I finished Spore quite some time ago, but I’ve been putting off blogging about it: it’s a hard game for me to wrap my brain around. Still, a month is long enough to procrastinate, so I suppose I should say something now.

I’ll begin from the point of view of a traditional video game player playing a traditional video game: it’s a sequence of five tangentially-related stages, each essentially an independent game. The first four are short versions of games we’ve seen before; one slightly notable aspect of those stages is that, in each of them, you have a choice between a peaceful strategy and a violent strategy. I chose the peaceful strategy in all the stages, which worked fine; this was a pleasant change of pace, since (for example) each new iteration of Civilization promises that this time I’ll be able to conquer the world through the magnetic force of my personality, yet I always have to resort to sending tanks all over the continent. So I was glad to see a game where a peaceful strategy actually works! Still, ultimately, it’s four rather slight games with only tenuous links between them.

The fifth stage, Space, is quite a bit more satisfying, again from a traditional gamer point of view. You start on a planet in the middle of an entire galaxy; you explore other star systems, colonize planets, meet with other species, do lots of trading (with your colonies and other species), do lots of missions (for your colonies or other species’ colonies), look for artifacts, build up your economic production, fight against pirates or other species, and so forth. I had quite a lot of fun at first: as I’ve mentioned before, I’m happy to do random missions, and the initial missions in the Space stage did a fine job of introducing me to the range of gameplay options. (A much much larger range in this stage than in the others.) There was a well-done medal system to help track my progress and give me goals (and unlockable tools) to strive for, too.

After a while, though, it started getting boring. I was doing the same things over and over again; my home world had run out of missions other than “start a war”, and other worlds were sending me on fairly repetitive quests; and it seemed like every time I started doing something, I got called to one planet or another to save it from pirate attacks. At about that time, I ran into a Vorpal Bunny Ranch post which crystallized some of those problems: in particular, why did I have to fight so frequently in this stage when I’d been able to avoid it in the other stages?

With that in mind, I decided to give the game one last try; I also decided that, since I was getting bored with the missions but I still thought the idea of exploring an entire galaxy was pretty neat, that I’d just do the latter. I’d been told that I should try to figure out what was going on in the center of the galaxy, so I took my ship and started heading in that direction.

And that turned out to be quite a bit more fun. The game stopped bothering me with crises, letting me make it a good 50 star systems or so along before I got called back for some emergency. I ran into dozens of new races, found several artifacts, found my first special galactic formations, and in general had a pleasant time. And my ship had the “return ticket” special ability; this meant that, when an emergency came up, I could immediately zap back to my home world.

That was enough to jolt me out of my lethargy with the game. I went on several more journeys like that, in the process earning the ability to fly through wormholes so I could make it even farther down into the galaxy. This trip also got me more interested in commerce, so when I got tired of exploration (the 500th planet you see really isn’t that different from the 400th), I switched over to figuring out how to make more money, including terraforming planets to build colonies (which I hadn’t done much at all before). This increased range of potential activities kept me happy for a few more weekends, and by the time I was getting bored with that, I was close enough to maxing out my ship that I just needed one afternoon’s work to buff it up enough to make it to the center of the galaxy.

The center of the galaxy was pretty unsatisfying, actually, but I’d been warned so I wasn’t surprised. Even with that bad taste in my mouth, I’d had enough pleasant times in the Space stage to be reasonably pleased with the game, though it was clearly time for me to move on.

Which is all well and dandy, but it doesn’t add up to a reason for such procrastination on blogging about it. (The fact that I had to devote most of my spare time to Persona 3 in order to finish that game in less than half a year had something to do with my procrastination, of course.) So far, I’ve come up with two answers for the question of why the above explanation wasn’t enough for me.

The first answer: the above is how I play Spore as a video game. Miranda, however, has spent as much time with the game as I have, and her experiences were quite different. She made it through the first two stages, but I don’t believe she’s finished the third stage; what my description above leaves out is all the creators that the game has, and that’s where she’s spent most of her time.

My best guess is that Spore shows itself off at its best when seen not as a video game but as a video toy. While there is a reasonable amount of traditional gameplay in the game, there are also ten or so creators, which you can use to create an extremely wide range of creatures, buildings, and vehicles. Just playing through the Space stage of the game, I was extremely impressed by the huge variety of alien species, buildings, vehicles that I encountered; and if you’re inclined to mess around with that sort of thing, you can spend hour after hour creating new material for the game. (The creature creator is particularly impressive, but all the creators are quite strong.) For better or for worse, I wasn’t inclined to do so: I enjoyed using the creators when I was forced to do so to advance at various stages of the games, but it was always a side show for me, I never dipped into them when I didn’t have to do so. For all I know, though, I would have enjoyed the game more had I spent more time in the creators: in particular the creators for the early stages gave you quite a bit more options and decisions to make than the actual gameplay in those stages did.

The second reason why the game is still sticking in my head is what the creator stages imply. Take the creature creator as an example: while of course the game designers put in huge amounts of work in creating the basic framework and in creating the various body parts, once that work is done, people could literally create millions more creatures themselves, creatures of extremely high quality. And these creatures aren’t just 3-D statues: they can walk, they can dance, they can brandish implements, baby creatures can imitate adult creatures in a quite charming fashion.

A lot of the coverage of this aspect of the game has focused on the user-generated content side, on how the game’s creators can leverage staggering amounts of content produced by the community. Which is all well and good, but I’m at least as interested in what the game allows professional content creators to do. I’ve touched on this before: basically, if you refine your content creation tools to the extent that end users can produce the same levels that the game’s creators can produce, then even the game’s creators become much more productive; once you start taking those same tools and sharing them across games, licensing them to third parties, the potential productivity gains are enormous.

In this particular instance, I assume that’s all theoretical benefit rather than actual benefit, though who knows what EA has in mind. But I’m hoping that tools like this will evolve and move into the mainstream: just as now, if you want to draw a collection of polygons on screen, you can offload that work to pre-existing software and hardware, just as programmers don’t have to always rewrite their physics models from scratch, so too I’m hoping that, in the future, if you want to populate a world with items, with creatures, you’ll be able to do so with tools like those in Spore. I’m hoping that, a decade from now, somebody with the ambition to create another Shenmue won’t have to spend 70 million dollars to do so: that a single person will be able to, say, create the character models for such game in a couple of weeks of hard work using evolved versions of these tools (or the various other avatar creation tools out there); that they’ll be able to create the environments through a combination of procedural city generation, buildings chosen from a communally developed repository, and hand-crafting key areas; that they’ll be able to leverage interaction engines to generate much of the action in the street scenes, while still being able to script key interactions by hand.

I don’t want to equate pretty / more realistic / bigger with better. But I will say that, all other things being equal, simpler is better: there’s rarely anything to be won by drawing every single pixel through hand-crafted assembly code. I want game authors to be able to put their creative thinking where it really matters: if the details of internal anatomy is important to your game, then using an evolved version of Spore‘s creature creator isn’t a good idea, but if not, then why not leverage it? Conveying your vision for what a game should be is hard enough; the more authors can focus on that vision, the richer we all are.

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