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: