Design genius Will Wright wants to make a game of your life

Updated: Jun 12, 2014 7:56 PM UTC | Originally published: Jun 25, 2013

FORTUNE -- Will Wright has created some of the most successful video games of all time, including Electronic Arts’ SimCity and The Sims, which has sold over 150 million copies worldwide. The game developer left EA and the Maxis studio he founded back in 2009, shortly after his long-in-development Sport launched in 2008 and failed to connect with gamers after years of hype. Wright recently formed a new company, Syntertainment, with technologist Avi Bar-Zeev and members of The Stupid Fun Club, Wright’s think tank that has explored everything from robots to stop-motion linear entertainment. Syntertainment is gearing up development of a new cross-platform game experience that will debut on mobile and grow into additional platforms. A transcript of a conversation with Wright follows.

What’s it been like exploring mobile games?

I don’t even think of it as is a separate thing because so much of this stuff is getting interactive now because of the cloud. Games are headed beyond the traditional desktop or console experiences. My own habits and the people I know spend a lot more time interacting with the web, with other people and even other games on my phone than any other device. Mobile is going to be the dominant platform in some sense.

What does mobile open up to you creatively?

The biggest factor is that it’s always accessible to me. It’s always in my pocket, and I can be out in the world doing things and still interacting. On the personal metrics side, which is extremely interesting to me, you have the ability to gather huge amounts of data about a person through their mobile devices, if they allow it.

What’s your new game about?

I started a new startup back in November called Syntertainment, and we are focused on a very specific idea which is probably going to lead on mobile. I can broadly say it’s something that will connect to people and reality and the gameplay of their life and not so much on fictions or virtual worlds.

You had previously talked about your last game, Hivemind, as a gamification of people’s lives. Is this new game similar?

That’s still a rough area we’re working in. We’re just getting more specific about how we approach that. It’s a pretty open-ended charter -- gamification -- so as we get down to the details of it there’s a huge opportunity in this space. That’s why you need to focus on something very specific in terms of what you’re presenting to the player and what they’re thinking. I am still extremely interested in making games where reality is the playing field.

How has the gamification of life, when you look at everything from credit cards to parking lots offering points, impacted what you’re doing with this project?

A lot of gaming metaphors and structures are now being applied to things lifestyle apps. Gaming is becoming a language and all of these structures are metrics within the way we live today. 

Working as a startup with a smaller team than you had at EA (ea) Maxis, what are your thoughts on the rise of independent developers through mobile and even the upcoming next-gen consoles?

In a way it’s similar to the early days of PC gaming from an economical standpoint. I know a lot of indie game developers that are able to make a nice living making games with small teams and keeping the costs low. They don’t make that much from the game, but it’s certainly enough to support two or three people comfortably. Ten years ago you either spent $10 million developing a game or didn’t bother, and then if you did make a game you were rolling the dice and maybe one of the six times you’ll make a pile of money and the other times you’d lose. That led to a lot of the consolidation in the industry you had to have a big company and were able to afford rolling the dice several times with multimillion dollar bets. Today we have a much higher ramp of opportunity. I can spend a few hundred thousand dollars making a game with a couple of friends, and maybe we might make a million bucks on that game, which to a large publisher that would have been a losing proposition. But to a small team of three guys, they get to do what they want, and they earn a nice living from it. This environment is allowing us (as a games industry) to explore much more interesting niche gaming opportunities that would have been unexplored otherwise.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) has been an issue with the launch of EA’s SimCity earlier this year and the announcement of Microsoft’s Xbox One features at E3. As a developer, what are your thoughts on the role DRM plays in gaming today?

We’re coming at this with the mentality that when I buy media I own the disk or whatever for the rest of my life. I can put that DVD in my machine and watch it and share it with friends and trade it in. We’re slowly moving to this idea that everything is on the cloud and I’m actually buying rights, and I don’t physically own the actual product. There’s a legal component to this, and there’s a consumer psychological component to this. The sensibility of being able to play a game I want to on a PC or any device is great. I love that freedom and the free-to-play games have made good use of that. From the consumers’ point of view, I can really understand a lot of the backlash to DRM. The fact that if something’s required on the Internet that means they can’t play it on the airplane or if their Internet connection goes down. It was interesting watching the Microsoft thing. I thought it was very impressive how responsive Microsoft (msft) was to that. DRM is going to be an ongoing negotiation because there are features to the DRM, or at least Internet connectivity, that is a very attractive solution to the piracy issue. Gaming has had a long history of piracy, but you can’t use DRM at the expense of the customers. I’m not really sure I have a clear answer to this except that it’s going to be something that we slowly acclimate the player base towards. It’s really not a lot different from if you have an MMO or peer-to-peer game that requires connectivity with other players, but a lot of games don’t necessarily require that. If you’re just going to require it for DRM purposes only that’s obviously where it upset the consumers.

What are your thoughts of the power that gamers have now to voice change through social media and actually impact game development and game policies and move a giant like Microsoft to change its Xbox One policies?

That part I think is great because that’s something that I’ve always believed in -- getting the players very involved not just after the game ships, but even before and try to listen to them. The kind of games I’m interested in, and actually the way games are going, is they’re becoming far more baseline communities of people playing the game and doing a lot of cool stuff peer-to-peer, whether it’s content sharing or competition or forming social connections. I tend to think of the fan base, especially the hardcore fan base, as co-developers. These people with a passion for your project are going to go out and sell your game to other people and pull other people in. The more they feel like they have some ownership over the process and they’re not just kind of customers, the better. To see a company like Microsoft actually sit back, listen, and understand the fans and respond to them is impressive. For a company that size to be that responsive is great. These companies are the ones that obviously keep us in business and allow us to make games.

On the other side there’s the Internet thing where 5% of the people are making all the noise. Sometimes they represent the other 95%, sometimes they don’t. A lot of times the 5% are asking for ridiculously elaborate features, and as a game designer you know that’s going to make the game inaccessible to everybody else. There are these people that want you to push a franchise in a super hardcore direction, and therefore we’re going to close it off to 95% of the players, so you have to understand what kind of feedback that they’re giving you. But when it’s something that’s 5% representing the other 95 that will probably feel the same way, then I think it’s really valuable.