Spore: My View of the Elephant
October 6, 2013 8:30 PM   Subscribe

A postmortem of the video game Spore from a member of the development team, Soren Johnson: "A few weeks ago and with little fanfare, Spore turned five-years-old. The game was announced at GDC 2005 during Will Wright’s annual mind-blowing speech on whatever floats through his head. The initial concept – of a game in which the player evolves a species from cellular development to galactic dominion – generated an immense amount of hype, which the game struggled to fulfill upon its 2008 release. Spore received middling reviews from the gaming press, who found the gameplay weak and unfocused, and harsh criticism from the scientific press, who felt tricked by the promise of a game built from real science. For myself, the time is now right to put down my own thoughts on Spore’s development – my memories of the project are still fresh, yet enough time has passed to ensure that criticism doesn’t impact active teams."
posted by SpacemanStix (42 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
Five years ago?
posted by TwelveTwo at 8:36 PM on October 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


The original 35-minute GDC presentaton will forever haunt my dreams.
posted by Rhaomi at 8:38 PM on October 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


The original 35-minute GDC presentaton yt will forever haunt my dreams.

Same for me. That one and the very first public Halo demo. At MacWorld. Introduced by Steve Jobs.
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:58 PM on October 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


Not enough gameplay and not enough sim. It really lacked focus.

A new team should redo it as a massively multiplayer sim with a much sharper focus.

You generate your little Protozoa and it competes in a worldwide sandbox with Protozoa from players around the world for world dominance. Your Protozoa reproduces, or gets eaten.

To generate your protozoa you must directly manipulate the genome. No cutesy visual editor.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:02 PM on October 6, 2013


To generate your protozoa you must directly manipulate the genome. No cutesy visual editor.

C'mon, raise the stakes!

To generate your protozoa you must directly manipulate YOUR genome. No cutesy visual editor.
posted by notyou at 9:30 PM on October 6, 2013 [5 favorites]


Would have been nice if I could have left my planet for more than 5 minutes.

There used to be a British site called, erm, Terrasphere, if I remembered right where you created a creature by choosing a role (herbivore or carnivore) then selecting from a set of piece which had traits that could positively or negatively affect your creature (they did not tell you which). You then released them into a virtual world to live or die. They could mate (and I remember celebrating when my first creature to mate did) - Each role was crossfertile throughout that role, and the resultant spawn would get a mixture of parts from each parent.
posted by Samizdata at 10:00 PM on October 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


I was really disappointed in this game. The focus seemed to be almost completely on building a creature: how many arms and legs, where to put the antennae, choosing the texture of the skin. But the behavior from creature to creature wasn't interesting at all. People just used it to make penis-shaped monsters and the like, which you could download for your own. It was all just really childish, something a 10-year-old would like but no serious biology (or anthropology or technology or engineering) involved. The gameplay was so narrowly focused and so limited that I got bored with it by the second day. It's funny, too, because that video (linked above) of the beta version was so damn impressive, but it was actually no fun at all to play.
posted by zardoz at 11:20 PM on October 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


For me, at least, the main letdown of Spore was the lack of identity, the lack of ownership over your galaxy.

In the Creature stage, your evolution was largely dictated by what "body parts" you managed to find in the wild, and not reflective of your play style like the demos promised. In the Civilization stage, you could design all manner of skyscraper and biplane, but were limited to one of each across your whole culture, a planet full of the same four buildings and the same three vehicles, over and over again.

Space was the worst. It should have been the most teeming with possibility, but it all felt like an irritating chore. You couldn't name planets or stars. All your colonies were monotonously alike. Your "starfleet" was, at maximum, a ragtag collection of your single ship plus one apiece from your handful of allies, all flying in formation. And thanks to the focusing of your interplanetary power onto a single avatar, the incessant attacks by pirates, rival armadas, or ecocatastrophes on your far-flung empire both hobbled any sense of progressed and easily destroyed what little you'd managed to create. Imagine a Civ game where you can only have one unit and the Barbarians are set to "raging hordes".

It did some things right. The three-dimensional solar systems were often breathtaking, and the Sporepedia concept was clever, if poorly implemented. And the Creature Creator (all the creators, really) were brilliant. But it completely fell down as an engaging, open-ended game.

(Also, the fact that EA held back a lot of essential features, like a mission editor, until expansion packs months/years after release definitely helped cripple any nascent community.)
posted by Rhaomi at 11:30 PM on October 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


Woah whoah, hey, let's back up a minute here. I don't know if you People Above have kids or not, but my son has specifically learned:

- What the "Goldilocks Zone" is and why it's important.

- Relatedly, how air pressure and temperature affect the environment and weather.

- That if you spend all your money on weapons and never build up your economy, you won't have any more money for weapons.

- That it's more effective to woo your rivals into submission than eat/spear/laser them.

- That ecosystems need a balance of different sizes of plants and different type of animals to support more and more complex plants and animals.

This just off the top of my head. Yeah, as a sandbox it's not Minecraft and as a game it's neither [insert your favorite FPS] and as a RTS it's neither Starcraft nor Civ.

But it's still a fun and good looking game for what it is.
posted by digitalprimate at 11:31 PM on October 6, 2013 [8 favorites]


And to those complaining about the space stage of the game, I stick out my tongue and declare: you're doing it wrong. So there.
posted by digitalprimate at 11:34 PM on October 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


The phone version of the game was good fun but you never advanced much beyond simple organism.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:36 AM on October 7, 2013


digitalprimate: "- That if you spend all your money on weapons and never build up your economy, you won't have any more money for weapons."

...now explain North Korea.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:37 AM on October 7, 2013


huh, I remember this game. I was crashing on a German guy's couch in Berlin and I guess his ~6 yr. old daughter was obsessed with it. I woke up at 2am to her sneaking in, giving me a finger to the mouth "shhh" sign, and running over to their PC to play. Within 30 seconds he came in, wrapped her up under one arm, apologized to me, and walked out giving her shit. The next morning at breakfast he explained that it was this new revolutionary game that had just been released and was set to take the world by storm, yet I never heard nor thought of it again.

All of which is to say, thanks for reminding me exactly where I was 5 years ago!
posted by mannequito at 12:51 AM on October 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


I played this like crazy on a friends machine. He had gone off on a five month Antarctic fishing contract and left his brand new laptop behind.
This new laptop, he had specifically bought to play spore on.

The thing with spore is that all new games take place in the same galaxy (on the same computer) so when you get to space stage you can interact with your other games.
Knowing this I spent these five months in a completely obsessive drive to visit every planet, destroy all life on that planet, and colonise it with the same set of shrubs, plants and creatures, including a slightly less evolved version of my own race. These eventually achieved sentience and created empires of their own. The idea being that when he finally got back from his contract and played spore, that he had been so waiting for he would get to space stage and instead of a wonderous variety of creatures every single race he met would be a bipedal vegetarian tiger with a top hat and cane called a party tiger.

I played obsessively for this minor and stupid goal, eventually colonising a sizeable percentage of the galaxy with biological top hat based monocultures.
Eventually a came home and retrieved his laptop.


He got to tribal stage and got bored. He has never played spore since.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 3:04 AM on October 7, 2013 [41 favorites]


> ...now explain North Korea.

Kim Jong Un is the player. His second-in-commands are PCs. The rest of the country are NPCs.
posted by ardgedee at 3:38 AM on October 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


I guess my memory isn't what it used to be, because I don't remember exactly what I didn't like about the game. I do remember that I only barely got to the space stage before moving on to something else I have forgotten. To be honest, though, I did like all the ambulatory genitals so maybe I am slightly immature.

Also: He got to tribal stage and got bored. He has never played spore since.

HA!
posted by Literaryhero at 4:44 AM on October 7, 2013


The DRM was super annoying and time-consuming to deal with after I bought the game as an Amazon download. A bug in the game/DRM/updates meant I had to download, update, update, update, enter key, crash on launch, research, re-download, re-enter key, re-update, re-update, re-update.

Between that and waiting three years in the first place, it was only marginally worth it.
posted by Hello Dad, I'm in Jail at 4:55 AM on October 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just wanted to mention that the comments in the postmortem link are well worth reading - other developers of the game weighing in with their own experiences.

Thanks for posting - a very interesting read. I was quickly disenchanted by the demo for Spore - I wanted designs to have a consequence beyond +3 attack. I don't think I actually bought the game proper.
posted by YAMWAK at 5:01 AM on October 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's hard to imagine how any system under player control could accurately portray an evolutionary system, which is defined by two properties: random, aimless mutation (not deliberate control) of genomes; and environmental pressures which cause some of those mutations to reproduce themselves more or less successfully than others. Gameplay is fundamentally about agency, and evolution is fundamentally...not that.

I'm sure that *elements* of evolution could be presented in a game in a way that doesn't completely miss the point, but any game whose premise is "direct the evolution of a species!" is a contradiction in terms—that's creation, not evolution.

I enjoyed the space stage the most, but yeah—it was more a collection of minigames, none of them particularly compelling.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 5:33 AM on October 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


(The whole structure of the game smacked of a "Ladder of Progress" view of evolution, too—which is one of the more pernicious misunderstandings of evolution, even among people who are otherwise "yay evolution!". Again, this is a case where the goal of designing a playable game is at odds with the goal of presenting sensible science. Not that every game has to be 100% Scientifically Accurate, of course—but if you're *marketing* the game specifically for its sciency-ness, you probably shouldn't completely mangle the basic foundations of the science.)
posted by escape from the potato planet at 5:38 AM on October 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


The only completely scientifically accurate video game was the original Bioshock.
posted by Mister_A at 6:17 AM on October 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


I unapologetically love Spore. It's wonderfully fun. Accessible and easy enough to play that my kids (7, 10 and 12) play it. Engaging enough that I still fire it up and play. I've gotten my money's worth from this game many times over.

Still, this is worth noting: Penny Arcade strip "The Cult of Spore"
posted by DWRoelands at 6:27 AM on October 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Will Wright actually made an evolution simulator, back in the day when Maxis was a real company. It was called SimLife. It was very abstract; there were graphics, but they were just tokens to represent one species or another and didn't reflect its traits at all. Spore wanted to be representational, and thus, made the "realistic" simulation of its subject matter largely unworkable.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:30 AM on October 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


In the game, can players manipulate environmental conditions? I assume so. In this case the game, while not a recapitulation or realistic simulation of how complex life is presumed to have arrived in all known cases (N=1), would at least drive home some of the key tenets of evolution, delivered in a sort of mad scientist framework.
posted by Mister_A at 6:31 AM on October 7, 2013


In the game, can players manipulate environmental conditions? I assume so.

Nope. In the evolution stages, you control a single organism directly (like any other avatar in any other video game). "Evolving" is, more or less, a conceit for "accumulating powerups".
posted by escape from the potato planet at 7:28 AM on October 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Spore is, like, half a good game. I was not surprised to learn that the civilization portion was sort of last minute, because it is easily the most boring part of the game, followed closely by the tribe part.

Also, the insistence on keeping the interface almost identical between phases was clearly a weakness. Designing tribesmen and buildings and a UFO was boring, and not as fun as the creature creator. Of course, the creature creator is not nearly as fun when you are trying to maximize your stats to beat the creature phase.

The space phase was sort of fun, and the cell phase was fun, and the creature creator itself is fun, but the rest of it just never really worked. A shame.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 7:35 AM on October 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Will Wright actually made an evolution simulator, back in the day when Maxis was a real company. It was called SimLife. It was very abstract; there were graphics, but they were just tokens to represent one species or another and didn't reflect its traits at all.

You could actually drawn your own little pixel art icon to represent each species, although being artistically challenged myself I always just made up my own weird abstract ones. It was not actually that fun of a game, mainly because evolution itself is more interesting to look at than something that you can actually interact with very well. There may be some sort of way to make an evolution game that's fun in an emergent gameplay kind of way like Dwarf Fortress, but nobody has figured out how to make it work.

As the article says, Spore probably should not have hyped the evolution aspect, because the game itself was not really built around that. In my opinion they should have made it more of a sandbox game to begin with, because the creature creator and universe of worlds aspects were the main draws. Instead, they wasted a huge amount of time on linear sub-games that aren't actually fun and don't really benefit from the sandbox aspects. A sandbox game works when there is an interesting game world and you have interesting and varied ways to interact with it, whereas Spore feels very on-rails and shallow in terms of how you can interact with the game world.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:53 AM on October 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


It seems like NOWHERE is trying to do what Spore said it would.

With copious amounts of LSD added.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:14 AM on October 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


Nope. In the evolution stages, you control a single organism directly (like any other avatar in any other video game). "Evolving" is, more or less, a conceit for "accumulating powerups".

That's kinda correct but also not. Your critter can't evolve anymore, but you can only access some of the most powerful powerups by evolving other creatures.

Abducting them is the fun part ;)
posted by digitalprimate at 8:30 AM on October 7, 2013


The promise was "Sim City down to ATGC and up to the heavens" but the reality was "digital Mister Potato Head."
posted by wenestvedt at 8:40 AM on October 7, 2013 [11 favorites]


Those of you who want an evolution/life sim with more meat on the bones should look into SimLife (this amazing LP highlights just how fascinatingly complex the game is), one of the most tragically overlooked pre-Sims Maxis sims. This thing is a work of art--it came in a gigantic box with thick (thick!) illustrated manuals and educational materials on science, biology, genetics and evolution framed as kind of light hearted textbooks. The game itself is the most mechanically deep, complex game I'm even aware of--it really plays more like an actual graphical sim that you can apply gamelike strategy scenarios to if you want, but the real joy of it is in using it as an open-ended virtual ecology lab.

It's really wonderful and fascinating and actually about genetics/ecology/biology/evolution as scientific concepts rather than a linear myth of progress. I seriously can't say enough good things about it. It's the kind of thing you can conceivably just play forever. I have a feeling that SimLife is what most people (gamers or educators) wanted Spore to be.

Also of note are EVO, which I have played and which is a very interesting mish-mash of ideas, and Seventh Cross: Evolution, which I have not played and don't really have a clear idea of.
posted by byanyothername at 10:50 AM on October 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


*high fives LogicalDash and burnmp3s*
posted by byanyothername at 10:54 AM on October 7, 2013


Also of note are EVO, which I have played and which is a very interesting mish-mash of ideas

Insofar as you can turn a cute fish into a killer, scaly, horned shark, evolve legs, turn into a dinosaur and then into a pony, the charms of the game are obvious.
posted by ersatz at 11:58 AM on October 7, 2013


My family just got spore this year, and we have three distinct reactions.

I agree with the article, the game is kind of a disjointed mess. I do enjoy the creature creator as a stand alone thing, and think that the games interacting at the galactic stage is pretty cool, but I didn't like the game enough to get there. I feel like the five stages aren't really connected all that well, and the attempt at continuity by giving abilities based on the decisions made in past stages didn't really work. Plus, because they are essentially five different games, none of them can be all that deep play wise, because then you might as well just have five different games.

On the other hand, my wife really enjoys it BECAUSE none of the 5 games are that deep. She's a casual gamer. She wants something that distracts her without engaging her, but actually has a challenge that requires skill. For her, Spore is that game. Maxis stumbled into a good game for some people, and I would have liked to have seen that acknowledge in the article (although, like the author said at the beginning, this was just one view of the game, not the whole).

Then there's my son. He loves the game with the sort of love that only a 5 year old can muster. He's branched out from drawing dinosaurs to drawing dinosaurs and spore creatures. Anyway, his favorite part of the game is creating a creature. It's legos that move when he's done. What's great is that he makes up stories about each creature: why it evolved the it did; where it lives; how it interacts with other species and that sort of thing. As the article mentioned, you can make a case for Spore being a toy and not a game, and it seems to be enjoyed best by the one of us who interacts with it in those terms.

I think what's interesting is that the differences in what the individuals of my family, as consumers, wanted out of the game seem to be have been mirrored in the development side of things.
posted by Gygesringtone at 1:13 PM on October 7, 2013


This is basically what Spore is best at.
posted by rifflesby at 6:27 PM on October 7, 2013


Will Wright actually made an evolution simulator

I intentionally read that as elevator simulator, and my first response was not to be surprised.
posted by SpacemanStix at 7:51 PM on October 7, 2013


A version of Spore that was full blown fishbowl game would be fascinating to watch, if not to play. As I get older, it's clear I'm in the minority here... but I have spare cash. Please, let me spend it on more than the next Civ Expansion.
posted by DigDoug at 8:21 PM on October 7, 2013


SpacemanStix: "I intentionally read that as elevator simulator, and my first response was not to be surprised."

Fun fact: SimTower literally was an elevator simulator before the developers realized it was a ripe idea for a full game.
posted by Rhaomi at 10:36 PM on October 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


Even if that was false, I'd totally believe it!

Also, did you know that SimAnt used to be a dirt simulator?
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:15 AM on October 8, 2013


Much of the original design for SimLife came from Ken Karakotsios, who built the simulator. Maxis with Will Wright then worked it into a playable game. That's the hardest thing Maxis does in their simulation games, by the way, turns a complex simulation into a playable fun game. SimEarth is other interesting game from that era (and to a lesser extent, SimAnt). I think it's telling that Maxis stuck with SimCity to build into a franchise.
posted by Nelson at 10:05 AM on October 8, 2013


I could NOT enjoy the space game, because, upon leaving my planet, in no less than 5 minutes would there be a issue requiring my personal attention. Call me weird, but having a culture to return to at some point is kind of nifty.
posted by Samizdata at 2:38 AM on October 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


In the game, can players manipulate environmental conditions

In the space stage, yes you can. You can adjust the temperature and atmospheric pressure of worlds to make them more (or less) friendly to whatever sort of life you choose to deposit upon it. You can also do some sculpting and painting of the planets, but these traits don't affect how habitable the planet is.

I love this game so much.
posted by DWRoelands at 8:42 AM on October 10, 2013


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