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SXSW: Joystiq live at the Will Wright keynote [Update 1]

Kevin Kelly
Kevin Kelly|March 13, 2007 3:56 PM

We're live in Austin, front and center for the Will Wright keynote speech, where the attendees seem a lot more excited for this one than they did for the Dan Rather speech yesterday. I guess that might change if Dan Rather was actually working on a groundbreaking new game that has almost as much buzz around it as the Apple iPhone.

Will Wright is wandering around visiting with peeps, and he his arm in a sling for some reason. As we find out, we'll let you know. Maybe he's been spending too much time Spore-ing.

1:56pm: They've started playing celestial new-agey Yanni-type music and showing slides of the solar system. Maybe Will Wright has decided to become the new Carl Sagan. Now the music sounds like a twangy version of the Firefly theme song. Browncoats, FTW! The slides keep pulling farther back and showing beelyuns and beelyuns of galaxies and stars.

2:06pm: Will Wright is sitting right in front of us and talking with a Tucker Carlson lookalike, complete with floppy hair and bow-tie. Wright is wearing a sort of muscle-shirt combo with the sling. It's very steampunk and aggro. We snuck a look at his XPS laptop on the stage .... no screensaver.


2:07pm: We're off! Introducer: "Will Wright is a successful game designer." The audience claps ... supportively? Introducer waits for applause to die down before continuing ... a bit too long. "Will Wright has made it possible for us to play with the world on multiple levels. Anyone who has ever taken all of the doors and toilets out of a house in The Sims knows what I'm talking about." Will bounds up on stage and informs us that the images we've been seeing on the screens were from the Hubble, "My favorite robot of all time." Oh, and he broke his arm skiing, which everyone keeps asking him about. So stop asking already.

2:11pm: "I hate stories ... that my computer tries to tell me." Will sees the world as a massive simulation that is occurring around us at all times, while a story is a causal chain that flows through these events. "Stories are unchanging, while games are an interactive medium, and you have a different experience each time. If you go see Star Wars, you'll see the same movie every time."

2:13pm: "Dramatic arcs that apply to traditional storytelling don't work in a game environment." He's talking about empathy and the relationships that the audience has with the actors. "Emotional avatars." He continues, "If I'm a caveman and I go outside my cave and almost get eaten by a tiger, I can go back into the cave and tell my friend not to go out there, because he might get eaten. In effect I've taken that experience and brought it back to another user." We're notably reminded of an episode of Tek Jansen that YouTube doesn't seem to have anymore.

2:20pm: He's using Star Wars as an example, about how the characters could have other wants and desires. Maybe Leia wanted to be an exotic dancer, or Darth Vader wanted to be an industrial designer (modern designs for the on-the-go space villain). When you watch a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark, you tend to fill in other possibilities for the characters in your head. When Indiana is being chased by the huge rolling boulder and all the traps are going off, your mind is filling in all the other possibilities as the movie plays.

2:25pm: "In linear storytelling like films, the director knows the future. So the director knows what small elements to call out in the story." His point is that linear storytelling shows the causal chain of events as they happen. If a director shows something sitting on a table, you tend to focus on it and know that it will become important later. Some directors have started playing with the linear format, and the result is films like Magnolia, and Time Code, which both play with time and separate storylines. The Matrix and Fight Club are also movies that have tried to turn the film genre on its ear because of the way that audiences have come to expect movies to play out. Memento really played with this by making the movie a "puzzle" that the audience tries to figure out as they watch it. His favorite example of this type of film is Groundhog Day, which results in much audience laughter, and then applause (applause?). Bill Murray is essentially a video game character playing through the same level over and over and trying to learn from his mistakes.

2:30pm: Choose Your Own Adventure books on a slide, booyah! The audience really loves these. He's equating the multiple storylines to branching storytelling, and how players decide -- within a controlled environment -- how the story will play out. In a space of 30 seconds, he's touched on Quake, Zelda: Wind Waker, and branching linear storytelling and the evolution of the changes in these systems. Our head asplodes. "Maneki Neko" by Bruce Sterling -- in this book, the character wears a computer on his hip, which gives him instructions like "Buy milk." and later "Drop the milk off at this address", which ends up helping a frazzled mother out. It's a sort of "karmic computer" that takes him through multiple possible storylines. Player stories, rather tham game stories, are unintentional, subversive, and expressive. "I never hear someone describe a really cool cutscene, but I always hear them talk about something cool they accidentally did in the game." He throws up a graphic of a Sim wearing a bikini sitting inside a toilet. The audience goes nuts. This is an example of unintentional user game experiences.

2:36pm: Subversive game experiences go against the expected behavior in the game. Wright plays a lot of Grand Theft Auto (we knew it!), and his character's vehicle of choice is ... a bicycle. User created content in The Sims Online (TSO had users? We keed, we keed!) has become a form of social commentary, and some of the user-created backstories are extensive and immersive. His example sign includes a player's coffeeshop that he lovingly calls "Starbucks Sucks" via an enormous sign.

Computers can start understanding what story a player is following, and the game can change on the fly to adapt to that type of story. Eventually games will learn player behavior a lot faster through adaptive mapping and story parsing, so the player's intended story can change, via music, events, lighting, and even the events that happen in the game. "This is similar to what happens to Jim Carrey and The Truman Show. He's wandering around through his life, and the director is controlling what happens to him, but he can't break the bonds of what 'Truman's Life' is." The Truman Show and Groundhog Day are the two best examples of linear storytelling.

2:40pm: The "Circle of Story" is expanding, because now you don't have to be tethered to one location to be a part of a story. You can take your video iPod on the subway, play games on your phones, and this keeps you immersed inside the story. "We can build fairly elaborate models of player behavior based on the data we've collected from The Sims. We know what kinds of social networks players form, what types of purchases they make, and even what types of attitudes they exhibit." Spore is taking things a step further by taking the player out of the role of Luke Skywalker, and putting them into the role of George Lucas (poor Mark Hamill).

"Basically we decided to make a game that shows you the history of the universe, from the very small to the very large." Spore takes some of the tools used to make objects in The Sims, and makes those available to the player so they have, "An infinite world to play around in."

2:46pm: He's now showing a Spore demo of the one celled creature looking for "food pellets to eat", and showing how the character begins to grow and evolve. "The world becomes more expansive as the player grows. We show this world becoming larger by pulling the camera farther and farther back." Powers of Ten anyone? "You get to play the creature through every stage of evolution, until you become a fully rendered 3D sort of 'eater'."
Will's "eater" is running around in his virtual world and he uses a "stealth mode" to sneak up on a creature to eat it, and it farts as it's running away. The panic sets off the creature's parents and they kill Will's creature. "Oh ... I wasn't supposed to die." The audience loves this.

2:49pm: Now he's gone into the "god mode" seen in many of the online Spore videos where you build your own creature from scratch. He's putting mouths on the end of the arms, one giant eye on the head, and a few eyes.
"We're trying to build something that's basically like Maya for 10 year olds." Once Will is done building his new creature, the game analyzes it and knows where to put the spine in, how to shade the skin, and basically make it "real." "It takes evolution millions and million of years to do all this, and we've basically shrunk it down to a few milliseconds." Evolve or die, evolution!

2:53pm: He drops his creature into the world and unfortunately hatches near a group of large aggressive creatures. "Run away!" </holygrail> He survives, barely, and heads off to grow and evolve from a hatchling to a full-grown creature. Now he's skipped way ahead in the game, to the point where his creatures have developed space travel, and he's showing the real depth of the game. We're hovering over his planet and pulling back into the universe. "I went to Montessori school up until 5th grade, and then basically the rest of my education was all downhill. Since then I've had time to go back and study the Montessori model that encourages exploration, and I've adapted that into designing games."

So, what did the Montessori model encourage you to build, Will? "What we really want to see is wars between the Care Bears and the Klingon Empire."

2:56pm: He's showing the "UFO Editor" where you can pimp out your interstellar ride, and use the awesome rays (Awesome Rays™?) in the ship to terraform your planet. Now he's pumping tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and drying up the oceans. Now the entire planet is melting. "The planet is a toy that you can play with, and give someone a sense of long-term dynamics over a very short time." Of course, SUV drivers have been doing this for years.

He takes out the "monolith" tool and uses it to drop one on a planet. "Oops, they're aquatic. I need to drop one in the ocean." Will's UFO looks just like the Starship Enterprise. The aliens have found Will's monolith and are coming out of the ocean. He's trying to get them to worship him, without much success (that's what the audience is there for, Will).

2:59pm: He makes a "miracle" occur, and the aliens are sufficiently impressed and come up to him. He scans them and stores them in his Galactic Encyclopedia (HHGG?). These become baseball card type items that you can print out and trade outside the game. "We don't just have stars and planets in the universe, we also have 'Hubble' type events that you can see." He shows off a proto-planetary disc forming in the game, which looks pretty impressive. He pulls further and further back into the game, and you see just how completely massive everything is. "Okay, so that's basically Spore. Now let's go back into Powerpoint." The audience responds with great laughter and massive applause. Everyone wants this game ... or they really like Powerpoint.

3:03pm: "How will this impact the world moving forward? Every now and then the world goes through a massive paradigm shift. With technology, this is happening more and more often." "Some of them are grassroots" -- he shows a 1984 Macintosh pic to illustrate this. Everyone with MacBooks nods in exaggerated approval, although they must fear -- in the back of their symmetrical, oval-shaped heads (who designed these?) -- that Spore won't even run on their systems. By changing the tools and the types of experiences made available to people, Will hopes that we can change the world.

3:05pm: Holy cow, suddenly it's over and and "Just What I Needed" by The Cars is playing. The entire audience shakes off their stupor. Everyone is talking about Spore. Overheard: "Oh my God, my head can't contain all of the stuff he was saying. It's going to explode!" There's a huge crowd around Bruce Sprinste ... er Will. Warren Spector is wandering around looking dazed.

Update: Check out Quicktime movies of the keynote, courtesy of SXSW.