GDC 2005 Report: The Future of Content

Will Wright is suddenly the man of the hour, as his new title Spore rocked the GDC to its core. The game is not the only story, however; Wright believes there's still a way for our method of creating next-generation games to be flipped on its head, and this detailed report of his GDC lecture tries to explain his thinking.

There was a line to the room where Will Wright was to speak, well before the scheduled 10:30 AM start. The clamor from the horde comprised conversations numerous and varied, but they were all focused on Will Wright. "He's one of the few people who can make Powerpoint work," said one. "The guy at the EA party last night said to go to this thing no matter what. The booth isn't set up right now. oh well," one exhibitor remarked. "I really don't play The Sims, but someone told me I should be here," said yet another developer. They, along with hundreds other game developers were among the lucky few to witness something that had the audience gawking, laughing, hollering, and eventually out of their chairs in a sustained and raucous ovation.

Wright quickly explained to the audience that the title of his talk, "The Future of Content", was a "flat-out lie." Few seemed to mind as he explained what the talk was really about: a possible future of content. "The next generation of titles are going to be incredibly expensive. and today I want to offer a potentially alternate version of that." The crowd roared with applause in response to this sentiment; this would not be the last time for them to do so.

Reducing the Content-Value Curve?

Wright began explaining some of the things he learned in making The Sims 2. "Content and cost do not directly translate into value," he said. As more content is made, value does not go up at a similar rate. "Development efforts need to try to push the [content-value] curve down." At this point, he brought up a graph which mapped Katamari Damacy and Pikmin along the axes of quality and content; he explained that both games have a similarly high level of player value while differing markedly different levels of both quality (in the Wrightian sense of being possibility space) and content (as in quantity of assets). To this graph, he then added a third axis: player ownership. Suddenly the area that described fun was now a volume. Just a little bit of person ownership, Wright insisted, increases the value of the game in a way simply adding more content cannot.


Will Wright

Wright then showed the audience his Grand Theft Auto character, which the audience responded to with peals of laughter. "Cute underwear, Barbie watch. he really doesn't do much. He's kind of a slacker," Wright explained. But it's his character, he explained. "Ownership translates into much more meaningful character stories." And from this, "Player stories will always be more powerful than scripted stories."

At this point, he went back to his original title and changed it; now it read: "What I learned about content from The Sims. and why it's driven me to procedural methods."

Will Wright had started his career on the Apple II, basically coding to silicon and being able to look at whole memory maps on single letter-sized sheets of paper. When the compact disc entered the computer world, "We could not conceive of creating this much data," Wright said. "This was the meteor that came in and signaled the death knell for the algorithm." Along came Myst and the game development world has been following that trend ever since: Art suddenly was the focus, and it showed in the makeup of new game development teams.


What lies behind the eyes?

Why The Demo-Scene Matters

Far away from this world, however, was a small tribe of people who were devoted to the ways of the algorithm. "That tribe is the demoscene," Wright said. He had to wait for the thunderous applause from the audience to die down before he could continue by saying, "These guys are basically crazy." Amid the laughter, he noted the things that they would do: long computer animated movies (demos) which could fit into 64 kilobytes of space; algorithmically generated graphics and audio; extremely small footprint ray tracers, phong shaders, and other methods of 3D rendering. Eventually, the many tribes codified their ritual and have found ways to "Get together and practice their black arts." Pictures from demoparties like Assembly elicited laughter and applause from the audience.

Wright again went back to his title and changed it so it read: "What I learned about content from The Sims. and why it's driven me to procedural methods. and what I now plan to do with them."

What he did was recruit an "elite team of crack programmers" with roots in the demoscene (the accompanying picture of people dressed in black ninja garb garnered quite a few laughs, likely because of its hint of truth), kept them in a "hidden developer facility", and had them make what the crowd was about to see. "Normally I don't do demos," he explained, "But I wanted to give you some sense of why I'm excited by procedural methods." He then switched one of the displays to his computer and began the presentation of Spore.

The Genesis Of Spore

Wright began the game by controlling a single cell organism trying to survive in the primordial soup of the beginning of life. "It plays like a very analog, very fluid version of Pac-Man," he said, "And the world is entirely procedural." After going through and eating enough bits of food while avoiding aggressive enemy organisms, he clicked on an egg and was moved to an editor window. Here he could attach tools to his organism, like flagella for added movement ability, or various weapons. He added a spike to his organism's front and when he returned to the game, he showed how the enemies could now be destroyed with his new tool. "What you're doing is you're playing through several generations, and as you move through them, you can modify them."

Eventually the camera pulled out and Wright found himself in control of a creature swimming through a 3D ocean. Again, Wright noted that everything that we're seeing is entirely procedural. "All the other creatures in the environment are coming from other players. They are asynchronously sent [from game servers] to your computer." After surviving in the ocean for a time, Wright went through the editor and decided it was time to trade in his fins for legs. "This guy is going to be a tripod," he said amid audience laughter at the corresponding image. "The system will analyze what is built by the player, then bring it to life, all procedurally."


The room was packed long before the lecture started.

Wright then moved his now three-legged, tail-stinger-equipped creature out of the ocean and onto land to attack prey, feed on the carcasses, run away from larger carnivores, and eventually mate, all to the vocal approval of the audience and all punctuated by Wright's insistence that all the content, from the animation of the creatures to the sounds they make, was procedurally generated. As this transpired on screen, Wright pointed out, "One of the nice things about [procedural animation] is that they can mix. I can tell this guy to take a bite out of [his prey] and also walk away."

The Joy Of Procedural Mating

After a "procedural mating" sequence, complete with romantic saxophone music, Wright again moved into the editor. He took some time to show the possibilities of the editor and how the system was able to animate the resultant character; Wright proffered a number of different designs, from a three-legged, six-footed, spider-like creature to a rotund Care Bear-like biped. "Everything is a function of the parts and topological structure. a lot of performance is emergent."

"I want to lure players into being creative," Wright explained. "Games like Pokemon with their elaborate rule sets. offer a sense of mastery. But imagine if you could create the monsters from scratch!" As Wright showed off some more examples of procedurally created models and textures, he again noted how the computer analyzed the system before it and made the stuff to go with it: models, textures, and behaviors. "Eventually, you get this elaborate thing. This is a creative amplification of the creator's efforts."

With procedural generation, Wright also noted how the system is able to save space. "We can get five megabytes of content into 1 kilobyte; 5000 to 1 compression. when the computer can play with the knobs."

Wright moved back into the game editor and showed another palette: the brain palette. "Once you build up the brain, the creature eventually becomes sentient," he noted as the game zoomed out and replaced the individual creature control with control on a tribal level. "At this level, I can buy them tools," Wright noted as he eventually bought things like fire and a new hut. "Depending on the level, they can be very emotional," he said as the creatures burst out with drum music and playful dancing. Again, Wright noted that all of this is procedurally generated, bringing the audience to wild applause.

Spore At A City Level

The camera in the game soon zoomed out yet again and showed us the game on a city level. "At this level, we're basically playing a very simple version of SimCity," Wright noted. The same three legged creatures from the initial walking evolution were now moving about a walled city with many buildings and vehicles. Unlike SimCity, however, "The shopping is populated with other players' content. I can buy things, or I can make it. with these simple creation tools. Everything has a handle on it." Wright quickly showed how buildings could have turrets removed, walls lengthened, and roofs reshaped with simple mouse gestures.

"Eventually, you can build vehicles to interact with other people," Wright said as he saw some tanks close the distance between them and his city. "These guys don't look very friendly, so I'm going to build some of these," said Wright as he moved through a building editor to make what looked like alien air force hardware. When the aircraft vectored away from the enemy tanks, Wright explained it away by saying, "So I guess they're peaceful cowards," garnering much laughter and applause.

"I wanted this to be a light experience," Wright explained. "Twenty percent of the best of SimCity, twenty percent of the best of Civilization." He also emphasized the creative nature of the gameplay; instead of Luke Skywalker or Bilbo Baggins, "I wanted to put the player in the role of George Lucas.or J.R.R. Tolkien.

"Story is a side-effect of interesting experiences. not a prerequisite," Wright said as he brought up the image of his Grand Theft Auto character. "I don't even know what the story of Grand Theft Auto 3 was, but I loved my character."

UFO Attack!

At this point, he showed yet another ability at the player's disposal: the UFO. "The UFO is a content creation tool," Wright said as he flew the UFO over the surface of the planet and got revenge on a predator from earlier in the game. After abducting him (much to the delight of the audience), the camera zoomed smoothly back until the planet was just a speck on a view of the solar system, bringing the audience to their most deafening levels of applause yet. "These planets are like little sandboxes for the players," Wright noted as he made his way to one particularly craggy planet. Here, Wright dropped the recently abducted predator onto the planet surface; the resultant explosion prompted laughter all around as Wright showed the UFO's ability to terraform. With missles and otherworldly rays from the UFO exploding upon the planet's surface, he began to form an atmosphere and created livable space. "At high levels of the game, you have access to. the Genesis device," noted Wright as he activated said device. The resultant clouds of thunder and lightning making all manner of things on the surface again brought the audience to cheers.

"There are lots of different levels to the UFO. and eventually you get the interstellar drive." The audience burst into applause as the camera zoomed out to show whole galaxies. "I really wanted to give the player a sense of what it's like to be in the galaxy," Wright said as he showed features like black holes, nebulae, and the ability to listen for alien radio chatter. With the last ability, he made his way to the alien planet and noted, "These are all other players' things," as he again reminded us of the asynchronous driving of player content. With an image of Close Encounters of the Third Kind on the Powerpoint, he descended down to the surface to make first contact, noting that communication was also an important factor. As he tried to talk to the civilization with some music, they started firing at his ship, forcing Wright into self-defense maneuvers. "So this is Space Invaders," he said amid the audience laughter. At this point, he decided to unleash one of his higher level weapons; when the beam hit the surface of the planet, it exploded violently into so many thousands of shards orbiting the now planet-less sun.

"There goes my reputation as a non-violent game developer…" Wright said as he was drowned out by the audience's applause and laughter.

Many Things, Loosely Connected

Wright pulled up a chart of the game sequences and how they mapped with existing genres or games. The tidepool of the beginning was much like Pac-Man. The evolutionary survival game was more like Diablo. Moving from the tribal-level to the city and civilization level was like moving between Populous, SimCity, and Civilization. The final space game brought before the players a sort of space-based MOO (MUD Object Oriented). Unlike other games where you are introduced to a sandbox at the beginning and given a large sequence of focused tasks, "All these small games are tutorials for the eventual sandbox. by the time you get to the space game, you can move horizontally [among content] and vertically [among the games themselves]."

The actual seed of this game came from an article he wrote about a possible SETI game and Drake's equation. The terms in that equation worked well with the powers of scale in this game. "They published it last year, so the design docs have been out in Wired for a year now," Wright noted.

Before Wright ended his presentation, he noted one last thing. While going about designing the game, he had a difficult time convincing himself that this game could be done. "Once I believed that this game was buildable, it was quite easy to convince my staff that this game was buildable."


Wright apologized to all in the audience that he couldn't talk more about the game until E3. Few in the audience seemed to mind as with his completed thanks for the audience's attentiveness, the crowd leapt to its feet and roared its approval of Will Wright with a long sustained ovation.

The effect of the presentation was clearly felt throughout the floors of the convention center. By noon, it seemed Will Wright had made an impact on every individual in the conference. Regardless of whether one had an optimistic or cynical view of his methods or projects, everyone in the Game Developers Conference was marked with one of two feelings: elation for having been one of the lucky few to see something markedly different and exciting; or regret for being one of the unseeing masses. And while the focus of the game consumer world seems to be on Spore itself, perhaps the game development paradigm shift that Wright proffered will find its own place in the evolution of the video game industry.


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