23 October 07
In 2007 the Academy recognised a member of the Video Game industry with the BAFTA Fellowship for the first time. The accolade which is presented for outstanding achievement through a body of work was awarded to legendary games designer Will Wright.
Words by Tim Wapshott
One of the most creative people at work in video games today is also one of the most modest and easily approachable. Will Wright is an enduring legend of the video games world. Most of us will have played at least one of his games and doubtless found it annoyingly captivating – be it SimCity, SimCopter or The Sims. But Gulliver has had little to do with his little people for some time.
“I’m not involved much with The Sims now. I’ve been far too busy with my next game, Spore.” In Spore, players get to breed an entire species more or less from scratch and the game quickly evolves into a sort of interplanetary ecological sim that could entirely redefine playing God.
William Ralph Wright was born in Atlanta on 20 January, 1960, and enjoyed a happy, comfortable childhood. A self-motivated boy, he excelled at problem-solving, and outside school, he fostered a love of board games, chess, and building balsa-wood models. After his father’s death from leukaemia, when Will was just nine, the family moved to Louisiana. Despite studying, variously, architecture, mechanical engineering, aviation and psychology, he finally dropped out of further education in 1981 with no formal qualifications.
Wright had two enduring passions: computers and robots. He used his first computer, an Apple II, to animate the robots he built himself and at 22 he discovered the Commadore 64 which would change his life completely. His first major hit in the fledgling games market, was Raid on Bungeling Bay, a helicopter action game which racked up sales of 800,000 in Japan alone. Then came an idea for a city-building game called Metropolis. Released in 1989, the renamed SimCity was immediately dubbed a cerebral classic with sales topping $3million. More quality Sim-hits followed including Sim Earth, SimAnt and SimCity 3000, which in 1999 was the year’s best-seller in the US.
Wright next revisited an idea he had been harbouring since 1994. With the working title ‘dolls house’, this new game allowed players to design and furnish homes whilst steering the fortunes of its tiny human inhabitants. Within three years of its release in 2000, The Sims had sold 8 million copies, almost 16 million expansion packs, and become the best-selling games franchise of all time.
Will Wright’s appearance in the UK to accept his Fellowship award was something of a coup for the Academy as he was under a strict travel ban whilst he was putting the finishing touches to the eagerly-awaited Spore. Beneath the bonnet of the game is some clever technology, particularly the graphics program which can turn out in milliseconds the sort of living, breathing, moving creations that would still take some developers weeks to complete.
“We’ve automated most of what traditional artists would do for computer graphics in Spore by teaching the computer how to replicate the creative processes very quickly”.
Will’s faith in gaming’s future is undiminished. “Games are in the process of diffusing out into culture and spreading across all these different platforms. Year after year games are permeating our culture and I don’t think they will be dying off any time soon. They are finally becoming less faddish. Ask the average 25 year-old in the US and probably about as many play Counter Strike regularly as are playing basketball. For them, Gaming is now a recreational activity. It might be creative or it might be competitive – or both – but it is a way to unwind.
“I know I was lucky getting into games. I started at a time when you could come up with ideas that didn’t take vast teams to create, and you could even make a bit of a name for yourself. If I was starting out today it would be a big challenge – it is harder to make a name now that such large teams are involved. I might not even make it if I was starting out today!” And that, as they say, would clearly have been gaming’s loss…