Intelligent Design

I finally got to play some of Spore tonight, ending up just partway through the tribal phase. I’m in danger of overusing the word, but I can’t think of a better one to describe it than “wonderful.” (I could be biased, since several of my friends are on the team, but then we’re not that good friends, because I haven’t talked to them in a long time since they’ve all been busy making Spore).

The game is proof that videogame reviews are broken. The negative reviews I’ve read complain that there’s not enough to do (a common complaint about The Sims, and we’ve all seen how poorly that series has done). Or, they compare Spore to Flow (or Pac-Man) plus World of Warcraft plus a real-time strategy game plus Civilization plus Master of Orion or Elite, and then fault the game for coming up short. It’s “dumbed down” or “oversimplified,” we’re told. Or it tries to be too many games, but just comes across as mediocre mini-games, none of which is as good as “the original.”

Then it’s compared to The Sims, but it’s not as good as that because of reason x (most commonly, that you can’t model your friends and family like you can with The Sims). And plus, the reviewer’s girlfriend or wife loves The Sims but is bored with Spore, which is proof that they’ve lost their audience.

Before I’d actually seen the game, and just seen snippets of videos online, or gotten cursory progress reports from friends over the past couple of years, I thought the complaints could be valid. After seeing the different parts — as I said, I’m not even halfway through yet — work in concert, I think that the complaints are missing the point on a colossal scale.

Spore does borrow the mechanics of other games, but it doesn’t use them in the same way as those games. To make a tortured analogy: dismissing the game for being a “dumbed-down” RTS would be like looking at a poem written in French and dismissing it as gibberish. The letters are the same, but it’s the meaning that’s important.

If it should be compared to any game, it’s The Sims. Not for this mysterious audience of “casual gamers and women” that people who un-ironically call themselves “hardcore” gamers don’t understand, but for the experience of interactive discovery and creation that it brings the player.

After just a few hours of playing, I’ve already had a dozen moments that aren’t quite like anything I’ve seen in a game before: surprise, and discovery, and wonder, and experimentation. As a cell, you’ll see dim shadows of huge predators, knowing that it won’t be long before you’re big enough to eat them. As a creature, you’ll walk over a ridge and see a pack of bizarre creatures created by some stranger. A meteor storm will come out of nowhere, sending other creatures running in panic. A spaceship will fly overhead to check everything out. It’s all familiar, but alien at the same time. And there’s always something pointing you forward to the next stage.

That widget at the top of this post should let you see parts of the evolution of my creature (plus some older ones I made with the Creature Creator), but you can’t see the same feeling that I did when I opened up the Sporepedia after a few hours playing. In the full game, they’re all lined up for you, from single celled organism to Tribal Chieftain (and beyond), and I can remember each step, but am still surprised to see the progression. Even though the game is about evolution, and constantly mentions helping your organism “evolve,” and showing you the evolution on a graph at the end of each stage, you still don’t really get the sense of evolution until you take a step back and see how the thing really has changed over time.

And every moment is filled with that sense of creation; you can’t get away from it. As fits the theme and the subject matter, everything you see is about that spark of life, that moment of creating something new. This is the only videogame that could accurately (but fruitily and pretentiously) be described as “fecund.” The creators aren’t add-on modding tools (although you can get to them individually, if you want); they’re key to the whole experience. Many of the previews I’ve read mentioned that everything in the game is created in one of the editors, but that makes it sound like a “nice touch” or a “bonus add-on,” or a marketing bullet point on the back of the box. It’s only when you get in there that you understand that creation and change are what the whole thing is about.

The other common complaint is that it’s a spectacular toy, it’s just not a game. From what I’ve seen, neither word quite does it justice. Spore‘s UI gives the player all kinds of scores and graphs and meters and objectives, and game reviewers seem to be going after those objectives and then complaining that it was too easy (or later, too hard). What they’re missing is that the objectives aren’t the end, they’re the means to an end. Shadow of the Colossus isn’t about beating bosses, it’s about that feeling of loss and loneliness and obsession and majesty. Rock Band isn’t about filling a star meter, it’s about performance and about hearing music in a new way. And if Spore is “about” anything, it’s about that sense of creation, and exploration, and discovery, and bounty.

That said, the DRM does kind of suck.


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.