It may sound like one of those jokes that makes everyone groan, but here's a question anyway: what would happen if The Sims and Spore creator Will Wright walked into a bar?
If it was the watering hole at the end of the universe featured in "Bar Karma," Wright's new interactive TV series, it might well be a reflection on his illustrious career.
"Bar Karma," which premieres Friday night on Current TV--which also just scored former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann--centers around a timeless bar where figures from throughout history come and face the question "What would happen if you could change your fate?"
The 12-episode series, which was co-created by Wright and Albie Hecht, has one major difference from just about any TV show going: Its story lines are created, in part at least, by its viewers. For more than a month, potential viewers have been going online and participating in the show's development. Anyone can "pitch" plot ideas, art direction, and more, and the community has been casting votes for the best ideas. Those with the highest ratings will be adopted by the show's professional producers.
According to a release from the producers, "Bar Karma travels through time and space, popping into patrons' lives when they need more than a stiff drink. Every happy hour, bar owner Doug Jones..., James, the 20,000-year-old bartender..., and Dayna, the lone waitress...guide one lost soul through a crossroads in his or her life, using eerie glimpses into the past, present, and many possible futures. Some think it's destiny; others believe free will brought them to the bar. But none of them will pass through the Bar Karma doors without being changed forever."
In an interview, Wright told CNET that if he was the one entering Bar Karma, he would likely be faced with questions about his career path. "Originally, I wanted to be an architect," Wright said. "I fell into games unexpectedly, and sometimes I wonder if I had gone into that [other] career path, where would I have ended up?"
For the millions of people who have played Wright's games, it's probably a good thing that he didn't go into architecture. But now that he's abandoned the video game industry (for now at least) in favor of TV, one might wonder what relationship the new effort has with Wright's past projects.
Wright said that while the medium is different, what's the same is employing creative tools. As well, he pointed to the potential for community building, something The Sims and Spore did in spades, and which he thinks is already happening with "Bar Karma."
"With a normal TV show," Wright said, "you create a show...and you might end up with a vibrant community down the road. We reversed this. We built the community first."
After building his reputation as one of the most important game designers in the world, Wright in 2009 left Maxis, the Electronic Arts-owned studio he founded. His first post-EA venture was Stupid Fun Club. And now he's helping to put together "Bar Karma."
Wright told CNET he had originally pitched the show to several other TV networks, each of which "thought I was crazy." He said that the show's interactive format, in which viewers will have direct impact on the story, art, and much more, "terrified them." But for Current, getting viewers intimately involved "was part of their DNA....It feels more like a Silicon Valley start-up rather than a television network. Right from the start, they were like, 'Hell yes, let's do this.'"
The idea itself, Wright said, was an evolution of his longtime experience working in games and seeing players getting and more involved in the process and from his desire to build a TV show around a collaborative process like the ones he developed for Spore and The Sims. "Bar Karma" viewers can send in pitches for storyline ideas, and those are then voted on by the community itself. Together, Wright said, the viewers' ideas will help comprise what amounts to something along the lines of a "graphic novel," and the best ideas will be implemented by the producers.
"Our writers are writing in essence a graphic novel from our readers," he said. "They take this graphic novel the fans develop...and then the [professional writers] write it."
From lean back to lean forward
For someone who built a phenomenally successful career in the video games industry, it might seem an odd choice to move into TV. But Wright seems to have felt that the opportunity to change the game, as it were, was too good to pass up. "I'd been interested [for some time] in taking TV from a lean back to a lean forward medium," Wright said. "Yet I think we're seeing all forms of entertainment become more participatory, and more social. So we took what we wanted from games, and from community building, and applied it to television."
And according to Wright, those tuning in to "Bar-Karma" have every reason to feel confident that they won't be witnessing the TV version of the tragedy of the commons. He said that the advantage of getting the viewing community involved in the storytelling process is that while many fans' submissions may be unsophisticated, a great deal will be well worth watching. "We saw it with The Sims," Wright said. "People posted hundreds of thousands of stories, and the top 5 to 10 percent were really good. I think the idea that anybody can be creative is true. And it's a matter of having some process [for] taking that 5 to 10 percent and letting it bubble to the top."