Will Wright, renowned creator of SimCity, Sim Ants, The Sims and Spore, is back with another simulation of sorts, but this time it's not a game.
Thred, which launches today on iOS in the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, is best described as Facebook meets Pinterest in a mobile-only app fueled by the creativity and unusual insights of Wright's long history in game development.
Wright's company, also named Thred, describes the app as a content platform which gives people the tools needed to quickly and easily create and share multi-image stories. On a very high level, a person uses the app to create a thred using a series of panels with images, themes or locations. They can then apply stickers, text, word balloons, filters and links to help tell a story. The thread of images can be shared within the app or through a web viewer, but creation only happens on your device.
All of the threads of his life has been leading to this particular Thred.
It doesn't sound like something Wright would be into, let alone a game or simulation in any sense of the word, until you talk to the developer.
To hear him talk, all of the threads of his life has been leading to this particular Thred.
"Thred is really a story-telling platform for regular people," Wright tells me during a recent interview Polygon's New York offices. "I was really interested in how these devices know so much about us," he adds holding up his iPhone.
"In a more broader sense I got much more interested over the course of my career in games that connect you to reality," he says. "Most of my games are reality simulations. We are at the point now that we have enough data to turn your life into a gaming platform."
Gaming wasn't the initial metaphor that inspired Wright to help create Thred, comics were.
"My initial conception was to take the data we have about you and start turning your life it into a graphic novel," he says. "How do we take these different sources of data about you and turn it into a visual story or visual record?"
That spark of an idea was born of the concept of quantimetrics or the quantified self, Wright says. The idea, as described by Wired Magazine editors in 2007, is that people could use the vast amounts of data created by smart devices and wearables — from location tracking in phones to sleep patterns and browsing history and exercise habits — to better know themselves.
"Part of this initiated by the quantified self thing," Wright says. "How do we take your life and reflect it back at you in a cool and interesting way?
"That's how it started. Then we started adding more sources and editing tools We kind of took the language of comics tried to make it super simple and add style filters."
Katherine de Leon, general manager at Thred, says another inspiration for the app was YouTube.
"They revolutionizes distribution, our focus is on doing that with creation and consumption," she says.
The idea, Wright says, was to create a mobile centric platform that wasn't just a reflection of your identity, but part of it.
"Pinterest is something people curate, like a wardrobe or decorating your house, " he says. "There things represent me. You don't really tell stories with Pinterest, it's like things you wrap around yourself, like visual scrapbooking, but almost nothing on it is specifically about me, it's all external content.
"Thred becomes a part of your identity."
I've been using Thred for about a week now, an early version missing some of the bells and whistles of the now-live app. It's an interesting experience, one that seems perfectly suited for a generation with little time or interest to spend digging deep into things. It's life at a glance, the world at a glance, anything you care about, if you can find it, at a glance. But — and this is what gives it power — if a Thred is well-designed, those scannable cards can lead to much deeper explorations of ideas or stories.
I started by creating.
Tapping on the icon to create a new stream, I selected a picture I took at Games For Change. I quickly resized it to make the horizontal image fit in the rectangular card and then dropped the text "Games For Change" across the black backdrop of the top of the card. Then I added a second card, this one of Prince Fahad Al-Said's introduction at the conference. I added pictures of his presentation, a close up of him speaking, another of him being interviewed, a shot of Dutch developer Ramixxx preparing his talk and closed with a shot of the Prince preparing for our interview . Once finished, I created a few hashtags in the comment of the first card and then clicked on the icon to share my Thred creation with the community.
In my second creation, I dropped a bunch of images from a Lego art exhibit I attended into a Thred. Then I created a Thred about my dogs, applying a comic book filter to each one and kicking it off with a bunch of pre-created stickers that says "OMG," WTF?" and "Yaaasssss!"
Over the week or so I used Thred to pull images from the Alan Wake 2 prototype video, turning the video into a slide presentation; I created a Thred about the Nepal earthquake and ended it with ways to donate. My final Thred, created last night, was a recreation of Polygon's daily story round-up. I took each story, found an image, popped a short description on top of it and added a link to the appropriate story.
"In some sense everyone is leaving this digital wake behind them from these digital services," Wright says. "To me, the real interesting part is the fact that there is all of this data about me that I want to tell stories about. This is my vacation or this is my birthday or this is where I was when this famous thing happened.
"With a few taps, I've turned those things into panels."
I was no Thred master, but in a short time I went from creating a glorified photo album to producing a useful news round-up for gamers. And there was plenty more to experiment with.
The app went live today with some powerful additions, chief of which is the ability to connect Threds to one another by bookmarking and linking them. And with that addition comes the concept of branching storytelling.
The last time I had a chance to speak with Wright for any meaningful length of time was in 2009, the same year he left Electronic Arts and studio Maxis.
We talked about his childhood and how growing up under a Montessori education system influenced not only his way of viewing the world, but how he created things.
"Wright's greatest achievement isn't delivering the universe as toy in Spore, the digital dollhouses of The Sims or even the planned towns of SimCity," I wrote at the time. "It's his ability to touch a gamer's imagination and inspire their intellect. To create not just games, but places and spaces of exploration."
As with Montessori's methods, Wright's approach to design is collaborative. He doesn't design games or television shows or apps as much as he designs tools in which other people can create their own experiences.
His first venture outside of Electronic Arts was the Stupid Fun Club, a sort of think tank that played around with a variety of ideas and creations.
"I ran Stupid Fun Club for about four years," he says. "We did a number of experimental projects all over the place: toy stuff, TV stuff, a few other things. We did a TV show with Current TV. But then at that point I wanted to get back into software, particularly app software.
"So we kind of closed down Stupid Fun Club, but it still exists as a shell company, and most of the people from Stupid Fun Club became the founding members of Syntertainment," also known as Thred.
The most obvious question to ask Wright came about halfway through our interview: Why isn't his return to software a return to creating video games?
Wright, in his way, sort of circles the question before not really answering it.
"A lot of it had to do with the relationship I ended up having with this device," he says, again referring to his iPhone. "This ended up being cooler than a Tricorder, which was always my dream device from Star Trek. It's amazing to me all of the things it can do, but also what it knows about me.
"Even in [game] software, I was getting much more interested in user creativity and making things more customized to the player. That drove me to this idea of, 'How do I take your life — you know, events, photos, data from your life — and turn it into something entertaining?'"
Wright wasn't yet sure what he wanted to create, just that he didn't want it to feel like a utility, and that it would blur the line between content creation and consumption.
"Having my life be extremely available as a data source was really interesting to me," he says. "Maybe it's not about my day or personal life. It's about my interests."
So they came up with the concept of threads and Thred, a way of, as Wright put it, following along the path of someone's train of thought.
"In some sense Thred is a shared palette, a shared canvas. Rather than being a million little islands of content, it will become deeply linked within itself," he says. "We wanted something extremely rapid to consume and browse on mobile, that was step one. Step two was providing the coolest way to create that content."
The real secret sauce of Thred, the ability to branch and link them together, is also, it turns out, the answer to my question about Wright and game development. Which I ask again.
"Do you think you are ever going to make a game again?"
"That," Wright says completely seriously, "depends on what you call a game."
"I think I'm very interested in how I turn people's personal life, the data we have about it, into a gaming platform," he says. "What kind of entertainment could we turn that into? A lot of people would consider that a stretch for a game. But for a lot of people, Facebook is a game.
"In some sense, Thred feels to me like taking The Sims into real life. We are able to quantify your life now to a point that didn't used to exist. The Sims have these quantities about how hungry I am, tired, bored, etc and we simulate their little lives in there. Here you are living your real life and we are actually collecting data about your life and recording it. Right now we just have a few data feeds, but as we get into wearables and all of these other things, we're going to have lots and lots of data about your every single day.
"You will be quantified far more than any sim ever was, which is why I think it is really a rich platform for gaming."
That initial taste of gaming comes from branching. Wright tells me that people are already playing around with simple versions of pick-your-own-adventure games in Thred, creating branching stories driven by reader choice.
And then Wright gets a little scary, a little Minority Report about the potential future of this, his latest creation.
"One of the directions I'm very interested in down the road — and again this is like a platform — is right now we are recording what you do day after day after day," Wright says. "I think once we learn enough about the players, the users, we'll be in a place to possibly start predicting what is going to happen to you next week or two weeks from now and telling stories about that, branching stories."
I'm confused: "So tell your future story?"
"Yeah, well, in a branching format, these are branches your life could take," Wright says. "In some sense, you have a branching tree of things you might be doing today, tomorrow, next week, and you can turn that into exploration. There can be a leaf in that tree that you can choose to find.
"The stream I'm describing right now is created by looking at your data, your behavior, what we've seen you do, and using that to, in some sense, create a sim of you. This is who we think you are, what you're interested in, what you might do. Now running that sim forward, and seeing what they do.
"So it's really about understanding you, and then putting you in hypothetical situations and finding out what happens and unfolding it in a story."
Or, Wright says, Thred could reinterpret your real life through different lenses, like "Here's your life as a pirate."
I try a third time, this time asking Wright if he thinks he'll ever make a "traditional video game" again.
"I don't have a master plan for my life in terms of 'I will not do games' or 'I will do this,'" he says. "My interest kind of drives me in different directions.
"I think the most interesting thing I see happening right now — I don't know if in the world, but just in technology — has been how powerful and personal and networked these things have become so rapidly," he says, referring to his phone again.
For now, Wright is enjoying his favorite part of development: seeing what people do with the thing he helped create.
"That was always my favorite part of any game I worked on," he says, "after shipping it, stepping back and seeing what the users do with it.
"With the app market, we are in a much better position to react to that. I think a lot of our primary development is going to be post-launch."
While he still can't help but see his creation through the eyes of a game maker (throughout our interview he keeps calling "users," "players" and then correcting himself), Wright's chief interest seems to be in the stories people tell, be they through a game or through an app.
"I think gaming is starting to move alongside storytelling as something that is so thoroughly ubiquitous in our lives," he says. "When you think about it, you might go see a two-hour movie, or stop at Starbucks and tell a friend a two-minute story. Those are both forms of storytelling.
"I think gaming is starting to spread out in the same way, to where we have aspects of gaming that can be super deep, like sitting-in-front-of-the-Xbox-for-hours experiences, or something super light or something that is even tangentially flavoring some other experience.
"Anyone can tell a story, but a lot of people think they can't make a game. When you get to the level of this, where adding a few hyperlinks to some images about your life can be turned into a game, then anyone can make a game, a very simple game."