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Posts Tagged ‘Will Wright’

Following the always-timely Stephen Totilo’s Multiplayer Twitter feed, I caught the news just a couple minutes ago about Will Wright leaving EA Maxis to commit fully to his multimedia IP think tank, Stupid Fun Club. For the record, Totilo was seven minutes ahead of EA’s official Twitter.

stupid fun club logoI’m not entirely surprised with the move. DRM controversy aside, Spore made a tremendous splash with critics and consumers alike, and it really felt like the culmination of everything he’s done in the Sim lineage.  There were elements of big sellers like The Sims and SimCity in there, and even some of the quirkier titles like SimFarm, SimAnt and SimEarth. I don’t really see a need for Spore 2, and I’m willing to bet Wright feels the same way.  Then again, when has that stopped anyone?

Without a doubt, Wright can say he was with EA during a transformative period for the company.  EA bought Maxis in ’97, so you’ve got the rise of Sony and the PlayStation brand, and EA’s embracing that technology to become an undisputed superpower in development during that time.  The advancement of Western development and evntual industry shift to cater to US-centric tastes.  The PR backlash against “big, bad EA” and the EA Spouse Livejournal giving a voice to the workforce rights issue that could no longer be ignored.  The end of Sega as a hardware manufacturer (catalyzed by EA’s lack of support for the Dreamcast) and the entrance of Microsoft on the console scene.  Countless top personnel moves, exclusive licensing deals won (NFL) and lost (MLB), and the will-they-won’t-they? circus of EA’s move to acquire Take2.

Will Wright managed to keep himself and his studio remarkably clear of everything that went down at the parent company during that time.  They managed to stick to resonable release schedules and get quality games to market every few years.  EA has a stake Stupid Fun Club, and it sounds like they retain rights of first refusal on their videogame projects.  I hope it works out well for all involved, and am really excited to see what their first projects look like.

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Just in case you missed it, be sure and check out the excellent piece on Spore in the NY Times by Yale fellow and renowned scientist Carl Zimmer.  The Times is hardly ever wanting for quality games journalism, with Seth Schiesel on staff and even the occasional think piece from Steven Johnson in the Sunday Magazine.  But Zimmer’s exploration of Spore is a real gem, because he treats Spore with the same level of respect as any entry in any medium that has the potential to bridge the gap between livingroom and classroom.

I’m sure that one day the medium will mature to the point that stories like this will become commonplace, but for now it’s a high watermark for games coverage in mainstream press.  Also, Zimmer’s piece mentions How to Build a Better Being, a Discovery Channel special that airs next Tuesday (and will come packed in with the special editionof Spore).  As I said before, Will Wright’s showing up in force to promote Spore. We should all enjoy it while it lasts.

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This week saw the official kickoff for ‘s Will Wright’s Spore, as the Creature Creator module was made available on quite a few platforms. While I wouldn’t quite say it’s the games industry’s Chinese Democracy*, Spore’s had its share of delays since being announced (and winning the “Best of Show” award) at E3 2005.

I’m thoroughly impressed with the way EA/Maxis has managed to keep the community’s interest piqued over the course of Spore’s journey from cradle to shelves. Will Wright’s been fairly reclusive since the SimCity days, and his quasi-vow of silence endured even during the development cycles of high profile titles like SimEarth and The Sims, after his rock star status had been firmly established. The long runup to Spore, however, has yielded unprecedented glimpses into Wright’s development process, through the eyes of the absolute best writers in games journalism.

Under normal circumstances, gamers would have given up long ago on a title that had this many public delays. But Wright’s reputation, candor with the enthusiast press, and build-ins for additional platforms, like the DS and iPhone, have bought EA/Maxis a reprieve in this case. Just last week, Wright even weighed in on the “games as art” argument in this gem of an interview with GameDaily Biz.

We won’t know until September if all the anticipation was worth it, but for now the project originally dubbed “SimEverything” stands as a textbook study in how to premarket a huge, genre-defining multiplatform game.

*For those scoring at home, Duke Nukem Forever is the game industry’s Chinese Democracy. A dubious honor if ever there was one.

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Seth Schiesel’s NY Times piece on GTAIV voice actor Michael Hollick from last week raised some interesting questions. While I don’t think anyone would argue that a game’s voice and mocap actors help the player connect better with the characters, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison with film, or even traditional cartoon animation.

Actors in a video game are only one small part of a much larger team that builds and develops the characters. Of course, it’s industry standard for actors like Hollick to receive royalties for appearances in traditional media. But as we saw in the recent WGA writer’s strike, the old rules governing things like re-watches, syndication and cross-media viewing simply can’t apply to new media for it to remain profitable.

The fact is, if a developer like Rockstar is forced to pay a hefty residual to the actors that appear in its games, then it won’t be long before the coders, designers, producers, and even QA testers unionize and line up for “theirs.” After all, in a medium where the player is both the director and protagonist (as Stephen Johnson sharply observed), every one of these rank-and-file positions is just as critical as the next. And once publishers have to cut all those residuals checks, it becomes infinitely harder to make a profitable game. So then developers can’t take risks, and the fastest growing entertainment industry quits growing so fast… In short, what’s good for these actors could be really, really bad for the industry.

That said, Rockstar has a reputation for breaking new ground, and fostering creativity. So they (and parent company Take 2) can’t just write off the actors completely. I think Hollick actually showed the way towards a happy medium last week – he appeared on a morning radio show on DC’s WJFK FM. He mostly chatted up his experience making GTAIV, and offered an outsider’s perspective on how the magic happens.

Hollick’s appearance comes after GTAIV was established as a bona fide hit, so it’s unlikely that it caused any noticeable blip in sales. But if Hollick had hit the talk show circuit during release week, chatting up Dave and Jay and Conan, it’s possible that even more copies of GTAIV, and the boxes to play it on, would’ve flown out of retailers. After all, EVERYONE watches late night (including non-gamers), and if games continue to generate cash at a level on par with feature films and TV shows, shouldn’t our talent be expected to pitch in and market them the same way?

Like it or not, actors like Hollick are way more marketable and “TV friendly” than even a marquee producer like Will Wright or Shigeru Miyamoto. If their guilds and unions are going to push for a cut of profits from games in which they appear, then developers should insist that they serve as the face of the game.

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