The Spore Creature Creator demo went live on EA’s site today, with the $10 version available tomorrow. I’ve been playing around with it a little bit, and if the complete game has even a fraction of the detail and attention given to the creature creator, Maxis has knocked this one way out of the park. They deserve every one of the millions of copies they’re going to sell (I hope).

Here’s where I try to sound like an insider: when the expansion pack for SimCity 4 wrapped (around the end of 2004), a friend at Maxis showed me a very early prototype of the creature editor. It was just a blobby spine that you could bend around, and add legs or rip them off. That was kind of neat.

Then he hit the “walk” button. The thing started flailing around, and after a few seconds, it learned how to walk on four legs. He tore a leg off, and it flopped down, then quickly adjusted to walking on three legs. He tore another leg off, and it became a biped. Then he stretched one end of the spine way out so that the thing’s center of gravity changed. It immediately flopped over, and then after a few seconds adjusted its gait to account for the added weight.

It was amazing, and actually a little creepy. Computers aren’t supposed to be able to do that kind of thing. In fact, you’re supposed to make fun of people who believe that computers can do that kind of thing. It smacked of a giant “Make Videogame” button.

As far as I can tell from the little I’ve seen of the creature creator, most if not all of that functionality is still in there. You can’t make changes to your creature in realtime, but it does adjust itself based on any number of legs, size and length of the spine, types of appendages, and so on. The problem is that it does it so seamlessly, that you can’t really appreciate how much work is going into making that happen.

But even if the gee-whiz tech demo aspect isn’t as immediately apparent, what they replaced it with is pure, undiluted fun. There’s already tens of thousands of creatures floating around the internets, only about 40% of them wang-themed. When you start up the tool and see how easy it is not just to make something, but to make something good, you can’t help but keep doing it. It’s got a perfect feedback loop of letting you jump right in, making your simple creations satisfying, and rewarding you for digging deeper and making more complex things.

I have to admit that I was extremely skeptical about the potential of user-generated content. All the previews and lectures about the game talked about a wonderful galaxy full of planets populated by creatures generated by other players and shared over the internet. I thought this was a little over-optimistic: even if you assume that they’ll have content filters, so your planets don’t keep getting overrun with dong monsters, there’s still the basic law that 99% of anything sucks.

What I didn’t take into account was that they’ve put so much thought into the creation of the creatures, that it’s kind of hard to make one that’s not appealing on some level. And that they’ve incorporated the community so that you’re encouraged to make your creatures cooler, just so that you can show them off and they won’t get lost in the crowd. And that they’ve made it so easy to make and share them, that you can create an upload a menagerie of dozens in under an hour — meaning hundreds of thousands if not millions of creatures available. And if 1% of those is really good, that’s a hell of a lot of content you can play around with.

Best of all is that they’ve really, finally captured that feeling of messing around with Play-Doh, building whatever you can imagine. Plenty of games have tried this to varying degrees of success; this is the first time I’ve really seen it pay off.

And they still managed to cram the gee-whiz tech-demo in as well. The “DNA” for your creatures are saved as metadata in small image thumbnails. There’s no additional file to keep track of. So you should be able to take a picture that somebody uploads to the internet — like my first three creatures below — save it or just drag it out of the browser and onto your game (or into your “My Spore Creations/Creatures” folder), and it’ll be able to use it in the game.

There are already nefarious forces at work trying to reverse engineer the files and figure out how it’s storing the creature data, but I don’t want to know how it works. I prefer to believe that it really is magic.