Designer and programmer Soren Johnson came to work at Maxis on Spore in late 2007, after more than 5 years working as a designer on the Civilization series at Firaxis. Most notably, he programmed the AI for Civilization III and then stepped up to lead designer and AI creator on the acclaimed Civilization IV - so adding him was a significant coup for Will Wright's Emeryville-based team.
He brings to the now almost-finished Spore project, which will debut in full this September, an understanding of what gamers want and expect - both from the micro level of how the controls work, to the macro level of how AI should behave in a strategy game.
At a recent event related to the game, Gamasutra sat down to talk in-depth with Johnson, somewhat of a public face for the game in its late stages.
In this conversation, he discusses integrating his perspective into Spore's development, his thoughts on the current state of the strategy genre, and the design-driven, rather than audience-driven, impetus behind Spore's unique and ambitious development.
Brandon Sheffield: You come from a strategy background, and are bringing RTS-like gameplay to the game, though it's not all about being an RTS.
SJ: Well, I come from a classic hardcore strategy background, yeah. I think that experience has been good for the team, in the sense that I know what the conventions are for strategy games, but we're not trying to create a typical RTS inside Spore.
It's an RTS-lite game that has aspects of that genre, but we expect that it should be played by people who have never played an RTS before or don't even like RTSes. We have to hit a much larger audience than with Age of Empires III or StarCraft II or whatever.
Chris Remo: Is the team not heavily based around people with that kind of more hardcore gaming experience?
SJ: We've got plenty of gamers here, but as a practical matter, they haven't made really competitive games at Maxis, I would say. I think that really affects things. The AI in The Sims and SimCity is more like simulation AI. It's like, "Oh, cool. I did this, and this came out," as opposed to, "I made this move and then the AI came behind me, and got me here." So yeah, I think their background is a little different.
BS: Is that a reason why a hardcore-y fellow like you might be brought on? I was wondering if it would be difficult to come from a more hardcore mindset and then figure out what the game needs, to be casual.
SJ: Sure. I knew that coming in, but I put some assumptions behind us about what it would mean to make a game. Unlike a Civ game, I'm not looking for the AI to wipe you out or to win. In fact, there's a lot of things that the AI just doesn't do, that it could do.
For example, we have a super-weapon system, which is something that came along maybe six months ago, that gives you some high-level stuff like nukes and EMPs. You can heal your units or give them a building, or whatever, and there's all these high-level things you can do. And we just kind of decided flat-out that these shouldn't be available to the AI. These are just human-only weapons that make the game cooler and more interesting and add some variety, but we didn't want the player to be in a situation where, "Whoa, what happened? My city got nuked. I didn't even see that."
That's totally acceptable for your classic RTS audience, but making the game competitive was... for this audience, we're not interested in the AI wiping you out. There are difficulty levels, which I pushed for late in the project, because I know there will still be some gamers who want a challenge for this type of a game, so we do ramp up certain parts of the game and make the AI more aggressive and harder to make them happy, but [the AI] still has certain things unavailable to them.
CR: Obviously you're not looking to make something Civ-like, in terms of its hardcore nature. But I'm curious if you have certain sensibilities that you brought to the team, in terms of making something more explicitly goal-driven.
It looks like this is a game - and I've only seen demos of it - that definitely seems to progress through stages. You have to achieve something, then progress to the next level. It changes both the gameplay and the environment. That seems different to something like The Sims.
SJ: Sure, and this has been an interesting tension throughout the development. When I first came on board here, you basically had to beat each of the levels in succession to unlock the next one, which seemed like a reasonable design choice to me early on, but there were a lot of us, myself included, who were worried that for a lot of players, one of the levels was just not going to click for them, and they'll never retry and never see Space and never see Civ.
That's always a problem in games like adventure games or a story-based shooter, where they hit some point and there's half the game they'll never see. But if the half of the game that they never see is like a truly different game, that's not such a good thing.
So then we went to the other side of the spectrum where we said, "Okay, every level is going to be available from the beginning of the game, and there is no unlocking whatsoever." That was definitely an improvement, but it also led to other issues. People felt overwhelmed. They were like, "I don't feel like I'm being led down any path whatsoever. Does it matter if I start and sell and actually build my creature up, or if I just jump into space?" It kind of didn't. People want to feel like they're on this epic journey.
So then we went to the current system, where you have to play a certain amount of each level and you have to achieve a few basic things and it unlocks the next one. That's the way it currently works. But it kind of goes to that question of, "Are we trying to get people to achieve mastery on these specific games before we move forward?" I don't know. It's challenging.
Everyone seems to respond to the different levels differently. There's very few people who are like... everyone likes Creature the best, or everyone likes Civ the best or Space the best. Everyone just seems to have their own thing, so we have to figure out the balances for that.