponentially grows.
There is also the catalyzing function, it is interesting that very early on our players were tagging people, fish or whatever and they would discover tricks in the editor “oh if you do this that or the other, this funny things happens and you can make use of it in this way” and they started tagging those creator tips which is basically where this creature demonstrates some weird exploit, ability or creative possibility that may not be obvious. So if you go in and do a search for creator tip, you basically would have in essence, a tutorial of all these tricks the players have discovered. So they were discovering the tricks and sharing them very efficiently with each other so they would learn from each other very rapidly, so it wasn’t just a blind exploration of the space but there was a collaborative issue, a group brain as well that was actually learning and assimilating much faster then we were on the development team.
It is all a linear thing so it is somewhat counterintuitive in certain directions but once you get a gist for what the levers are that increase the performance of that system then you have a macro system and basically you kind of are engineering. The most important system you are building is the community and the dynamics to have more implementations for that community. There is a huge science background in this, there is an interesting thing in epidemiology where you can take a contagious disease that might have a contagious period of one week and it will end up infecting some percentage of the population, it might be 10%. If you double that contagious period from one week to two weeks, it will infect 50% instead of 10%, so there is a huge nonlinear relationship between the two. In games, you kind of get the same thing. When somebody is playing a game twice as long, they will end up affecting 5 times as many people in other words, 5 times more people will be exposed by word of mouth so and so. So just getting someone to play the game twice as long can have a very noticeable relationship in your sales. It is a very interesting relationship between voluble systems and games.
What do you see as the role of mods in the future of spore, considering a large modding community has grown in the past months?
What you call modding is a bit of a grey area; in some ways, players are modding when they are creating characters in the game - they are modifying someone else’s experience. As we get into Galactic Adventures, we are giving them the ability to craft deeper levels of experience to share with other users – an entire world with their own levels, challenges, scenarios, etc…. Then there is code modding when people go in much deeper and that is something we have always tried as much as possible to allow, but at that point you kind of start dealing with issues like- are they going to break someone else’s experience, and so there exists a tension. This issue came up with the Sims heavily and we had an internal scripting tool for objects that in fact drove the behavior of the Sims and we experimentally released versions of that to small groups where they could make not just minor changes, but change the entire simulation at a deeper level.
Once you give out the code it is very hard to make it robust and bulletproof so that if I download the one object, it doesn’t crash my game. When I have a thousand objects, it becomes a quality control issue – so that’s really the biggest dynamic that is preventing us from opening all the code to our players to do whatever they want with.
I don’t know if you have seen the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project we were working on. We managed to convince Electronic Arts to release the original SimCity open source on that. So one of my friends who worked on the Sims, Don Hopkins, created a version of SimCity that ran on that platform and he released his code open source, so you can still down load it for free. It has all sorts codes, compliance and all that, it is much an older simpler game so the code that supports that is nothing similar to Spore. That is the level that people who know a little bit of about programming can go in and start learning as well as maybe make a new version of SimCity and share it. That has been the Holy Grail for a lot games, how do we open procedural editing to players and keep it robust.
The concept of the game is quite fascinating, but while working on it, you must have gone through all the stages. May I ask, did you have a favorite stage and what made you favor it?
Yes, Space stage was always my favorite. My original vision for the game was a toy galaxy that felt really big; at most other games have galaxies that are a 100 planets, I wanted one that was truly massive. Even our galaxy is 1% of the real galaxy, so it is a tremendous approximation of the real galaxy but within gaming terms, it feels huge. I wanted what I felt was a huge galaxy that I could go out and explore and have every plant be different. Once you get into that kind of environment, the possibilities become huge and of course we only realize some percentage of them in the core game. But that is one of the reasons why we focused on the space stage for the expansion. The diversity of things we can do in that galaxy is going to be tremendously larger than it was in space stage 4.
In (hopefully) hundreds of years when Spore fades into obscurity, what lasting impact do you hope it will leave on the way people make, play, and think about games?
My aspiration has more to deal with how people think about science. I think of games not so much as educational tools but inspirational tools. I think that they are much more powerful in terms of motivating a kid to be interested in a subject then they are about teaching them dry facts about a subject. So if somebody comes away from Spore and they have maybe a little bit more interest in biology and evolution or in astronomy/cosmology then it will have accomplished what I wanted to. Maybe a kid decides they are more creative than they thought; they’ve made some really cool stuff in Spore, they’ve gotten some good feedback from other players and maybe this person, who never thought of themselves as creative before, is now hooked.
I wanted Spore to be a comprehensive look at science as a whole as opposed to “let’s learn about biology…now let’s learn about astronomy or sociology” – I wanted Spore to present as all the sciences in one complete whole, which is what science really is: the world as a whole. We artificially break it up into subjects, have different terminology for each one and as a result, they feel very insular from each other. I wanted science to feel like a unifying force in Spore. Really the interesting views we are getting on a lot of these system level things are interdisciplinary from the beginning and I think kids are almost naturally, even with the Internet, coming to understand the world through a more interdisciplinary lens right off the bat. When you do a web search for some term, it is not distinguishing “are you looking through a geology database or the biology database,” you get results from all over the place.
Well it was something that happened to me personally. When I did SimCity, I had this little city I was building on the computer and I wasn’t really that interested in the dynamics, but I wanted to simulate traffic and a few aspects, so I started reading about it, and the fact that I had this pitiful little simulator, where I could go in and kind of experiment, poke and prod it, made the subject more interesting. I was far more motivated and interested in urban dynamics as a result of having a simulation on my desktop compared to as if I was just reading books on it. So I personally went through that realization and that was one of the things I wanted to carry forward to the players “wow these subjects are really interesting when you have a toy version to play with”.
Will we ever be able to walk around in towns and cities like in creature stage and maybe get our own house in Spore?
Well Galactic Adventures does allow you to begin with space stage and get out, walk around, explore other people’s planets and stuff like that. You can build a craft in Adventures that is more or less your “ house”, whether you have a house or not gets into your point of view in the game that is more Sims like. One of the things we were struggling with, especially as you move to later stages for Spore is “what is your identity?” In the Creature Stage it is fairly clear – you are this creature- you may live, you may die, but then when you are reborn- you are now jumping identities from the parent to the child. Once you’ve got up to the Tribal Stage you are not any individual - not you or I - you are still there you are somehow controlling brain behind the entire tribe – the tribe was you – the same with the city and when you get into space it now becomes a race. Your UFO could blow up and you haven’t died really just get respawned over here.
So we found that in a lot of games people are very fluid about where their identify lies. When you are playing the Sims they’ll tell a story about “Oh I had my guy do this and then he was hungry and then I went over here and talked to this person” so they will actually go from third person pronoun when they are saying “He did this, He did” that to then” I went over here” and then they’ll shift into a first person pronoun very fluidly. So we have this type of ability to usurp our identity through characters in a narrative. You do this in a movie to when you are identifying with this guy because he is in a scene and now you are identifying with that person. In a game like Spore, the fact that “this is my house” implies that I am this one creature and this is one of the times when we try to keep ambiguous because we can actually make use of that ability to usurp identities. So it is more of a psychological question then it is a game design type question, as are all these questions.
Do we ever want pineal identity or have one particular character for all of these the games? In certain times of the game we do. If I can get off a planet with my starship crew and something happens to me it is fine at that point. Most of game design is really more about psychology then it is about technology. The hard part is the psychology because the technology is pretty straightforward. If it is a hard technical problem you can pretty much specify it and get around it where psychology is pretty soft. But if it was just a matter of creating something that people want to play, it is so much deeper than that it almost seems – but then you have to construct what is “want to play” or “what is fun” and that deconstructs into such an elaborate web of interrelating things.
What was your favorite moment during the development of Spore? A point where you just looked at what you had done and said "This is great!"?
We are just down the street from Pixar, and we had some people we knew just down there that we would bring in for informal play testing a lot and there was one play test when the character editors were really starting to click for the first time, they were very hard to use at the beginning, but at some point they started feeling intuitive and easy and these were Pixar animators level of work and they were blown away. The fact that these were professionals who had to use high level tools to do the same kind of thing but they preferred using this consumer level thing and that they were having so much fun with it, we didn’t have to explain how to use it, they just played with it and figured it out. That was when I kind of realized that if Pixar artists can have as much fun with this as a regular person and visa versa, then we have certainly exceeded one goal, probably the most important one we wanted, for everyone to be able to come in and feel that they could be creative was very exciting.
Have you ever considered of making some kind of expansion that will enhance Spore experience by allowing the player to actually "meet" another individual playing Spore, rather than just encountering their creations?
Yes, we have actually looked at taking Spore and the entire galaxy and making it an MMO, which is one avenue we are exploring. But we are also looking in the form of personal experiences, more peer-to-peer, face to face; a simple civil network with buddy lists players can subscribe to forecasts and stuff like. People love to share what they’ve made and it has more meaning if it is from somebody you know. So we are looking at some things where people can kind of in real time share their creatures and have them interact with each other in interesting and social ways.
What suggestions would you have for anybody aiming to get into the Video Game Industry? What sort of activities might be beneficial to undertake in College or High School for different areas of the industry, such as programming and design, testing, reviewing, the artistic side, etc...?
It is such a general question but far and away, like anything, the best way to learn something is to do it repeatedly over and over. If you were interested in programming there are ways you can learn Java or Flash, I’ve seen amazing things done in Flash. And even as an artist working with something like Flash were you can rough out a very simple game in a month let’s say, get it up on the web, start sharing with your friends, getting feedback and it might totally suck even when 2 people play it but that is probably the most valuable thing you can do. There are a few good university programs right now - probably the best one in my mind is Carnegie Mellon. They have a program on ETC (Entertainment Technology Center) and Georgia Tech has a good program, USC has a good program. So for some people it is going to be how do I go through school and that career and other people it is going to be what do I do on my own that can put me in that career; some of the best people I know in the industry are all self taught. So if you are self motivated I think really it is just a matter of doing it whatever way you can just sort of figure out to do it.
Do you plan to keep with your style of making games that are "un-winnable"?
Well they are also “unlosable!” I would say yes. Our games are more about playfully exploring a system (rather than a linear objective); I think it is good that games have goals; I just don’t like games that have a unitary goal. I like games that have multiple goal structures especially if there are things where you can decide what the goal is, which goals you are going to pursue and within the goal structure what you want success and failure to be. But the idea of one unitary goal, one set goal game doesn’t really appeal to me I don’t enjoy those games. With SimCity, one of the most interesting parts to me is that we didn’t specify one specific goal, when people sit down the first time, they need to think about “what is the ideal city for me” and for some people is it low crime for other people it is high growth, or for other people it is happy residents.
So that’s one of the parts of games that I really enjoy, when the players put in a role to have to come up with a value. If you had one unitary goal – let’s say rescue the princess where you’d lose – you kind of take that whole quandary away from the player. I’d rather make more toys than games really and I think with something like Spore really it is more an elaborate toy universe then a game about the universe.
It's clear that Spore uses a lot of elements from various Sci-Fi shows and movies, such as photon missiles and the monolith. Which Sci-Fi shows, movies or games do you feel influenced Spore the most?
The closest influence was 2001 Space Odyssey which is one of my favorite movies but also, in the media space, it was the only other work of media that anywhere dealt with something of the same scale that Spore is dealing with. 2001 really dealt with the evolution of intelligence all the way up to its ultimate destiny. I can’t think of any other movie that tried to capture such an epic range; plus it was this incredibly long project that involved lots of research and Kubrick was obsessive about it. Then we have a lot of homage to 2001 in Spore so that one the most. But if you look at the space stage there were so many inspirations in fact I had a master list that I was keeping and it was everything from 2001 to Family Guy. I have references in the game at some level and it was a long list of about 100 different movies, books, TV shows.
[I can’t help draw the comparison between Solaris and Spore in some sense, as the game becomes a reflection of the inner-self and it is the game learning more about people than the gamers about the game]
Yes, one of my favorite authors is Stanisław Lem and one of my favorite stories of his is called The Cyberiad and he has got his constructors Trurl and Klapaucius. Trurl is coming back and telling Klapaucius how he did this great deed and Trurl asks “what did you do” and he replies “well I found this little guy and he was abandoned on an asteroid” and it turns out he was a dictator and he was deposed and sent off in exile to live on this asteroid and he was so sad, so Trurl built him this little box and inside this box was an entire kingdom, with thousands of subjects and he had knobs on the box so he could issue decrees and edicts and rule the kingdom with an iron fist like he used to and it made him so happy. Then Trurl asked him how big was this box/simulator and he said “oh well the people truly felt emotion and love and they cried” and he started to go into more and more detail about how elaborate this little simulation was that he built for the dictator and then Trurl started getting philosophical pointing out that it was no better than him really doing it – for people being simulated at that level of detail you are still causing them a great deal of suffering, even it if it is still in a small box. I just love his stories because they bring up these philosophical viewpoints… a lot of my games really kind of feel like this little box because there is this whole world.
If you were caught up in the middle of a Zombie-Robot-Demon-Communist apocalypse, what would you do and what would be your method of choice for eliminating evil?
For eliminating evil, I probably would align myself with the robots right off the bat. Because I think they would be more, in some sense, predictable and I think the communists stand no chance against robots, so they are write offs. Demons, I don’t know I tend to think that if you don’t believe in their powers they become powerless. Zombies are a bit problematic just in the numbers game that they represent. But yet all you have to do is take their heads off and that is a fairly simple (and robots are very good at doing that). So I think the Robots really have more diverse possibilities of strategy then the other ones. The other ones are more singular with what they are doing and what their purposes are, you know the communists want people to become communists and Zombies want people to become Zombies. So I would definitely align myself with the robots right off the bat. Where it gets a little tricky in how do you usurp once the robots are winning how do you prevent them from totally taking you out with them?
What games did you play while you were growing up, and how do you feel they have affected your decisions when it came to making games?
I played chess and a lot of Go when I was younger. I loved Go, it was probably my favorite game. And I think Go actually represents a really nice aesthetic for games, which is that the rule set for Go is extremely simple but the strategy is extreme (you can get as deep as you want). You can learn in about 2 minutes. I’ve always thought of that as a really nice aesthetic for games – how simple is the game to get into and then how many strategic possibilities does it offer… how large is the solutions set of the game?
I also played a lot of these very elaborate historical war games – Avalon Hill, SSI, Panzer Blitz – things like that. They involve these giant rule sets and I had this friend down the street who was into this, we were both into history and so we would replay the Battle of Gettysburg or Blaze or whatever it was. But these games involved playing for 10 hours, arguing over every turn and what the interpretation of Rule 10 Subset 8 was – so it was really more like learning to be a lawyer, but these games also in some sense were the earliest computer games. The human was having to run the algorithm so as you were playing the game you were in fact running an algorithmic process to resolve the results of every turn and so that had a big impact when I started getting into simulations in terms of thinking algorithmically. It was only later I realized that was how I learned to program before I even touched a computer was playing those games.
If you had to remake one of your games, which would it be and why?
If I really had to remake one it would be SimAnt. It was surprising how many people, not the ones that I thought, got into SimAnt. It was a very different group than what I was expecting to play it when I created it. But it was also one of these games that was really simple to get into and had a lot of humor in it and yet we were very constrained with what we could do logically and today I think I could make a version of SimAnt that just blow people away.
There is something extremely humorous about ants, but they are one of the most amazing visible reconstructable models we have of intelligence. We have no idea how the brain works, yet we have a pretty good sense of how an ant colony works, how it communicates, how it structures its behavior and how it pursues goals. So it is probably the highest level of intelligence we pretty much understand - that is what has always fascinating me about ants. In terms of human brains, we are still scratching the surface and we know there is a lot of complexity in there and we have a couple of little insights into how it might be working; whereas with ant colony, we understand 90% of the inner-workings of the colony. So I think that ants aside from just being bugs are interesting and a great way to come to understand how intelligence works.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started making Sim games?
That is a good one. Well most of the stuff I learned was through failure and if somebody had come up and told me something and I didn’t experience the failure directly, I doubt I would have really learned it. I’m not sure I can think of anything because I think failure is very valuable, if you go back and really look at it, absorb it, and celebrate it. I wouldn’t want to be protected from most of the failures I’ve experienced because I think that they were in the long run very valuable for me. I probably would have resisted anyone coming back from the future saying “oh by the way don’t try this” because when I tried that and I failed, I think it lead me to a better place and if I had known “don’t try that” I never would have learned the lesson – it would have been a worse failure.
Your games are comparatively non-violent. Is this personal taste, or is it intended to broaden the audience of your games? Do you feel pressure from the gaming community or publishers to add more violence and/or adult content?
That is a great question because I love violent games. I play them all the time – Call of Duty, Battlefield, Grand theft Auto – on the other hand, I think we have thoroughly explored that space as game designers. As a game designer I am more interested in exploring areas that are less explored, where I feel like there are a lot of interesting cool opportunities. I think that as much as I enjoy blowing things up in games, I enjoy creating stuff in games even more. So I don’t inherently have an issue with people making shooters or shoot-em ups. I wish that it wasn’t perceived as the majority of what we put out in the game industry.
In fact if you look at the top selling games over the last few years most of them aren’t really that violent, they tend to be things like the Sims, Roller Coaster Tycoon, Rock Band, Wii games – stuff like that. I think there is a little bit of a lag in the perception of what games are relative to what they really are culturally. I don’t think games as a whole, are as violent as people think although there are certainly some very violent games out there. Also, I think as parents are looking over the kids shoulder and they see something happening and they see heads being blown off they are interpreting it in a very different way than the kid is. The kid is seeing it in a much more abstract form, like the power up – I get 10 points for this, 5 points for that – but there is definitely a visceral component. It was easier to appeal to an electronic brain with aggression, and fear right off the bat in games than it was to appeal to the higher levels of the cerebral cortex which have more to do with empathy, joy and pride. I think that the more creative games are getting toward those layers of the brain. So I think it behooves us as creators to try and balance out the experiences we offer the players. I have no problem with Grand Theft Auto and I have no problem with the Sopranos or Godfather movies either, but I think they are for certain audiences. I wouldn’t want an 8 year old playing Grand Theft Auto and I wouldn’t want an 8 year old seeing Godfather either. But I think good games have that diversity, I just wish games were more diverse in the more creative areas.
Will you clone yourself for the insurance of future great games?
No. No, I think it is important that the generation eventually dies off and the next generation takes over. That is pretty much the lesson of Jurassic Park – if you bring dinosaurs back to life bad things will happen. They had their shot, they did what they did and they set the stage for us mammals, and in bringing them back, nothing good will happen.
-Interview by Douglas Kennedy