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Will Wright makes toys that make worlds

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I've always wanted to be a cyborg. One of my favorite shows as a kid was "The Six Million Dollar Man," and this is a little bit closer to the 240 dollar man or so, but --


At at any rate. I would normally feel very self-conscious and geeky wearing this around, but a few days ago I saw one world-renowned statistician swallowing swords on stage here, so I figure it's OK amongst this group. But that's not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about toys, and the power that I see inherent in them.

When I was a kid, I attended Montessori school up to sixth grade in Atlanta, Georgia. And at the time I didn't think much about it, but then later, I realized that that was the high point of my education. From that point on, everything else was pretty much downhill. And it wasn't until later, as I started making games, that -- I really actually think of them more as toys. People call me a game designer, but I really think of these things more as toys. But I started getting very interested in Maria Montessori and her methods, and the way she went about things, and the way she thought it very valuable for kids to kind of discover things on their own rather than being taught these things overtly. And she would design these toys, where kids in playing with the toys would actually come to understand these deep principles of life and nature through play. And since they discovered those things, it really stuck with them so much more, and also they would experience their own failures; there was a failure-based aspect to learning there. It was very important. And so, the games that I do, I think of really more as modern Montessori toys. And I really kind of want them to be presented in a way to where kids can kind of explore and discover their own principles.

So a few years ago, I actually started getting very interested in the SETI program. And that's the way I work. I get interested in different kinds of subjects, I dive in, I research them, and then I try to figure out how to craft a toy around that, so that other people can kind of experience the same sense of discovery as I did as I was learning that subject. And it kind of led me to astrobiology, which is the study of possible life in the universe. And then Drake's Equation, which is looking at the probability of life arising on planets, how long it might last, how many planets are out there, stuff like that. And I started looking at how interesting Drake's Equation was, because it spanned all these different subjects -- physics, chemistry, sociology, economics, astronomy. And another thing that really impressed me a long time ago was "Powers of Ten," Charles and Ray Eames' film. And I started putting those two together and wondering, could I build a toy where kids would kind of trip across all these interesting principles of life, as it exists and as it might go in the future. Things where you might trip across things like the Copernican Principle, the Fermi Paradox, the Anthropic Principle, the origin of life. And so I'm going to show you a toy today that I've been working on, that I think of more than anything else as kind of a philosophy toy. In playing this toy, you kind of -- this will bring up philosophical questions in you.

This game's called "Spore." I've been working on it for several years. It's getting pretty close to finished now. It occurs at all these different scales, first of all, from very, very small to very, very large. I'm just going to pop in at the start of the game. And you actually start this game in a drop of water, as a very, very small single-cell creature, and right off the bat you basically just have to live, survive, reproduce. So here we are, at a very microscopic scale, swimming around. And I actually realize that cells don't have eyes, but it helps to make it cute. The players are going to play through every generation of this species, and as you play the game the creature is actually growing bit by bit. And as we start growing the camera will actually start zooming out, and things that you see in the background there will actually start slowly pulling into the foreground, showing you a little bit of what you'll be interacting with as you grow. So as we eat, the camera starts pulling out, and then we start interacting with kind of larger and larger organisms.

Now, we actually play through many generations here, at the cellular scale. I'm going to skip ahead here. At some point we get larger, and we actually get to a macro-evolution scale. Now at this point we're leaving the water, and one thing that's kind of important about this game is that, at every level, the player is designing their creature, and that's a fundamental aspect of this. Now, in the evolution game here, the creature scale, basically you have to eat, survive, and then reproduce. You know, very Darwinian. One thing we noticed with "The Sims," which is a game I did earlier, is that players love making stuff. When they were able to make stuff in the game they had a tremendous amount of empathy in connection to it. Even if it wasn't as pretty as what other people would make it -- as a professional artist would make for games -- it really stuck with them and they really cared about what would happen to it.

So at this point, we've left the water, and now with this little creature -- we could bring up the volume a little bit -- and now we might try to eat. We might sneak up on this little guy over here maybe, and try and eat him. OK, well, we fight. OK, we got him. Now we get a meal. So really, at this part of the game, what we're doing is we're running around and surviving, and also getting to the next generation, because we're going to play through every generation of this creature. We can mate, so I'm going to see if one of these creatures wants to mate with me. Yeah.

We didn't want to replay actual evolution with humans and all that, because it's almost more interesting to look at alternate possibilities in evolution. Evolution is usually presented as this one path that we took through, but really it represents this huge set of possibilities. Now once we mate, we click on the egg. And this is where the game starts getting interesting, because one of the things we really focused on here was giving the players very high-leverage tools, so that for a very small amount of effort the player can make something very cool. And it involves a lot of intelligence on the tool side.

But basically, this is the editor where we're going to design the next generation of our creature. So it has a little spine. I can move around here. I can extend. I can also inflate or deflate it with the mouse wheel, so you sculpt it like clay. We have parts here that I can put on or pull off. The idea is that the player can basically design anything they can think of in this editor, and we'll basically bring it to life. So, for instance, I might put some limbs on the character here. I'll inflate them kind of large. And in this case I might decide I'm going to put -- I'll put mouths on the limbs. So pretty much players are encouraged to be very creative in the game. Here, I'll give it one eye in the middle, maybe scale it up a bit. Point it down. And I'll also give it a few legs. So in some sense we want this to feel like an amplifier for the player's imagination, so that with a very small number of clicks a player can create something that they didn't really think was possible before. You know, this is almost like designing something like Maya that an eight-year-old can use. But really the goal here was, within about a minute, I wanted somebody to replicate what typically takes a pictorial artist several weeks to create. OK, now I'll put some hands on it. OK, so here I've basically thrown together a little creature. Let me give it a little weapon on the tail here, so it can fight. OK, so that's the complete model. Now we can actually go to the painting phase.

Now, at this phase, the program actually has some understanding of the topology of this creature. It kind of knows where the backbone is, where the spine, the limbs are. It kind of knows how stripes should run, how it should be shaded. And so we're procedurally generating the texture map, and this is something a texture artist would take many, many days to work on. And then we can test it out, once we've done that, and see how it would move around. And so at this point the computer is procedurally animating this creature. It's looking at whatever I've designed. It will actually bring it to life. And I can see how it might dance.


how it might show emotions, how it might fight. So it's acting with its two mouths there. I can even have it pose for a photo. Snap a little photo of it.


So at any rate, then I bring this back into the game. It's born, and I play the next generation of my creature through evolution. Now again, the empathy that the players have when they create the content is tremendous. Now, when players create content in this game, it's automatically sent up to a server and then redistributed to all the other players transparently. So in fact, as I'm interacting in this world with other creatures, these creatures are transparently coming from other players as they play. So the process of playing the game is a process of building up this huge database of content. And pretty much everything you're going to see in this game, there's an editor for in the game that the player can create, all the way up through civilization. This is my baby. When I eat, I'll actually start growing. This is the next generation.

But I'm going to skip way ahead here. Now, normally what would happen is these creatures would work their way up, eventually become intelligent. I'd start dealing with tribes, cities and civilizations of them over time. I'm going to skip way ahead here to the space phase. Eventually they would go out into space, and start colonizing and exploring the universe. Now really, in some sense, I want the players to be building this world in their imagination, and then extracting it from them with the least amount of pain. So that's kind of what these tools are about, are: how do we make the game play the player's imagination-amplifier? And how do we make these tools, these editors, something that are just as fun as the game itself? So this is the planet that we've been playing on up to this point in the game. So far the entire game has been played on the surface of this little world here.

Now, at this point we're actually dealing with a very little toy planet. Almost, again, like the Montessori toy idea. You know, what happens if you give somebody a toy planet, and let them play with a lot of dynamics on it, what could they discover? What might they learn on this? This world was actually extracted from the player's imagination. So, this is the planet that the player evolved on. Things like the buildings, and the vehicles, the architecture, civilizations were all designed by the player up to this point. So here's a little city with some of our guys kind of walking around in it. And most games kind of put the player in the role of Luke Skywalker, this protagonist playing through this story. Really, this is more about putting the player in the role of George Lucas, you know? I want them, after they've played this game, to have extracted an entire world that they're now interacting with.

Now, as we pull down here, we still have a whole set of creatures living on the surface of the planet. There are all these different dynamics going on here. In fact, I can look over here, and this is kind of a little simplified food web that's going on with the creatures. I can open this up and then scan what exists on the surface, and get some sense of the diversity of creatures that were brought in. Some of these were created by the player, others by other players and automatically sent over here. But there's a very simple little kind of calculation of what's required, how much plants are required for the herbivores to live, how many herbivores for the carnivores to eat, etc., that you actually have to balance actively. Now also with this phase, we're getting more and more God-like powers for the player, and you can kind of experiment with this planet again as a toy. So I can come in and I can do things, and just treat this planet as a lump of clay. We have very simple little weather systems you see here, very simple geology. For instance, I could open one of my tools here and then carve out rivers. So this whole thing is kind of like a big lump of clay, a sculpture. I can also play with the dynamics of this world over time.

So one of the things I can do is start pumping more CO2 gases into the atmosphere, and so that's what I'm doing here. There's actually a little read out down there of our planetary atmosphere, pressure and temperature. So as I start pumping in more atmosphere, we're going to start pushing up the greenhouse gases here and if you'll start noticing, we start seeing the ocean levels rise over time. And our cities are going to be at risk too, because a lot of these are coastal cities. You can see the ocean levels are rising now and as they encroach upon the cities, I'll start losing cities here. So basically, I want the players to be able to experiment and explore a huge amount of failure space. So there goes one city. Now over time, this is actually going to heat up the planet. So at first what we're going to see is a global ocean rise here on this little toy planet, but then over time -- I can speed it up just a little bit -- we'll actually see the heat impact of that as well. So not only will it get hotter, but at some point it's going to get so hot the oceans will entirely evaporate. So at first they'll go up, and then they'll evaporate, and that'll be my planet. So basically, what we're getting here is the sequel to "An Inconvenient Truth," in about two minutes, and that actually brings up an interesting point about games. Now here, our entire oceans are evaporating off the surface, and as it keeps getting hotter at some point the entire planet's going to melt down. Here it goes.

So we're not only simulating biological dynamics -- food webs and all that -- but also geologic, you know, on a very simple core scale. And what's interesting to me about games, in some sense, is that I think we can take a lot of long-term dynamics and compress them into very short-term kind of experiences. Because it's so hard for people to think 50 or 100 years out, but when you can give them a toy, and they can experience these long-term dynamics in just a few minutes, I think it's an entirely different kind of point of view, where we're actually mapping, using the game to re-map our intuition. It's almost in the same way that a telescope or microscope recalibrates your eyesight; I think computer simulations can recalibrate your instinct across vast scales of both space and time.

So here's our little solar system, as we pull away from our melted planet here. We actually have a couple of other planets in this solar system. Let's fly to another one. So in fact, we're going to have this unlimited number of worlds you can kind of explore here. Now, as we move into the future, and we start going out in this space and doing stuff, we're drawing a lot from things like science fiction. And all my favorite science fiction movies I want to basically play out here as different dynamics. So this planet actually has some life on it. Here it is, some indigenous life down here. Now one of the tools I can eventually earn for my UFO is a monolith that I can drop down.


Now as you can see, these guys are actually starting to go up and bow to it, and over time, once they touch it, they will become intelligent. So I can actually pick a species on a planet and then make them sentient. You see, now they've actually gone to tribal dynamics. And now, because I'm actually the one here, I can, if I want to, get out of the UFO and walk up, and they should be worshipping me at this point as a god.


At first they're a little freaked out. OK, well maybe they're not worshipping me.


I think I'll leave before they get hostile.

But we basically want a diversity of activities the players can play through this. Basically, I want to be able to play, "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Star Trek," "War Of the Worlds." Now as we pull away from this world -- we're going to keep pulling away from the star now. One of the things that always frustrated me a little bit about astronomy when I was a kid is how it was always presented so two-dimensionally and so static. As we pull away from the star here, we're actually going now out into interstellar space, and we're getting a sense of the space around our home star.

Now what I really wanted to do is to present this, basically as wonderfully 3D as it is actually is. And not only that, but also show the dynamics, and a lot of the interesting objects that you might find, maybe like in the Hubble, at pretty much realistic frequencies and scales. So most people have no idea of the difference between like, an emission nebula and a planetary nebula. But these are the things that we can kind of put in this little galaxy here. So we're flying over here to what looks like a black hole. I want to basically have the entire zoo of Hubble objects that people can kind of interact with and play with, again, as toys. So here's a little black hole that we probably don't want to get too close to. But we also have stars and things as well. If we pull all the way back, we start seeing the entire galaxy here, kind of slowly in motion. And this is another thing where, typically when people present galaxies, it's always been these very beautiful photos, but they're always static. And when you actually bring it forward in time and start animating it, it's actually kind of amazing, what a galaxy would look like, fast forwarded.

This would be about one million years a second, because you have about roughly one supernova every century or so. And so you'd have this wonderful sparkling thing, with the disk slowly rotating, and this is roughly what it would look like. And so really, part of this is about bringing the beauty of this, of the natural world, to somebody in a very imaginative way, so that they can start calibrating their instinct across these vast scales of space and time.

Chris was wondering what kind of gods that the players would become. Because if you think about it, you're going to have 15-year-olds, 20-year-olds, whatever, flying around this universe. And they might be a nurturing god. They might be boot-strapping life on planets, trying to terra-form and spread civilization. You might be a vengeful god and going out and conquesting, because you actually can do that, you can go in and attack other intelligent races. You might be a networking god, building alliances, which you can also do in the game, or just curious, going around and wanting to explore as much as you possibly can.

But basically, the reason why I make toys like this is because I think if there's one difference I could possibly make in the world, that I would choose to make, it's that I would like to somehow give people just a little bit better calibration on long-term thinking. Because I think most of the problems that our world is facing right now is the result of short-term thinking, and the fact that it is so hard for us to think 50, 100, or 1,000 years out. And I think by giving kids toys like this and letting them replay dynamics, very long-term dynamics over the short term, and getting some sense of what we're doing now, what it's going to be like in 100 years, I think probably is the most effective thing I can be doing to help the world. And so that's why I think, personally, that toys can change the world.

Thank you.

Video Details

Duration: 16 minutes and 20 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 246
Posted by: tedtalks on Nov 24, 2008

In a friendly, high-speed presentation, Will Wright demos his newest game, Spore, which promises to dazzle users even more than his previous masterpieces.

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