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Q&A: Maxis' Bradshaw On Expanding The  Spore  Franchise

Q&A: Maxis' Bradshaw On Expanding The Spore Franchise

January 28, 2009 | By Christian Nutt, Chris Remo

January 28, 2009 | By Christian Nutt, Chris Remo
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More: Console/PC

Last week, EA and Maxis announced four new games in the Spore series: PC expansion Spore: Galactic Civilizations, standalone PC title Spore Creature Keeper, Spore Hero for Wii, and Spore Hero Arena for Nintendo DS.

The original Spore debuted on PC in 2008, and the company says it has since seen more than 65 million pieces of user-created content shared online.

Gamasutra took the opportunity to catch up with Lucy Bradshaw, general manager of Maxis and executive producer of Spore, to find out more about the direction of this ever-evolving series.

Galactic Adventures, particularly discussed in this interview, is a PC add-on that Maxis says "adds a tremendous amount of variety and depth to the original 'space game' in Spore, allowing players to beam down to planets, play mission-based adventures and even create their own customized adventures for the first time."

The game operates as a streamlined level editor, with tools to add items and modify environments and, more importantly, add logic, behavior, dialogue, and goals to characters -- facilitating the creation of adventures that could range from linear stories to battle arena time trials to obstacle courses.

Chris Remo: How do you divide a game that generally has one consistent visual theme into several titles targeted at individual audiences, without diluting it?

Lucy Bradshaw: You know, it's been interesting working with Maxis games, and with Spore. We knew we were going after something that would have broad appeal. Even then, you start with a particular kind of audience -- that early adopter, the kind of person who is going to envision themselves playing Spore all the way through -- and then that starts to change.

Players have different motivations. What we always keep in mind is that we watch what the players are doing. We listen to them. We create a forum in which they can have that kind of open discussion with us. It's very much the case with The Sims, SimCity, and now Spore. And that's what led to Galactic Adventures.

Being able to say, "We've gotten this amazing creativity from our players. How do you give meaningful creativity back into Spore with all of those assets?" It's fine to say you can share it in the core game and it can populate these worlds and making everything different and interesting, but now that you've introduced them into gameplay? That just felt like such a natural fit.

And with the players and landscape for interpreting the game and giving different interpretations of Spore and different Spore gameplay experiences like with Creature Keeper... again, that really stems from that experience that we had when we released the Creature Creator.

I can't tell you how many parents have written on their blogs that this is the first time they've seen their kid experience something where they interacted with it completely alone. They could do it on their own, and make something that they had created on their own and had so much fun with it. I think that kind of flexibility struck a chord with us, in terms of how kids might be able to interact with something.

And having that much more personality-driven, intimate experience with the creature? Again, it's a natural fit, but for that audience, we knew we were doing fine. It's not something we're designing for every different Spore player, but we certainly have enough of that player who experienced the Creature Creator and had an experience of what they wanted to take further.

CR: How do you test the user-created content generation in Galactic Adventures? It seems like such a complex task.

LB: We have a lot of testers. The competency of our test groups... and we also have our embedded team. I don't know how many different teams you talked to, in terms of their composition, but one of the groups that we have is an embedded dev test team.

They were giving us that incredibly tight loop. When we developed a new feature, they were giving us that halo testing around it immediately. We could really hone it and move on to the next feature as we add things.

I think the other thing you think about -- "How will different players experience Galactic Adventures?" and "What about the different motivations and player types?" -- that's the beauty of the sharing that we've got. You can package an adventure up into a .png, and just like with the creature .pngs, you can drag that into the editor and it's going to open up that model.

You can take the planet .png and drag it, and that's going to have all of the adventure stuff. Just being able to share those easily through the Sporepedia, all of a sudden, you unlock those kind of creators who are going to make that extra effort to make something that's incredibly honed and wonderful, with the ease of sharing it that we've put together in Spore, with the Sporepedia, right within the context of the game.

So I think you'll lower the barrier to people getting at the best possible content, and since our players are making the most amazing things, that's what we wanted to tap.

Christian Nutt: Earlier, you talked about being responsive to the demands of your audience, and you also talked about different layers at which different audiences can interact with the product. How do you identify those targets? Is it research? Is it data mining?

LB: It's a combination of all of those things. We do some amount of research, we put telemetry into the game, and even back with The Sims, all of the different games that were uploaded as a house, we could find out what was there, what the size of the family was, and what the average career level was. And we do that with Spore.

With the achievements, we can find out which players have achieved certain things, where's the depth of play, where they started cheating because they stopped earning achievements, and those kinds of things. We can find out a lot through the basic telemetry that's not conflicting with anyone's privacy.

It's just telling us about where people are spending time, and that allows us to navigate that space. The other thing is just creating a forum and keeping that open channel of communication. Between those two things, it's sort of a history with Maxis.

CN: It seems like it would be difficult to synthesize that data into something where you can say, "Okay. Now I understand the demands of our audience segments." It's not so mercenary as I make it sound, but...

LB: We don't honestly think of it that way. I honestly do think a lot about different player motivations, even with The Sims. Some people don't play The Sims. They build houses. (laughter) And you've seen some of that stuff. It's amazing what they've done with it.

But actually, a lot of it comes down to the passion of the team. While I say there is definitely an understanding of our players, a lot of that comes from our own understanding of the game and the passion for some of our ideas.

It's really funny when you get into a brainstorming [session] at Maxis. We don't stop it... it's not entirely open-ended, but we do put a few ideas up on the wall and then start to put sub-ideas behind it. And all of a sudden, there's just this gravity around certain ideas.

When you find that passion coming forth, where you're able to spin from one idea to the next to the next, it would almost be a travesty not to follow that passion, because when a team has passion about what they're making, I guarantee you it's going to end up better than if they don't.

CN: Does being community-influenced create another kind of creative tension, just like when you might have two people working on the same piece of art -- the creative tension between, "What do we do?" and "What does our audience want?"

LB: "They cheated!" (laughter)

CN: Exactly. You have a certain wealth of, and a different kind of, info.

LB: It's an interesting challenge, because that's an influence, but it's an influence among a variety of other different influences. You really do need people who are in touch with where the game can go, what doors are easy to push open, and what possibility space you have.

You have passion, and a lot of it is filtering. I think Stone Librande and Kip Katsarelis are really the people in the seats in this particular project, and they've done a marvelous job of trying to think that balancing act through. "Who are we making this for? What are we trying to do on the play side? What are we trying to do on the create side?" And coming up with the right mix.

Those decisions are tough every single day, and you tackle them, and you keep saying, "This is where we're headed with this particular set of features." Navigating game design is a very creative and collaborative process, and I'm sure you've talked with enough game teams to know that honing that is a super-big challenge.

But the fun thing for us is that we've created this platform [in Spore] where we can extend in a lot of different directions. For us, it's about making those core decisions about the direction we want to go and making sure that what we're putting together is something we feel we can execute to a level of polish and putting that out there.

CR: Just the very nature of the Spore platform means this expansion is a lot less about providing content, and more about actually developing and providing another gameplay system. Is that unusual, in a way, for an expansion?

LB: I think Spore is a unique game, so you're starting from a unique place, in terms of where you want to be able to push it.

For us, I think it's the biggest components to where we went with this one, because our intuition was different in terms of where we might go at first, with some of the expansion -- watching all of that content come in and so desperately wanting players to be able to take advantage of that and putting that to use in a meaningful way.

Meaningful creativity felt like something we wanted to go deeper on, and that was a big inspiration for us. So for us, again, it was looking at the unique qualities of the engine we did make, and then deciding to push on different aspects of it.

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