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Interview: Darkspore's Michael Perry

EA's Spore-infused action-RPG Darkspore is due early in 2011. Intrigued to understand how it relates to Wright's original creature creator, and what it brings to an increasingly busy A-RPG scene, we spoke to executive producer Michael Perry. We talk about how the idea came about, the multiple-hero approach and why they'll be unique to us, the advancements made to the Spore Creature Creator, the presence of an AI Director for co-op, and the game's "chaining" system.

RPS: Can you tell us how Darkspore came to be at all? What was the seed that produced the development?

Michael Perry: Even though Maxis is known for making Sims games, we actually have a lot of hard-core gamers in the studio. We developed some powerful technology when we developed Spore, especially with character creation and procedural animation, and we thought it would be really cool to us that tech to make a completely new game. We’re big fans of online games and Action-RPGs, so we did some prototypes and found out pretty quickly that our tech was perfect for making a new kind of Action-RPG.

RPS: What was the old kind not giving us?

Perry: Most traditional Action RPGs revolve around a single hero that you choose at the start of the game, then level up as you play through. But Darkspore is a game about many heroes. You’ll build a whole collection of heroes that each have their own abilities, and level all of them up with gear loot that you find in the game. You can even organize them into squads, which lets you combine abilities from different heroes, and switch between them depending on the Darkspore enemies you encounter.

RPS: Can you explain the concept behind risk/reward, and collection strategy?

Perry: Darkspore has a pretty unique campaign system that we call "chaining". Instead of playing through one long campaign, in Darkspore, you’ll play on alien planet levels that are about 15 minutes long. Before each level, you’ll learn what enemies are on the planet, and then choose which squad of heroes you’ll bring to fight them. After you fight through the level and defeat the horde or boss at the end, you’re given a major choice: collect a special item of gear loot and return to your spaceship, or forfeit the loot and continue on to another planet level. Why continue? The enemies on the next planet are harder to defeat, but the special loot reward at the end is much better. However, your heroes had better be prepared to win the next level, because if you lose, you won’t get any loot at all.

RPS: How will the Spore-like additions to our characters translate into differences in-game? Are the variations mostly cosmetic, or do they affect how we’ll play?

Perry: The character editor in Darkspore uses the creature editing tech from Spore, but that’s where the commonalities end. In Darkspore, this is where you can use the gear loot found in the game. Because stats are essential in Darkspore, the editor has been completely revamped to bring stat changes to the forefront. Every piece of gear affects the core stats of your heroes, such as Strength, Dexterity, Health, etc. Choosing the right gear with the right stats for your play style is critical for defeating enemies on the planet levels, as well as defeating other players in PvP arenas.

RPS: What changes have been made to the Spore creator, to bring it to its advanced form?

Perry: Every hero you collect in Darkspore has its own unique name, backstory, and combination of abilities. They’re built so you can immediately tell their type and class just by looking at them. But that’s just how they look when you first unlock them. As you collect gear and use it to upgrade your heroes, you’ll see how the freedom of customization is endless. Some gear, such as weapons and better hands and feet (!) are placed in specific locations, but can still be scaled and rotated. But other gear can be put on your heroes wherever you want, and can be rotated, stretched, resized, shifted around, etc. You can then apply different skin colors and patterns to the whole character. You can even strip stats from gear to use them purely as decorative gear. Everyone who plays Darkspore will have a totally unique collection of heroes, both in their stats as well as their appearance.

RPS: You’ve announced two planets. Will the game come with any more at launch? Or are those saved for later?

Perry: We’re going to have six planets available at launch, with four sectors on each one. This is 24 total levels that players can try to “chain” through. Before you see each planet for the first time, you’ll watch an FMV that tells the backstory for that planet, and what happened to it during the rise of the Darkspore. And on the last planet revealed, you’ll encounter... The Corrupter...

RPS: Eek! Why four-player co-op. What makes four the magic number?

Perry: This is a result of playtesting. When you are playing in co-op, it’s really important to use heroes and abilities that compliment other players. For example, if you are playing with someone who has a big Sentinal with melee attacks, you’ll probably want to play as a Tempest with a ranged healing ability. In fact, you might create a special squad that you always use when you are playing with a specific friend online. Four players feels like the right balance of being able to track your friends actions as well as manage the increased challenge that comes with co-op. Our AI Director keeps track of the number of players and ramps the difficulty, quantity, and behaviours of the enemies accordingly. But with more enemies comes more loot!

RPS: Does your experience with the Sims bring anything to a project as seemingly different as this one? It must give you a strong idea how players interact with their characters.

Perry: It’s amazing to see how much time people spend customizing their Sims. In playtests, we sometimes have to ask people to stop customizing so we can play the game! We thought about this a lot in Darkspore, and consciously separated the action game experience with the upgrading and editing experience. When you are on a planet, plowing through Darkspore enemies with other players, the sole focus is on the action. But when you get back to your ship after collecting gear loot, you can spend as much time as you want upgrading your heroes. We never interrupt one with the other.

RPS: Obviously your game will be out long before (whisper it) Diablo 3, but what is it that makes Darkspore stand out amongst the new wave of A-RPGs, especially the most famous of them all?

Perry: We Maxoids love Diablo, and we’re all going to buy D3 the day it comes out. Same with Torchlight and TL2. Darkspore is turning out to be a really cool Action-RPG, and with the focus on collecting different heroes, the depth of customization and gear upgrades, and the unique chain campaign system, we think Darkspore is exactly the right game for players who love the genre and want to try something new.

RPS: How long do you think it will be before we wipe ourselves out with a constantly mutating DNA-manipulating virus that turns us all into terrifying monsters?

Perry: I give us 28 days. But I think we’ll be fine – I carry the Zombie Survival Guide with me at all times.

RPS: Thanks for your time limit.

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Once one of the original co-founders of Rock Paper Shotgun, we killed John out of jealousy. He now runs buried-treasure.org