Will Wright Likes His 'Stupid Fun'

Will Wright and his buddies are terrorizing the city of Berkeley again. They walk down University Avenue, sending their 250-pound "Reality Robot" into cafes, art stores and shopping centers. The robot is, frankly, deranged. Equipped with a microphone, speakers and artificial-intelligence software running off a 1-gigahertz IBM ThinkPad, it's just babbling things like "I feel your pain" and "I like to drink beer."

But demonstrating the robot's nascent intelligence isn't the point of this afternoon's adventure. On one level, this is a TV pilot--the crew is videotaping the endeavor, perhaps for pitching as a reality-TV show ("When Good Robots Go Bad"?). But the real goal, explains Wright, designer of the computer games The Sims and SimCity, is to gauge people's reaction to an alien, mechanical intelligence in their midst. "This is meant to be an experimental tool to uncover aspects of human psychology," he says. And in that respect, the escapade is a success. One man in the cafe wants to behead the robot for blocking his way; a woman suggests the robot wear female clothes. Later, a grandmother asks to have her photo taken with the robot, and when the photographer begins shooting, she starts muttering, "Sexy, sexy, sexy."

So what's the guy behind two of the most popular videogames ever doing on the streets of Berkeley, Calif., when he should be furiously working toward the December launch of the hotly anticipated The Sims Online? This is the 42-year-old Wright's other project, an unbridled creative collective called the Stupid Fun Club, which occupies a 3,800-square-foot warehouse along the Amtrak train tracks in Berkeley. The club, which is funded entirely by Wright and has two full-time employees and a small army of part-timers, falls somewhere between a think tank and an incubator for wildly innovative TV ideas. The concepts are eccentric, genre-busting--and all focused on Wright's first love: robots. And if the reactions of TV execs are any indication, the Stupid Fun Club could be the vehicle that finally takes Will Wright, the Cecil B. DeMille of the videogame world, to Hollywood.

Wright has a long history of following his curiosity and swimming against the tide, with consistently successful results. As a novice designer of videogame shoot-'em-ups in the 1980s, he spent two years trying to sell the idea for SimCity, a player-controlled simulation of a dynamic metropolis. In 1987 he hooked up with entrepreneur Jeff Braun to form Maxis Studios and produce the game. More than 18 million copies of SimCity and its sequels have since been sold. Throughout the '90s Wright moved on to his next big idea: The Sims, a living-room simulation where players control avatars who do exciting virtual things like... clean the floor and take showers. Focus groups and even his own colleagues didn't get it. But The Sims and its many add-ons are now the best-selling PC videogame franchise in history.

Wright's earliest passion was building machines, not software. A fixation on creating model ships and airplanes during his childhood in Georgia led to building mechanical creatures like Mr. Rogers, a three-wheeled robot with ultrasonic sensors that traveled around Wright's house mapping the rooms and radioing readings back to his Apple II. The point of his robot building, like his games, explains Wright, is to watch how people identify with and humanize his artificial creations, and then test how far those perceptions can be stretched. "Will has an interest in things that test people's tolerance," says a friend of his, artist Marc Thorpe. "He has an amazing appetite for understanding the human condition."

The two-year-old stupid Fun Club is organized around the interest in robots, shared by Thorpe and filmmaker Mike Winter, Wright's partners in the club. Their first TV pilot, called "M.Y. Robot," features six-inch-high puppets, a roaming robot and a 16th-century Japanese village that has been altered by alien technology. In postproduction, anime-style graphics were overlaid onto the footage to communicate with viewers in a secret script. Wright explains that he was appropriating Japanese visual styles in the same way the Japanese shows reinterpret American cultural mores. "As far as we know, nobody has done this," he says.

That might account for the puzzled looks Wright received earlier this month on a swing through Hollywood pitching club ideas. "We don't have the luxury of complete experimentation on our network," said Rick Austin, a VP at the Sci-Fi Channel. Other programmers were equally confounded, using phrases like "new visual idiom" to describe the work--and then passing. It hardly matters to Wright and his crew, who have a stream of new ideas and Wright's bounteous videogame fortune backing them up. One exec from a major broadcast network predicts, "Will Wright will have a future in Hollywood. He is going to hit upon that idea that is both distinctive enough and mainstream enough."

The real question is whether the voraciously inquisitive Wright can stick with one concept. On a recent afternoon, club members copied a version of the robot's brain onto a laptop, and then set up a conversation between the robot and its downloaded self. The resulting jumble of miscommunication got Wright thinking... and several pages of diagrams later, he had concocted a new project, called Chatbots. The idea is to develop a cheap text-to-speech and voice-synthesis platform, then integrate it into every toy doll, from "Simpsons" figurines to Powerpuff Girls to Muppets. When placed in close proximity, the toys would talk to each other. "I'm thinking of this as 'Toy Story' come to life," Wright says.

Hey, it sounds weird, but so did The Sims 10 years ago. And now Will Wright's alternate reality is conquering the world.