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Intelligent Machines

Life Is a Game

Sims creator Will Wright faces his next challenge: everything.

What do you do when you’ve made millions from the bestselling computer game of all time? Will Wright, creator of the Sims franchise, began collecting Russian space junk. The 45-year-old now has several backup control panels and computers from Russian spaceships. His prized possession: a global astrogator, a navigational computer with a tiny spinning globe inside. Wright appreciates the stuff as much for the science behind it as for the history. “We turned our noses up at the Russians,” he says, “but I admire their approach to engineering and what they managed to do in space.”

And with his own feats of engineering and exploration, Wright has amassed his share of fans as well. Since cofounding his company, Maxis, in Orinda, CA, 18 years ago, he has transformed the stuff of ordinary life – from washing dishes to throwing hot-tub parties – into a cottage industry. Wright’s most successful brands – SimCity, the urban-planning game, and The Sims, his people simulator – have sold roughly 54 million copies worldwide. Now, perhaps because of all those Russian spaceships, he’s brewing up an intergalactic epic that’s sure to be his most ambitious launch yet. “The theme,” he says, “is everything.”

Wright has long harbored such grand designs. At 13, he built a hydraulically powered robotic arm out of injection syringes. After five years studying architecture and engineering at various colleges, he dropped out to make games for the Apple II and Commodore 64. “I was fascinated by the ability to have this little microworld inside the computer,” he says. “And that world had its own little rules and physics that you could interact with.”

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Applying urban-planning theories developed by MIT Sloan School of Management professor Jay Forrester, Wright developed SimCity, a game that challenged players to build and manage their own thriving metropolises. Despite Wright’s enthusiasm, however, his publisher balked at the game’s open-ended, sandbox-style design. “They wanted a win/lose scenario,” he says, “but it felt more like Legos to me than a standard game.”

Wright stuck to his guns and in 1989 published the game for Mac and PC through Maxis (which is now based in Redwood City, CA, and owned by Electronic Arts). A near instant hit, SimCity became the foundation for a series of ­sequels and other simulations. It was Wright’s research on ant colonies for his game SimAnt, combined with his interest in the work of Christopher Alexander, an architect who argues that good building design always makes use of predictable patterns, that resulted in his biggest game yet: The Sims.

Released in 2000, The Sims puts gamers in charge of managing the most quotidian details of their virtual humans’ lives – from lifting weights to taking showers. Success or failure is determined by how well or poorly a character’s idiosyncratic desires are satisfied throughout the game. In The Sims 2, last year’s sequel, characters can spawn children who share their personal characteristics – all the way down to facial expressions. Players clearly like the added challenges; The Sims 2 sold one million copies in its first 10 days.

Inspired by what he calls the “astounding” amount of original material, like homemade art and music, that gamers have incorporated into The Sims, Wright is now hard at work on his most epic and out-of-this-world sandbox game yet. He calls the as yet untitled project “a massively single-player game.” This time around, players get the ultimate sim: life, the universe, and everything. As they create life from the cellular level all the way up to ecosystems and planets, players will be able to incorporate each other’s material as well.

In his spare time, Wright’s busy helping to conceptualize a future spaceflight exhibit for the Chabot Space and Science Center near his office in Emeryville, CA. And as the video game industry seems to depend increasingly on licensing characters and plots from other media, he’s more determined than ever to keep brewing up his brave new worlds.

“I think this medium still has huge potential,” Wright says. “I’m lucky to be at a point that I can propose crazy ideas and actually get wherewithal to get resources behind them. So I feel a responsibility to push the envelope, whether I succeed or fail. The industry is in dire need of continued innovation.”

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