We’ve all had a go at that Spore game, so it’s time to bang the hammer of judgment and sound great horns across the internet. Spore: What is it good for? Absolutely something.
Jim: Right, shall we discuss Spore? Everyone ready?
Kieron: Well, the trad way to start would be to say how much we’ve played, yeah? I’ve taken two races up into space, and reached the centre of the galaxy with one. A load of minor fiddling too, obviously.
Jim: I’ve played it through to the space stage a twice, and then a third time at the space stage as a start. I’ve probably spent as much time again the various editors.
Alec: I got an achievement the other day saying I’d spent 50 hours in space with a single species. This somewhat horrified me.
Jim: Blimey. Where is John, by the way?
Kieron: Alec is the best!
Alec: Those Grok are a bloody nuisance, I tell you.
Jim: Grox. Grok is something else. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grok
Alec: IT’S MY GAME AND I CAN CALL THEM WHAT I WANT. I’m going to call them Shit-Jims from now on. I hate those Shit-Jims. They’re bloody everywhere.
Kieron: Man, this has already gone off the rails.
Jim: It’s John’s fault for being late.
John: The phone rang! I’ve played much, much less. I’m at the tribal stage, and that’s as much as I’ve seen.
Kieron: Plus made some species, as I’ve killed some of yours. I mean I presume I’ve killed yours, really. I mean, given the chance, I would.
John: Yes – I’ve played with the Creature Creator LOADS. I’m hearing terrible stories of people slaughtering tribes of Brians. [John’s cartoon rabbit] In fact, on arriving on land for the first time, the first thing I saw was a dead Brian on the beach, which I was told to eat. Which was traumatising.
Jim: Okay, so I’m going to lay out my thoughts a bit. I’ve really enjoyed Spore, but probably more so because my girlfriend enjoyed it too. As a game for me, a habitual gamer, I think it’s a bit forgettable, but she’s been really into it. She’s invested in the creation process far more than I have. And I think that’s down to the way it presents itself as a giant tutorial for games as a thing – she’s not an experienced gamer by any means, and it’s quite a different experience for her. The cute creatures coming to life seem to have much greater significance.
Kieron: The Girlfriend Test is the interesting one.
John: I don’t have a girlfriend, and thus find Spore to be a little bit empty. Like my girlfriend-less life.
Alec: My ex-girlfriend likes the creature creator. And also BREAKING MY HEART. But mostly the creature creator.
Jim: I think I would have enjoyed it anyway – I’ve enjoyed seeing other people’s creations enormously – but seeing the Mrs’ delight at it was just awesome.
Kieron: Jim – Yeah, as I said at length when it came out, the opening is really about easing yourself into the game and gaining affection for your ‘orrible things.
Jim: Yes, and the gaining affection thing is important. (And in the game.) You are bonding with your creature.
John: By “creature” do you mean Alec’s ex?
Kieron: We’re going to end up reviewing Alec’s ex if we’re not careful.
John: So this is possibly my big issue. I don’t understand the bonding process with the creature, now it’s transplanted into this practical realm. When I played the Creator, I immediately loved a lot of my bonkers creations, because at no point did I think about their skills or attacks, etc. I just made pretty. But transposed into the game, playing a carnivore, my “evolution” became a matter of pragmatism. I need more defence, more attack, bigger teeth… And so why I tried to style my creature how I wanted, I still felt like I was making some sterile decisions.
Kieron: Yeah – you talked about this a few days ago, and I found really interesting.
John: And then, because there is no evolution – because I can screw it up and start over at any point – I didn’t feel like I’d accomplished anything. So, well, meh to my creature.
Jim: I think that’s kind of interesting too, though. Some folks have spent hours balancing practical and pretty. Most of us have not done that on our first run through, and come away with a forgettable standard Spore creature.
Alec: Yeah. I think in your first run you’re far more about finding out about how the game works than having The Perfect Beast. And all that’s true, John. But you can skip that stage and jump straight to any other with the creature of your absolute choice and design. The creature stage is there to introduces the concepts of the long-game to an audience unfamiliar with it. I didn’t bond with my creation that much, actually. The beast I played all those hours with wasn’t one I was particularly fond of. I was far more taken with seeing how it all worked, that though the first four stages were largely tutorial, their systems remain in the space game, both spectating on other species and their concepts underlying what you’re up to in your spaceship.
Jim: I have to admit that I really enjoyed the creature stage. The kill/impress game was pretty pointless, but I enjoyed just wandering around encountering tribes of stormtrooper beasts.
Alec: The Creature stage is certainly the one most suited to long-term dicking about in, outside of Space.
Kieron: Both my play throughs have tended towards the practical – as in, I want the best moves and attacks for my chosen approach. But I’ve still ended up crafting little stories in my head about their odder choices of biology.
Alec: I can confidently say I never did that.
John: No. Nor me.
Kieron: And the interactions even, with other species. Throwing all these pieces in a pile and me thinking about how these things ended up like this… well, it prompts internal sparks. Like the dual-hands on my orangeinas and whatever.
Alec: It’s almost as if you have a degree in biology and are a comic book writer.
Kieron: This is something I said about Spore a while back, actually. I thought Spore could be a little like what Understand Comics is to Comics. As in something from the form which uses the form to explain the form.
Jim: Yes, the Tribe and Civ stages and Cell and Creature stages interlock as tutorials. Tutorials for Spore, and for gaming generally.
Alec: I think, despite what Kieron’s been talking to thingywotsit about, the Tribe and Civ games were made with an intention of being fairly chunky games in their own right. But they’re simply not. I’m never, ever going to play the Civ stage again.
Jim: The creature stage is something my girlfriend is returning to again and again, she’s kind of bored by the other stages, but the toyness of the creature stage appeals to her. She spends hours editing the beasts and then running them about.
Kieron: As a quick interjection, the collection of odd bits and pieces in the Creature stage also gives it a motivation to replay which the other two don’t have.
Jim: All of which is odd when you come to the space stage, which leaps off into a chasm of relative complexity. In fact I see this morning that the patch fixes up some of the problems with the Space Stage. Given how easy the rest of the game is, the space stage seems like a weird and daunting leap for beginner folk who would be lulled by the easy early game.
Kieron: Yeah. That’s when my argument re Understanding Comics falls to pieces – unless you argue that Elite is the apex of gaming, which I may do.
Alec: It’s a nice theory, Kieron, but I don’t agree it’s the case. I think the stages are just failed experiments and fudging, but they do function as a semi-useful tutorial for Space. Still, the jump is huge.
John: I don’t feel nearly as willing as many to give the game a pass for starting so horribly. The opening stage – it’s a Windows 95 screensaver you have to click on. I don’t understand why that was ever an okay way to begin the game.
Jim: I loved the cell stage, actually. I thought it was just right.
Kieron: Yeah, the cell stage was the most perfect of the four early stages.
Alec: Yeah, Cell is lovely.
John: But it wasn’t anything. I’m utterly bemused.
Alec: The only stage I actively dislike is Civ, even Tribe is fun for a certain degree of dicking about and exploration.
Kieron: Cell is also the one where your design skills actually matter, in a simple way. As in, choosing where your spikes or mouth go plays off to make a creature. Your currency is more limited, so you have to make tricky choices to make your creature work in a way you’d want them to.
Jim: The cell stage is so brief, so obviously a lesson in just moving the mouse around, that I couldn’t find a problem with it. But that links to the Girlfriend Test again – I could see it’s value, without actually giving that much of a crap about it. That said, I loved the way the scale zoomed out too – the long zoom thing – and the sense of threat from looming vast creatures.
Kieron: The Creature stage is more replayable, but the Cell stage is the most individually “perfect”.
Alec: And there’s that excellent foreshadowing – the giant creatures above you that seem impossibly fearsome, then suddenly you find yourself eating them.
Kieron: Remember that original promise in Spore? As in, zoom out zoom out zoom out… The Creature stage is the one that actually gets that feeling. The steps between the stages are two staged to actually get the impression of continuity, but the cell stage does it elegantly.
John: I’m still bemused. It does almost nothing, which appears to offer it elegance.
Kieron: It’s Pacman with character-design, John.
Alec: It’s simple and pretty and charming, and absolutely focuses you on you-as-creature. And it foreshadows every major concept in the game, with the exception of diplomacy. Oh dear, I’ve said “foreshadow” twice.
Jim: Three times now.
Kieron: Heh. We’re going to spend all our time debating the cell stage.
Jim: Okay, let’s talk about the tribe and civ stages a bit. Everyone has essentially ignored those stages in the commentary. My impression of general spore-chatter has been “ooh cell/creature… other stuff.. SPACE! A few people dwell on the Civ stuff for a bit, but not for long.
Alec: There’s a reason for that. Tribe and Civ are the stages where you’re thinking “uh-oh, is this it?” They last quite a long time, and you’re glad to be out of them.
Kieron: The problem with those stages is that your focus shifts. In the first two stages are you as a creature, and the space stage is you as a creature. The Civ and Tribe stages are you as a disembodied nothing.
Alec: I just went back to tribe for a third time, and it didn’t annoy me as much, actually.
Kieron: The tribe stage is my least favourite of all the stages – it just doesn’t seem to do anything.
John: The tribe stage annoyed me enough that I stopped playing, and haven’t had enough time to go back.
Kieron: It’s redeeming thing is you can burn through it very fast
Alec: I really like the music gags in it – the Rawhide herding music, the 60s hippy gift-giving music
Kieron: Yeah, they were cute.
Jim: I really enjoyed the Civ stage – the mix of trade and war, the weird religious propaganda projectors, the vehicle editors.
Alec: The religious projector is Civ’s only redeeming feature for me. The vehicle editors I can still get in Space.
Jim: What about the music? The music mixer is an amazingly cool feature! [Jim realises no one else cares about the awesomely cleverly city-music panel, but it’s ace!]
Kieron: But I wish they did more with stuff like the culturing animals – as it is, you just get enough food to max out your creatures and then turn them either all warriors or all musicians depending on your approach, and march them off.
Alec: I just found it really clumsy, and that economy/war/religion all played out pretty much the same way.
Kieron: The Civ Stage I prefer as a game to the tribal stage- but it tends to drag. Not because of the difficulty – the special attack you can win the game with when you collect enough money ensures that – but because you have to design all the vehicles. And that’s a lot of intense creativity it demands. Actually – mind if I segue into another concept quickly?
Alec: Only if you don’t say it like that.
Kieron: I have a heady-thinks. Mind if I talky-walk?
Alec: GLASSES MAN MAY SPEAK NOW.
Kieron: I mentioned this in passing on the site, but wonder if anyone else feels it – Spore Anxiety. As in: wanting to press on with the game, but realising that all your creatures and vehicles are going to going to go out to all your friends. And so feeling compelled to make something at least SLIGHTLY interesting or with a design flourish just so you don’t lose face. It makes me oddly paranoid.
Alec: I think I shortcut the creativity by giving things funny names and hoping for the best.
Jim: There is something going on with that – I’ve definitely spent a lot more time on the spacecraft once i realised people were seeing them right away in their game. I’ve also felt a vague resentment when I got beat up in the space stage by someone’s worm-insect.
Alec: But certainly I saw Roburky’s Bear-in-a-box spaceship and thought “oh, fuck. I’d never even think of that. I’m no good at this.”
Kieron: Yeah. Frankly, Roburky is a genius for that.
Jim: His creations shame us all. Except the saxophone-creature guy, who is now building drum-kit cities for them to live in.
Kieron: You insecure at all, John? I mean, about Spore.
John: Nope. About everything else, but for Spore.
Kieron: You should be: your creatures are shit.
John: Well, if there’s anything I am okay at, it’s being creative. And I like showing off. So I like the idea of people seeing my stuff.
Alec: At what stage do we all get to accuse Walker of having no soul, by the way?
Jim: Christians don’t have souls: Fact.
John: Although if the creature I’ve played with so far gets shared, people will probably recognise how uninspired I felt by the game so far.
Kieron: You may actually like the nation stage then – you can end up having to make nine vehicles if you go all the routes.
Alec: But it’s an RTS! He’ll hate and fear it.
John: Yes – the prospect of a fun creator game getting turned into an RTS is what’s meaning I’ve not made any time for it.
Jim: So the fact that you didn’t bond with your creature is the main reason you’ve not enjoyed Spore so far?
Alec: Again – I didn’t bond with my creature, at all. Apart from the fact I’d called it ‘ Ian.’ And I love Spore.
Jim: I suspect you’re just not admitting your bond, Meer?
Alec: Oh, come on. You know how I get obsessed with stuff.
Jim: Anyway, let’s talk Space game. It’s a beautiful place, that Space. But I got stuck like a bastard on my first run.
Kieron: Yeah. Almost everyone runs into that wall, I think
Jim: (That’s being patched in the next patch, incidentally)
Alec: Space-balance is terribly broken, yes. There should be an option you get to choose going in, saying simply “do you want to be constantly bothered by interruptions from the other side of the galaxy, yes/no”
Jim: It made me go blind with rage. What’s interesting/annoying about that stage is that terraforming game is actually really appealing in a space-gardener way and you’ve almost no time to get on with that. My first game, I was trying to defend my colonies from constant attacks, because the two aggressors I’d met asked for ludicrous amounts not to start war. I did scream apoplexies to the wind.
Alec: Indeed. I had to reach the point where I had so many colonies that losing a few didn’t matter any more, just so I felt I had the time to dick about with terraforming.
Kieron: The terraforming is the most interesting single mechanic that’s novel to Spore, I think.
Alec: And it’s very much the Sims – you don’t get the chance to have fun with your character because it keeps needing to go to the toilet.
Jim: The bowel-movement being the destruction of an invading fleet.
Kieron: There’s something satisfying to balancing an eco-system…
Jim: Yes, the terraforming is a beautiful process too, seeing the trees appear, and the planet become more blue/green.
Alec: Yeah – it’s Peggle-esque rewards. That flash of green light and heavenly sound: you really feel like you’ve achieved something amazing.
Jim: I planted the wrong terraforming device on a planet yesterday and killed everything, it was horrifying.
Kieron: I also like throwing aliens around
Alec: I love that you can wipe out a Grox planet by terraforming it.
Jim: That stage needed to be less of a jump though, it’s massively complex compared to the rest of the game, and distinctly lacking in tutorial hand-holding.
Alec: Absolutely. There’s a reason our girlfriends will never play it. It’s ludicrously hardcore compared to the rest.
Jim: Which is a shame, because it could have been a genuinely joyous ascent.
Alec: And it’s not so much the lack of tutorial – I didn’t have that problem – as the constant demands for your attention. You can’t really explore and experiment in your own time. Which is the single most bafflingly design decision in the game.
Jim: Yes, you’re right. It’s the stage that needs to be more hands off, and it is, but there’s not time to fiddle.
Alec: We’ll give you everything, but won’t give you a chance to use it
Kieron: When I said Spore is basically a road to Space Rangers 2, I meant it in a dual edged way – as in, Space Rangers 2 is played at a state of panic and can be enormously punishing.
Jim: if Spore is some meta-commentary on evolution, it suggests our glorious future in space is going to be really tiring. Better to remain a herbivore.
Kieron: Heh. That’d be great.
Alec: There were moments when I flew over an Creature or Tribal planet and thought, “man, you guys have it easy”. In the same way I look at my cat alternately sleeping and eating and think “now that’s a life”.
Kieron: I crush those moments by abducting them and firing them into space.
Jim: So perhaps a future patch should pull out the competitive stuff in Space, and make an option for a pure exploration/terraform game?
Alec: There needs to be an option to just start with everything – all the terraforming tools too. It annoys me that I can’t colour a planet green until I find the green tool, and finding it is a matter of pure chance.
Kieron: I honestly dunno. I think there probably should be a cheat code to do so, but not actually an option. If that makes any sense. In the same way that the Sims has infinite money cheats if you just want all the fancy furniture.
Jim: I’d expected to do The Culture, and have absolutely power in space.
Alec: I appreciate the Pokemony collection first or second time around, but it approaches a point of impossibility, and I do want to go in once I’ve exhausted playing the game and do it again as a sandbox.
Jim: there are a bunch of cheat codes for that stuff actually, I’ve not looked at what they all do, although interestingly the new patch adds extra cheats.
Alec: It differs from Creature in that it’s fairly easy to find a Spit Level 5 part if you need one, but here you’ve got absolutely no way of finding a specific terraforming tool. I mean, even after 50 hours in space, I only had three different land-colour tools. I do love the animations of all that though – dropping giant colour-flares from space and seeing an entire planet redesigned in an instant
Jim: Okay, we’re hitting our text-attention span limit here, shall we wrap up? Any other things y’all want to add?
Kieron: I think we’ve covered all the biggies.
John: I want to add one thing: My opinions should be heavily coloured by the fact that I’ve not played enough of the game.
Alec: And that you have no soul.
John: But I think they are still relevant, as someone who has been put off by the beginnings. And when I’ve got World of Goo here to play… well.
Jim: Anyway! I did enjoy Spore enormously, but I doubt I’ll go back to it beyond perching on girlfriend’s shoulder. There’s not enough meat in the Space game to keep me interested.
Alec: I know I will.
Kieron: God knows if I will. I’m that perennial mayfly.
Jim: And I wonder if that will damage its trajectory long term – is the middle ground editing and lower stages enough to give it mass appeal?
Alec: I went back the other day to get one screenshot, and ended up coming out eight hours later.
Kieron: I suspect I’ll go back for any add-on packs. Depending on what route they take.
Alec: Yarp. The add-ons need to take you back to your creatures – something Simsy or Sim City, focusing on what your guys on your planets get up to seems entirely appropriate
Jim: They could even do creature adventures, like The Sims 2 add ons that are more story-based (like the island one)
Kieron: Pretty much any stage can be amped up – that’s the way I’d like the add on packs to go, rather than just Extra-tentacles.
Jim: Okay – verdicate! Would you buy Spore: It Has No Subtitle Which Is Strange These Days
Kieron: Yeah, I’d buy it.
John: I’m going to hold my thumb sideways, teetering, at this point.
Alec: Complain at length, but definitely BUY.
Jim: BUY! If just to make girlfriend play PC games.
Our verdict: Mostly SALE!
Jim: Okay, thanks gents. What are you all going to do now we have verdict’d?
Kieron: I’m surprised you abstained John actually – I thought we were going to be split for the first time.
John: I’m abstaining really because I’ve not played enough of the game.
Alec: I’m going to try not to play any WAR, then inevitably end up playing WAR.
Kieron: I’m going to finish editing up this interview with Alex Hutchinson, Spore’s lead designer, we’re going to post on Monday.
Alec: I hear that guy has seven eyes and tentacles growing out of his ears.