Will Wright’s The Sims is the best-selling digital game of all time, and probably one of the games most disliked by people who play a lot of digital games.
Wright’s new game Spore seems to be producing a very similarly divided reaction, though time will tell whether it achieves anything like the commercial popularity of The Sims. At least some of the negative reaction to Spore from gamers has nothing to do with the design and everything to do with the digital rights management that Electronic Arts has chosen to impose upon the product. I have to agree that Spore has bad DRM, the kind that unilaterally violates established marketplace practice. Spore can only be installed three times before you have to seek special permission for additional installations. Some computer users can run through three installations in six months if they need to reformat their operating system, upgrade their machines several times, or experience a bug with the software itself. (Or in this case, with EA’s terrible Download Manager, which has caused quite a few problems for users.)
What of Spore itself, however? What a great many gamers have said about the product is that it is a great software toy with design tools that approach genius, but a weak or indifferent game. I’m no different in my assessment. In fact, I think that all-in-all, it’s a worse game than The Sims in terms of its underlying mechanics. Even as a toy, it has some issues.
Spore is divided into five stages, each with a different underlying game structure. These are short and superficial games: as many reviewers have noted, they are in effect minigames you have to play to unlock five different kinds of editors that allow you to customize your creatures.
Wright is not the first person to dream of creating a kind of “total game” that moves between fundamentally different game-mechanical structures. A lot of blue-sky design discussions I’ve read over the years have touched on similar ambitions: say, a game where you begin as an individual soldier that is a first-person shooter, graduate to being a squad commander that is an RTS, and then become a general playing with a strategic turn-based game. It sounds thrilling until you think what that actually means in design terms: that for one product, you’ll need three full games, each of them a compelling experience and you’ll need to somehow have all of them interconnect and accumulate. Otherwise, why bundle them together, if what you did in the first game doesn’t affect how the second game is played, and both in turn don’t structure the gameplay of the last?
That’s my (and many others’) problem with Spore as a game. My seven-year old and I both really enjoyed the first two stages of the game, where you first control a cell and add evolutionary features to it, the second of which you control your creature on land and shape its evolution. The two phases interlock quite a bit, and you feel a strong emotional connection to the creature you design as you shape it. There are some really clever visual and design touches in the second phase in particular.
Then you move into the Tribal and Civilization stages and here for me the game simply falls flat on its face even as a toy or design tool. The attributes you gave your creature in the second phase almost don’t matter at all in the Tribal phase, and really don’t matter in the Civilization. The only impact that earlier play makes on these phases is in a special ability, and that’s determined not by what makes your creature visually or substantively unique, but by a fairly crude summary of your overall behavior in the last phase. The editor tools for the Tribal phase aren’t particularly interesting, and they do not customize well to many of the Creature designs. You can design a completely fantastic Creature that makes use of Tribal and Civilizational elements, but you can’t really fit these elements to an underlying Creature, e.g., you may have access to a particular mask in the Tribal phase, but the mask is generic rather than something which conforms to the anatomy and physiology of the creature you’ve made. Yes, I know this is demanding rather a lot from Wright’s design, but the animations in the Creature phase are so astonishingly varied, and seem to come so organically from the anatomy of different Creatures, that the Tribal and Civilizational designs are a sharp disappointment.
So what you have here is an evolutionary, accumulative game where past the point of sentience, everything that has come before has little to no accumulative weight. I tend to come down somewhere in a vague middle on nature vs. nurture discussions about human practices and history: our technological and social history as a species is shaped in many ways both subtle and gross by the fact that we’re primates who walk upright, have large heads, four fingers and an opposable thumb on two hands, bilateral symmetry, strong visual acuity, and so on. I really do assume that a four-legged alien that manipulated objects with tentacles and had 360 vision from eyeballs on stalks would make artifacts and have social systems that reflected its biology in distinctive ways, even if technology itself would tend to cancel out or override some of its prior evolutionary history. It just doesn’t feel that way in Spore, even in some clever, superficial but visually enjoyable way.
This gives Spore a sharply disjunctive feeling. You’re drawn deeply into managing the fate and design of your creature in the early game. Then suddenly most of that feels irrelevant and you’re intensely conscious of the game mechanics, which in the Tribal and Civilizational phases are shallow, simplistic and rather boring. I really wish they’d left these phases out entirely, and simply given you an editor at the end of your Creature’s evolution that let you design some technologies that you thought looked appropriate for its use.
I haven’t done the final Space phase enough yet to decide whether the game (or toy) becomes very exciting once again at that point. Certainly the more that the Space phase exposes you to the astonishing creativity of other players using the design tool, the more there is some kind of satisfaction that arises from Spore. Curiously, though, it is not a satisfaction with the genius of Wright and his colleagues, but the genius of other players. I’m sure that’s something that Wright was aiming for, as he has in the past, to make Spore first and foremost an authorial platform, a tool for creative expression. Parts of Spore succeed wildly at that ambition. Parts of it, even in those terms, fail, and they fail because they don’t interlock with the rest of the expressive power of Spore-the-toy, Spore-the-tool.