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GDC 2006: "What's Next in Game Design"

What's Next in Game Design
Will Wright, Maxis

Before I start with my summary of his talk, I want to go out of my way to say how much I like Will Wright -- not just as a game designer, but as a person. In the mid-1990s, the firm he co-founded, Maxis, was considering buying the firm I worked at then, Virtus. The idea was to add Virtus' expertise and technology in 3D software architectures to Maxis' expertise and technology in building software toys. Will's co-founder, Jeff Braun, was the person behind the idea, and Will was all for it. It didn't happen, because a third executive there didn't understand the rationale for the deal and so shot it down. It's too bad -- it would have been tremendous fun to work with Will. But the nice thing was that I had the privilege of some wonderful face-to-face time with him, and I can attest that Will is every bit as intelligent, inquisitive, creative, and self-effacing as he is said to be.

Now, onto the talk. For me, this was the talk to which I was looking forward to the most at GDC 2006. Having seen Will's Spore demo from last year, I was eagerly looking forward to seeing how much progress he and his team had made since then. Unfortunately, Will didn't show anything from Spore. I presume this is because it's late enough in the development cycle that EA's marketing folks want to tightly control when and where it's shown. That was a disappointment.

At the beginning of the talk, Will crossed out the title and said that the real title was, "Why I Get Too Obsessed with My Game Research". He then launched into a talk that wove together astrobiology and game design, moving back and forth between the two subjects -- to "maximize confusion", as he put it. The talk was interesting, to be sure. I didn't take live notes, and given Will's rapid-fire delivery, I'm glad I didn't try. Better bloggers than me have covered the talk here, here, here, here, and here.

Having said that, it was at some level a frustrating keynote. If I were to summarize Will's game design process precepts, they would read something like this:

  • Take as much time as you need to thoroughly research your subject
  • Hire the best specialists in any given field to help you with your design
  • Go to the best universities and have their leading professors pick out their very best students for your team
  • Take as much time building as many prototypes as you need to test and refine your design
The problem is that I can count on one hand the number of designers who have the access to resources and the complete creative freedom to be able to do development like this. Shigeru Miyamoto. Peter Molyneux. Will Wright. Who else is there?

A game designer friend who was with me at this keynote put it well. "It's like seeing a candy store through the window," he said. "It looks delicious, but you can't have any."

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