DEAR WILL WRIGHT,
May I call you Will?
Will, I bet you feel like expectations for Spore passed the unreasonable stage about a year ago—around the time you appeared on The Colbert Report, actually. And I’ll admit that probably no one outside your development team has had higher expectations for it than I have, except possibly your blood relatives and the guy who counts the money at EA.
Maybe it’s because Spore’s been years in the making. Maybe it’s because you’re the guy making it. Maybe it’s because everything you’ve said about it—its massive scope, its academic inspirations—has suggested a completely new direction for videogames. I mean, it was on the cover of PC Gamer’s Top Games of the Year predictions twice; even a delay didn’t dampen our anticipation.
I realize now that we may have helped contribute to some of those astronomical expectations, at least among the hardcore gaming community. We got caught up in the idea that Spore was going to be some sort of across-the-board gaming revolution—and as a result, I see now that we were probably expecting something different than what you were actually working on.
I doubt it will surprise you to hear that I don’t see Spore supplanting Half-Life or BioShock or StarCraft in hardcore gamers’ hearts. But, you know what, Will? That’s OK. Because if everyone can let go of what they’ve imagined the game to be and appreciate it for what it actually is—a gorgeous, whimsical, accessible diversion—then they’ll realize that it does indeed deliver on its years of promise.
WHAT TO DO, WHAT TO DO?
That’s not to say that I think you made something overly simplistic. I mean, just consider Spore’s opening screen, where three ostensibly simple verbs—Play, Create, Share—are doorways to a dizzying array of 30-plus options ranging from playing the game to adding specific accessories to creatures. After the first time you “Play” through the five more-or-less linear game phases in order (Cell, Creature, Tribe, Civilization, Space), you never need to play them again. Or you can play some over and over and never play others. Or you can play them all repeatedly, but in different ways. Or you can just play with the “Create” tools (creatures; buildings; air, land, and sea vehicles of military, economic, or religious varieties; spaceships) and then “Share” what you’ve made in the Sporepedia, so other people can import it into their game. Or you can play without ever creating anything, instead importing what other people have created and playing with that (although you don’t ever play with other people—their work populates your game world if you turn that feature on, but the server just sucks that info down and then leaves you in peace).
Above: In Creature phase, make allies by copying their actions
I can see you’ve never suffered from options paralysis, Will. And heck, who knew that I did? But it turns out that I’m used to a game telling me what to do—where things are, how things work, what order to do things in, how doing something will affect something else. And when I didn’t initially find that in Spore…well, I felt kinda lost. Even in the Create section (which is where I decided to start before tackling the Play section), I felt overwhelmed at first. Every creator and sub-creator offers different parts to work with, and because I knew I’d be using my creations when I did eventually play the game—or that someone else could import them into their games—I was concerned about whether I was building “useful” items, whether I needed to be aware of how different parts affected my creations’ in-game effectiveness. Was I putting too many claws and not enough big guns on my Backgrabber spaceship? Was Peek, my L-shaped stripy creature with a vertical row of eyeballs and a jaunty three-cornered hat, well-equipped for survival in a religious civilization? Why is the Sporepedia already filled with creations that look like crafted works of art while mine look like I failed LEGOs in kindergarten? Where is a tutorial telling me the “right” way to do this?
And then I realized: games have tutorials. Toys don’t. Kids don’t consider the “right way” to play with a toy—they just amuse themselves with it.
Well, I can tell you, Will—that was an eye-opener. I quit worrying about whether all of the windows on my City Hall were equally spaced apart. I stopped trying to re-create a picture-perfect SpongeBob SquarePants creature. I just…played.
I now understand that this is the crux of enjoying Spore: just play, and not only when you’re using the creators, but in the Play phases, too.
Above: The Sporepedia lets you browse your own saved creations, or those others have uploaded. It's like a biological automat
You’re probably wincing when I tell you that I approached the Play phases—the actual “game,” so to speak—expecting gameplay that matches the depth of Spore’s evolution concept. Because let’s be honest with each other, Will—you and I both know that Spore’s actual gameplay mechanics are elementary, and that for anyone with a modicum of videogame-playing experience, they’ll get very repetitive very quickly. The Cell phase is basically Pac-Man without walls: steer your creature around obstacles toward power-ups. Creature and Tribe phases are Simon Says with hotkeys to ally with other creatures or tribes (by hitting the right keys at the right time) and “RTS for Dummies” to conquer them (right-click to target and attack). Civilization phase amounts to an Age of Empires tutorial (although apparently, experienced strategy gamers are having a hard time with some of it—Dan Stapleton wrote you a little note about it at the end of this review). Even Space phase (which is my favorite, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute) is, at its core, MMO-lite: missions amount to killing five meanies in a set amount of time, fetching a prize in classic FedEx style, or hunting for loot to collect or sell.
I’ll be honest, Will: given that Spore is the most anticipated game of the last however-many years, the sheer simplicity of these play modes was very unexpected. But here’s the thing—and I bet you saw this coming, Mr. Genius Comedy Central Guest: mini-games are fun. Pac-Man is fun. Casual games are fun, especially when they’re set in a humorous, pretty world full of visually fascinating, often giggle-inspiring creatures. And once I understood that Spore’s gameplay mechanics were never going to rise above the very basic—and that what I’ve been expecting of Spore is not what Spore is trying to be—I had a damned good time. This isn’t a game that rewards you for your ability to beat a game, but rather one that rewards you just for playing. In fact, I’ve played about 30 hours of it in the last week alone, mostly in two-hour stretches.
“Aha!” I bet you’re saying. (Or maybe you’re more of a “Eureka!” guy.) “Very good, Kristen. You have realized that Spore is not a game meant for PC Gamer readers to play in 6-8 hour stretches, because while it may have lots of pieces to it, those pieces are the equivalent of casual games or digital sandboxes. They’re toys, pleasant diversions. And since each of them can clearly stand alone, EA is about to employ some sort of brilliant business model that will monetize them individually and make me a metric ton of money!”
Above: Don't be shy - have a look around. Spore loves to reward you with its many play options
I guess that sounds a bit snarky (and of course I have no idea what, if anything, EA plans to do with Spore’s pieces, but if they haven’t mentioned anything to you, you might want to float the idea by them). Sorry—I didn’t mean for it to, especially since I hope that lots of people will play Spore. It may not be a PC-gaming revolution, but I do think it could lower the barrier to entry that keeps many people from committing to anything more than just casual games. Because each of Spore’s parts is so accessible, and because an overarching theme ties them together, I can see people “graduating” from one game phase to the next, growing more comfortable with the idea of doing multiple tasks at once, and then before they realize it, they’re checking out StarCraft II some really grognard-y EA game like Red Alert 3.
I just wish Spore was a little more… communicative, I think is the word I’m looking for. I actually described it to someone as “undertutorialized,” by which I meant that I spent a lot of time trying to shape outcomes, seemingly to no ultimate effect. That’s all right when you’re not specifically pursuing a goal, but it’s awfully frustrating when you are. For example, in the Tribe phase, I sometimes failed to ally with other tribes, despite repeatedly re-entering the creature creator and making changes that seemed like they should have increased my allying skills (sing, charm, dance, and mime “ta-da!”). The changes didn’t seem to make a difference. I was just as confused by the Evolution History screen that tracked the cultural traits of my evolving civilization—friendly, industrious, or aggressive—because by the time I reached the Space phase, none of those traits seemed to matter. Do certain parts make one spaceship more effective in battle than another? I can’t tell. How can I get the most out of the Sporepedia? I once saw you demonstrate using it to import only yellow creations into your game—how did you do that? I couldn’t figure it out. And while I’m on a roll, where’s the autosave?
WHERE IT ALL GOES RIGHT
Are you still reading, Will, or have you grown tired of my complaints and decided to spend a few entertaining minutes with the old Russian space-shuttle console in your office? I can dig that—I’d spin those dials every day, too—but just so you know, I’m done with the complaining, because there’s so very much to enjoy in Spore. Like the fact that it’s such a sensually pleasing game. The “undersea” setting in Cell phase is vibrant with primary colors and lively sounds. In Creature phase, animals run through lush jungle environments and leap in the waves offshore. Spaceships buzz your little enclave in Tribe phase, just like you’ll buzz other tribes in the Space phase. And of course, there’s the constant discovery of astounding-looking new creatures, from walking flower-pots to a head-on-legs that’s apparently modeled after your very own (head, I mean—not legs). It’s all very alive and random-feeling, making for a game world that’s full and stimulating. And the audio is tops—I thoroughly enjoyed the music throughout, and I killed a good 45 minutes creating my tribe’s anthem in the surprisingly robust Anthem creator tucked away in the Civilization phase.
Above: The Anthem creator is cheaper than a drum set and less likely to piss off the neighbors
I’m also pretty sure that you’re working in a building full of comedians over there at Maxis, because Spore is funny—not trying-too-hard funny, but actually funny, in subtle ways. When your single-celled creature swims past eerily huge enemies in Cell phase, your microscopic predators are rendered with all the size and menace of Godzilla. There’s the sassy lounge music and hubba-hubba dance that goes down when you mate in the Creature phase. The first time I saw my Tribe do the Mexican hat dance around their fire, I went bananas (and then made them do it again, like 10 times in a row). When I zoomed in on cities in the Civilization phase, I found citizens engaging in activities that made sense depending on their cultural traits—the military Tastykakes city was full of creatures executing little armed services drills. Even the ways other people’s creations are integrated gave me regular laughs—my biggest ally in most of the Space phase was the Box on Legs empire, and in that same phase, the dialogue trees and sing-song cadence of other aliens are actually laugh-out-loud funny. Ask the PC Gamer staff—I’ve been imitating it for them nonstop, and I think they love it!
(Please don’t actually ask them if they love it.)
In fact, the Space phase is my favorite part of Spore, probably because it’s where I finally experienced the “oh, wow” reaction to its scope that I’d been waiting for since I first saw you demonstrate its Powers of Ten–like construction—beginning so very small, then pulling back to reveal something larger, and then again and again and again—a few years ago. I couldn’t believe that every dot blinking in the galaxy represented explorable star systems of planets playing home to flora, fauna, civilizations, and collectible items—and that at any time, I could decide which, if any, of those things to pursue. On my first play-through, I focused on collecting rare items that I could sell (and earn achievements for finding) and planet-sculpting tools. Then I decided to re-focus on expanding my empire by allying with other civilizations (I wasn’t feeling like a conqueror at the time) and planting new colonies. Then I started a new game and pursued it with the single-minded goal of reaching the center of the galaxy.
I know that the center-of-the-galaxy trip is actually Spore’s one story line, complete with an endgame, but I absolutely love the fact that playing it is no more or less a legitimate way of spending your time in Spore than doing any of the other things I was doing. Whether you’re playing “the game” from start to finish or just noodling around in the Cell phase, you’re still getting something great out of it. That freedom—to play as you wish without penalty—may be Spore’s most significant strong suit, and it’ll probably be the reason I keep playing it in spite of its repetitive aspects. The depth of the achievement system doesn’t hurt, either: I can tell there’s a lot of incentive there to try out different ways of playing (See how many planets you can visit!
See how many alliances you can form! See how many creatures you can build!) and win badges for doing so. And I noticed that even the achievements have achievements—as you play, you can unlock new lists of stuff to unlock.
That’s very meta, Will.
ENJOY THE TOY
I recently interviewed Rod Humble—I’m pretty sure you know Rod, he’s the head of EA’s Sims studio (and, coincidentally, author of this month’s Game Whisperer column). He told me that he has attended focus groups comprised solely of men who regularly play The Sims—men who, even as they sit in a focus group for men who regularly play The Sims, deny regularly playing The Sims. With 100,000,000 copies of that game sold, it stands to reason that a healthy chunk of PC Gamer readers are also in that category. Even two former EICs of this magazine “played the sh*t out of The Sims,” as one of them explained it to me (pardon his French).
Above: It's chow or be chowed in Cell phase. Add body parts like spikes to make yourself less savory-looking
As it was with The Sims, it isn’t right to judge Spore in the context of so many of the other games we judge. Adding mountains to a planet needn’t “advance” the game—I’m having fun just sculpting mountains. Adding 32 guns to the spaceship I created doesn’t actually seem to improve my chances in combat—but I had a great time creating something that looked so funny. So, I can only do a couple of hours of fetch quests before I’m kind of over it—during those two hours, I have a great time. And, more important, I’m always excited to spend another two hours on it later.
Above: A Civilization phase hostile takeover. All your base are belong to us!
I wonder if most PC Gamer readers whose regular diet consists of hardcore fare—whose lives are spent on Team Fortress 2 and StarCraft tournaments—will end up playing the sh*t out of Spore (pardon my French this time). I hope they will—I certainly have been. It may not be my perfect PC game, but I think it’s well on its way to becoming one of my favorite toys. And if there’s one thing we could all use more of, it’s time to just… play.
P.S.: A Note From Our RTS Guru
In the process of creating a form of real-time strategy gameplay accessible to even RTS-averse gamers like Kristen, Spore’s Civilization phase is infuriatingly simplistic to anyone who’s accessed an RTS in the past decade. There are only three units to choose from (land, air, and sea), reducing it to a near-literal game of Rock-Paper-Scissors (in fact, someone’s probably already made units that strongly resemble rocks, paper, and scissors). Standard interface features like control groups are completely absent, and balance-wise, there isn’t even a hint of how religious or industrious societies are supposed to knock down swarms of militaristic societies’ air units. And of course, the lack of multiplayer is really going to hurt replayability, especially once you figure out that even in hard mode, the AI doesn’t bother to defend its resources. This is definitely a strategy game built for people who don’t like the things that are generally considered to make strategy games interesting. -Dan Stapleton
PC Gamer scores games on a percentage scale, which is rounded to the closest whole number to determine the GamesRadar score.
PCG Final Verdict: 91% (Editor’s choice)