It's probably not a surprise that the man who created The Sims and SimCity wants you to make stories out of your life. His most famous creations let players spin bizarre melodramas from how they managed (or fiendishly ignored) the needs of either an entire city or a single family. But, Wright's next big project is all about real lives, not imaginary ones.
When I talked to him about his new project Thred a few weeks ago, Will Wright told me that main constant of his design career has always been wanting to see what people do with his creations. "Even in the games I did, I was always interested in not so much the game but the tools and the communities that were built up around the games," he said. "It's almost as if the game is a tool for creating the community. The community is really about the players creating cool stuff and sharing it and expressing themselves through the content."
The man who created SimCity — one of the most iconic PC gaming franchises of all time — says he doesn't use his PC that much these days. "I found that more and more [my phone] was becoming my primary device. All of my content consumption, exploration and discovery was on here," he offered.
"I very rarely use my PC anymore. I entertain myself by exploring the world, creating stuff, expressing it. But the formats [I really were legacy formats — things like the World Wide Web — were not really built for consumption and work creation on [a phone] platform."
Thred is Wright's way of tackling that challenge and simultaneously folding in his curiosity about how people live their lives. "I've been fascinated about how much [my phone] knows about me. It can know more and more as data-tracking gets more sophisticated. Constantly interfacing with devices lets us create something like The Sims, these little artificial versions of ourselves, these little artificial lives."
Of course, it's Wright's interest in simulation led him to create iconic game franchises like SimCity, The Sims and Spore. The last iteration of SimCity went awry almost from the start, culminating in the closure of the Maxis studio that Wright helped to found. While Wright weighed in on the last SimCity a while back, he told me that he knew the online-only nature of the game would cause problems, " I knew that was going to be an issue. A month before the release I was like, 'Are you sure you want to do this?' They knew there would be some resistance. I don't think they had any inkling how severe the resistance was going to be."
As we talked more, Wright then showed how Thred can make custom stickers out of pictures from the web. "If for some reason I need a frog or whatever, it will actually go out on the Web and get images that are masked already so that when I drop them into the scene, you can move them around the way you want. There's kind of a cartoon language that people are familiar with so we're leaning into that with stuff like this."
"Some people will be curating or even just browsing, discovering Thred stories based on where they are," Wright continued. "So I can ask it to show me all of the stories that happened near me at Time Square or [a particular] restaurant." Wright turned to video games as another example of how people could use Thred, showing a Thred that showed the locations of every dragon in Dragon Age Inquisition, complete with the creatures' names and levels."
But Wright's focus isn't on fantastical worlds like Ferelden so much nowadays. When I asked him what he'd cook up for a pie-in-the-sky modern-day version of The Sims, he said, "I've always been trying to draw games closer and closer to reality. A lot of [the inspiration for Thred] came from the idea of that we're leaving this digital wake behind us." "Did you ever see Caprica?" he asks, talking up the recent prequel for SyFy's version of Battlestar Galactica. "There was one aspect near the beginning I thought was very cool where [a character's] daughter was taking all this data and constructing an avatar based upon trying to replicate the way she would behave in certain circumstances."
"I would love to have The Sims initialized based on what the cloud knew about you. And then send that Sim into reality. This is an aspiration...in some sense I'm thinking about [Thred] as a platform for entertainment. It might be storytelling, it might be gaming. But how do we turn your real life into the gaming platform? Not a Playstation or a PC. I don't mean a mobile device. I mean in real life. The data we have about you, all the metrics [putting them together in a way so that] now you're playing with your real life. It might be hypothetical things. It might be things in the future or what-ifs in the past. But I love the idea of turning your life into that platform that you are now exploring through play."
Wright's career has taken him from games to TV — his Bar Karma project on Current TV put viewers in charge of the plot — to what he now hopes will be a totally new place inside the real world. "I'm much more interested making you more engaged in the world around you rather than distracting you from it," he said. "So rather than sitting in a dark room and playing a game for four hours, something that makes you open your eyes and look around and understand and notice things. That's entertainment, too, after all."