[Writer and developer Ian Bogost got a chance to try Spore's Creature Editor in-depth, and view members of the public using it, at the ICE Conference in Canada - and he has some intriguing conclusions on Will Wright's game and the question of its universality.]
In the game industry, Will Wright's Spore
is surely the most highly anticipated game in recent memory. Everyone knows about it -- we've been seeing previews and demos and hearing news and talk for years now. The same goes for hard-core game consumers. Games magazines and websites have covered Spore
extensively, tracking every announcement and rumor obsessively.
I spent a considerable amount of time with the Spore Creature Editor at the ICE 2008
conference last week in Toronto. I'd seen it many times, and touched it a few, before now, but this was the first time I really got to dig in deep. The demo was shown by TransGaming Technologies
, the Toronto company that's doing the Mac port of Spore, which will release simultaneously with the PC version.
Impressions of the Creature Editor
The Creature Editor is slick and easy to use. It makes smart decisions when the player drags and moves parts around. The procedural animations are compelling and credible, although they do start to break down if parts are pushed to their extremes, joints placed too closely or limbs stretched to incongruous positions. Gravity doesn't seem to exist for Spore
creatures, which means that one need not worry about a creature's ability to balance; they'll do so automatically.
In test mode, the player can choose animation presets like Scared, Laugh, Punch, Ta-Da and so forth. These seem to be taken straight out of Ken Perlin's many procedural animation experiments
, although they also resemble expressions in multiplayer games. They are fun to watch and very motivating because they are so credible; it's hard not to want to go back and tweak a critter to see how he cowers differently with new arms, or dances differently with shorter feet. The editor encourages tweaking and experimentation.
For a long while now, both Wright and EA have been talking about Spore
as a "franchise." With the announcement of PC, Mac, Nintendo DS, and iPhone versions of the game, it's easy to misconstrue "franchise" as "released on all platforms." But exploring the game more extensively made me realize how much more Maxis and EA hope to get out of Spore
When you test a creature, it is possible to take photos or capture a performance in video and upload it directly to YouTube, making Spore
a general puppetry machinima tool. The use of this feature is incredibly seamless: press the record button, puppet your creature, press record again. A window pops up with the local disk location of a saved AVI movie and an Upload
button to send it straight to YouTube. I'd expect the same of photos for other services like Flickr and Facebook.
There is also a "Spore Store" built into the game, iTunes Store style. In addition to the asynchronously downloaded assets from other players, the store allows players to purchase external merchandise.
Interestingly, the coupling between the editor and the broader simulation is somewhat understated. The player has limited resources to spend on creature parts, and the choices he makes affect the creature's performance -- how it moves, how effectively it attacks, and so forth.
Interestingly, the interface display that provides feedback on the relative merits and weaknesses of the creature's current state is among the smallest on the screen, squished into the top right corner of the display. Whether or not this will change before release is uncertain, but it struck me that the editor privileged construction, creativity, and sharing more than the critter's role in the broader "SimEverything" universe.
Spore for Ordinary Creatures
ICE is a games-friendly conference, featuring panels on virtual worlds, mobile games, games and mass media, and games and marketing. But it is also a more general event, catering to new media professionals across media -- broadcst, web, mobile. In their words, the event focuses on "the business of content on interactive platforms." These are still technically- and media-minded people, but they are less dialed-in to the details and idiosyncracies of the games industry.
EA is banking on widespread popularity of the game, and this event offers a unique opportunity to see how a somewhat more general, yet still media savvy, audience might respond to Spore
. Familiarity with the game was mixed. When a panelist polled the audience in the virtual worlds session, asking how many had heard of Spore
, less than a quarter of the room raised their hands in affirmation.
As a dedicated videogame player, developer, and critic, one who has been following the development of Spore
for five years now, my own experience with the Creature Editor must differ from that of the average person, especially players new to games or who haven't been following the project. I tried very hard to put myself in a position of ignorance, and I also watched some people try it who were totally green, ones who had never before heard of Spore
The results fascinated me. For example, the editor emphasizes symmetry. When you drag legs or eyes to the body, a wide distance between them doubles the object, but you can get a single leg or eye or horn or whatever by moving the two together into one. This was pretty intuitive, but it's not the sort of thing one would know before making a few mistakes.
The same goes for the various handles and modification tools in the editor. It's possible to grab any vertebra, joint, or part and to use mouse controls to rotate and adjust them. The mouse wheel scales the size of the part. These mappings aren't completely clear, and some people I saw had trouble using them. All that said, the beauty of the editor is that it's so playful. It reveals more of its secrets as the player fools around with the knobs and handles, so "intuition" isn't really a fair measure for judging its approachability.
That said, The Sims
only required pointing and clicking objects and menus. Spore
demands a more sophisticated use of and comfort with mouse handles and interfaces that, despite their incredible power given their relative simplicity, are usually found only in higher-end software like modeling programs.
What Is Spore's Market?
I also noted confusion among green Sporeists regarding who the game is for. A lot of passers-by were fooled by Spore
's cartoon-monsteriness. They seemed sort of incredulous when the TransGaming rep explained why it was "for everyone."
After Will Wright's first public demo of Spore
at GDC 2005, everyone was impressed, but some also wondered: would a game about designed evolution, the Gaia spore, and ruling the universe win the broad appeal that had made The Sims
such a success? Reactions like the one just mentioned might suggest that the concern is justified.
It's likely that the forthcoming EA marketing barrage will combat this preconception, but it's impossible to conclude that the preconception does not exist. People of all sorts wanted to play The Sims
because they could immediately recognize it as a game about real people's lives and relationships. I'd be curious to know how newcomers would describe their first impressions of Spore
But the observation that surprised me the most was how people totally unfamiliar with Spore
reacted to the very idea of a creature editor. From my perspective, it's a brilliantly engineered, elegantly constructed content authoring tool. But from theirs, it's an unfamiliar interface to an almost deviant act.
I'm used to living in a world drunk on Spore
anticipation -- at any other conference, I would have had to battle my way to the screen. But among the newbies, there was a significant amount of uncertainty and performance anxiety. People weren't sure they would be able to build something, even with encouragement and example. One even said, over my shoulder, "I'm not sure I'm creative in that way." I found this reaction fascinating.
One of the premises of Spore
is that it allows the player to co-create with the game very easily and with extremely high quality results. I bet the self-doubt would melt away after a few minutes trying it out, but It was interesting to see people resist digging in due to this cognitive dissonance.
I have no doubt that the game will be a success, but I wonder if new players will pick up the box and think, "I'm not sure I'll be able to create anything good," or "I'm not the kind of person who toys with life." And I wonder what marketing strategies and play styles might combat this.
My observations are anecdotal and unscientific, but they point to an important fact: like it or not, Spore
will have a profound impact far beyond Maxis and EA. Its success or failure will likely have an impact on how funders, investors, will perceive risk-taking in the games industry, how game developers and publishers will perceive the role of difficult technology R&D in new properties, and how the general public will imagine what experiences and sensations are possible in games.
These are issues in which we are all invested, and reason why concerns like the ones I relate here must be embraced, addressed, and even exaggerated by us all.
: Although Ian Bogost checked with TransGaming representatives regarding the Spore Store and microtransactions, it appears he was given incorrect information on the nature of the store. An official statement given to Gamasutra by EA on the matter reads as follows:
"Sharing or “downloading” player created content is a core feature of Spore, not at all something that is part of the Spore Store or even under consideration for additional charge. The entire game is based on players making creatures, buildings, and vehicles which can be accessed from what we call our Sporepedia – a web based collection of all player created assets.
The Spore Store simply gives players the ability to purchase out-of-game merchandise such as t-shirts and posters or any additional game products we might make down the road such as expansion packs. For example, we are working with a company to provide the option for 3D versions of a player’s creature to be made and the Spore Store is where that purchase would originate.
We have also mentioned that we will be providing the Creature Creator tool as a stand alone product in the month or two before the game launches so that players can begin to design their creatures, but we do not have plans to sell individual parts via micro-transactions."]