A while back, I wrote an article about Spore for GameSpite Journal 11. I was waiting for it to be posted online before I posted it here; but it's been long enough now (and Jeremy seems to have moved on to his fantastic Anatomy of a Game series) that I think I might as well go ahead and put it here.
GameSpite Journal 11 turned out really well. You should probably go purchase a copy. I certainly did.
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At the 2005 Game Developers Conference luminary Will Wright of Maxis Software amazed attendees with his seminar, "The Future of Content." He began simply, outlining for his audience the trials and travails of developing content for an increasingly high-definition medium. No one could have been surprised when he supported his arguments with experiences from his widely successful titles SimCity and The Sims; no one should have been surprised that his content strategies were being prototyped for a new game; but no one could have been prepared for Spore, or for the scope of the demonstration that promised an ever-growing, seemingly boundless galaxy filled with content birthed from players themselves.
From his perspective in the gaming industry, Wright had seen development budgets explode. Creating content to fill increasingly higher-fidelity worlds was getting more expensive every day; and though a developer might spend twice as much to create HD-ready models and textures, that expense carries a diminishing return in value for the player.
At the same time, Wright had noticed that some of his most engaging gaming experiences had little to do with anything the developer had defined beforehand. This had always been true of Maxis's own games; but, with the advent of the Grand Theft Auto series and the era of sandbox gaming it had inspired, more and more players were creating their own stories in these virtual worlds. More importantly, these were the stories that players related to each other, often ignoring the story that had been written for them by the developer.
It seemed a perfect fit: on one side, an industry struggling to keep up with the cost of creation; on the other, an ever-growing mass of players eager to create. So Maxis created Spore: a set of intuitive content creation editors that would bring players and developers closer together, amplifying the player's own creative abilities with procedurally generated models, textures, and animation.
Wright aimed beyond simply equipping players to create: Spore needed to inspire that creation as well. Inspiration comes from the context of the world we're placed in, and the scope of what Wright had in mind was more than anyone present in the conference hall could have anticipated. With brief diversions into the philosophies of creation, play, and Care Bears, he unfolded Spore's world. A single-celled organism grew to inhabit an ocean. He added legs to his creatures and they crawled onto dry land. Given tools, they formed tribes and built cities. Their starship carried them to other planets orbiting the sun and, then, to other stars, each with its own unique planets, cities, and creatures. Each iterative expansion of scope was met with another round of amazed applause.
This presentation was my first exposure to Spore, separated though I was from the event by a layer of Google Video. I was awestruck by the game's depth: it seemed to be a world without end! As the player I would be able to create creatures, vehicles, tanks--entire planets! I could explore every drop of water at microscopic detail, or fly across an entire galaxy; and, thanks to Spore's content distribution network, each new corner of that galaxy would be full of unique content created by other players.
Which is to say: I bought into the hype.
When Spore was released three years later, it seemed a shallow reflection of what had been on display at GDC. The creature editors were still intuitive and the galaxy was still near-infinite, but the magic of watching the game unfold was missing. I had imagined a world with depth to match the amazing breadth on display; but Spore lacked the essential details that make virtual worlds feel alive. The final game was, in fact, even shallower than what had been shown before. Exciting features like emergent abilities and behaviors, procedural verbs, sea creatures, and underwater civilizations were conspicuously missing. Creature evolution, originally rooted in iterative experimentation with the emergent properties of the game engine, was replaced with a linear tech tree of parts. Social interaction, once experimental and unpredictable, now amounted to little more than a repetitive game of "Simon Says" powered by static bonuses granted explicitly by parts purchased in the editor. Military conquest and religious proselytization were nearly indistinguishable, both playing out as a tank parked outside a city, shooting missiles (or is it music?) at an opposing population.
But what if my disappointment with Spore was simply the product of my own unrealistic expectations? The game I had imagined was the perfect fulfillment of every pipe dream that 2005 Will Wright had for it, but reality rarely matches up with such high expectations. Perhaps now, another three years divorced from the romanticism that had preceded the game's launch, I would be able to appreciate Spore for what it is. After all: I don't even remember my creature from my first session at launch. Resolved to approach the game on its own terms, I did my best to take ownership of my worlds and creatures this time around. As a result, I created the Qwertz: a race bent on conquest, dominance, and vague Klingon pretension.
Even as the simplest of cellular life the Qwertz survived by consuming and eradicating others. On land they preyed on those around them, quickly rising to dominance over Handwalkers, Skyles, Flirgle, and all manner of strange creatures.
The Qwertz were terrestrial conquerors, but the final frontier was cold, strange, and empty. Unable to anticipate the strength of other space-faring races, they fearfully allied with neighboring species: the Ixplix, snake-oil salesmen of the highest order, ready to sell of their goods and their lands to turn a profit; and the Leafel, quiet, continually distressed over this diseased native or that ecological collapse. For a time, the Qwertz lived in peace--in a different world, this peace might even have survived--but it was not to be. The Algernon Empire, ministers of the Spode, introduced its philosophy with the heated end of a laser cannon. The Qwertz had seen their fair share of religious fanatics at home and, finding security in the smallest foothold of familiarity, they met the Algernon threat with new-found ferocity.
Reassured by the fresh taste of victory, the Qwertz resumed their conquest. The Ixplix were the next to fall; then the Kirgle and the Ashonas, mutual opponents in the Spode. One by one the Qwertz hunted ever-greater opponents, leaving behind a trail of smoldering colonies and fallen empires as they made their trans-galactic pilgrimage to the core. There they finally met the Grox: the uncompromising, overpowering, infamous scourge of the galaxy.
This story that I told myself--of the Quertz, their conquest of the galaxy, and their eventual encounter with an oracle of their future selves--may have been birthed from my own imagination, but Spore lacks the depth to bring it to life: it exists almost entirely in my mind. My return to Spore left me sometimes frustrated, sometimes bored, and sometimes compelled to keep playing into the early morning; but I'm not sure that I ever found myself having fun. The content creation editors are as easy to use as they have always been, but they quickly start to feel like a chore. The player can meticulously design every building in every colony on every planet, but why bother when doing so has no impact on the game itself?
The pervasive absence of detail leaves Spore feeling soulless. I could play again--create another creature and make up another story--but the structurally uniform game world doesn't provide any incentive to do so. Every planet has three plants (one small, one medium, and one large) and three creatures (two herbivores, one carnivore) per T-Score. Every sentient creature is shoehorned into the same handful of archetypes, and interactions with any creature within an archetype is identical to those with any other. I could terraform every planet in the galaxy to T3, place the maximum three colonies on each one, and purchase every item in the game; but the galaxy will always be mostly empty space homogeneously populated with pallet-swapped versions of the same shallow "characters" I saw when I first entered the space stage. They will always cry out with the same restricted vocabulary of mission templates: they're either under attack, nearing ecological collapse, suffering a labor strike, conducting a planetary survey, or in search of some special artifact. One mission in particular sent me, to my surprise, to exterminate members of a rival religious group; but the mission framework, unable to distinguish even between religious homicide and disease control, instructed me to "exterminate the infected creatures."
Yet, as disappointingly shallow as the narratives that emerge from the gameplay are, Spore does have at least one worthwhile story to tell. It's a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of modern game development, starring the plucky hero Maxis and his fall from grace.
Spore was a dream of a new era in game development. It was an experimental response to the unsustainably ballooning budgets of the industry. In the best tradition of the original SimCity, Maxis sought to counter this trend while, at the same time, equipping the player to be creative, to experiment, and to share that experience with others. Wright wasn't alone in his vision of the future, and his insights as shared by others are responsible for the burgeoning small and independent game development market that is thriving on digital distribution services like Steam, XBLA, PSN, and iOS. The Maxis of SimCity would fit right in with the likes of Studio Pixel, Amanita Design, and Frictional Games, creating focused conceptual experiments in gaming that inspire audiences and developers alike; but the Maxis of The Sims, toiling now in exile at the behest of the corporate behemoth that is Electronic Arts, is no longer afforded the freedom to commit to a singular vision (least of all a risky experiment) at the potential expense of wider market appeal. Spore's pedigree begot a budget that crushed the life from its initial innovation, spreading it so thin as to be nearly inappreciable.
Spore's ultimate failure to deliver on its potential might have robbed mainstream gamers of the experience of losing themselves in a world of their own creation, but the intent of its design lives on in a new generation of developers independent of the pressures of traditional game publishing. The communities that surround relatively niche titles like Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress are rooted in the same emergent storytelling that I had hoped to find in my procedurally generated galaxy. Spore might lack the depth to tell players a worthwhile story of their own creation, but perhaps it can tell developers large and small a story about a little studio called Maxis and what happened when innovation was exploited, rather than fostered.