Joystiq interviews Spore's Chaim Gingold and Chris Hecker

On the first day of the Montreal International Game Summit, Chaim Gingold and Chris Hecker presented a keynote on the topic of "advanced prototyping," specifically as to how it pertains to Spore, the game that currently occupies their time over at EA/Maxis. The same talk, given at the 2006 Game Developers Conference, was rated higher than any other presentation, including Will Wright's, their boss's. Before the keynote, Joystiq had a chance to chat with both Chaim and Chris, and discuss their impetus for joining Maxis, the evolution of Spore, and the relationship between Maxis and EA.

You're both at Maxis now. How did each of you get there?

CHRIS HECKER: We both started full-time the same day, actually.

CHAIM GINGOLD: Yeah. I was at Georgia Tech doing a masters program in integration design and technology, and there was a required internship over the summer. My advisor asked me "where are you going to work?" And I was like "I don't know." She was like "Didn't you have an interest in working with games?" and I was like "It would be fun to work with Will Wright, not that that would ever happen. That would be totally crazy." And then one day I got an e-mail from him, saying "We're looking for interns." And then an hour later I got an email back saying "You got it." And so I got the internship, and at the time there were like four or five people working on Spore. That sort of really small team, and I spent the summer working on that. Everyone was crunching on TSO[The Sims Online], and when I got done they asked me back, so I came back.

When was that?

CG: I've been there four, five years now.

CH: So, I was working in indie games for, like, eight years, and my wife was basically paying the mortgage. She kinda had the high-powered, executive job. And then, we had a baby, and she decided: "Well, I'm quitting. It's your turn to actually work." And I was like "Uh-oh! I guess I'm going to have to make some money." Indie games don't pay that well.

So, I knew Will from GDC stuff, I'm on the advisory board of the GDC. And I was like "Hey Will, what're you working on now?" So I went out there, and we talked about what to do, and I started working as a contractor there the same day Chaim came in from his full-time job, and they didn't have enough desk space for us, and we were basically sitting *right* next to each other (laughs). So it's been close ever since. And I contracted there for a year and a couple months, and they wanted me to go full-time, so I said "Sure. I'm having a really good time. The teams are great, and the project is innovative and cool." So now we're both there, cranking on Spore.

You've both been there for a while working on Spore?

CH: Yeah, like three years now.

Which is a pretty long development period.

CH: And it was in development before that, too. Like, a couple years before that. I mean, Chaim was there a year before with his internship.

CG: Jason was there.

CH: Jason was already there for two years working on it.

CG: Yeah, it's been incubating for a very long time.

ow much has it evolved since you've been there?

CG: It's changed a lot. Like, the summer I was there, there was no actual game to it. It was very much like what you'd expect if you could go into Will Wright's secret underground lair, and see all of the, like, think about Sim-Earth, and what are all the crazy prototypes you wrote for Sim-Earth? That summer, it was like crazy science projects, and there was no game. It was like, crazy fluid simulations, and space colonization simulations, and little games and prototypes, just searching out this huge space. By the time I came back there a much more coherent, "this is a game. I'm going to go from here to here." And the player creativity wasn't even a big component then. It was much more of this geeky thing. So that was, coming in, a way to make the game more accessible and appealing.

CH: Yeah, now we're clearly out of pre-production and into production and headed towards ship, and now we have a really clear idea of what the game is, and we're just trying to get it done. Which is not to say that there aren't still cool and innovative things happening, but there's 80 people or whatever all cranking in the same direction. So, back from the free-wheeling days of crazy prototypes.

CG: If you think about it like making a cathedral. Back then, everyone was drawing, like, crazy sketches on maps and "Oh! what if we made it really tall, and made it out of glass, you know, and it was like metal, and we made the foundation out of tinfoil?" Whereas now, it's like "We have a big blueprint for the whole thing. And we're 3/4 of the way through construction. And it's like "This window isn't quite working out right, and what color should the glass be?"

CH: So the amplitude of the changes gets way smaller. Like, it's a big deal to make a change about whether that button is over here or over there now, whereas before it was like "I don't think we're gonna have creatures! And we're instead gonna have UFO's!"

Was there a definite turnover period where the project shifted?

CH: Pre-production to production, is basically what we call that. In fact, EA has actually broken out pre-production into two parts now. Cuing off of what film does, there's this concept of "discovery," and there's concept of "pre-production," and then there's "production," and "post," and then "ship." Discovery is kinda where you're trying to figure out what you're going to build. Pre-production is where you're figuring out how you're going to build it. And then production is like "Okay, we know how we're doing it, now we just need to actually do it." I guess it's not quite as simple as that, since you actually loop back a couple times, hopefully in smaller and smaller increments.

CG: It's actually been quite a lot of soft transitions for us, or that's how it felt to me. But there's been more pressure coming down. Over time, there's more and more resistance to change. It's kinda like a forcing factor, like we really have to finish this thing. If you make a decision, you have to stick with it, and if you need to change something, you need to have a really good reason for it. That knob has been slowly turned up over time, with the very, very awesome goal of actually getting this to be a product that's put into stores.

CH: Being in production, the cost of change goes way up. That's why pre-production and discovery are about trying to figure all those things out, and trying to eliminate the risk, so you can just grind it out. It's not quite as clean as that, because nothing with humans ever works out quite that clean, but that's the goal and we try and keep to that.

Talking about EA's role, how has their push-and-pull affected the game's development?

CH: When I first started, I asked Will "How do you like working for EA?" because I didn't know. And he was like "Oh, I love it." Back when Maxis was trying to be its own publisher, they were trying to kill The Sims, whereas the executives from EA came in, and saw The Sims, and were like "This is money. We have to make this." The conventional wisdom is like "Oh, EA: giant overlord," but actually from Will's standpoint, talking to him, it's actually been really really great. And he stays there. Obviously he doesn't need the job, but he's there because he gets to do what he wants to do.

Will definitely creates a giant umbrella for us. There's this umbrella of protection over random influences, which is totally awesome. At the same time, some of EA's corporate goals now are to create more innovative products. They realize that the whole "sequel-itis" thing is not going to get you to where we need to be in ten or fifteen years, as an industry and an art form. So Spore, being one of the "new IP's," we've been given a lot of leeway.

At the same time, like Chaim said, a certain amount of that pressure is really good. If you don't have any kind of pressure, you know, from the people whose money you're spending, you'll often spin off into randomness. Having that kind of feedback loop where people are going "You know, that doesn't seem to be making your game more compelling; how can we focus that down to get it to ship?" I mean, the reason we work on games is we want people to play. We want real, normal people to be able to buy our games and go play them. And if you don't focus down, you'll never get to do that.

CG: And there's sort of this interesting thing, you know, because it's Will Wright working for EA -- there's sort of an interesting confluence here. You have arguably the most influential American game designer in the whole world working for the biggest game publisher in the whole world. So he has an awesome amount of independence times the awesome resources of EA. I don't think anyone could be making this game right now anywhere else.

What are your roles at Maxis?

CG: I'm the designer for the in-game editors, and I've done a bunch of programming across the whole project. I spent years working on the editor UI, and making sure it was really good, trying to solve the 3-D UI problems. Now I'm focusing a lot of my time on the first level of the game, the cell game. I'm working with the development team to make it really good and fun.

CH: I have a bunch of different roles as well. I guess wearing multiple hats is like a blessing and a curse. I lead two teams. The procedural animation team, which is how the creatures move, so there's a bunch of technology and design work that goes into that. And then there's the creature level, which is the level after Cell. Designer Alex Hutchinson and I design and lead that team. That's where the creatures first come into the game, the ones that you make in the editor that Chaim's working on.

The thing about Spore, and this is what Chaim was hinting at, is that there's tendrils out everywhere. So decisions we make on the procedural animation affect the tribe level, and the city, and the UFO's, and the cell game. It's one of the amazing and coolest things about Spore, but it's also one of the most difficult to get your head around. So, anybody who works on Spore really ends up wearing multiple hats. We have this mantra, which is "think across the game." So there's five games that make up Spore. Or five or six, I've lost count at this point. But we're trying to ship one coherent game, and it's sometimes hard, because we're each working on our games, but we have to always be talking. It makes it difficult, but the payoff is huge.

CG: By the time we come out of development, we'll hopefully have one integrated, organic, whole product.

You mentioned that Spore is one of EA's "new IP's." After Spore, what direction do you think Maxis is going in?

CH: It's interesting, the whole Maxis absorption by EA, and creating brands within the EA, Redwood Shores studio and all that. It's really interesting to watch. Like The Sims now has its own division, which is separate within EA. It's not even part of Redwood Shores. It's this entire division that reports directly to the CEO of the company. Anytime EA invests this much, it's clear they're going to try to make an entire franchise out of it.

And then there's this question of EA's forward-looking roadmap, which shows how to create new IP's. So we're really interested in a lot of those aspects of EA moving forward. It seems like EA's finally getting the clue that they can't just sequel products endlessly. Or license them. Well, obviously Madden makes an immense pile of money. But you have to have a mix. Just like the movie industry, and literature, and music, you have to have this churn of new talent and new ideas. It's great that a super-mega, Fortune-500 corporation understands that they have to be moving in that direction. Not everyone in EA will be able to do their own giant, new product, but you want to start innovating at all levels.

Chaim and I are passionate about the games industry as an art form, hoping that games in the 21st century can be what film was in the 20th century. And it's possible that EA will be at the forefront of that. It doesn't necessarily have to come from indies, although there's a ton of indie stuff going on, which is great too, but you want it to come from all directions. So it's cool that the bigger companies are realizing that innovation is important, and that we're going to ghetto-ize ourselves if we don't keep innovating and bringing in new people.

Have you seen recently? *

CH: What's actually there now?

It just sends you to The Sims website. It doesn't even look like Maxis exists anymore. So if someone asks you who you work for, what do you say?

CH: I say Maxis, but that's probably because, well, I was indie for eight years. I've only worked in two real companies my entire life. One is Microsoft, and the other is Electronic Arts. When I worked at Microsoft it was for three years in the early nineties -- it was already huge at that point but it wasn't as huge as it is now -- it was fun and energetic, and it was just a bunch of young, smart kids with bad attitudes. I was so clueless, it didn't really count, so I was indie for eight years. So when I finally "sold out to the man," I was like "Okay, I'll sell out to Maxis -- that's at least the smaller 'man.'"

The reality is, EA pays my paycheck, and I actually have a great job. I love my job. The people I work with, and everything I've seen so far is totally amazing. So I can totally see staying there. When I first took the job, I thought "Okay, until I can convince my wife to take her executive job back I'll just do this contracting thing," but it's actually a really satisfying experience. EA, or at least our part of EA, is really an amazing place to work. So I say I work at Maxis, but I actually don't have any problem saying I work at EA, given the experience I've had so far.

And Chaim?

CG: The same. It's sort of the state of our personal identities.

Some people seem to think that Maxis doesn't even exist anymore, especially considering the status of the website. Is it anything more than a brand at this point?

CG: For all intents and purposes, there's one big company called EA, and it's got a bunch of studios, and the question of Maxis at this point is almost just a branding thing.

CH: A lot of players associate Maxis with The Sims, and Sim-City, and things like that. So my guess is that they would keep it around, but I don't know. The studio-based model within EA is actually pretty strong, and you end up identifying with the studio you're working for. So we're working on Spore, and we identify with that team. It's hard to say from a marketing standpoint, since we're not marketing people, so what they'll actually end up with on the box, we don't know.

* NOTE: Prior to conducting this interview, the website redirected to Sometime after this interview was conducted, however, was re-branded as the official Maxis website, containing links to official Maxis games, and a timeline of the company and its releases. Coincidence?