Spore, which lets a player create and evolve a species, has taken online community to a different level than any of your previous games, even during the development process. What was your goal?
We wanted to give the players this huge galaxy to explore. There's no way we could have made, with our team of artists, even a small fraction of that diversity. So in some sense, we enlisted the players to help us create it. It's amazing, when you put that many people into a task, how much progress they make so quickly — and also the sheer amount of creative energy.
Given all the platforms today — PC, Web, cell phone — can a video game exist just on one anymore?
It comes down to what your aspirations are. We're starting to see video-game properties become as big as linear-media properties. Look at Halo or Mario or The Sims compared to big Hollywood movies. We need to think of these things more as entertainment franchises. You really want to look at the cross-media possibilities and what a game means in the broader sense: What's its narrative DNA? That makes you think more toward general entertainment. Video games are just one part of that equation.
Nintendo's Wii revolutionized who you can market games to. Did it change how designers make games?
It's causing designers to approach a game very, very differently. It puts much more of a burden on usability. There are a lot of people out there who would play games if they weren't made for such hard-core players, so we spend a lot of time testing our games with people who are not gamers at all. You have to get out of the mind-set of a hard-core gamer.
You're doing extensive online marketing for Spore, including the Sporepedia and a deal with YouTube to upload videos. How did you get to that point?
It used to be that we would do the game, somebody else would design the box, the marketing people would own the Web site, and they would basically figure out how to use it as an elaborate advertisement. Back with SimCity, we started to see our fans forming online communities. They wanted to contact each other and share content or strategies, and we realized these players were becoming our codevelopers. With Spore, we had some fan sites, now several years old, where people were making drawings of the creatures they wanted to build. We would look at these creatures and go, Okay, can they make this or not? We actually redesigned the game to enable as many of these creations as we could. The player is the customer, and if what the customer wants to do is create stuff, and they're showing us the stuff they want to create, that's what we're going to serve.
Your games seem the polar opposite of Grand Theft Auto. Do you feel pressure to compete with guns and violence?
There's plenty of destruction in Spore. You can obliterate entire planets, entire races. But there's also a flip side: The goal structures are more geared around creating and building. Since everything out there is so focused on almost pure destruction, when you have a game that's balanced between destructive and creative, it seems like it's all creative. I enjoy playing Grand Theft Auto and first-person shooters and all that stuff, but I don't think designers are exploring enough of the other side. It's not so much a moral issue. It's more a shame, because we've done so much on the other side for so long.
Why isn't there more of a balance?
Having more women in the industry would help a lot. We've been making games that cater to ourselves, to 40-year-old men. We've noticed with Spore that women don't mind if there's violence in the game, as long as they have a path they can take that doesn't involve them having to kill everything. I think one of the reasons The Sims did so well with women is that 40% of our development team were women.
You formed the game company Maxis because no one would touch SimCity. [
It's getting to the point where it's almost disappointing if people don't push back, because if it sounds like a great idea, that means either it's obvious or other people have tried it. Typically, if you tell somebody, "I have this idea," and they start telling you how horrible it is, at least you know it's unexplored territory. With Spore, I gave this pitch to the execs about how I had this whole epic-universe thing. I could clearly tell they had no idea what I was talking about, but they said, "Go do it." Then I got my team together, and I was trying to convince them, and they were all, "You're crazy! There's no way."
The Sims alone has sold 100 million copies, worth about $4 billion. What's the value of your SimEmpire?
I guess it depends on who is asking [laughs]. I think it would depend on if you were talking purely financial terms or social terms. If you're just thinking financial terms ... oh, God. Well, typically you'd estimate the long-term revenue potential. What are the margins like? You would apply some multiple to it, look a few years in the future with a discount — a few years, 5, 10 at the most. So I think you would apply several billion dollars of valuation on the expectation that you could recoup that over several more years with high margins, if you're talking about the entire Sims brand. That's the way I would look at it from a financial point of view.
That's a complicated point of view.
Yeah, I try not to think that way.
You once wrote an essay about how games would one day learn what we like and adapt. Do you still see that as the future?
There has been this thing for a while now called DDA — dynamic difficulty adjustment — that adjusts the difficulty of the game based on players' abilities. But now we can actually start changing the themes, the underlying story lines, the goal structure, all sorts of things. That's far and away the most interesting part, because games are really about players having personal experiences.
Do you think the technology is at the point where you can do any idea you have?
I don't think technology is a limitation at all. At this point, it's purely about cool design. Nothing is out of bounds.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.