Will Wright was on a recon mission on Tuesday in New York City. On a snowy day on Manhattan's West Side, one of history's top game developers was at his first Toy Fair, his wheels turning.
Since April of last year, Wright has been in a new phase of his life. The recent era of making The Sims, Sim City and Spore for Electronic Arts is behind him, giving way to a new era of developing projects for his Stupid Fun Club in secret progress.
Gone from the gaming publicity circuit, Wright has kept a low profile. His speech to kick off the Engage Expo, a Toy Fair satellite conference for virtual worlds held in the same grand convention centre as the big toy show this week, offered a rare glimpse into what Wright is thinking about these days and what he's going to do next.
The Engage speech was classic Wright: Brainy, amusing, future-looking, playful, full of slides and swift talk and, the most crowd-pleasing attraction: A home movie of Wright and his 11-year-old stepdaughter launching an Astronaut Barbie into the sky, strapped to a model rocket. "I don't know if there are any Mattel engineers in the audience, but just as a note: Barbie's flight suit is not very blast resistant." (Barbie's remains are pictured at right)
He wowed a gleeful Engage crowd with his love of dangerous toys and articulating his belief in the potential of toys to shape both his and the rest of our species' lives. But Wright offered little more than a tantalisingly vague hint that what he's doing next might well be the best thing since rocket-strapped Barbie or the artificially intelligent Teddy Bear our younger selves only ever dreamed of.
All we know is that Will Wright's Stupid Fun Club is designing ... something, which is about the level of detail Wright gave Kotaku during a quick post-presentation interview. "I've always been a toy consumer, but for the first time we're actively pursuing probably a few different toy designs now," he said, after a cluster of showgoers looking to share their ideas with him dissipated. Wright was keeping his the secrets in check but allowed his enthusiasm to percolate.
"Oh man, I wish I could talk about it, because some of the stuff we're doing is just so cool," he said. "We're still doing some stuff that's going to be vaguely in the game space. But a lot of it is kind of taking play in areas that are not traditionally considered play arenas. I wish I could talk more about it, but I can't."
There are certain creators whose vague declarations that they are doing something exciting are actually exciting. Wright qualifies, particularly after he spends an hour telling a crowd which types of toys he thinks are cool.
From behind a podium, in a conference hall made to fit a few hundred people, Wright began his Engage Expo keynote by stating his unembarrassed love of toys. On a big screen he flashed two favourite bumper stickers: "He who dies with the most toys wins" and "Your toys aren't cool enough unless they can kill you."
He traced his development through toys, saying they had the strongest impact on who he was becoming as he grew up. He showed a programmable '70s toy vehicle, the Big Trak, which he said was one of his earliest influences about the capabilities of computing. He showed his old secret agent set and his favourite toy, a VertiBird helicopter.
He would show that Barbie launch on its rocket, championing the idea of "subversive" toy play and he'd associate that and similar actions like knocking down towers of blocks with the valuable practice of kids using toys to stretch their imagination and explore new ways the world could work.
"Our imagination is the most powerful thing we have as humans," he said. "It allows us to model, predict and change how we behave. Toys, if nothing else, are primarily the way we are constructing our imagination," he said.
Wright made a good argument as he explored the complex things that occur in a child's brain as they play with a toy. He used the example of a boy playing with a Thomas the Tank Engine train train set, describing how that toy was helping the child formulate concrete and abstract ideas about the toy in hand, about Thomas the character, and about trains in the world at large.
He drew the obvious parallels to video games and their own use as a forum to experiment. "Kids utilise the scientific method while playing [video]games," he told the audience. "They mash buttons, form a hypothesis, and then they test it out. Maybe they can kill the monster, maybe they can't. Then they formulate a new hypothesis and try again."
Some people think of toys and video games, the virtual, as two amusement fields that are at odds, PlayStation and Nintendo robbing kids' youths from Barbies and Hot Wheels. But Wright believes the tools for physical and virtual play are merging, a sign of a generation growing up comfortable with the virtual and the real and likely a hint of where he's going. After the talk, he said to Kotaku: "As I go around meeting toy people, they all kind of recognise that these two things are going to merge - and they are very quickly merging. There might have been a lot of resistance a while back but now I think everybody I talk to recognises that kids see the world that way - That to them the virtual is almost indistinguishable from the physical and they are just as meaningful."
The other hint at what Wright could be up to might be in the fascination he showed in his talk for toy-like elements in things we don't expect to be toy-like. He showed the Roomba vacuum robot, which he said "doesn't vacuum worth shit" and is instead "really a social toy for your home". He joyfully described "The Pod" car, a Toyota-Sony hybrid of a vehicle that has swivelling seats, coloured exterior lighting that displays the car's "mood" and a stubby rear antenna that wags like a dog's tail when the car is turned on.
But at the keynote's conclusion, the moment when Wright might have revealed what's on the Stupid Fun Club agenda, as he pondered aloud what his involvement could be, he instead shifted to an enunciation of trends he finds exciting in the realm of playful technology: Intelligence, the construction of play devices like the guesses-what-you're-thinking 20Q ball that actually isn't that sophisticated; Awareness, the ability of objects like the Wii remote to identify their physical location and orientation; and Memory, as exemplified by the fictional Teddy Bear in the movie A.I., a toy capable not just of remembering all the times it was played with but that could have relationships with other toys, something, Wright said, that he considers "a very real possibility".
Wright told Kotaku after the talk that he hopes he can reveal what his Stupid Fun Club is up to "soon". He was no more specific than that. Pure video gaming, it sounds, is mainly going to be an amusement for him. He said he's still avidly playing Advance Wars on his DS, has dabbled with Dragon Age, gotten sucked into Battlestations Pacific and likes messing with Scribblenauts ("I don't even focus on the levels. I just sit there and pick out a cat and a ferret and see what happens. I'm just doing all these experiments in my head"). But the Sims was 10 years ago. Even Spore is now a ways back.
Maybe we should think of Will Wright, fresh off his first Toy Fair, as an exciting young toy maker now, instead.
But maybe we should have seen him as a toy maker all along. "I always thought of Sim City as a digital toy," he said during our chat. "Most people call it a game, but, really, the rules structure is much looser than a real game. You can't really win or lose in Sim City or The Sims. You can try for certain goal states and maybe achieve them or not. But I think my games have always been more like toys than games."