The 12 Games of Christmas: Spore

By RPS on December 19th, 2008 at 5:44 pm.

Mysterypics!

What’s that on the horizon? A storm of controversy, you say? Better batten down the hatches and man the lighthouse, we got some dark times ahead.

For the seventh game of Christmas, my true blog gave to me…

Jim:

Spore felt like a tutorial for gaming generally, rather than a game in its own right. The first bit was simple to understand, easy to beat, but nevertheless pretty and over fast – like so many simple, casual games. The second bit required a bit more input, with camera controls at hand, some minigames thrown in, and required use of a mini-map. You had to learn the rules of the game before you could beat it, and that required some experimentation and exploration: fundamental lessons in how to play games. The third bit, well, I don’t really know what was going on there, aside from some kind of abstract notion of levelling up, and the idea of commanding multiple entities. The fourth part was the classic resource management and rock, paper, tankbusters of the real time strategy – a battleground upon which many gamer’s imaginations are won or lost. Lessons there include use of maps to judge tactics, realising that most techniques add up to the same outcome, and so on. All PC games basically rely on terrain, would be the Ste Curran intepretation of part four.

The fifth and final section, set in space, taught us the most profound lessons about games: that they are essentially limitless in scope, that they can often be bent to reflect your own personality in play, that they are often frustrating and unfair, that the often focus illogically on a single player character, and that you probably won’t finish most of them. I didn’t finish Spore, and I don’t suppose I ever will.

So yeah. I’ve banged on about various aspects of the game before, but the one lesson it might teach a newbie is perhaps the one that isn’t true of gaming at large: that it facilitates and expresses personal creativity, propping up even a profound lack of talent with artistic tools that are almost unbreakable. I am talking about Spore’s many editing suites, which caused an explosion of bug-eyed beasts, teapot spacecraft, and houses that looked like scary clowns. Very few games are capable of such creative cleverness, and I can only feel sorry for the person who starts their gaming career playing Spore and LittleBigPlanet, and then goes off looking for similarly accessible computerised-Blue Peter experiences in the rest of gaming.

Spore wasn’t quite what we expected, or what we wanted, and it was a little like receiving a Christmas stocking full of bizarre, unwanted gifts that were probably meant for someone else. It was fascinating to rifle through and examine, even if its contents weren’t going to be pawed over, hugged, and then mounted on the mantelpiece of gaming nostalgia where we keep all our most treasured experiences. Not everything that is good for you also tastes great. Spore was a slightly salty, doughy collection of highly-nutritious, interesting ideas, and therefore valuable, even if the game proved to have little longevity in our gaming diet.

Kieron:

I feel as if I’ve written so much about Spore, I don’t really know where to start without repeating myself. I was the one who ended up writing most… well, in defence of the game. My real urge was to make sure people understood it. I wanted people to hate it for the right reasons. When I described it as 4-hours of training sequences before becoming Space Rangers 2… well, you’ll note that I didn’t actually say that you’d like it. I was just trying to make sure people got how it worked. Four opening missions to give you a chance to build your content and learn the conceptual roots of the game, lasting about 4 hours, and then a mass of doing stuff in Space. As I’m sure he’ll say, Alec logged up over 50 hours in the game. That’s big.

So, yeah, it wasn’t perfect. And no, it didn’t live up to the hype. And its oversights were somewhat bizarre: I’m genuinely bewildered how a game that tried to be as friendly as it was then threw something as brutal as the constant-attack alien race at you. And I think expectations hurt it in another way – I mean, Will Wright hasn’t done a gamers-game since… maybe even the first Sim City. That it had its eye on a more playful, less game-like goal probably shouldn’t be a surprise.

I dunno. I’ve said so much. That I’m repeating “I’ve said so much” says everything.

I think Jim has an interesting point. I wonder what people who are being introduced to games – and Spore actually makes a great potted history of games in its 5 stages – via Spore are going to be like. Their priorities, their expectations, their desires are going to be warped as much as early experience with D&D changed a previous generation. We’re all echoes of the past, y’know? And, flipping the coin, I wonder what those who were made furious by Spore are going to do. Response art is fascinating. The first game which dares to take up the banner of those who were disappointed in Spore has a ready-made rent-a-mob.

C’mon. Someone. I think we can evolve this evolution game. I’d like it that Spore, rather than the ultimate game we dreamed it to be, was actually more alpha than omega.

SPACE!!!!

Alec:

We were arguing softly about the nature and appeal of exploration games the other day, with Jim and John expressing a desire for something like total openness and Kieron and myself feeling some sort of central goal is important if you’re to connect to the game world. Spore’s space stage is something of a paradigm for the latter argument. I lost, as Kieron told you I was going to tell you, a good 50 hours to that stage alone (I suspect the other stages combined barely scraped double figures, by contrast), and that wouldn’t have happened if I was just bumbling around idly colonising planets and abducting penisbeasts. I carved a slow, agreeably arduous and definitely meandering path across space, driven by, but not restricted too, three goals. The universe was mine to roam – but I craved some sort of prescribed achievement and reward. Spore does that well.

Number one: to get all the toys. This meant an economic loop of cash-generation, purposeful exploration and incremental planet-upgrades, each trading circuit expanding my universal remit slightly but generally keeping me within a prescribed area.

Number two: to keep the Grox, Spore’s unavoidably antagonistic baddie race at bay. Or better yet, to destroy the angry little blighters. To achieve the latter, I suspect my 50 hours would have to be more like 100, and I have far too many words to write and cats to feed for such an odyssey. I’m not sure how the recent patches have affected Groxian behaviour, but I had mixed feelings about their role in v1.0. On the one hand, the fact they’re so aggressive and can so casually decimate half your empire is simply absurd, given the number of compromises the earlier stages make in the name of appealing to as broad an audience as possible. On the other – well, there’s that sense of purpose I was on about. I fell into this hugely absorbing cycle of simultaneously expanding, defending and attacking, with planets themselves becoming the game’s key resource.

I strove for and found balance, a rythm of conquest and terraforming that meant I was gaining just enough new colonies that my overall empire was growing despite the trickling losses to Grox invaders. I could never beat them – but I did manage to reduce them from mood-breaking menace to minor annoyance. Spore’s space stage is ultimately a quest to become god – and once I was teetering on the brink of divinity, the infinite Grox horde seemed like little more than bad-tempered ants. In other words, I managed to best the game’s best attempt to destroy my fun, and somehow that makes me like Spore even more.

Number three : to reach the centre. To find God, or a god, or something. Ideally, to do the Star Trek IV thing on whatever it is. This goal required the accomplishment of the first and the second to realistically achieve – accruing enough cash to arm myself so heavily that I could blast a path through Grox space. I achieved this through bizarre hit’n’run guerilla colonisation: taking down as many Grox planets as my health bar would allow, saving the final fraction of it to drop a colony pack on some nearby barren rock, and thus buy myself a restart point close to where I left off come the next death. Frogger with terraforming, basically. It was long and it was bloody, but the cash left by the ruined Grox bases earned me more than trading had. That way, I ceased to worry about the state of my earlier planets. I was obsessed with reaching the centre. By the time I did, I was rich and powerful. What could potential-god possibly give me to improve that?

Well, you’ll know if you ever reached the centre. On the one hand, a let down. On the other, the reward was note-perfect: it was the ultimate celestial power I’d craved. Most of all, it was an ending. Sure, I pottered about for a bit, performing monstrous acts on planets inhabited by friends’ creations, but really I was done. I’d won. I had beaten evolution, I had beaten space, and I had beaten god. I could do anything, go anywhere: by tackling the game’s key but still non-essential goals, I had won the right to the unfettered exploration we all claim to cry for. And lo, I was satisfied.
I can understand anyone being disappointed by Spore, and I’ve got a good half dozen reasons to deliberately spill Johnson, Bradshaw et al’s pint should I ever meet them. How anybody could call it a failure, though, is absolutely beyond me.

(As a final note, I just gunned up my review copy of the game to have a quick nose at the most recent patch. Turned out it’s expired. FU EA. F U! Etc.)

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45 Comments »

  1. harrison123 says:

    Spore was an ok game but it was was to overhyped and it didnt really meet my expectations

  2. jonfitt says:

    The review copy expired :) Priceless.

    I’m vaguely disappointed that I’ll probably end up not playing Spore. But that’s another knackered out discussion.

  3. shon says:

    I’m a big Alpha Centuari fan, so I was immensely disappointed by the Civ phase. On the other hand, it took me less than an hour to get past the Civ phase so I got over my crushing pathos pretty quickly.

    Spore is a lot of fun for me. I love the Creature phase. Walking around and trying to form a pack while giant monsters roam the planet and UFO’s abduct your friends fills me with glee every time. All in all, it’s a very relaxing game and I really appreciate that.

  4. PleasingFungus says:

    I had fun with Spore for quite a while, but got rather sick of it after I got trapped in the middle of Grox space a dozen or more wormhole-jumps from home, in a failed attempt to perform a maneuver rather similar to the one Alec describes. Ah well. I did enjoy it, with the exception of the Tribal stage. But if I were to do things again, I wouldn’t have bought it at full retail price.

    (HEY LOOK GUYS IT IS A MIDDLE-GROUND OF OPINION)

  5. Pantsman says:

    Did anyone else see those weird steaming maggots in the creature stage? I could never figure out what they were supposed to be. They’d always appear around a campfire like other races would gather around, and they’d just sit there, writhing. Everything got quiet when you went near them, yet it seemed there was no way to interact with them. What were they?

  6. Iain says:

    I gave up on Spore at the Tribal stage, and I don’t feel guilty about that at all. I think I like the concept more than the execution. In fact, the only thing I really loved about the game was the Cell stage, and the fact that the best way to stop your proto-creature from being eaten was to put a spike on its bum.

  7. cyrenic says:

    The deliberate focus on using expansion packs to beef up the game’s anemic modes has killed pretty much any chance of me trying Spore. The annoying amount of pre release hype didn’t help either, but I could have forgiven that had the game actually been worth playing to me.

  8. Andthensobecause says:

    It is a good game to give for Christmas. It did seem to catch the eye of many people that don’t play video games very often but have toyed with the notion. While don’t exactly endorse Spore, it is a decent segue into learning basic interaction mechanics in a safe way.

  9. Tei says:

    @Pantsman: I think these are for the medium size monsters, or carnivore monsters, or something like that. There are a comment about that on the EA forums for Spore.

    I like Spore, but is a linear experience in a game that looks like a sandbox, and for that, is a strange animal.

  10. Dinger says:

    Got to space stage. Then I was in a spaceship with the game giving me 10 different orders at once, all on a deadline, and none of them very appealing. Exploration? What’s to see? And with what time to explore? Ah well, the GF will like this one.

    She abandoned it at Tribal stage.

    Still, I assume it’s a good game for someone. I think it’s a pretty good example of the limit of the interactive-toy approach to games. Yes, you give someone the toys and a simple vocabulary, and they will try to imbue it with meaning (it’s what humans do). But Spore gives us a complex code and leaves us with Oedipa Maas’ dilemma.

  11. rocketman71 says:

    Bad “game”, worse DRM. The scope was reduced so much from what was promised that in the end it was a joke that will be a taint on Will Wright’s CV forever.

  12. Wurzel says:

    Yup, a multi-million selling joke.

  13. Ixtab says:

    I found the cell stage to be the most enjoyable then the creature stage to be moderately fun but the rest to ultimately be a bit dull. If only they stuck with the cell stage longer and gave your cell more scope for improvement.

  14. monchberter says:

    SPOOOOOORING!

    /shamelessness

  15. Roadkill says:

    The only thing worse than Spore’s DRM was the game itself.

  16. MrFake says:

    “I’d won. I had beaten evolution, I had beaten space, and I had beaten god.”

    “I just gunned up my review copy of the game to have a quick nose at the most recent patch. Turned out it’s expired.”

    I shudder at the implications.

  17. Shep says:

    I think what you meant to say was, “Go to Hell, EA.”

  18. Trousers says:

    I gotta say you guys seem to be putting a lot of time and effort into all this year end wrap up stuff, and it’s all been great. Cheers sirs

  19. wyrmsine says:

    I expect that DLC-for-sale will beef up stages 3 and 4, and for that, I’ll know enough not to purchase the next Will Wright + EA game*. That said, for all it’s many flaws, the Space stage managed a short, happy shock by casting my gamer-mind preconceptions in a hard light. Constant attacks by unreasonable neigbors drove me utterly insane with frustration, until I had no point but to give up. Figured I’d just leave my colonies to die and fly as fast and as far as I could until my “home” got wiped out. I hadn’t a choice but to see how far a suicide run could take me. Pretty damn far, as it turns out. The game suddenly became engaging when I threw out some of the mechanics ingrained in me. Spent many hours afterward in Space and Creature stages. It’s doubful that I’ll finish it, but it was an interesting experiment.

    * The Tribal and Civ stages are, at time of writing, a monstrous joke, and seem deliberately unfinished. When I got the “achievements” of completing them in under a half-hour, the idea that I’d spent any time on them at all was offensive. I’d really rather not keep paying for games that seem artifically stretched out for the sake of steady revenue.

  20. Ginger Yellow says:

    “Number three : to reach the centre. To find God, or a god, or something. Ideally, to do the Star Trek IV thing on whatever it is. This goal required the accomplishment of the first and the second to realistically achieve – accruing enough cash to arm myself so heavily that I could blast a path through Grox space.”

    You don’t need to do that though. See, I’d never suffered anything more than a half-hearted Grok raid, called off as soon as I came to the planet’s aid, by the time I reached the centre. Basically, once I’d survived the initial madness and built up a decent income, I teched up my ship and just charged for the centre, without bothering to stop unless I absolutely had to to recharge. I didn’t touch the Grok – I just ploughed through their space to the galactic centre.

    I could have forgiven the shallowness of the first four parts of Spore, given the amazing creators, had the space stage been properly balanced. As it is, it was an arduous, not particularly fun slog of fixing leaks that spring every other minute, right up to the point where I could waltz to the finish line, leaving my civilisation to die.

  21. pepper says:

    I find it an interesting game, although i only have other people seen it play, never really got excited about it myself. Maby because there is no clearly defined goal…

  22. Gap Gen says:

    Yeah, I just charged, with a couple of colonies to trade with and get repairs from. I basically dropped the game after I got to the centre as well. It never really did the simulation as well as Sim City or its ilk, and never really worked as well as an open game like Sim City.

  23. Stromko says:

    I’d have to say the first and second phases were my favorites, with the cell phase being an actually GOOD mini-game, and the creature phase being substantially diverse and complicated. It’s no coincidence these phases also benefitted the most from the editors. Tribal and Civ are a series of interesting ideas that don’t gel together into something that’s all that fun or interesting the second time.

    With every advancing stage, I started to notice more drastic compromises. For instance, clothes — in tribe you’re the only tribe that wears clothes, in the civ phase the other civs wear the same uniform as you do even if you change it. Aren’t they supposed to be a different culture?

    Then there’s the vehicles. No matter what weapon type or number of weapons you put on them, every ground vehicle fires a mortar, every water vehicle fires a missile, every air vehicle fires a beam. Once you get to space phase, vehicles no longer have any military use whatsoever and you can’t do anything with them. You may have had thirty super fast jet fighters, but they won’t lift a finger in the event of pirates.

    Once you get to space phase, no matter how much money you make, you can’t get additional ships from your own species. You have to go make friends with aliens and get their craptastic ships into your fleet instead. My annoyances with space phase could go on for pages.

    That’s just a first pass at listing all the needless limitations, I haven’t seriously played Spore in about a month so I’ve likely forgotten a lot of them. Even creature phase oddly limits player choice by not letting you put carnivore mouths on omnivores or any variation thereof– sure you can get total customization in the external editor, but then you miss out on much of the creature phase ‘game’.

    Spore is certainly an exceptional game, but I can’t help but feel they deliberately made it flawed and limited just so they could fill in the gaps with must-have expansions.

  24. framstick says:

    spore -was rubbish- nice creature creator- rubbish game- totally hyped- really showed how susceptible all game journalists/pundits are…but aren’t we all…

  25. iLIKETRAINS says:

    I live in a world where Spore doesn’t exist. That’s ok, it’s nice here. Everybody knows me.

  26. hoohoo says:

    spore now available on STEAM!

  27. Saflo says:

    Which, of course, means that OH MY GOD EA JUST BOUGHT VALVE

  28. RichP says:

    According to Blue’s News, the Steam versions of SPORE and Mass Effect don’t have third-party DRM.

    Hell has frozen over.

  29. Xercies says:

    i got bored by the creature stage, uninstalled it and never played the game. I’m so glad i didn’t buy this.

  30. Alex says:

    You’ve done it now, Alec.

    They went to the center of the galaxy in Star Trek V, not IV!

  31. Gap Gen says:

    I just read the plot synopsis to Star Trek IV. Utterly insane.

  32. Him says:

    I wish Spore had been fun.
    Given the choice between SR2 and Spore I’d be grabbing SR2 without a moment’s doubt.

  33. BobJustBob says:

    Spore has legitimate flaws, but it’s a shame how many people hate the game merely because it is not encumbered with needless complexity. There’s this whole group of gamers (usually the same fools who think challenge and fun are directly proportional) who think that every cut feature is proof of dumbing down. These people are the reason games like Madden gain new features every year despite having flaws at a fundamental level. Spore is proof that streamlining works and that aesthetics can be just as important as gameplay.

  34. Sam says:

    @BobJustBob: except that, of course, the sections everyone dislikes are also the most streamlined ones – Tribal and Civilisation. In the case of Tribal, this is almost certainly specifically because you’re thrown from the Creature stage (with the best Creator tool in the game, and a vaguely fun Simon-style impress the others game) into it (with the most limited creation tool, and a strangely more boring impress the others game).

    I stopped playing after the Civilisation stage because Tribal and Civ had crushed any desire I had to continue with the game, so I can’t comment on Space, of course.

  35. SwiftRanger says:

    Tribal and Civilisation stages are easily the most disappointing parts of the game but it’s good for the rest and always funny/cute and full of potential, patches improved some things in the space stage but after two races and 8days of playing I am holding off until Spore: Galactic Adventures comes out.

  36. Candid_Man says:

    Angry Internet Man here.

    Not to be too confrontational about it, of course, but what exactly is the point of self-identifying as game journalists or critics if in your actual, day-to-day writing critical thinking and principled stances are fractional in comparison to promotional linking and blockbuster apologetics (“defences”)? Shouldn’t you rather be trying your hand at public relations? (oh, I see it now)

    But seriously though, we can have disagreements about whether or not obvious shortchanging copouts like Far Cry 2 are or aren’t obvious shortchanging copouts, but to include Spore in your yearly top 12 (or whatever it is) with reasons like “doughy collection of highly-nutritious [GDC conferences]” and “I’ve already Defence-ed it !” is only a step up from actually formulating the “game is only a third of final product” non-argument.

    Next up, GTA4?
    – Jim: “Some minor technical problems, but admirable console versions.”
    – KG: “Let’s not forget the genuine anguish Rockstar coders managed to convey rediscovering a world outside the console-safe market.”
    —-

    This long-time fan hopes we can look back now from some hypothetical future and see this sporeling of a spat for what it is. (i.e. Not a good game)

  37. Alec Meer says:

    “Not to be too confrontational about it, but the only reason I can possibly believe you lot claim to like Spore is because you’re corrupt liars” would have been a lot quicker.

    (Have edited in a link to Kieron’s original semi-review of Spore if it helps, though I suspect your contempt for the game is such that it won’t – but our not including it in the first place was an unfortunate oversight)

  38. an ape says:

    Well said.

    To actually put Spore in a list (what is it with lists anyways?) about games notable in a positive light reveals [that you genuinely enjoyed it, because I'm definitely not so hostile that I feel I have to insult someone for having a different opinion about a game to me].

    Spore is an overhyped, underwhelming, uneven puff piece of a game designed to grab quick cash from credulous “casual” gamers. A game so dishonest that the devellopers still defend it’s flaws as being the point. Three equal parts, all to be equally apreciated? Really? If there was any synergy between the components Spore might have been minimally entertaining for more than a few days, but as it is you get a competent visual generator built upon a vacuous pseudo-game with a tacked on sharing service that is constrained to highly controlled channels owned by EA.

    Spore is notable for many things all of which have nothing to do with the actual product. For what it is Spore isn’t anything.

  39. BobJustBob says:

    @Sam: Yeah, but that’s kind of the point. Tribal criminally ignores almost the entire creation aspect and plays out identically on subsequent playthroughs but it’s a fun experience the first couple of times. Certainly not so bad that it should cause someone to abandon the game. It captures the essence of RTS games, expanding your village and training your warriors and collecting food and annexing or destroying your neighbors. It lacks the gameplay depth but captures what is most appealing about the genre, and people revile it for that.

  40. undead dolphin hacker says:

    Spore was trash.

    I really don’t have anything more intelligent than that to add. It was just plain awful, so bad I wouldn’t even recommend pirating it.

  41. aoanla says:

    @BobJustBob:
    It does? I found it… almost totally unappealing the first time. I’ve not tried it a second time because it was so unappealing the first time – it seemed to me to be a very badly implemented attempt at doing “what makes RTS games appealing”. Mileage, apparently, varies…

    As others have noted, Tribal also fails in doing what the developers themselves claimed to be attempting – balancing “user creation”, “community” and “gameplay” – it has almost no user creation, which stifles the interaction with the community, and thus has to stand entirely on the gameplay, which suffers from having to hold the entire stage up by itself. The Creature stage has about the same depth for the kind of game it represents, but also balances this correctly with the user creation and community aspects – it is the only stage that actually manages to do this as well as the designers apparently intended.

  42. Jim Rossignol says:

    The accusations of being caught up the hype are interesting to me, not least because I know I wasn’t expecting anything world-changing from Spore. What I’d seen of the game pre-release had left me fairly cold, the early 7/10s seemed appropriate… and then I was pleasantly surprised by Spore when I actually got to play it.

    In fact I remember grumbling to myself thinking “I guess I have to play this to know about it, a la Sims” and then being wrapped up in it for several days.

    And that makes we wonder who it was that was actually affected by the hype. Did I enjoy it because I was expecting another Sims game that I wouldn’t find engrossing? Was my judgment clouded by all the cocaine I’d been snorting? It was hard to know.

    Anyway, I don’t think any of the RPSers are surprised by people getting upset by our posting this particular game. The idea that experience of a game is in some way objective is pervasive among internet commenters. The only explanations for a differing opinion must be corruption, delusion, or stupidity. That’s certainly how I’m going to explain John’s dislike of Spore.

  43. Ian says:

    Oh come off it, Jim.

    Everybody knows any games reviewer who doesn’t agree with the AIMs is clearly in the employ of The Man.

  44. Kanakotka says:

    People underestimate how good of a game spore was as they actually just went to believe all of the hype, with no end to it. They desired the game to be what it was in it’s alpha… or even concept stages, and didn’t get, thusly, they think the game would suck.

    Spore, as a game, is amazing, and amusing little toy, it isn’t the giant monolith of a game everyone, me included, believed it to be. But it IS a good game, and as games go, that’s what pretty much matters. I still am sad that they did scrap the idea of the very powerful editor to replace it with mr.Potatoface-esque building tool, and the actual screentime of actual creatures, your creations, that matter, was minimal… but even with those faults, it is a great game.

    And come on, who didn’t see it coming, EA milking the teat of Spore with utterly useless addonpacks, not unlike those that litter the Sims?

    Really? Who didn’t?

  45. thomas says:

    After all this postings- one question… Is this game OK for an boy of 13J. ? Or is it to boaring, when he lets say dont like Pimkin, for example …