Q&A: Will Wright's Artificial Intelligence

The king of the Sim Empire talks about 'BattleBots,' hungry ants and how he turns real life into video games

Will Wright Credit: Ryan Anson/AFP/Getty Images

For the past sixteen years, Will Wright has devoted himself to simulating the ultimate challenge: everyday life. The forty-one-year-old computer-game designer has put players in charge of micromanaging simulated farms, simulated ant hives, simulated cities and, most recently, little Sims themselves — artificially intelligent characters who sleep, eat, work and give back rubs.

The Sims won just about every major game award last year, in addition to selling more than 4 million copies worldwide and grossing more than $170 million. Wright's gaming successes are due in large part to his fearless pursuit of the mundane: His cities have bad plumbing, his dinners need to get cleaned up and Sims must go to the john. Wright, who's currently working on an online version of The Sims as well as some highly competitive remote-controlled fighting robots for the TV show BattleBots, hopes his games help people get a fresh view of their own lives. "I like the idea that games can change the player," he says.

When you're out and about, you must get people suggesting Sim games to you all the time.
You can't imagine.

Any ideas stand out?
Sim Shopping Mall — that one had, like, fifteen types of people you'd see in the mall. It all had to do with teenagers and old people. It was pretty funny.

You've been competing in BattleBot tournaments lately. How's that going?
Well, I've got this one I'm building now that's going to be killer. It's about halfway built, but I don't want to name it until I'm done.

I've built a bunch of them so far. The first one was called Julie Bot. It had this talking doll's head on the top — this was for the very first Robot Wars, and it won the lightweight division. The second year I did Kiddy Puff Puff, which wrapped the other robots in tape — that one won the middleweight melee. My daughter does robots, too; she made a Chia Bot. It didn't do too well. It got flipped over, but it put up a good fight....

Pretty destructive compared to your games.
Yeah, but it's really much more of a social thing. You get to meet a bunch of cool people who are strange like you. But it is cool for the robots to go in and beat the crap out of each other, too.

What kind of kid were you?
I was always building things: models, little inventions, airplanes, tanks, ships, then robots. The first robot I built was a little hydraulic arm made entirely out of injection syringes. I was probably about thirteen. A friend of mine talked me into buying a computer to run my robots, and that's how I got interested in games.

What interested you about computer games?
What fascinates me is the ability to have a microworld inside this little box, a world that has its own rules and physics that you can interact with. The first game I made was one where you flew around and blew things up. I had to create little islands you were flying over. I was finding that to be much more fun than the blowing-them-up part. I thought it'd be cool if I could actually bring these little islands to life.

Why simulate real life?
In some sense, the computer can be thought of as an elaborate mirror when you're running simulations on it. It's not a perfect mirror, but, depending on the situation, you can exaggerate reality, distort reality, fast-forward through time or replay things over and over until you get them right. For me, it's a new way of interacting with the world.

What influenced the development of The Sims?
It was the intersection of a few ideas: the work of urban planner/architect Christopher Alexander, who looked at how environmental design influences our behavior, and the behavioral modeling I learned from doing my game Sim Ant.

So humans don't behave that differently from ants?
Surprisingly, I found that they weren't that different [laughs]. In The Sims, if a character is hungry it will go near the strongest hunger source: the fridge, the barbecue. Ants do this, too. There was also another influence for The Sims: I started getting interested in time studies, where researchers try to map out how you spend every minute of your day. The results are fascinating.

In your games, people spend their time doing pretty ordinary things. How important is banality in your games?
In some sense, that's what really drives the player's ownership [of The Sims]. When you've laid every little water pipe or spent every hour of that guy's life so far on your computer, you're really responsible, and you can start empathizing a lot more with the city or the person. Things become so dependent on you that the whole gaming experience can become very guilt-driven. When this guy loses his job, for the most part, it's your fault. If you're dealing with The Sims in this mundane day-to-day life, then the epic victories are things very familiar — getting married, having a kid or getting a promotion — as opposed to defeating the evil empire in some other game.

How has developing all these Sim games affected the way you view the world?  
I spend a lot of time looking for patterns. When we design simulations, "we're trying to compress this huge data of reality into a few elegant algorithms. That's also the path we typically take toward understanding the world around us: What's the simplest explanation for this?

How about making Sim Game Developer?
I don't think that would be nearly as fun as most people think [laughs].