Spore: Turning Gold into Lead

On September 23, 2008, in Games, by peterb

What’s wrong with Spore?

This is the question that’s been occupying me this week. With the help of about an hour on the phone to India I managed to resolve my DRM issues and played the game for days and days. It leaves me a bit cold.

But frankly, I expected Spore to leave me a bit cold, since I’m one of the 2% of the population that doesn’t like The Sims. The interesting thing is the particular way it leaves me cold, which I didn’t expect, and that I’ve noticed is that it’s leaving other people a bit cold, people who should like it. I think this is worth examining in some detail.

Early previews and PR surrounding Spore pitched it as a sort of “sim to end all sims.” You didn’t design creatures, you “evolved” them. The implication, or at least the inference many of us made, was that Spore was primarily about designing species and then watching them do their stuff; in other words, more like Sim City than Space Invaders.

The truth is, sadly, more mundane. As Yahtzee noted in his brilliant video review, instead of being a unified simulation, Spore is actually 5 old games remade and stuffed into one package. For my purposes, I’ll call them Pac-Man, Street Fighter, Dune II, Civilization, and Master of Orion.

In the Pac-Man segment of the game, you swim around an oceanic maze avoiding ghosts (“carnivores”) and eating pellets. In the Street Fighter phase you wander around a lanscape and either beat up other races or charm them into allying with you. Dune II is a sort of real-time strategy segment where you destroy (or, again, charm) other tribes by moving your tribe members around, and Civilization involves conquering other cities around the world. Lastly, in Master of Orion (Yahtzee compares this part of the game to Star Control, which is also fair) you try to conquer the universe through means fair and foul, by flying a ship around, talking to other species, and settling and terraforming other planets.



Throughout all of this, you are constantly designing creatures, buildings, and vehicles, so Spore probably holds great appeal for those who love tweaking the visual appearance of on-screen creations. I am, alas, not one of those people. But I don’t hold that against the game.

What I do hold against the game, however, is how quotidian each of the segments is. The common thread, the unifying missed opportunity is that in each segment of the game you are in complete control.

Your creature isn’t swimming around the ocean looking for plants to eat: you are steering it into the plants.

Your creation isn’t wandering the primal landscape dancing with (or fighting) other creatures, you are telling it “Dance. Now sing. Now pose.”

Your civilization isn’t trying to conquer an enemy city through propaganda, you are ordering them to build the trucks, then telling the trucks to move to this spot, then telling them to broadcast.

The promise of Spore was, in my mind at least, a world of automata, where there’s always the chance that your creations may do stupid or boring things, but where there’s a chance that, every so often, they might do something rich and strange. But in Spore, there is not richness in the gameplay. There is richness in the player-created art — and let’s be honest, that’s really all we can call the creatures and houses and vehicles, visual art — but there is no richness in the gameplay. Anyone who wants that sort of, dare I say it, numinous experience should put down Spore and pick up Dwarf Fortress instead. More surprising and interesting things happen in 10 minutes of Dwarf Fortress than happened to me in a week of Spore.

When I reached the Space stage of Spore, I had to confront my extreme sense of non-achievement. Talking to a friend about it, I said “The Space stage is probably the most interesting part of the game, but by the time I reached it I felt like the game had sapped my will to live.”

The craft of game design is something akin to alchemy. And, unfortunately, it seems to me that the creators of Spore have transmuted their raw materials in the wrong direction.


12 Responses to “Spore: Turning Gold into Lead”

  1. Elle says:

    Your opinion is fair, but I’d venture to call you on a point of fact: in the first demo video that came out of GDC, it was pretty clear that the character on screen was being controlled. I’m not sure how anyone would have gotten the idea that it was automated, other than assuming that it would be like The Sims in that regard.

  2. Matt says:

    I don’t think he was expecting it to be automated, I’m sure we all knew what we were getting with the game. But you couldn’t tell how good the gameplay was without actually playing it, and now after having played it, it seems that a different design would have worked better.
    That’s how I understood the post.

  3. Andy P says:

    I think a comparison of Spore to Dwarf Fortress is completely disingenuous. Spore is a bajillion trillion quadrillion times more accessible. Recommending DF over it? To the vast majority of the populace, no. I like the idea of DF, but couldn’t last more than two minutes with the horrific, shocking interface.

  4. I want to play DF. I really want to. But I’m only human.

  5. psu says:

    Pete is just more hard core that all you lot. He doesn’t go for that “dumbed down” game experience.

    It does bring up an interesting question. Did the run up for Spore really promise “sim-universe” or is that just what we projected on to it when we watched the demos?

  6. peterb says:

    Elle: You’ll note that I am ambiguous about the belief that Spore’s gameplay would be more Sims-like was implied or inferred. In any event, certainly the folks I talked to before the release expected that. If you go back and read previews from, say, 2005, this assumption is fairy self-evident in most of the writing about the game — even from people who watched the demos. That’s what happens when you put Will Wright’s name in front of a game. That might be unfair to Wright, but that’s how it is.

    Consider this snippet from CNN, which I think is representative of how the mainstream press portrayed the game:

    “Spore,” from the mind of legendary game designer Will Wright (“SimCity,” “The Sims”), is best described as a “God sim,” where players must assist the development of a single-cell organism until it evolves into a more advanced creature and then multiplies to form a village and then graduates to a thriving city.

    Gamers can change the look and behavior of these creatures as well as customize the city’s objects, buildings and vehicles.

    Read one way, that’s a simple description of what we got. But frankly, I think most people who read that (before the game’s release!) would have inferred a certain ‘distance’ from the creatures being “assisted”. Certainly, it would read completely differently had it been written “Spore is best described as a ‘maze game,’ where players must steer a single-cell organism around a pond, looking for food and power pellets.”

    Or consider this preview from GameSpy:

    We thought Wright had made his point but were surprised when he went back into the game and showed us how it was about to take a weird turn. See, along with adding extra legs and mouths and tails and claws to your creature, you could also slowly invest in the creature’s brain power. When you maxed out the creature’s brain, it suddenly developed … sentience!

    And here, the game shifted focus. Instead of managing a single creature, you were suddenly in charge of a whole tribe of your creatures. Wright’s odd three-legged little critters danced around a hut in the center of a village. You could still evolve your creatures, but now, instead of buying new appendages or physical features, you bought them things like fire or weapons. Wright built a fire pit and his critters danced around it (making up a three-legged dance as they went along.) He built a drum and they started playing with it.

    Then he placed down a rack of spears, and in a scene reminiscent of 2001, they stared at the rack of weapons with awe and wonder before all reaching forward with their tails and grabbing one. The three-legged critters all danced around, waving spears in the air with their tails. The game was smart enough to figure out which appendage was the likeliest for carrying stuff around in.

    Now, maybe it’s unfair to blame Wright for what people wrote about the game. But the fact remains there’s a gap here, and I think at least some of the blame for that gap lies at the feet of those who sent out the press releases.

    Andy P: I’m not seriously expecting people to pick up Dwarf Fortress. I accept that unless you are a Certain Type of Person the game is quite literally unplayable. I’m simplying exploring the shallowness of what “a fully realized world” means in context of this game.

  7. peterb says:

    Following up to myself, I think part of the problem with the game’s marketing is that it focuses so heavily on the word “evolution.” Evolution is a loaded word with a lot of connotations. It connotes complex processes that are not entirely in the control of any one entity, even a God. “I can place a new set of cilia on my protozoa” isn’t evolution, it’s MS Paint. Lou Kesten picks up on this in his Associated Press review:

    Spore is ambitious, simulating no less than the entire evolution of a species, from single-celled microorganisms to interstellar explorers. But it doesn’t inspire the sense of awe you get from, say, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

    I think “doesn’t inspire [a] sense of awe” is a good way to sum up the problems with a game that is ostensibly about such an awe-inspiring subject.

  8. tilt says:

    My problem is that the game completely fails to make me want to do one more thing, because — at least up through the start of the tribal phase — the rewards for doing one more thing are fairly banal. Hey look, it’s another species! They’re so wacky! Let’s interact with them in exactly the same way we have been for the past hour!

    There was a great opportunity here to slowly ratchet up the goals and rewards, but it really felt like that opportunity was completely and thoroughly missed in favor of, “that’s ok, people are mostly playing for the creature creator.”

    I recognize many people are ga-ga over the game, but I’m with you Pete — I just feel no compulsion to start it up.

  9. Nelson says:

    I’m with you, Peter. I played it for a couple of days until I got to the Tribal phase and got irritated. Haven’t bothered to go back to it yet, although I do intend to give it a fair shake.

    My disappointment with the game is exactly what you were saying when you said “The promise of Spore was, in my mind at least, a world of automata”. I’ve done a lot of Artificial Life research in a past career and spent a lot of time looking at SimCity, SimEarth, SimAnt, etc and how they made fun games out of indirect control of automata. I was really excited to finally get an evolutionary version of one of those games. But Spore is even more of a play-with-dolls game than The Sims. And sadly, the actual minigameplay of the five stages seems awfully dull.

    I heard Will Wright on an NPR call-inshow talking about Spore. A caller asked why there was no evolution and he said they originally intended to have that, more of a selection kind of gameplay. But they said it didn’t test well, that gameplayers felt too distanced from their creations when they evolved automatically. Which makes a lot of sense if your goal is The Sims, but seems like a lost opportunity to me.

    You know what’s really fun instead of Spore? The new Viva Pinata game. That’s a fantastic play-with-automata game.

  10. Honus says:

    I kept hearing “God-sim” and when I hear “God-sim” I think Populus, Power Monger, Dungeon Master. I didn’t have to drive around individuals in Populus. I was the “big idea” guy. Even Overload was more fun, and more of a God-sim in my mind. I admit, I haven’t even gotten past the Creature phase in Spore, because I can’t take walking up to another species and going clicky-clicky again. At least I could be doing something *interesting*.

  11. Andrew Plotkin says:

    If you pretend you’ve never seen the PR about the game, it becomes a lot more plausible that a themed five-pack of short games — simplified forms of five popular game genres, plus creature-creator toy — is actually a strong product design. If this doesn’t make sense, scratch your your image of yourself as the target audience and draw in someone who plays Peggle.

    This is not to say that Will Wright is a visionary genius to come up with it. I figure he came up with *lots* of ideas, and then dropped them one by one — like the evolutionary stuff noted above — as the team got down to the problem of getting the game, the players, and some kind of noticeable *fun* onto the same page with each other. The notion of “well, let’s make something that a lot of non-hardcore folks will enjoy” might have come late in the process. Perhaps after failures to make deeper gameplay work.

    Then again, this whole just-so story could be a load of crap.

    Has someone already said that the most interesting display of evolution in Spore is the evolution of the *game* from concept to final product? If that line hasn’t been used, I have dibs on it. I’d *love* to see a detailed timeline of that evolution, with all its knots and trimmed branches.

  12. Joshua Jacobsen says:

    I tried Dwarf Fortress, having read about it, here. I guess I’m not as hard core a gamer as I thought. I found the interface to be barely adequate, even after several false starts and a few hours of learning it. While I eventually figured out the controls and menus (largely thanks to a faq that provided a tutorial), I wasn’t able to really look at the maps and tell what everything was. I had to constantly move my cursor over things (notably buildings) to see what they were; Well, I really just memorized where everything was.