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Will Wright is one of those lifelong game developers. He started making games like Raid on Bungeling Bay and Sim City decades ago, and he’s still at it now at Gallium Studios with cofounder Lauren Elliott.
It was a treat to hear Wright speak with Peter Levin, cofounder of Griffin Gaming Partners, which recently invested $6 million into Gallium Studios, an independent game studio founded to help develop simulation games that utilize blockchain technology. They spoke at our GamesBeat Summit Next 2022 event this week.
Gallium’s first projects include VoxVerse, which Wright helped design for Gala Games, and Proxi, a memory simulation game. Both use the blockchain tech in some way.
Wright and Elliot founded Gallium Studios to make creator-oriented simulation games that seamlessly incorporate the latest Web3 and AI technologies. Levin talked to Wright about the past, present, and future of gaming. While Wright isn’t a fan of the scams around non-fungible tokens (NFTs), he believes that blockchain can help gamers get a piece of the pie from user-generated content. I think that Proxi is one of the most original games I’ve ever heard about, and it’s the kind of thing you expect from Wright.
Here’s an edited transcript of Levin and Wright’s talk.
Peter Levin: It’s Will frickin’ Wright! Let’s go!
Will Wright: Peter Levin!
Levin: Yeah, yeah. So, a little bit more background for those of you who don’t know, and you should know, and you should be ashamed if you don’t, but Will is the legendary game designer behind the Sims, SimCity, and Spore, co-founder of Maxis, which sold to Electronic Arts, where he remained as part of the senior management team there. He’s now the cofounder of Gallium Studios, where he’s building yet another category-defining title, a memory simulation game called Proxi. We at Griffin are a proud partner of Gallium. We’re thrilled to be working with Will and his co-founder Lauren Elliott on their new vision for experiences that explore a player’s sense of self and subconscious, a natural evolution from the team’s prior successes with such iconic franchises as the Sims, Spore, and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. I’ve always wanted to say Where in the Hell is Carmen Sandiego.
To kick this off, we’ll go on a complete non sequitur. Ants.
Wright: Ants rule.
Levin: You have a passionate, long-standing intellectual curiosity around the behavior of ants. I know the work of the extraordinary biologist Edward O. Wilson, or E. O. as he’s affectionately known, that’s an inspiration of yours. Please tell us about this somewhat eclectic passion for ants, and then how has that impacted your game design?
Wright: Well, ants always fascinated me since I was a kid. I didn’t understand why. As I got into simulation and started learning about computers, AI and all that, I started realizing ants represent an intelligence you can deconstruct and understand. It was actually E. O. Wilson that broke down that barrier and figured out the way ants communicate with pheromones. You can look at every ant and they’re incredibly stupid little machines, but the ant colony is very intelligent, almost as smart as a dog in terms of problem solving. We can study how that intelligence emerges from these simple interactions.
E. O. Wilson very much inspired me in terms of how he deconstructed this. Unfortunately he passed away last year. But I got a chance to meet him several times and get to know him. Amazing guy. He grew up in the south like I did. He said he got his love for biology digging in the dirt in his backyard, discovering this whole world. I love the idea that you can go anywhere and open it up, and there’s always some amazing system there, big or small, universe or pile of dirt.
Levin: For those of us who spent so much time playing your games over the years, what has that impact–the corollary between your intellectual curiosity around ants and game design and development? Especially Sims.
Wright: Well, the intelligence in the Sims was inspired by SimAnt. I did SimAnt first. We started realizing the ants were behaving the way real ants would. They dropped little pheromone trails that would influence their behavior – where they would go, what they would do. It put them in different modes. I started wondering if we could apply something like that to human-level behavior. Not two people talking, but more like, if I was standing on a balcony looking down at a crowd of people, I can kind of understand these people. Those people are friends. They’re playing a game over here. That person is getting food. I can understand their motives and what they’re doing.
I started thinking that maybe we could start simulating humans in a similar way, which is in fact the way the underlying AI engine for the Sims works. The Sims themselves are just these fairly stupid little machines, but the environment makes them intelligent. It’s distributed environmental intelligence. The fridge says, “If you’re hungry, come to me.” The TV says, “If you’re bored, come to me.” The bed says, “If you’re tired, come to me.” Depending on the Sim’s mood, these objects drag them around. That controls their behavior, which is very much the way ants work.
Levin: Your first game was Raid on Bungeling Bay, released in 1984.
Wright: You actually played that?
Levin: What initially sparked your interest in game design, and how would you describe the industry back then?
Wright: I got my first computer in 1980, an Apple II. I was living in New York City at the time, going to school. But I grew up building models, little plastic models. They got more elaborate. Models of tanks with motors in them. I eventually got interested in robotics way back. I would go in New York down to Halston Street where they had military surplus places. I’d buy old landing gear parts and stuff like that, and I’d start assembling them. I started building these mechanical contraptions that were totally remote controlled by me.
A friend of mine that I used to race with, he was buying Apple II computers and turning them into medical computers. He said, “Hey, you should buy one of these.” I said, “What am I going to do with that?” But he could get them at a discount and he talked me into buying an Apple II. I started learning to program it. At the time in New York City, in Manhattan, there were only two computer stores. There was an Apple store and then an Osborne store, something like that. I would go to the Apple store to get supplies. I started seeing a few little games in ziplock bags stuck up on the racks. One of them was Bruce Artwick’s first Flight Simulator. It was all wireframe graphics. I think it was called FS1. You had to write a little machine language patch to get it to boot up on an Apple II Plus.
I started playing these games and I just got hooked on them. The idea that I’d been building models out of materials, out of atoms, but here was a different place to build models out of bits, in the computer. These were dynamic models. They could change over time. It wasn’t just a static thing sitting there. I found that when I was building plastic models, I learned a lot about the structure of things, but when I started looking at these simulations I could learn about the dynamics of things. I got fascinated, and I kind of got sucked into programming and playing these games.
I realized I better make some money off this so I could make it tax deductible. Right around that time the Commodore 64 came out. I decided that a lot of guys knew the Apple, but nobody really knew the Commodore, so I’d jump on the Commodore. That’s where Bungeling Bay came from.
Levin: What was the impact that Raid had on the Sims?
Wright: Well, Raid on Bungeling Bay kind of led to SimCity. Basically it’s this little world. You fly a helicopter around bombing islands and factories. I had to create this little world, which for the time was a very big world. I built a separate little program, a tool, to scroll around and build these islands and roads and stuff. Later I played the game and I’d bomb all this stuff. But I found that I was having a lot more fun building these islands than I was bombing them.
After I published Raid on Bungeling Bay, I kept playing with that editor. Then I started researching urban dynamics. I wanted to bring it to life. How do you simulate traffic? How do you simulate growth, building and all that? I came across the work of Jay Forrester and a number of others. That’s where I got more into emergent programming, cellular automata, system dynamics, that kind of thing.
Levin: We’ve touched on the past. Let’s talk about the present and the future. Your new company, Gallium Studios–why Gallium Studios, and why now?
Wright: Well, Gallium because it’s my favorite metal. It’s a really cool metal.
Levin: You gave me some.
Wright: Yes, I gave you some. Don’t leave it in your pocket, by the way. It melts at like 86 degrees.
Levin: I did not. I have it in the freezer backstage.
Wright: That’s what’s cool about it. But I’m actually partnering with Lauren Elliott, who was my first producer back at Broderbund Software. He produced Raid on Bungeling Bay. We’ve known each other–I don’t even want to say how long. Oh my God. But Raid on Bungeling came out around 1984, to give you a sense of it.
Levin: You guys have known each other so long you kind of sort of have the same look. He’s your doppelganger running around.
Wright: We could be brothers. He’s here too. But we both worked in a lot of different teams with different companies. I’ve worked in teams of 120 people and teams of two or three people. We both enjoy working in small teams, and by small I mean 20 to 30. We wanted to build a company where we could pursue our passionate projects with people that we really enjoyed working with. The size was important for me because when I was working on 120-person teams, you spend about three hours meeting for every hour you’re actually working. In a 20-person team it’s about the opposite. Three hours working for every hour of meeting. It gets very frustrating on that growth curve.
Our primary project is Proxi, as you mentioned. That’s a project I’ve been thinking about and working on in the background for several years now. Everybody is talking about the metaverse, which is this idea that we’re all going out onto the net, building worlds, meeting other people, and that’s great. That’s been happening in games for quite a while. I think Proxi is more about going inward. How do we make a landscape out of your psyche, your personality, who you are? There’s a lot of science fiction and stuff that has postulated that if you woke up tomorrow with a different set of memories, you’d be a different person. If you totally wiped your memory and put in a different set of memories–Westworld, all these other science fiction things posit that.
I thought that memories would be an interesting place to start. If I could put the 100 most interesting memories of my life into a game in a way where the game could parse it and understand it, it should be able to build some model of how I think, the associations I have, the experiences I’ve had. And from that we could even build an AI based on that, and through other methods.
In the game industry, every five years something always comes along. First we had these little 150K floppy discs, and then CD-ROM came along. Now we have megabytes of content to fill. Really slow-loading content, but still megabytes of content. And then at some point GPUs came out. Now we have 3D graphics. Then the internet. Now we can connect all these computers. Each one of these things, as a designer, it just opens more design space. When one of these things happens, whether it’s CD-ROM or the internet, a whole new space for design is opened up, and then people like myself go in and populate it with ideas and experiments. Some of them fail and some of them succeed. But over time we populate the space pretty thoroughly, and then the next thing opens up.
Right now I think we’re seeing a couple of things. Of course there’s the blockchain thing, which I separate from NFTs in my mind. The blockchain is really cool for UGC creation, where people can own their creations. But the other big area I see opening up right now is AI. The stuff that we as designers can do with AI is fantastic. It might be bigger than any of these other technological revolutions we’ve gone through in game design.
Levin: With respect to AI, how do you see it directly impacting Proxi?
Wright: We’re already building agents of ourselves on the team through putting in memories and other techniques. We have several techniques. I have an avatar of myself that I can talk to now. It’s a little creepy, but cool. I did a lot of training of this avatar, but we’re trying to make that seamless and fun with Proxi, so that over time you’re building this world of your memories.
The idea, first of all, is that we want the memory creator to be a fun toy. I can just tell it a story and it will create a little audiovisual presentation of that memory, try to figure out what the important concepts are and how they interrelate. After that, after I put a few memories in, there’s a little world, a little planet where I can now place these. I’m basically editorializing how I want to organize my memories. Maybe my vacation memories are over here, family there. Maybe injuries over here, whatever. We can study how you organize these things and look at the associations you have. We can look at your associations relative to some other person. How different are you than the whole crowd of people playing the game? Maybe most people think of spiders as scary, but you think of spiders as tasty. Proxi can identify that and start querying you.
Levin: Is that the core motivation to pull people into the game? The Sims was about people’s fascination with people. Is memory then the backdrop that would simulate that pull?
Wright: There’s a saying I’ve always lived by, which is that no game designer has ever gone wrong by overestimating the narcissism of their players. I think the more the game can be about the player–the more it’s about you, the more you’re into it. This is what made Facebook huge. You’re the center of your universe. You have your own little news feed. But I think that–when I was playing with the early versions of Proxi, I was starting to see these patterns emerge, associations in my mind I wasn’t even aware of. It was fascinating to me. It’s kind of like putting a microscope to your subconscious.
Levin: We’re going to take another non sequitur. Soviet space history. Another one of your non-traditional areas of passion. Again, please touch on why you’re so intellectually curious about it, and again, how, if at all, has that impacted your game design and development over the years?
Wright: Oh, wow. Well, ever since I was a kid I was totally into the space program. I grew up in the Apollo era. I remember watching television with all the neighbors crowded around when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. At the same time I was also very curious about the Soviet program, which was very opaque. We didn’t hear much about it at all. Later in the ‘70s, they opened up a bit more. We started seeing Apollo-Soyuz and that kind of thing. We started working together with them.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, a lot of it opened up, the history of it, and I really dove into that. I was fascinated by our misconceptions about it, first of all. It turns out that their space program was safer than NASA’s space program by quite a bit. We’ve lost 17 astronauts in spacecraft. They’ve lost four. Their approach was so pragmatic. I actually went to Moscow and visited a lot of their space facilities, got to meet a lot of people. I got to meet Alexei Leonov, the first guy to walk in space. He actually stayed at my home for a week. An amazing guy. He passed away recently too.
Levin: Did he play your games?
Wright: No, he didn’t play games at all. He was a short little test pilot. But the Soviets would always approach everything so pragmatically and simply, whereas NASA would pour hundreds of millions of dollars into research. Their space suits for NASA, they spent something like $10 million to develop a zipper that would seal air. The Soviets just had this big thing they climbed into where they’d put a rubber band around it. It worked just as well. But also, their equipment–I’ve collected a lot of their space equipment. It weighs a ton. It’s really heavy, but super rugged. Amazing stuff. Whereas NASA got so complicated. They went from Apollo to the Shuttle. The Shuttle was maybe three times more parts in terms of the count, but it turned out to be 10 times more complicated to operate. The Soviets are still flying the Soyuz that they developed back in the ‘60s. It’s cramped and uncomfortable, but it works, and it’s been extremely reliable and safe.
If anything, what I carry from the Soviet space program is that sometimes overengineering will kill you. Sometimes brute force is the right way. Not always, but sometimes.
Levin: You touched on blockchain gaming. We talked briefly before this conversation about the utility of blockchain gaming. We’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly in the last 18 months around Web3 and a lot of the buzzwords and platitudes that people are throwing around. Where do you see the practical application, the utility? How is this going to enhance the gamer’s experience with respect to Proxi and other titles you may be working on?
Wright: I think UGC is obviously a huge, huge thing for games, and it has been for quite a while. It’s not a new thing. Back when we did the Sims we tried to make a lot of it–people could reskin their Sims, put up new items, share architecture, stuff like that. And we tried to facilitate that with websites. But we didn’t do most of it. We left most of it for the players to build all these other websites. We wanted them to fill that ecosystem, and they did. Within about a year after the Sims launched, there were hundreds of fan websites, some of them very big, actually charging subscriptions. Three dollars, four dollars, five dollars a month. Not much, but some of these webmasters were making a quarter million, half million dollars on their websites every year. They had stables of artists that would put content up there.
But what started happening is people started downloading the content and putting it on their own websites and charging for it. They were pirating from each other, the UGC creators. It caused a lot of animosity within the community, a lot of friction. That was the first thing that attracted me to blockchain, the idea that the content creators, whoever they are, could now control the value of what they created. At the same time, for a lot of games–for the Sims they were adding 40 percent of the value, but they weren’t really participating in the profits of the game. EA was making piles of money on the Sims, but all these other people were pouring the content in, but only earning a tiny fraction of that. The idea that it could balance out the value proposition between the consumer and publisher attracted me to blockchain.
When you add in the NFT things, the speculative stuff, land sales and all that–
Levin: Well, double-click on that, because I want your take on it.
Wright: It’s obviously going out of control. Everybody sees this pile of money sitting there. “They made $50 million! Let’s go do that!” But most of these things right now are based on the promise that there will one day be a game there. There are all these land sales that say, “Buy this land now and in two years you’ll be able to play this cool game!” I can only guess at how many of these things will actually turn into cool games, but I know the ratio of hits to non-hits. That’s what’s happening with the crypto winter to some degree right now. There’s a realization falling on people.
At the same time, I think there is going to be a place for NFTs, and certainly for blockchain. Blockchain for me is more of a technology under the hood. If we can use it to empower the UGC creators, it’s great. It’s getting kind of a bad rep with the speculative NFT thing right now.
Levin: It feels like a lot of that stuff is flushing out.
Wright: Well, yeah. It has to.
Levin: The industry is heartened by the fact that teams of your quality are embracing this technology, again, in a way that will prove accretive to the user and the gamer’s experience, versus being speculative, opportunistic, taking advantage.
Wright: Yeah, yeah. Again, really we owe the UGC creators a lot more of a slice of that value that they’re providing right now.
Levin: Where do you see–I’m not talking about five years out, but where do you see positive trends within the industry right now? What makes you optimistic about where the industry is going?
Wright: Some of these trends have been around for a long time. The ubiquity of gaming–it used to be that if you were going to play a game, you had a PC or a console. That was it. Then we had our smartphones and our iPads and our TVs that can all play games now. Next it’ll be our toaster ovens or something. But the fact that we can play games on all these platforms all around us, and not only the ubiquity of the platform, but the ubiquity of the time slice. I can pull out my iPhone and play a little game in 30 seconds waiting in line at Starbucks. Or I can sit in front of my PC for four hours and play a game. They’re able to fill this interstitial time in our lives in interesting ways.
I see a lot of people now doing really cool design stuff in games because of the diversity of game designers. It used to be it was just old farts like myself and Sid Meier and Peter Molyneux making all these games. Now we have a lot of young kids learning how to program. We have a lot more women creating games. A lot of games with some agenda, either political, environmental, whatever. And right now a lot of middle-aged people grew up playing games. Way, way back, getting games into education was putting a square peg in a round hole. The teachers were afraid of the games. The students knew the stuff inside and out, so the teachers were threatened. Now those kids who grew up playing games are the teachers. They understand and they’re able to integrate this stuff.
I have a 12-year-old and it’s amazing what he learns on YouTube. And in gaming as well, but I think he learns a lot more on YouTube than he does in school, for sure. It’s self-directed learning. I was always very much like that myself. If I was into something I would dive into it, whether it was ants or Soviet space history or whatever. In school I did okay, but I thought, “Oh, I don’t want to learn math yet.” But then as soon as I started programming, oh, I loved math. It has much more to do with motivation than access to educational materials now. With the internet every kid has the Library of Congress on their desk. If they’re motivated, they’ll learn.
Levin: COVID was a great example of folks who perhaps were skeptical or cynical about the impact of gaming–they realized, hey, this is a way for our kids, our students to cooperate, to interact, to interoperate with others while they weren’t able to see them physically. We know the numbers behind all of that, but did you feel a lot of positive sentiment coming out of that?
Wright: I’m not sure I’d call it positive sentiment. But there are social aspects to gaming where kids are going in and working with other kids, or building up groups, or finding special interests. They go hang out and share information. It gives them a much wider variety of different social groups and structures. Watching the way that becomes a language between kids–if they play the same game, or just gaming terms. “It’s a power-up.” Gaming has entered our collective psyche in the same way that film did.
Levin: Can you talk to us a bit specifically about Gallium with regard to the timeline of when you see products hitting the market?
Wright: We’re probably going to roll it out in stages. There will be roughly three stages. The first one, we’re creating this memory creator. We want it to be a fun toy, kind of like the creature creator in Spore. You just want to sit there and put in more memories. You can craft and edit them as much as you want and pull in UGC content. That would be phase one. From that we can start building some kind of a proxy of you that you can converse with.
Stage two is the world, where now you have the world design, a private world. These are your private memories that you put in there, but at the same time I can create a social world. I can say, “Here’s a world that me and my college roommates can build, or me and my family.” We can put our shared memories in those worlds. You and I might go to the same concert, but have totally different experiences, and then we can compare and contrast and build social games around that. That’s the world-building aspect.
The last aspect is that this world basically becomes the brain of your Proxi. Your Proxi now becomes an avatar. We’re hoping to also have a social side to that where we have players – and this is the UGC side of it – collectively building, let’s say, historical proxies. Almost like Wikipedia. A lot of people will work on an entry for Cleopatra or Napoleon or Da Vinci or whoever. We’d like to have hundreds of players collectively building Cleopatra’s Proxi, or Da Vinci. These are proxies that anyone can interact with, and they can interact with each other. I can decide to see what happens when Cleopatra meets Napoleon. We can have leaderboards. Who does Da Vinci hate the most? Who’s his best friend? As well as your proxies interacting with your friends and family. That’s where these things come alive. That’s where the AI side of this gets really interesting and we get a lot of traction there.
Levin: What are you playing right now? What do you enjoy playing?
Wright: I grew up playing these turn-based war games with my friend down the street. There’s this game called Order of Battle: World War II that I just keep playing. It’s really old school. That I’ve probably spent more–I used to play World of Tanks, because Dean unfortunately told me about World of Tanks many years ago and I got hooked on it. It’s the shooter for old people. My son plays TF2 and beats my ass. He’s so fast. But with World of Tanks, the tanks have to spend a lot of time going grrrrrrrnnnn. For old people like me it’s a good shooter.