For all of the understandable excitement about Spore - after all, it is The Next Game From Will Wright, and the concept of guiding a species from cellular birth to spacefaring brilliance lacks not in ambition nor potential - there have consistently remained some fairly fundamental questions.
Just how exactly does the whole thing work, and is there a clearly (or loosely) defined target audience?
Neither of those questions were definitively answered during a presentation yesterday at the Maxis team's Emeryville, California headquarters, mainly because the event was primarily dedicated to only the Creature Creator part of the game.
Still, a number of features demonstrated by the team, as well as some hands-on time, suggest a lot of promise and a necessarily long-term strategy.
Targeting An Indefinite Market
Last May, when asked what it would take for Spore to be profitable, then-EA CCO Bing Gordon said, "It needs to sell in the millions and last a few years to pay back the investment."
When presented with this reaction last night and asked to speculate on Spore's target audience, Maxis designer Soren Johnson (Civilization IV) explained that the game at large doesn't really have an explicit target audience, per se.
In his own specific role on the team, he himself has something of a charter that springs from his development experience: to try and make the game palatable to core gamers who aren't the traditional audience for The Sims.
Spore may well connect more with core gamers than has The Sims, whose impressively diverse audience is massive enough that it need not disproportionately cater to the traditional triple-A gaming set.
As Will Wright has said in past presentations, the structure of Spore is something of a homage to many of own favorite games, with phases of evolution mimicking titles such as Pac-Man, Civilization, Diablo, and Populous, to name a few (Johnson even refers to one of Spore's phases as "Civ," the accepted shorthand for Sid Meier's long-running series).
That kind of multi-genre self-referencing is uncommon, and may well inspire waves of nostalgia amongst lifelong devotees of the medium.
It also sounds potentially overwhelming for those who are not lifelong devotees of the medium, and the team struggled with that issue during development, eventually choosing to err on the side of caution and provide plenty of hand-holding along the way.
Johnson then successfully pushed hard for a three-tier AI difficulty system that defaults to "easy" - not the most elegant solution in a game that is otherwise so heavily procedural, but likely one that will pay off among established gamers looking for something of a challenge and not just a sandbox.
Still, the eventual scale on which EA wants Spore to succeed almost precludes defining amongst whom it will be successful. This makes sense - after all, surely Will Wright was less concerned with deliberately writing a game that would appeal uncommonly well to older women when he first conceived The Sims, a game known to have had detractors amongst EA brass while in development.
But Spore, with its often cute but alien creatures, also lacks the instantly-relatable human factor that arguably has been such a big part of its predecessor's success.
Networking And Blogging
It seems that, to compensate, the team is putting more resources than ever into bolstering the game's potential for genuine human interaction.
Spore.com, which is only partially accessible until the free trial release of Spore Creature Creator next week, will essentially serve as a social networking site where users can share their creatures (which, in true Web 2.0 fashion, are tagged and can then be sorted by users) and interact with one another.
And in a clever move, much of the user-generated data from Spore.com is output in RSS or as embeddable HTML, and can be easily integrated into blogs and other social networking sites such as Facebook.
As a side note, the procedural nature of Spore's creatures mean that data is enormously compressible; creatures are exported directly to PNG image files, which can be viewed in regular image software but which also contain all the information needed to load the creature up in the game. They are only a few dozen kilobytes in size.
EA has also signed partnerships with services such as YouTube and an online comic-creating website. With a couple clicks, Spore will upload a demonstration video of your creature directly to a YouTube account. There is even a button that automatically creates an animated GIF avatar of your creature.
User-driven games like this have always benefitted by being evangelized via forums and email forwards, and the team knows it; now there's just less legwork.
It also helps that Creature Creator is so ridiculously easy to use. After creating a few aberrations of nature, one quickly gets a sense of the immense range available.
(When I first sat down with the software, I assumed most creatures would end up looking basically like the goofy, gangly quadrupeds that EA's marketing team has mainly released - until I glanced to my left and saw the journalist next to me creating what appeared to be a four-foot tall living pear. With googly eyes.)
After creating and shaping a body, and adding any number of appendages and organs, the creature can be textured and painted, again in a surprisingly diverse number of ways. Most impressive, however, is the range of automatically-generated animations that is instantly compiled.
As awkward as my tall, absurdly long-legged, multi-jointed creature looked, it walked and galloped, struck poses threatening and threatened, and engaged in mating rituals quite convincingly. It certainly puts most mo-cap to shame.
The creator is the kind of thing that one imagines could easily find a dedicated audience on its own, even without the actual game part of Spore. Obviously, EA imagines this as well; Spore Creature Creator will be released as a standalone product that will be available as a free trial and as a $10 full version starting next week.
It's an insidious but inspired strategy - if you like the free trial, it isn't a particularly big investment to get all the functionality, at only a fraction of the cost of a regular game, and by the time the full-priced game does come out in September, you're stocked up with potentially months of creatures that you're surely itching to see in action.
So while a number of questions about Spore remain unanswered, and the audience may not be fully defined, the team does seem to have a good idea about how to get its hooks into whatever audience ends up surfacing.