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From Spore to Minecraft- An Evolution of open ended game design.
by Josh Bycer on 12/26/10 12:38:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I recently played Spore for the first time thanks to the recent Steam sale. After reaching the space stage I concluded that Spore is an amazing editor tied to simple mini games which is a shame. After ending my recent save I started thinking about Minecraft and how both game strive to deliver open ended game play in much the same way. Yet Minecraft succeeded and the more I think about it, the greater understanding I have about its success.

At this point I think everyone knows what Minecraft and Spore are so I won't be giving a synopsis of them. Both games revolve around player interaction to expand the game play. In Spore you are given a blank slate to design creatures, buildings and more. The majority of parts have a secondary function of giving benefits to your creation, such as increase health or speed.

In Minecraft you are given Carte Blanche over the world. If you want to spend your time digging out an underground strong hold then go ahead. Or build a tower to the clouds and then build a mansion and so on. Like Spore you are limited by resources in terms of your impact on the world and as you play you'll be able to build new things.

However both games use that as a branching point. In Spore you are locked into stages of development with your creature and once you reach the next stage the previous stage is closed off. In Minecraft currently there is no objective, just do what you want within the confines of the game space. Yet with that said I would purpose that there is a sense of development in Minecraft like Spore, it's just that we're not told about it.

Playing Minecraft the player will go through different stages of development in my opinion. There was a Penny-Arcade strip from a few months back that was a perfect example of this . Starting out you will scramble trying to find suitable locations for materials or defense with the sun as the timer towards danger. If you survive you'll start to dig in at your location, setting up a base camp and deciding where to go from there. At some point you will developed your tools or base camp to the point that you are secured in your surroundings and can start experimenting with the world.

Now this is where the discussion gets interesting. While both games follow a path towards complete control over the game it's the philosophy and systems that separate the success of Minecraft from the failure of Spore in my opinion. In Spore each stage is self contained in the game play and usage. Once you complete the cell stage you will not come back there with that creature.

However in Minecraft it is possible to move through the various development stages at will and return to them based on your mood. Let's say the continent you are on has been completed mined out, just make a boat or swim to somewhere else and see what you find. Tired of your castle? Go to the ocean and create an undersea base. In Minecraft you are never locked into anything compared to Spore.

In Spore the game defines a goal of reaching the space stage with everything else building up to that stage. What hurt Spore was that the various stages before that were very simple and it felt like work reaching the final stage; also while you have a great deal of customization with your creature, very little of that will affect the game-play.

With Minecraft there is no goal set by the game only by the player. If you dream of building the Hollywood sign out of glass then there is your objective. If half way through you decide to change it into the statue of Liberty then that's fine. Because there are no goals it leaves the game-play up to the player's interpretation.

In this manner Minecraft has accomplished what Spore didn’t; deliver an open ended game in which the player's decisions shape the experience. On one hand I can't help but feel jealous of Notch (the creator) for coming up with Minecraft, yet I also have to give him a round of applause. With Minecraft he has created one of the best open ended games and a true sandbox experience. With the game finally hitting beta it really is the sky’s the limit for Minecraft for what it can become, both from the designer's standpoint and the players.


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Tommy Hanusa
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I think it kinda has to deal with intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation.

in Spore you are motivated by extrinsic things; goals set by the game and getting to the next stage. it includes an in-game economy and your motivations are based around getting more points.

in Mine-craft the game itself does not motivate you; you motivate you. This is intrinsic motivation. You tell the game what you want to do and you do it , nothing in there really holds you back. You could see the collection of stone or the crafting as a sort of economy of sorts but its really more of a system. players understand why they need to get wood and stone to make a pick-axe, it just makes sense. the game is not about getting rewards its about you doing what you want.

intrinsic motivation is much more powerful than extrinsic motivation in the majority of studies.

for more about intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation I would suggest reading 'punished by rewards' by Alfie Kohn. Although he concerns himself more with society the principles could be applied to games.

I'm sure there are other ways of approaching the difference in enjoyment between spore and mine-craft as well; I'm currently reading into Alfie Kohn's work and things here seem to line up nicely with his ideas.

Adam Bishop
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I'd argue that the motivation in Spore is primarily intrinsic as well. As someone who's played a good deal of Spore and enjoyed it quite a bit, I can say that I didn't play it for the extrinsic rewards of creature DNA or advancing through stages, but for the joy of creating things that I found interesting or amusing in some way; in that sense, the main appeal of Spore is quite similar to the main appeal of Minecraft.

For example, during one game, I decided I was going to have a civilisation based on coffee shops, so I created boats that looked like cinnamon buns, cars that looked like cupcakes, etc. In another game I decided to create a spaceship that looked like a 7-piece drum kit. In yet another game I designed a sporting stadium that looked like a gigantic, neon demon-snowman. The fun wasn't in the game mechanics, but in the creation tools that let me create strange worlds and creatures and mess around with them in ways that I found interesting.

I think this is one of the main reasons that Spore was disliked by a lot of core gamers - because they played it for the lacklustre extrinsic rewards rather than taking advantage of the incredible tools available for creativity.

Josh Bycer
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You make a good point about the draws of Spore.

I was really enjoying Spore in the cell and creature stage where every change I made had some kind of effect. It was fun seeing something I created respond and animate.

The problem for me was as the game progress my decisions and choices had very little impact. It felt that my creature was lost in the corporate machine and didn't have an identity anymore .

I found that I wished they would have expanded on the earlier stages of development where the player has the greatest impact on evolution.

dan m
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Wow's graphics hurts my eyes, Minecraft wants to make me dig them out of my skull. I thought everything was at the visual level of Crysis or beyond by now but I guess not. Its a good concept but I cant stand to look at it, maybe in time it will get a face lift to current gen visuals. I really like the open sandbox gameplay allowing me to build castles and drive adits into rock, but it has to look more visually appealing in order for me to stare at it longer than 5 minutes before getting a headache. There are so many things I would like to do in Minecraft but I'm not willing to make my eyes suffer.

Aaron Truehitt
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I understand where you are coming from. I don't see how it hurts your eyes, because it's not like the game is to pixelated like an old 3D PS1 game. Now going back and playing those hurt my eyes because of the resolution and such. Minecraft could benefit from better lighting, water effects and such, but I'm sure the 8-bit appearance would remain the same.

Arinn Dembo
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I really enjoy Minecraft, and I certainly agree that the game design is successful. I'm certainly happy with the value of the purchase price and I certainly applaud the game's designer for his vision.

Have no interest in a graphics "facelift" for the game, any more than I need to carve the faces of my friends and loved ones to make them prettier.

Nathan Mates
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Spore was hardly open-ended. I played Spore its first week after release, and gave up. During the first 4 stages, where I could play as a pure-carnivore near-Klingon (destroy everything that gets in my way). I was successful, and having fun. Then, the space stage, which is why I stopped playing. The game seemed intent on ignoring everything except for my species design, and funneling me into what the designer wanted to do instead. Getting a communique from my government saying effectively "go to this star system and establish a friendly relationship" wasn't fun. The only relationship that my species understood was that other species were good food. First few stages, Spore let me do that. But, the space stage of Spore felt like some bolted-on galactic conquest that tried to steer the player into some herbivore/omnivore fantasy. Having to deal w/ busywork going to planets and hunting down 5 infected animals clustered under opaque trees is nothing like what I'd happily done in the first few stages.

In the end, Spore started out feeling open-ended, but the last stage felt railroaded into some other game that didn't match what I'd done the first stages.

Adam Bishop
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Wow, that's almost entirely the opposite to my experience in Spore. I found the first four stages very rigid and the space stage to be wide-open.