Trees that grow from seeds you plant? Easy. 18 quintillion planets? Whatever. If you want to talk about videogames' most ambitious endeavors, there's only one contender for the top spot. Spore, released in 2008, let players control a species they created from single cell organism all the way through to becoming space explorers. That included designing everything from the huts you lived in during the tribe stage, to the spaceships you used to careen around the galaxy near the game's conclusion. Most importantly, it let you craft exactly what kind of weirdo you'd be taking to the stars, whether six-limbed, beady-eyed monstrosities or fleshky daleks or Homer Simpson, and then it populated your world with everyone else's creations automatically, so that each planet was filled with delightful, handmade surprises.
Spore was a marvel. It's crying out for a sequel.
It's crying out for a sequel, of course, because the original was not perfect.
I don't think that's understatement, despite the hype at the time resulting in a massive disappointment for many. Spore was not a terrible game. It wasn't a bad game. Its issue was that, in trying to do so much, much of what it did was shallow.
The game is split neatly into five different stages: Cell, Creature, Tribe, Civilization, and Space. Cell plays out like a slightly clunky version of flOw, as you gobble food, avoid larger creatures, and eventually level up enough that you can crawl onto land. At this point, you have a certain number of points which you can spend to append eyes, legs, and arms onto your creature, and then steer them as an individual around a planet surface. Hunt, make friends, find a mate, and follow a few objectives and eventually you'll enter the tribal stage, where you start living in small villages. Then there's the Civilization stage, which plays like a really empty, cutdown version of Sid Meier's Civilization. And then you're off into space, where much of the real meat of the game resides - hidden behind an enormous difficulty spike I never overcame.
Most of these stages end up feeling like ticking boxes: doing the things you need to do in order to get to the next stage, with little spark between the systems to make how you get there very interesting. You can aim to be an aggressive creature or a peaceful, friendly creature, for example, but there are limits to how far you can go in either direction and little consequence in the long run. Worse, the relative brevity of many of these modes makes the creative tools feel redundant. Why bother customising your huts with your own species-appropriate designs if, in an hour or two, you'll move into a new stage and never see them again?
Yet the sum is more than the parts, mostly due to the ability to subscribe to curated lists of creatures created by other users. Tick a few boxes - on a list of someone's favourite creatures, and a list of the best creatures inspired by TV shows, and so on - and your world will then be populated by wondrous species. It inevitably leads to a planet (and eventually a galaxy) populated by creatures more interesting than anything procedural generation can yet generate.
I had tens of hours of fun with Spore, but I'm not here to argue in its defense. Instead, for what I'm arguing, the flaws and people's disappointment don't matter.
Spore is exactly the kind of game that deserves a sequel: one with a bold, ambitious concept that excited people but with an execution that ultimately fell short. That's okay! Bold, ambitious ideas often fail the first time someone tries to turn them into reality. We should try again, this time standing on the shoulders of all the technological and conceptual work already accomplished in order to focus on the things that didn't work last time.
Maxis have been absorbed further into EA, but their game remains. Spore was recently discounted on Steam and, as a result, there are 1,168 people playing it right now. Except... That's not quite right. Looking back through that Steam Charts page, there are always people playing Spore. "If you want to play a game where you can create a giant testicle that rules over the universe then this is the game for you," begins a user review posted by someone yesterday who has played the game for 65 hours. It's time to create a second game where you can do that.
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