Sporadic Entertainment

Since March 2005 or so, master games designer Will Wright was hidden in his neon-lit cave, hacking along his masterpiece, Spore. With its launch delayed several times — and an unexpected announcement by Steve Jobs that Will had been having fun doing a port of Spore to the iPhone for several months — the expectations were not huge. They were of galactic proportions. This would basically be the game that would conquer the whole gaming world and leave everybody else sucking their thumbs and crying “why didn’t I think of this before?”

As most of you know, I’m not a gamer — but I have to admit my partiality to both Will Wright’s and Sid Meier‘s games — strategy games, specially those where there is some user-generated content, are something I used to enjoy, in my old days when I still had some time to play them 🙂

Like millions (billions?) of others, I was expecting Will Wright’s next ultra-mega-success, even fully knowing that SimCity‘s success was due to its extraordinary marketing (and we all know whom to “blame” for that, don’t we? 🙂 ) and not necessarily only because of the technology behind it. Still, its undeniable that SimCity was a landmark in gaming; and The Sims was the most successful game ever designed, in terms of sales.

Spore could only be better, right?

Curiously, the success of both Will and Sid was that, very early on, both relied on user-generated content to make their games more long-lived. I might be wrong, but I can imagine that the first “patches” were deemed somehow “illegal”, but at some point in time, both Maxis and Firaxis (I always wondered why the two rival companies end in axis…) allowed these patches to be distributed. With the advent of the Internet and a much easier way of content sharing, the ability to tweak Civilization or SimCity was crucial to the continuing success of either game platform. The Sims was just taking it to yet another limit.

But in 2005, the stage was set to the next level of “game customisation”. Obviously, Will Wright had seen the success of Second Life, where everything is user-created — and all content comes neatly out of the Internet. With the success of the many official websites for sharing content for The Sims, it was clear that Spore would have to go an extra step: making distribution of content a key feature, but also allowing multiple players to develop content for the “same” game, thus effectively turning Spore into a MMOG. Or, rather, what is now called a Massively Single-Player Game, since players don’t interact directly, but only through their creations.

When in 2005 Second Life® residents heard about Will’s upcoming plans, they predicted the end of Second Life as we knew it by then — Linden Lab might have gotten Maxis’ former marketing manager, but they haven’t got the developer reputation of Maxis or the world distribution & promotion leverage of Electronic Arts. The world would always remember Spore as the ultimate user-generated-content MMOG — Second Life, with its crippled technology, would just get a footnote on the history of 3D multiuser platforms. In fact, even as early as 2005, a few left Second Life because it wasn’t worth spending time creating content for it, when Spore was “just around the corner” (three years, however, is an eternity, and they have long since returned to SL).

Designed by the master of game design, Spore would be massive. This was the only thing that speculators could say at that time. It would be the game to obliterate the memory of every other game out there. And after the launch of the Spore Creature Designer, it certainly seemed that the masses of players out there were eager to design their own content for Spore. And by all means 50 million designs uploaded to Sporepedia (at the date of this article) is impressive (half of those in the first few weeks), for something that only has three months (and it’s launch date, which was broadcasted all over the Internet, was even announced on the Second Life Educators mailing list 🙂 ).

But then the game was launched, and, well, suddenly the eagerness of the reviewers, critics, and hard-core gamers sort of died down. Like on the cartoon shown on XKCD above (thanks to SignpostMarv Martin for the link!), the cost of the game and the drama around the limitations of the number of times you could install it on your computer seemed to make players angry and refuse to buy a copy. Still, Spore managed a million sales in a week, and two millions by mid-November or so — not bad (at least the investment paid off!), and it might even beat The Sims with its 6 million copies sold, given enough time.

So Spore is definitely successful, the numbers don’t lie. But… will it really be the “SL killer” that so many predicted?

For you who haven’t ever played Spore — and have no intentions to do so — here is a simple description of the whole idea. Spore is not one game, but five games. The first four can be pretty much finished by anyone without gaming experience (like yours truly) in about an hour each. The last one is (allegedly) the game of galactic expansion, trade, and conquest, and the one where definitely people will spend most of their time. However, unless they’re very experienced gamers, or have talked with other gamers, or read forums for hints and tricks, after 4-8 hours you’ll lose interest quickly — you’ll shortly see why.

The first game (“Cell stage”) is very simple: move your single-cellular organism around, eat plants (if you’re vegetarian) or other animals, and grow by adding features to your ‘cell’. It’s way simple, and will appeal to anyone familiar with micro-games — it’s about at the same level of challenge, you can’t really “lose” the game, you just take a bit longer if you “die”, and it’s generally plain, simple fun. There is not much to learn, no serious tricks to master, no real skills needed — just click around and eat things, avoid other creatures with a flick of your mouse, and that’s all.

Still, you feel some empathy with your little buddy which you’ll be able to personalise as you eat more and more things. However, it doesn’t look like anything squashed on everybody’s profile on the social Web in September — these “more advanced” critters will just be available on Game #2.

The next game (“Creature stage”) is definitely more interesting. Here you leave the 2½D view of the first game to go fully 3D, and your critter gets some legs to walk around a nice cartoonish environment, trying to establish a small group of a single species, and get along with other species (or hunt them down and get them extinct). Did I say cartoonish? Oh yes. Will Wright is clever enough to understand that photorealism will bring your computer to its knees, so all critters are low-polygon, as well as the whole environment. Remember the ugly Linden trees? That’s how the Spore trees look like. And, sure enough, you can get some good performance out of Spore even on low-end computers, because the graphics preferences adjust automatically (and Will’s much better at guessing at what level the settings should be than Linden Lab). Clever trick, but then again, your computer needs some CPU left for the AIs, which are Will’s trademark.

The overall concept of this second game is actually similar to the first — eat plants or animals, finish each stage and add more fancy items to your critter — but it has several more options. You can select different styles of attacking other creatures (not many, but enough to make it a bit more varied) or of “charming” them (to make them your friends instead of your food…), and there are a few simple “quests” to finish. You can also move in a small “horde” with some NPC creatures (from your own species or different species) and give them some simple commands. MMORPG hard-core players who have fun with cute avatars and cartoonish environments will love this.

You definitely start to like your little creature a lot, since you control it pretty much from a third-person view, and define its actions. The game is still very easy and won’t take you longer than an hour.

“Tribal stage”, the third game, looks pretty much the same as the Creature stage, but with a twist. This time, you have your own “town” and develop not only your critter, but they start to use tools to gather food (or kill enemies). The animations are hilariously funny all the way, but… you lose control of “your” critter. Now it’s time to work like the gods in Populous (or, well, Civilization, Alpha Centauri, Sim City, and the like) and give commands to the critters in your tribe. This “abandoning” of your lovely critter is something that I really felt very sorry about. I mean, Will Wright certainly read a lot about the personification aspects that make people develop emotional (and often irrational!) attachments to their avatars. In fact, MMOGs like Second Life, There.com, Kaneva, IMVU, and the like, are all avatar-centric — if you don’t feel this emotional bond with your avatar, you won’t be willing to spend time & money on it. Most MMORPGs are also avatar-based, and although a few aren’t, the urge to improve your avatar comes mostly from the one-to-one identification between yourself and the avatar under your control.

But from the Tribal stage onwards, Spore forces you to forget your lil’ critter — it’s just one of the many cute thingies walking around the 3D environment. And from there on, I started quickly to lose interest — clearly Spore was going another route which I didn’t like.

The Civilization stage is an “enhanced” version of the Tribal stage with more complexity, and you could describe it as “Civilization for the Kiddies”. Yes, you build cities (and you can zoom in your critters and they’ll have pretty much the same look as they had on the Tribal stage — but most of the time they’ll just be dots on the landscape as you move to click around cities to build things and advance your armies to prepare for invasion) and try to conquer the world, one step at the time. Again, it’s very easy — way, way easier than the easiest Civilization, or even SimCity. It’s so easy that… well, it becomes boring, since you really never feel a challenge. Fortunately, after another hour or so, this stage is quickly over.

And then comes the “Space” stage.

At this point, everything changes. The Space stage is (probably?) “Spore properly” — one wonders why one has the trouble of going through the first four stages, specially because they’re pretty useless, since you can create your critter and jump directly into the Space stage anyway. You won’t have “learned” anything from the first stages, either. The skills in flicking your mouse on the Cell stage are useless on every other stage. Learning how to fight on the Creature stage has little relevance to the Tribal stage, or to the Civilization stage — and on the Space stage, everything is different again, you just need to learn one thing: how to move around in a spaceship (there is a short tutorial).

The Space stage is probably “The Game of Galaxy Conquest” that Will Wright always wanted to do. Some of you might once have owned a copy of the ancient and primitive Elite game. Being a good and faithful science-fiction fan, this was one of the very early games that I loved because of the plot (yes, the box even included a novella to set the stage, written by the British fantasy author Robert Holdstock).

In Elite, you had a spaceship (that you could improve over time) — a trade ship — and a whole galaxy to explore and trade with. At each planet you might get some special missions (or not), but you could always speculate in goods, trying to transport things across the galaxy to make enough money to buy more improvements. Surprisingly, it was a 3D game — launched almost a quarter of a century ago! — and while quite limited, it had a very good interface. You could also play for weeks in the hope that something special would happen — which was the whole point of continuing to play. The missions that popped up once in a while were scary — stars going supernova, picking up cargo infested with an alien virus, that kind of thing. It was very enjoyable, and it required some skill to avoid those nasty police viper ships or, worse, the Thargoid battleships.

Well, Spore’s “Space stage” is pretty much the same thing. The only difference is that Will Wright thought that nobody would really wish to acquire enough skills to pilot a starship, so the Spore starship is relatively easy to maneuver. Naturally enough, the graphics are much better. And while Elite only managed to depict battles in space inside a solar system with wireframe models (planets would have been impossible to generate back then; a later version added simple shading to the wireframes), Spore is mostly about visiting cute planets and shoot the inhabitants (or abduct them!), their cities, and their spaceships. All in 3D glory with nice special effects (but not realistic ones; this is all cartoonish and cute).

And although almost everywhere you’ll get “special missions”, they’re really just “variations on a theme”: abduct aliens; kill “diseased animals” (and “save the ecosystem”); destroy (partially or totally) a city (or all cities on a planet); pick up special items on one planet and deliver it to another. That’s pretty much it. The focus was mostly on terraforming planets, since, of course, the old Elite game could not do that. Even the “improvements” you can add to your puny spaceship are not impressive — Elite had far more choices that made sense and required different ways to operate. Will probably thought that if he made the starship controls too complex nobody would play it.

The game is also fun for about 4 hours. At about that time, you’ll get continuously invaded all the time at your homeworld. There is little “artificial intelligence” for you  — while you’re happily exploring on another side of the galaxy, or trying to do some trading, or getting acquainted with some nice aliens happy to meet you and give you another mission, there goes your homeworld under attack — again! — and you have to get back as quickly as possible, probably losing yet another city that way. Obviously, you can found new cities, but they grow far slower (and are insanely expensive to maintain!) than your enemies can utterly destroy them.

SignpostMarv Martin told me the trick to survive that stage — simply get one Uber Turret for every one of your planets, and forget about enemy invasions. Sure, you’ll be always coming back to help your neighbouring galactic empires, since if you fail to do so, they’ll get angry and might break your alliance. But, well, getting invaded all the time and being unable to do anything about it sort of spoils the fun.

I haven’t finished Spore yet, but I estimate that it’s good for about 30 or so hours of entertainment for a very bad and untalented player like myself. And there is this incredible sense of “wow, this could have been such a great game if it were only designed differently!”

As it is, Spore is the most boring game I’ve ever played to the end (or almost to the end; as said, I haven’t had the patience to pick it up again after the first two weeks), and for one reason only: to try to understand in what way it will be the “Second Life killer”.

Needless to say, nothing could ever have been so much bloated. Spore isn’t a “SL killer” at all. Graphically, it’s cartoonish and cute, which is a trend that will gather a large player base, but one that I don’t exactly favour. The 3D engine is deliberately simple — to allow fast rendering — and it relies mostly on ultra-cute and funny animations to bring the critters to live (yes, they’re fun to watch!). The interface is very, very simple, to be able to appeal to a wide range of users. And, well, the game doesn’t crash easily (just once on my Mac I think). All these are strong points in favour of it.

It does encourage user-generated content, and in fact it’s fun to design critters, buildings, vehicles, and terraform planets. Of course, the creature design doesn’t really matter much at the Space stage (although it matters a bit at the Creature stage, which is the one that, IMHO, is the most fun and engaging). It’s only there because on the “Internet mode” you can share creations with the other 2 million users. Not that it really matters. It makes for nice snapshots and movies, though, and I guess that’s all what Will Wright wanted — nice-looking videos have been spread all over YouTube; Flickr, MySpace, and Facebook are crammed full with pictures of Spore critters, and this has certainly driven sales through good viral marketing. And I can imagine that people sell critters on eBay, although what’s the point?… They’re just “decoration”. At least on The Sims the items had a purpose for the game, and a “content industry” for The Sims made sense — objects are not the same. For Spore, well, the only point really is to take nice snapshots and boast to your friends how cool you terraformed that pink planet to match the pink creatures and the purple trees. That’s the “fun” of content creation in Spore. And I’m sure it’s fun enough — as said, 50 million creations are on Sporepedia, and that’s far more than many games have in user-generated content (SL has 2.2 billion items, but it has been around for far longer…).

So why would anyone leave SL for Spore?

Well, there is a small minority of gamers on SL that hate the lack of goals, objectives, and a purpose. Spore doesn’t have an in-game chat system, but there are thousands of forums and chatrooms for Spore fans. You can’t really “play the game with other players”, but you can exchange tips and content with them, and the “Sporesphere” grows as players engage in social activity outside the game. This, I believe, is one of the reasons many people might leave SL for a more engaging gamer culture (for them!). But, well, you can’t really watch movies together in Spore, or go to a live music show, or even sit on a planet with other friends and talk about how cool it was to destroy the evil Grox empire.

All that is completely lacking from Spore. I hardly believe it will even pull players away from, say, World of Warcraft, just to give another example. The almost total lack of identification and emotional bonds with “your critters in Spore” will never compete with the joys of having a 70-level Wizard or, well, an avatar dressed by Armidi. On the other hand, IMVU or Second Life content creators will hardly create an “economy” of digital content for Spore, since there is no perceived value in having that content. Cuteness sells, but after a while, even the most die-hard Spore fans will be tired of making videos of yet another Planet Buster in action. Content creators might have lots of fun just playing around with the Creature Creator, and my best guess is that the ones willing to spend time tweaking critters only for the fun of it, will be the ones still picking up Spore in a couple of years. The modelling tools are good and easy to use — far easier than SL’s avatar creator, for example, and I can’t even begin to compare it with SL’s building tools. Naturally they’re very limited, but enough creativity (and having fun building things!) can compensate — like you can see at YadNi Monde‘s profile at Xspore (who after spending a few months doing creatures for Spore went back to his regular activity in SL, of course).

So, all in all, Spore is completely outside the scope of MMOGs or social virtual worlds like Second Life. It’s not a “threat” to either. It will hardly “steal” users from either — most will tinker a bit with the creature creator, finish Spore after 20 or 30 hours, and give it up. Sure, I can imagine that Will Wright comes out with Spore 2 or Spore Unleashed with even more missions and more attachments you can add to your cute lil’ critters but… what’s the point?

There might be a way Spore could cut into the MMOG market — by turning Spore into a real MMOG, where players actually compete against each other. However, if I were Will Wright, I would release two games and not a five-in-one-game. The first game would be a third-person-view based on the engine that runs on the Creature stage, and here players would compete — and collaborate — by handling small tribes. But each player would have their own “avatar” (and a host of NPCs) which would “evolve” as you complete tasks, quests, missions, and similar things. The engine is solid and the critter animations are cute enough to make you laugh for hours at a time — allowing people to create their own animations would, of course, be an extra bonus. And, of course, the ability to “craft” your own tools (for your tribe) based on skills and abilities would make it a good contender as an entry-level MMOG.

The Space game could evolve to become something like Entropia Universe, but… it’s really so different. I’d really drop the whole effort, it’s simply not fun and engaging enough.

So I guess that when I get the urge to play a game again, I’ll just install an old copy of SimCity and have some real fun again. Oh, or probably CitiesXL, which is a SimCity clone built into a MMOG. Although not finished yet, it definitely looks a lot more promising for players still looking for good old strategy games, with the twist of playing against humans instead of AIs.

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