Games For 2008: Spore

By Alec Meer on January 9th, 2008 at 3:44 pm.

Before I discuss the game formerly known as Sim Everything, an anecdote relevant to our recent collapse into the scatological:

I once had a wee next to Will Wright. At a urinal, you understand – I didn’t just stride into his office and evacuate my bladder by his chair. It was at E3, back in 2003, I believe. I’m bad at chit-chat at the best of times, but trying to think of something to say to one of the industry’s finest minds, over the sound of splashing micturition, was impossible.

I smiled nervously, but he didn’t seem to acknowledge it – whether he recognised me from the interview I’d done with him two days previously I don’t know. More likely, he just didn’t want to be smiled at in the toilet by a little, scruffy man. I had a twisted, burning urge to peer over and gain myself a scoop: “World Exclusive: Will Wright’s sex organs are big/small/made of coiled titanium spring”. Whether by nature or by nurture, I couldn’t, of course, overcome the social mores preventing me from doing it. So, with no words spoken and no genitals observed, I finished, washed my hands and headed to the exit, the sense of missed opportunity beating at the inside of my skull. Could I have befriended him? Tricked him into revealing secrets about his next game? Impressed him with some insight about the industry? No, none of those. The poor guy was just going to the toilet, fercrissakes.

Just as I left the room, another familiar figure passed me, on his own way to the gentlemens’ water closet. It was only Warren bloody Spector. If I’d have had 30 seconds more wee inside me, I could have stood between two godheads. Bah.

So, Spore. Little did I know during that bathroom encounter that Wright’s first true post-Sims opus had already been in development for three years by that point. It wouldn’t be officially announced for another two yet. This makes Spore a game that’s had almost as much time put into it as Duke Nukem Forever, the difference being that Maxis didn’t start shouting about it and how awesome it’d be until a full half-decade on from its inception.

It’s only recently that suspicion’s set in – we’re almost three years on from Spore’s unveiling to the world, having been initially dazzled by its promise of prodcedural generation and player self-expression. of eschewing high-budget, large-team developments for creative endeavours in which the games’ players shape the final experience as much as the programmers do. There’s still no known release date, and I know that, on at least one recent press tour, EA have requested that Wright not be questioned about Spore.

Most likely that’s more about saving the big talk for the final push rather than a sign of real trouble. It’s been seen running behind closed doors by several journos, and Wright claimed it was about six months’ from completion last October. Given two years of non-appearances, I’m not convinced we’ll see it in March, but hopefully it’s truly close at last. This is a game we need to pull ourselves out of an action-centric rut, and a game Will Wright needs, to distance himself from the bad smell of increasingly cynical Sims expansions (EA’s work, not his, of course), and to demonstrate that he’s not guilty of Molyneuxism. Can all the wonderfully insightful game theory he’s been spouting of late actually amount to something?

I do suspect that those dazzling promises of 2005 proved very hard to implement in long-term and wide-scale practice- either because they were too complex or abstract for players, or because there was a struggle to come up with a system to grow a species from a cellular level to an interstellar empire that didn’t quickly feel repetitive. Following the paper trail of screenshots, it’s clear there’ve been some changes. It’s had at least one art redesign, from vaguely biological into hyper-stylised, the revised interface seems to have a fair bit in common with the Sims, and talk of collecting DNA points and earning currency to grow and improve creatures and, later, their civilisations feels a little more traditional and contrived than the game first seemed.

The scope’s condensed somewhat too – the game’s eight ‘phases’ have been distilled to five: Cellular, Creature, Tribal, Civilization and Space. In 2005, Spore overlapped with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.- both game that we excitedly discussed as being something that freed the medium to go beyond the traditional tricks and scripts of its developers, ones that reshaped themselves in response to every player action. Both ultimately aim a bit lower, but I think they made the right choice.

Fun is more important than unrestricted: everyone’d be playing Second Life and not World of Warcraft if that wasn’t the case. I want to be able to create a unique creature quickly and easily, and grow it all the way to a galactic superpower, not discover four hours down the line that my seven-legged eye-beast is incapable of defending itself against a rival species or I didn’t harvest enough spice in the last phase to colonise a new planet. Everything about this revised Spore suggests something better suited to play: Wright describes his games as modern toys, even claiming “I think toys can change the world.” Spore is a toy, something that lets you throw your imagination right onto the screen and then shape it into your own stories. It’s very telling that Civilization IV’s lead designer Soren Johnson was recruited to the Spore team last year – if you’re looking for someone well-experienced in reinventing a hugely complex game into something fun and accessible for anyone prepared to give it the time, I can’t think of many other go-to guys.

The question for EA, who’d reportedly already sunk $20m into the project back in 2006, is whether this can be anywhere as successful as the Sims was. That certainly seems unlikely – the Sims taps directly into universal human interests and instincts – voyeurism, domesticity, friendship, manipulation, sex – that Spore’s concept also touches on in many ways, but, significantly, doesn’t let you do it with avatars styled after your friends, enemies and loved ones. Sure, I could name a limping bird-thing ‘Kieron Gillen’ and let it get picked on by bigger beasts, but it’s not quite as sickly compelling as designing a bespectacled man in a leather trenchcoat, then making him wet himself, or keep getting into fights with his neighbour John Walker (who he is, of course, secretly in love with).

There is something, though, about creating something that’s definably yours, rather than attempting to imitate existing reality. Spore offers the pleasure of actual creation, not mere recreation. That applies, it seems, to everything from the initial creature you design to the cities its descendants live in, the vehicles they pilot, the far-flung planets they colonise, conquer, terraform or leave untouched. You shape the universe, from the tiniest organism to the biggest deathray.

I don’t know about you, but as someone who makes a living from critiquing the hard work of others, to have such collosal creative potential at my mousing fingertips is incredibly enticing. As is the exaggerated fantasy of it all – I’m not merely a character in a single situation, but rather one I can push to the poles of multiple familiar gaming experiences. And that’s another of Spore’s appeals – it’s a great tribute to gaming, where it’s gone before and where it can go next. Pac-Man, Diablo, Populous, Master of Orion and The Sims: all are clearly and deliberately referenced. Whether such a jack of all trades approach works for Spore itself remains to be seen, but as a statement of “look at what we have made” for gaming, it’s hard not to love it already.

One final thing the undying toy collector in me relishes is talk of 3D printing for Spore. This a technology that feels ready to go large, and possibly become one of the defining trends of 2008: rapid prototyping, the on-demand creation of objects decorative or practical when a terrifying machine is fed a digital schematic. As it happens, there’s a guy at RPS’ local university who made himself one of these machines, but more tellingly it’s something that’s already being dabbled with for World of Warcraft characters. At $100, it’s a luxury for sure, but hardly an impossible one. Spore is uniquely suited to it – if every player’s creature is indeed unique, I know I’ll be desperate for a one-of-a-kind desk ornament of my personal evolutionary dead-end.

Here’s 17 minutes of Will Wright discussing the power of toys (in relation to Spore) whilst dressed as a cyborg:

Finally, here’s the most recent trailer for Spore, demonstrating the phases and the controversial new ‘toon look:

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34 Comments »

  1. Evo says:

    I remember that when Spore was first announced I was scoring high on the hype-o-meter and was intently following all the latest news. This continued with me getting involved with a Spore fansite.

    However after the fansite got hacked to its ultimate demise, and Spore news dried up for a while I started to lose my unquenchable thirst and need for this game.

    I guess i’ve just lost my ‘zing’ for Spore. That makes me sad :(

  2. mujadaddy says:

    Cyborg? He looks more like Spock on Halloween, making fun of how Kirk dresses.

  3. Sander says:

    Molyneuxism: Lionheadedness?

  4. Shanucore says:

    “Sure, I could name a limping bird-thing ‘Kieron Gillen’ and let it get picked on by bigger beasts, but it’s not quite as sickly compelling as designing a bespectacled man in a leather trenchcoat, then making him wet himself, or keep getting into fights with his neighbour John Walker (who he is, of course, secretly in love with).”

    Congrats, Alec, that’s produced my first belly-laugh of the day.

  5. Iain says:

    Spore is the only game I have any rabid enthusiasm at all for on the release schedules this year. “Genius” is probably the most overused and misapplied word in the history of the English language, but in the case of Will Wright, it fits. The Sims 2 (sans expansions) remains one of my most played games of the last few years. As long as Spore has the same amount of attention to detail as Sims 2 does, it will be awesome.

    I do predict that I’ll probably spend more time in the creature creation screens than playing the actual game, though… :-)

  6. Feet says:

    “godheads”

    Bwahahaha.

  7. Kieron Gillen says:

    I try not to think about Spore too much, as I suspect I’ll enjoy it most if I come to it clean.

    I’m not always entirely successful with it. Actually just watching that video makes me excited again. This really could be something special.

    KG

  8. Evo says:

    I try not to think about Spore too much, as I suspect I’ll enjoy it most if I come to it clean.

    That is something I failed to do with C&C3…I hyped it so much myself it just fell flat on its face in my mind when I got it.

    Perhaps my ‘de-hyping’ of Spore in my mind means that when it comes out I will really enjoy it….

    Note for future RPS article guys – hyping in your own mind ruining a game

  9. Mr.Brand says:

    I see how your minds work now..
    Body fluids + namedropping = RPS article :)

    I had promised myself to not read about Spore until it is actually possible to buy, but your alluring RSS feed made me read this. Damn you and your gamer-magnetic site!

  10. essell says:

    Will Wright puts most of the games industry, and probably most of the human race, to shame. What a really, really good bloke.

  11. The Fanciest Of Pants says:

    Personally cannot wait for spore.. It’s obviously hard to keep a high level of rabid enthusiasm with such infrequent news, but whenever there IS something I’m right there, shiny-eyed again.

    Godspeed you streetracing nerd-god, our true King.

  12. Paul Moloney says:

    Eek, I just get bad Black & White-esque feelings about this game; a nice idea in search of a game. I do hope I’m wrong.

    P.

  13. KingMob says:

    Speaking of Will Wright, this may be old news to some but have you caught his appearance in the Simpsons Game… here’s the cutscene:
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=YiDifccz6tU

    There’s a particular line he utters with a naughty word in it. That’s a good one.

    More on topic… I think Spore will be good no matter what. I mean think of flOw just four times as long? With the option to control one’s evolution?

  14. Cruz says:

    I agree with KG and Evo. I believe the less hype and expectation I have for it, the better I’ll enjoy it when it finally hits. I got really bummed before I realized this when there were those detractor reports of the game being only a few hours long up to the space portion of it. Now, I take it for what it is, an innovating game that I have interest in playing, certainly not a be all end all.

  15. DigitalSignalX says:

    Spore! Frankly it shames me to say the details of this title had faded from memory. Thanks for the great article and refresher. Now I can recall when the first big ruckus went around the online water cooler, it struck me as fascinating since at the time I involved in an ambiguously titled game that had just launched, also involving sim-esque, secondlife-esqe massive char customization called “There.” That game was a text book example of hype failing to live up to expectations in the face of economic pressure to survive.

    I’m glad Spore has hatched from it’s antenatal period and those first conceptual steps into what it appears to be heading for today. I suspect for many other people too, the hype is now fresh and green, not something old and dusty being thrust into the light.

    It also struck me as rather odd that a bottom line driven megalith like EA would sit so long on a title without scrubbing it. I bet there’s a story there.

  16. Mike says:

    I still feel as I always have – this will be Republic all over again. Minigames that don’t quite gel together to make anything more impressive.

    I hope it IS fun, though, as the ideas it nudges at – massive-scale content sharing, for instance – are really nice, and it’d be a shame to have them go down with the ship.

  17. Zeno, Internetographer says:

    I have to hope that this game is in no way like the Sims, otherwise I’ll get bored with it after a few hours…

  18. Andrew B says:

    I’m having a hard time remembering what the more realistic art style looked like before they went all cartoony. Could anyone direct me to early screenshots?

  19. Cibbuano says:

    The original demos and videos excited me because of the concept… the new trailer looks so polished that it excites me to play the damn thing!

  20. Thiefsie says:

    Mmmm the cartoon style isn’t to my personal taste, I feel like bit of an idiot playing games like SMG and Viva Pinata… but it might well be worth it for this. At least it allows it to be sold to the younger market as well… the ideas in this game alone make it worth while.

    I’m more concerned about long term play and actually how long the cycle takes from cell to space etc, and then what do you do? What would be the point in doing it all again if frankly you just look a bit different? (I’m assuming there are changes in gameplay if you have 3 legs as opposed to 2 etc but yeh..). I’m not following it closely – quite happy to avoid the hype train on this one. We’ll just wait and see.

  21. Jay says:

    I’m still not convinced Wright can make the lightning strike twice. I don’t know why I think that, but I don’t think it’s going to have the same impact as The Sims did

    Still, I’ll hold on to my shares in EA for the time being.

  22. Zeno, Internetographer says:

    How long until a relentless barrage of Spore expansion packs?

  23. Bobsy says:

    Hmm. I’m trying to think what the three cut stages were. I definately remember there originally being an underwater bit to smooth over transition between amoeba and land monstrosity, but the other two? Hmmm. Hmmmmmm.

    As for “relentless barrage of Spore expansions” – that depends whether it appeals to teenagers, houswives, octogenarians and the like in the same way that the Sims did. Does. Whatever.

  24. Garth says:

    “Eek, I just get bad Black & White-esque feelings about this game; a nice idea in search of a game. I do hope I’m wrong.”

    I have the exact same feeling. I’m terrified of how much I may hate this game.

  25. Kast says:

    I think ‘cautious optimism’ is called for here. That trailer is very exciting, however. The biggest question is what’s keeping Spore unreleased?

  26. Hypocee says:

    Yeah, cautious optimism here too; I have every expectation of success and I’ll probably be buying it even if it comes out as a flawed tech demo, but there are a few obstacles – mainly that some of the generative stuff, inevitably, is getting bypassed a bit. Admittedly, mostly in games that aren’t themselves released yet – I’m thinking in particular of Subversion‘s city generator, whatever it’s for, and Infinity:TQFE‘s heartstopping solar system zooms.

    On the plus side, I’m happy that some more ‘game’ is being inserted in the early stages; this seems like a game wherein we’ll start from the beginning multiple times, and it would be a shame if it was an MMO-tastic grind to build up your creatures.

    There is a mild Irony Alert in effect, as a game based around a small team generating art through algorithms based on user input had, at last report, a staff of seventy artists beavering away. Still, providing the thing actually sees release next year I think that’ll be achievement enough.

    Questions:
    Comparison screenshots: One place to start with the old style might be the Last E3 demo. As far as I can see, there’s a bit of cel shading and they made the eyes wiggly and bigger by default. Not much difference. I’m not crazy about the change, but it’s no dealbreaker.

    Build length: At last report, cell-to-space could be done in a couple hours if you so desired.

  27. Butler` says:

    “I’m still not convinced Wright can make the lightning strike twice. I don’t know why I think that, but I don’t think it’s going to have the same impact as The Sims did.”

    Naturally so. The Sims, although successful on so many levels, will mainly be remembered for its commercial success. It has widespread, mainstream appeal and basically kick started the whole ‘user created content’ fad.

    Will Spore have that same kind of appeal? Forgive my generalisation, but will 10-15 y/o girls be attracted to making alien organisms as much as real people?

  28. Saul says:

    Are cartoony graphics still controversial after TF2?

    From the trailer, this has extreme potential, but it’s certainly going to require some work to make it actually fun. Good news that they seem to be refining the concept somewhat, as ‘a game that is everything’ is never going to work as a, well… game.

  29. Essell says:

    “Eek, I just get bad Black & White-esque feelings about this game; a nice idea in search of a game. I do hope I’m wrong.” – Paul Maloney

    Like all of Will Wright’s stuff, it’s not a game, it’s a toy. A stupidly interesting, massive toy.

  30. jbrandt says:

    i once peed next to neil gaiman.

  31. Bob says:

    Eight phases? When were there eight phases?
    Cell, Water Creature, Land Creature, Tribal, City, Civ, Solar System, Galactic?? If that’s the case, I’ll tell you why some were dropped: City and Civ were combined because they’re basically the same thing anyway, and I’m betting having creatures underwater (and their resulting civs) was too hard to implement.
    I, too, Have been losing that ZING! that I originally had when I first saw the GDC ’05 vid. But, every time I watch a video, it comes back. Can’t wait to play this game, though I have to.

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