Maxis' much-awaited Spore launches this week, and Gamasutra sat down with EA Games label head Frank Gibeau to discuss company expectations for the title, plans for console versions, and defining success for Will Wright's latest opus.
Gibeau heads the entirity of the EA Games division of Electronic Arts, which is responsible for product development, marketing, and publishing for many of the 'core' titles within EA's arsenal - from Need for Speed through Battlefield to Warhammer Online.
But his focus this week may squarely be on the Spore juggernaut, since the hype is building, the successful launch of the Creature Creator is behind us, and the payoff for the franchise -- if Gibeau is to believed -- is only about to begin.
Our first question was the obvious one: what does Spore mean to EA? Gibeau says, "Spore is a huge priority for EA, and specifically for our EA Games label. This has been a big bet for the company over the last several years. It's a Will Wright project that carries a level of expectations for quality and, frankly, success... and we couldn't be more proud of the product and we're very excited about it."
Not a Game, but a Platform
But even more than that, EA believes that the game could become "a platform on which we can build a very large and enduring business." The reason? "The team that is building Spore has been the team who put out The Sims and The Sims 2, so they bring a lot of experience and knowledge from the business side about how that grew..."
"But even more importantly, we have a really powerful creative idea in Spore with the combination of the editors and the gameplay and the quality of content that frankly we think travels pretty well."
The core appeal of Spore is a "global idea", says Gibeau, "an idea that appeals to eight-year-olds all the way up to 80." While admitting it doesn't appeal to women as strongly as The Sims does, Gibeau notes that "a lot of women... find Spore appealing and have been playing the Creature Creator."
Though the game is launching on September 7 on the PC, Mac, DS, iPhone and mobile, Gibeau says that, "We haven't even scratched the surface of other platforms out there like consoles and the Wii and some others. Clearly we're thinking about those, and we believe the Spore concept and IP can move a lot across a lot of platforms over a long period of time."
When it comes to the strategy for Spore, EA "...[doesn't] think of Spore as a product. We think of it as a platform. We have lots of opportunities to take that platform to other consoles and to smart phones. It allows us to bring different styles of gameplay... I think it's a very flexible platform for us to be able to bring with lots of experience, because the idea is so gigantic -- creating and controlling a universe -- we can take it in lots of different ways."
Brainstorming over Business
In fact, EA is so confident in the extensibility of the Spore "platform", according to Gibeau, that "When you talk to the design team and brainstorm what we're going to do next, we never really run into walls."
When it comes to moving forward with extensions of the game and brand, Gibeau admits the obvious business motive, but says that the core of developing new iterations of Spore is "more fundamentally... 'What would a Spore experience be like on the Wii, and why would that be cool?' And if it passes muster on that type of brainstorming and design, then that's when we start to move forward with it."
When it comes to the launch of further iterations, Gibeau confirmed that as they happen, it will be in ways very specific to each target platform: "You're just going to see the opening salvo on the 7th in terms of [initial platforms] but rest assured, they're not going to be [simply] ports to the Wii... later on in its cycle. It's not going to be [just] ported to the Xbox 360. We're going to look at how to bring that idea to life on those platforms in a unique way, because that's the only way it's going to work."
When quizzed about the significance of Spore creator and, per Gibeau, "genius" Will Wright, it's this simple: "He is Spore." But even though "Will Wright is Will Wright. He's everything he's cracked up to be, and he's an excellent part of our company," Gibeau says that Maxis is "very much a collaborative and flexible environment in terms of how we work together," with an "incredible team... he's magnificent when he's in these teams and inspiring young designers, and he's surrounded himself with some pretty capable engineers."
Mainstream Appeal and Defining Success
Wright and Spore have recently been getting some attention from the mainstream press, and Gibeau is "surprised" and "loved the reception we've been getting from non-traditional gaming media, and frankly, just from the people downloading it who have never played a game before and who are casual players."
Gibeau ascribes this success to the appeal of the Creature Creator, and "the fact that you can make these fantastic animals and make them do different things. You're almost a Pixar artist overnight without training... That's really been the entry point to this idea of Spore for the mass market..."
Of course, the major question that remains is just how successful Spore can be, given its lengthy and expensive development process (Gibeau was as cagey as ever on the financial investment the company has put into the title.)
So what defines its success? Says Gibeau, confident in its impeding critical reception, "I think that we will consider Spore successful based on the critical reception that it receives, based on the commercial reception, and how long and enduring the business will be."
But sales wise? "On a commercial level, the indicators are pretty positive with the reception to the Creature Creator and the buzz that's out there. Obviously, you want to score with unit sales and revenue profit, and those will start to roll in... frankly, time will tell whether or not Spore as a concept is as broadly appealing a concept as controlling people in The Sims, and whether Spore's unique blend of editors and pollinated content gameplay can expand and move across more platforms."
But what of the eventuality that Spore fails to meet its goals? Gibeau refuses to comment. "I'm not sure speculating on a hypothetical of 'What if it doesn't work?' is something I want to do right now. Again, we're really focused on nailing the 7th and making it a hit. If something isn't hitting expectations, we'll make adjustments. We always do." However, Gibeau maintains that EA believes Spore is "on track".
Gibeau points to the success of the Creature Creator as a bellwether of the full game's potential success. "I think it was number one in the month that it was released. It's a relatively low price point, so it moved quite a bit of volume to get to that chart position, and the same was true in Europe."
"Also what's not tracked by that chart are digital downloads that our store and other third parties experienced, so between the digital and the retail sales of the Creature Creator complete were very positive... We believe that we successfully nailed that, and the feedback from the marketplace has been very positive."