When Will Wright donated some of his design notebooks to ICHEG, I couldn’t wait to get a glimpse into his creative process. Examining this acquisition made me more aware of how fundamentally different his games are from those of many other designers. The notebooks—nine graph paper pads filled with sketches, doodles, thoughts, and code—document not only his development of SimCity 2000 (1993), SimCopter (1996), The Sims (2000), and Spore (2008) but also illustrate how he generates his ideas. Genius has often been compared to capturing lightning, and these notebooks show Wright bottling its energy.
Wright’s instinct for bringing new types of play into computer games separates him from most other game designers. His first game, Raid on Bungeling Bay (1984), challenged players to fly a helicopter on a bombing run. Wright discovered he had more fun using the game’s programming editor to create the buildings than he did bombing the factories in game play. In some ways, this is not surprising. Construction play is one of the most basic forms of play, as evidenced by the popularity of Erector Sets, Lincoln Logs, Legos, and model train layouts. Yet, in the 1970s and 1980s, game designers had rarely engaged construction play as the predominant play component of their computer games. Wright’s next game, SimCity (1989), made construction play the centerpiece of the game experience and transformed computer gaming. In this captivating piece of computer software (he termed it a “toy,” not a game), he challenged players to build cities while balancing the simultaneous demands of creating jobs, minimizing pollution, combating congestion, and dealing with all the other constraints of a realistic urban environment. Players loved it, and when Newsweek featured it (in the magazine’s first ever review of a computer game), its sales skyrocketed.
But Wright didn’t stop here. The Sims, released in 2000 revolutionized computer games again by injecting another basic form of play—pretend—into computer game mechanics. Like construction play, pretend play is a universal activity, as the popularity of dolls and dollhouses attests. Wright compared The Sims to an electronic dollhouse. People love the freedom of choice and the infinite outcomes that evolve with pretend play. Yet, before Wright, computer game designers usually created games with clear rules, scripted storylines, and distinct outcomes that limited pretend play. Nothing like The Sims had ever been done before and it became the best-selling computer game of all time as players embraced the challenge of managing the complicated domestic lives of their digital characters.
Wright’s notebooks reveal much about his process. Creativity shines through every page. They crackle with energy. Sometimes thoughts gambol down the pages, with ideas, sketches, doodles, business notes, and snatches of code, often jostling for room on the same sheet of paper. Other pages offer more compact summaries of his thoughts, showing how he conceives the operation of games, models, and toys, both in the physical and the virtual worlds.
Notebooks like these offer an invaluable window into how Wright reshaped the world of computer games by introducing new forms of play. Wright’s notebooks will be an invaluable resource for future generations eager to learn about some of the greatest video games of all time.
By Jon-Paul Dyson, Director, International Center for the History of Electronic Games and Vice President for Exhibits