Player-Centered Gaming. Now There's an Idea

Will Wright discusses the future of intelligent gaming

“The way I look at the world is as a simulation, that there are all these things happening, and there’s a state of the world,” Wright said, laying out the basis of his talk at South by Southwest earlier this week. “And a lot of these things cascade into the next state of the world. This is kind of how a computer simulation works…certain things are causing chains in other things.”

Wright’s talk drew parallels between stories in games and in movies, with his ultimate vision being an interactive experience that takes the best aspects of storytelling in both mediums, then lumps all of that together with a good amount of player-created content.

Some people think of the combination of movies and games involves the elaborate use cut scenes which are injected between spurts of gameplay. Wright, however, believes such game direction works against what gaming is all about.

“Whenever we take control away from the player at all, we are throwing away the most important thing about games,” he said. “It’s the equivalent of going to a movie theater and showing a blank screen [to the audience]. You’re basically throwing away the DNA that is that medium.”

Wright also said, “Very rarely do I hear somebody describe to a friend the cool cut scene that they saw in a game. But all the time, they’re describing this very cool, unique thing that they did.”

Player stories

In the world of YouTube and MySpace, the buzzword is user-generated content. Now, media creators are realizing that empowering users has its benefits. Wright said that technology has become “player-centered, not broadcast-centered.”

He described three kinds of “player stories”: unintentional, subversive and expressive.

With the “unintentional” player story, players come across some weird bug or something else strange in a game and create a whole backstory to the encounter. He gave an example of how a bug in The Sims caused characters to burst into flames. Players started creating stories about why “spontaneous combustion” occurred and posted their experiences on the Internet.

“Subversive” story models occur when players push the boundaries of a game or exploit the game’s abilities, such as creating unique strategies in Battlefield and sharing them with other players.

An “expressive” story happens after playing a game like The Sims or Grand Theft Auto, when players present their interpretation of a simulation, taking a game that’s open-ended and presenting it as a linear story on the web, for example.

“We tend to think of films as being much richer than games,” he said. “Games tend to be appealing more to the reptilian brain; the kind of basic instincts of fear, aggression. But on the other hand, I think that there are a lot different things that games do. They have a different emotional palette than linear entertainment. It’s not that they don’t have an emotional palette, but there are things that I’ve felt in games that I never once have in a movie; things like pride or accomplishment or guilt over something I’ve done.”

Beyond Spore

If all goes well, Spore will bring story-telling to a whole new level, as its creator has obviously spent a lot of time thinking about all kinds of ways that stories can come from games.

But if you think Spore is ambitious, with its numerous opportunities for story creation and user-generated content, Wright already seems to be thinking of possibilities beyond the highly-anticipated title.

“If we can teach the computer to listen to player stories, those [stories] are the ones [other players] really care about. Those are going to be much more powerful,” he said.

So what’s he talking about? Wright went on to describe his vision of a simulation that could actually execute dramatic aspects of a game. In other words, a computer that could learn what kind of story a player is creating (a teen slasher, a drama) in an open world, and then figure out the ultimate epic struggle of the player’s storyline as he or she plays.

In simpler terms, the computer would be like the in-movie director of The Truman Show, Wright said. Stories stemming from such an interactive experience, he believes, would be truly powerful.

He continued, “If we could actually parse what the player’s intended story is, we could change the presentation of the story. We could change the lighting, the music. We could even start changing the events.”

Well, if there’s someone that could create such a game, it’s probably Mr. Wright.

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