INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
GameSpy SEPTEMBER 4, 2008 - by Dave 'Fargo' Kosak
Will Wright's "Massively Single-player" game delivers on its promise to put the whole universe in your hands.
In astronomy, the "Drake Equation" is a tool used to try to estimate the number of intelligent species in the galaxy. Scientists can plug a series of numbers into the formula - how likely it is for planets to form, the percentage chance that those planets can support life, etc. - and the resulting number should be the number of civilizations waiting for us "out there." Of course no matter what numbers people plug in, to date there's only one known life form to make it through Drake's equation unscathed: Us.
The PC game Spore takes Drake's equation to its other extreme. What if the galaxy were crawling with life? Teeming with creatures of infinite variety, spread across tens of thousands of blossoming worlds?
Spore explores this idea by allowing the game's players to flesh out this vibrant model of the universe. Content editors are integrated right into the gameplay, and by simply playing the game you're building out the universe for the next player. While the gameplay isn't always perfect, Spore is a technological coup that opens up a whole new genre of gaming.
The object of the game is to start with a single-celled life form and evolve it into a creature, then an intelligent being, and finally a spacefaring civilization. Is it evolution? Is it intelligent design? All we know is that alien life is out there, and it's fun to play with.
A TRIUMPH OF TECHNOLOGY AND STYLE
In many ways the real genius of Spore is that the immense complexity of the technology is hidden beneath very simple editors, such that you forget the technology is even there. Spore allows players to create fully articulated and textured 3D models of vehicles, buildings, and creatures. The creatures are the most impressive: they're instantly capable of walking, chirping, fighting, singing, running, even flying. And they stand up to scrutiny - they look alive, and even cute, when zoomed all the way in. The data used to store a complete creature is under 30K. The fact that anyone, including non-gamers, can create and share these models in their first game session without any training or practice is remarkable.
Of course, creating the content is only half of the equation. Afterwards, the content has to populate across the Spore universe. Here, again, the game shines. Creating an account is relatively simple when the game is first installed (you'll want an Internet connection to fully appreciate Spore). From then on, every time you play, the game automatically populates the universe with new content downloaded from the net. The downloads happen so fast as to be unnoticeable - another example of the best technology being the kind you never see. Moreover, everything you create is instantly and quietly uploaded for others to share.
Players can self-select the type of content they want to see in several ways. For one, you can "subscribe" to your friends, which means you'll automatically download any content created by them every time you play. These creations will have a higher probability of appearing as you play. There will no doubt be "Spore Celebrities" whose creations are so interesting that they'll get tons of subscribers - you can already see some popular creators on the Sporepedia. Players can also create something called "Sporecasts," which are collections of content that you can subscribe to, such as "Star Trek Vehicles" or "Earthlike Animals." Again, when you subscribe to a Sporecast, the game will make it more likely you'll run across those particular game elements as you play.
You can also filter out objectionable content - clicking a big "X" icon will ban a creature or object from your game and submit the questionable content to Maxis for possible deletion. Despite the three million creatures already populating the Spore database and the tens of hours we've already played the game, we've only run across one potentially offensive creation, and it was removed from our game in an instant.
It's difficult to test the full breadth of Spore's potential prior to the game's release, when millions of gamers will begin uploading their creations. Fortunately, the Creature Creator was released in advance, so over three million creatures are already available. Sure enough, we ran across hundreds of these creations as we played. Finding great content is like panning for gold. You'll occasionally discover something interesting or cool. And sometimes you'll hit the mother-lode, such as the time we found a civilization populated entirely by elaborate player-created emperor penguins involved in a heated religious war. These laugh-out-loud moments of discovery are what make Spore so unique.
Our only complaint about the user-created content is that many of the game elements aren't displayed prominently enough. For instance, you can spend hours gleefully creating awesome tanks or spaceships, but these elements are rarely displayed bigger than a half-inch on your screen during gameplay. To see what other people have made, you actually have to make a concerted effort to pause the game, go into the magnifying mode, and select a game element to really admire someone's hard work.
It's hard not to rave about the technology behind Spore. During the space phase of the game, you can rocket in and out of solar systems and planets with only a few seconds of load time. New worlds, populated by creatures that may or may not be downloaded on the fly, are instantly available for exploration no matter what part of the galaxy you visit.
Similarly, the music (created with the help of ambient music legend Brian Eno) is so good you don't even realize that it's completely dynamic. The music responds to your in-game actions, adjusts slightly as you pop in and out of editors, and is easy to listen to for hours on end. Players are given tools to mess around with the music system, creating their own theme tunes to represent their species, along with a selection of backbeats and sound effects. Like everything else in the game, music can be uploaded and shared.
FROM PARAMECIUM TO GALACTIC OVERLORD
The technology behind Spore is unquestionably fantastic, but while the gameplay that sits on top is certainly solid, Spore sometimes falls into a kind of uncanny valley between casual play and a game that a hardcore gamer would love. Parts of the game, like the Tribal phase or the Civilization phase, are a little unwieldy for the type of casual gamer that will fall in love with creating creatures or swimming around in the Cell phase. Meanwhile, these same parts of the game may not have the depth to keep a hardcore player interested in repeated playthroughs.
Taking a close look at the Civilization phase provides a great example. Here, your species has become the dominant intelligence on the planet and you're trying to unite the whole world by taking over one city at a time. There's one resource to collect, and three approaches to conquering another city - via religion, economics, or warfare. Depending on how you played the game during earlier phases, you might have special abilities that make some options easier than the others. The first playthrough of the Civilization phase is a blast. A second playthrough will give you the opportunity to explore the other options. But by the third time through the hour-long Civilization game, you've probably plumbed the depths of the system. In subsequent games you mostly focus on winning a certain way in order to give you certain advantages in the Space part of the game. It's a lot of fun, but leaves you hungry for more depth.
The Space game is where Spore really opens itself up. Whereas the other phases can be blown through in an hour or less, the Space game provides hours of exploration into the cosmos. You quickly encounter alien empires, all created at one time or another by other players (or Maxis, which has tons of content pre-loaded onto the disc in case you aren't playing online). It's no cakewalk out there - whereas we expected a kind of easy-going exploration RPG, we quickly found ourselves surrounded and under attack from hostile alien empires. Biological disasters and pirate attacks erupt all over the local cluster. Enemies attack your friends. Allies plead for help. Then your friends start attacking each other. It's insane and insanely addictive - the hours fly by as you cruise from star to star on your own agenda.
We found ourselves eager for more variety in the Space stage. We longed for some strange interstellar distress beacons or events to break up the repetition between biological disasters or planetary raids. Despite this, the gradual forging of an interstellar empire (if that's what you choose to do) or the exploration of literally millions of strange planets and animals (if that's your thing) is supremely satisfying. The game continually rewards you with badges (which can help unlock new ship capabilities) and achievements that keep you glued to your PC.
There is an ending to the space game, for those who can make it to the center of the galaxy. Doing so involves running a brutal gauntlet of opposing forces in a quest so difficult it's almost not fun. The bizarre "ending" you get isn't really the point of the Space game - the point is really in exploring all of the content you can find in a universe created entirely by other players. Stories are created as you play: "So I was getting my ass kicked by these monkeys in top hats, until I allied with the bearded mustache frogs and blew up their homeworld..."
And that's really the point of the entire game. Spore is completely unique: a game where the very act of playing it helps create the world for other players. We've put in over fifty hours so far, and could easily double that just by tinkering with the editors alone. It may not be a perfect game, but truly innovative titles seldom are. Spore is a technological triumph that introduces a whole new way of tapping into a bottomless well of content. The game's future is waiting to be written, and the answer to Drake's equation is whatever you decide to build.