As anyone who has followed computer games at all lately knows, Spore is the recently released computer game from Maxis that was initially touted as a kind of partial simulation of evolution. Unfortunately, It wasn’t a very good simulation of much of anything, and as a game it has only been a partial success, with some parts being quite entertaining and others deserving a resounding “meh”. (Disclaimer: I have the game, but haven’t bothered to install it yet; I’ve let Skatje play it for me, and I’ve read the reviews, and suffered a noticeable loss of enthusiasm from that exposure.)
Now there is a revealing inside view of the Spore development process, with some tantalizing hints of some really great stuff that was implemented in early versions of the game, that never made it to release. Here’s the problem: the developers divided into two competing/complementary teams with radically different goals, a “cute team” and a “science team”. Guess who won?
This was Spore’s central problem: Could the game be both scientifically accurate and fun? The prototyping teams were becoming lost in their scientific interests. Chaim Gingold, a team member who started as an intern and went on to help design the game’s content creation tools, recalls a summer spent playing with pattern language and cellular automata: “It was just about being engaged with the universe as a set of systems, and being able to build toys that manifested our fascination with these systems and our love for them.” But from within this explosion of experimental enthusiasm came an unexpected warning voice. Spore’s resident uber-geek and artificial intelligence expert Chris Hecker was having strong misgivings about how appealing all this hard science would be to the wider world. “I was the founding member of the ‘cute’ team,” he says with pride. “Ocean [Quigley, Spore’s art director] and Will were really the founding members of the ‘science’ team. Ocean would make the cell game look exactly like a petri dish with all these to-scale animals and Will would say, ‘That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen!’ and some of us were thinking, ‘I’m not sure about that.'”
(That, by the way, is from the Seed magazine article on the game. You’ve probably already seen it since you all subscribe, right?)
This is the annoying mantra of far too many people, from Barbie to Chris Hecker: “science is hard”. Yes, it is…and that’s what makes it fun! Games are also hard, if they’re any good — you often have to master difficult moves, arcane strategy, work fast or plan far ahead, or solve tricky puzzles, and that’s why we choose to play them, that’s the appeal. What I was looking for in Spore was for someone to take a look with a gamer’s eyes at the process of science and extract from it the puzzle-solving essence and make it approachable and entertaining; instead, they seem to have given up on the science and instead created animated plush dolls for amusement’s sake.
It’s a real shame. There is a little hope in an unlikely suggestion:
I hope that Maxis announces that it intends to rectify this odd deviation from their plan through expansion packs, including a complete overhaul of the Cell Stage and Creature Stage, at minimum. The forced linear progression of the game and forced evolution should also be removed from the Cell and Creature Stages, as it is not faithful to the freedom of the advertised product. (Evolution to a better brain should be optional, at least in the Creature Stage, as it was in the earlier videos.) I do not believe that we have a right to demand it be free, as the development costs of this game are already astronomical. This may have not been as much of a problem if they hadn’t been spending the past few years removing content.
Somebody at Maxis should have encouraged everyone to embrace the science. It could have been great. I don’t know why they didn’t, but I suspect that a bean counter somewhere noted that it never hurts to underestimate the intelligence of the buying public…and decided to embrace the lowest common denominator instead of aspiring to greatness.
YES YES YES.
So glad to see this here. Spore could have been the best thing ever but it was disemboweled by the marketing department.
I suspect, however, that they’ve been taught a lesson by the sales debacle this game took. All they had to do was to include meaningful morphology, real dynamic systems, etc.
But oh no. They wanted to give us Fisher FUCKING PRICE.
The marketing department and producers… they are the WORST. Seriously these guys are all about forgetting what is cool and thinking the audience is a dumbass.
So you get things like spores. Awesome concept. Big hype! And when you get to play the game so many months later, wham, it’s shit.
“the sales debacle this game took. ”
It’s already sold over a million. It’s already considered a hit as far as EA is concerned. Most games are lucky to get 50,000 lifetime sold and that often breaks even if you are doing SD resoulutions. PC for the most expensive titles and for most games on the xbox 360 and PS3 consoles you need several hundred thousand sold at 49.99 a pop retail to break even. Piracy kills a lot of games that deserved a sequel as well as studios that deserved to continue.
Expansion packs are coming btw that expand the stages. First up is the space stage.
I just got Spore and spent several hours playing it. It isn’t scientific, but I really wasn’t expecting it to be.
It’s very whimsical and the creature creation is fun, but I was very disappointed with the speed of progression. In 3 hours I was in space mode? On HARD??
And there isn’t enough diversity in creature parts you unlock. Now, I understand that reproducing over and over and over until a gene mutates would be a pretty shitty game, but they could have put some effort into adaptations without them being so random. Like, your species migrates to a desert zone, and after a couple of generations you unlock darker, more sun-resistant skin. Or you go to a shore, and hunt for fish frequently, then you eventually unlock webbed feet.
The gameplay style is really sporadic, too. In Cell it’s like Pac Man, in Creature it’s like World of Warcraft, in Tribal it’s like Warcraft III, in Civilization it’s like Age of Empires. I was expecting some continuity in the gameplay style. It’s like 5 minigames.
I have a feeling the replay value is going to be shit.
THE VERY BIG STUPID is a thing which breeds by eating The Future. Have you seen it? It sometimes disguises itself as a good-looking quarterly bottom line, derived by closing the R&D Department. – Frank Zappa
Maxis did some nice things back in the day with Sim games at the ecosystem and planet level, but they never really let you evolve things. SimCreatures let you set up an ecosystem and such, but it was always hard to actually see the evolution happening… you’d just suddenly have an infestation of highly-intelligent flying filter-feeders.
If they could slow it down a little and give you greater control over the environment, and let the creatures actually evolve instead of just swapping out tiles, that would be nice. I can’t see it happening, though.
Sean Craven says
It seems to me that since so much research and development have already been done by the ‘science team,’ it would make a certain amount of sense to allow them to take that work and implement another game — possibly a smaller, cheaper one intended for the smaller, cheaper audience of people that would be willing to sacrifice nifty graphics, sound effects, and so on in favor of richer intellectual content.
If they were able to make use of the bells and whistles developed for Spore they could put it together much more quickly — and if it was made so that it could be integrated with Spore it would have a built-in marked. Call it GammaSpore or BrightSpore or HardSpore or something.
I was fascinated by the idea of Spore when I first heard about it years ago but decided not to bother with it after finding out more about it. If they were to use Spore as the basis for a real artificial life program they’d get my money.
greg laden says
It would not be that difficult for this to run on Linux. To my knowledge, this has not happened. It is therefore a waste of time.
Spore was an epic disappointment and now they’re just going to pour out the expansion packs and take more money from the dumbed-down public. They already have an expansion coming out (a few months after release mind you) called Spore Creepy and Cute Parts Pack which adds 100 parts for $19.99. To me this is just ridiculous.
The only game that could disappoint me more now will be if Starcraft 2 ends up sucking; but Blizzard isn’t Maxis and I prayed to Thor to guide Blizzard’s production, so it’s all good.
I remember seeing a really, really early release that was sent out to certain Sims2 modding site owners, back when it was still a mere concept. It was very cool, but the “evolution” was much slower, and much more random (you didn’t pick any characteristics – they were determined by what survived the environment.) It was cool, but not marketable cool. If it didn’t make money, though, it wouldn’t have paid for all the amazing things they learned while making it, which might show up somewhere useful in the future. Maybe some of the more realistic features can be included in a different game or a special release. Or, knowing EA, an expansion pack. . .
I don’t own Spore, although I had been enthousiastic about it. Now, though, I have no intention of ever buying it. Not because the game itself is somewhat disappointing, but because of the DRM on it.
http://www.xkcd.com/488/ says it all really.
Chuck S. says
Spore was a major disappointment, and Chris Hecker deserves a large share of the blame. Will Wright’s games have largely appealed to an older crowd, not a younger one, and by selling what is essentially “Mister Potato Head” to a market which is largely adults was an insanely bad idea. The DRM in the game is also an insanely bad idea–adding insult to injury.
Anyway, I bought it, played it until it bored me and haven’t looked back. True sim games are far more engaging… I’m still playing SimCity, Civilization, and The Sims years after they came out. I have absolutely zero interest in ever touching Spore again.
As far as expansion packs go? Um. No. I am not going to reward EA/Maxis for selling me a bad game by giving them more money and hoping they fundamentally change it into a good game. Good money after bad, that.
TR Gregory says
I had not read Seed’s article before I delivered my comments to Science, but I wish I had because it puts things into broader context.
Flunking Spore (Science)
Science and Spore (Genomicron)
Spore biology (Science Guild)
Mike Inside says
I’ve wanted to make a game that simulates evolution for a long time. When I heard about spore, I thought maybe I wouldn’t have to… but the shititude of it has inspired me to have another crack at it.
I knocked up this program last year:
It lets creatures evolve the ability to run. Next up on my agenda is to simulate whole populations competing for survival… what spore should have been. :)
Wow. Thanks for the posting of the Science Mag’s “Flunking Spore” link.
I read the criticisms of Hecker in the Seed article, and felt the kind of animosity I was supposed to; however, I also felt (a bit) that the Anonymous Overseers at Maxis/EA (including Wright) should have put a stop to the bullshit and come out with a good game (not only that: a right game). The “Flunking Spore” explanation, especially that video summary, made me pretty angry. From what I understood, the only point to changing one’s creature was to make it look pretty, and that’s utter bunk.
Sorry for the rambling. I’m tired, and angry at how this game went from cool to drool.
Ted Dahlberg says
I loved playing with the creature creator when it came out (so much that I went and bought the complete version), and couldn’t wait for Spore to come out. Then I read about the DRM, and got a bit hesitant. Then I read the reviews, sighed, and resigned myself to yet another good idea being wasted.
I am however playing World of Goo now, a physics based puzzle / construction game that can only be described as utterly delightful.
Thanks for the vid link. I remember seeing something very much like that (it probably was your own work) because of a StumbleUpon! link, or one at Slashdot or something (just can’t recall which). Very neat!
Are there plans to put the runners on different materials/landscapes? I’d be interested to know how interactions with a non-flat, non infinite-coefficient-of-friction (etc.) environment might change their development.
Good luck with it. It’s the kind of program (pretty, but rigorous) that people need to get interested in, and explore, the concepts of, well, life.
I am so Wise says
“Piracy kills a lot of games that deserved a sequel as well as studios that deserved to continue. ”
Bad games, poor implementation, and shoddy execution kill video games not piracy. Game producers got greedy, cut back on manuals, back story stuff, and production values for box stuff, started producing bad games, and implemented bitchy return polcies. The free market responded by lowering the boom and the price.
King of Ferrets says
I think it would be cool if someone made a game where instead of directly controlling the creatures, you modified the environment and your creatures evolved based on that. If you screw up your species goes extinct.
The only problem with this idea is that it might need more interaction with the species and game world, like controlling migration patterns or something; otherwise it might get boring.
Aside from the DRM, which would make me toss it in a fire if it decended from the heavens on a golden chariot, is that it’s not a game.
Spore is a dress-up-doll, marketed to an adult crowd. Each stage is so horribly shallow, it’s nothing more then a really shiny Flash game. I don’t mind the inaccurate portrayal of evolution in the game, but I do mind the complete uselessness of it all.
Nothing you can change about your creature matters. 1 leg or a dozen, they all move exactly as fast, climb just as well and eat just as often. 1 arm or 10, they can still only hold a single object and they apearently build things exactly as fast. A dozen eyes around the head doesn’t add anything to the creature. As soon as you reach the tribal stage, none of the biological properties matter anymore and it’s all about what kind of skirt they wear.
Everything you do in Spore seems so utterly pointless, it’s just not fun anymore. There’s no motivation to say “Hmm, I’ll go play this game again, but with a race of hyper-intelligent shades of blue instead of my ravaging space squids”, because it’ll be the exact same game that plays out in the exact same way. Nothing makes a difference, aside from the way it looks.
Blegh I say. 10 years of wasted effort.
j h woodyatt says
A friend of mine, who is quite a skilled computer graphics engineer, once interviewed at Maxi. He privately told me that his experience with Chris Hecker in the conference room made him refuse to consider working there. He’s indulging in a bit of gloating about this Spore article now.
I’m sure theres a way to implement those stages of the game in a way that’s both accurate and fun, and that would be great – but at the same time, it’s a video game. It’s goal is to sell copies, not educate…
Mike Inside says
Thanks for the comment. I’m not getting paid for this, so I’m learning to survive on comments instead of food :p
What you saw was probably a video from Karl Sims. Most evolution simulations to do with locomotion were inspired by his work from over a decade ago.
I’m done with that particular program – evolving populations have captured my time and imagination at the moment – however Lee Graham has made something similar with the kind of features you are interested in. Check out his videos here:
It’s a shame we live in a time where the view has to change at 12 second intervals and everything has to be quick and easy.
You’re welcome. I’m doing some cool sciency things for work now, but what I’m doing in my spare time is what is getting attention right now, and what keeps me going.
Those simulations of the swimming creatures are especially neat to me. They’re obviously taking place in some medium-Reynolds-number environment, which has got to be somewhat tricky to simulate semi-realistically without bogging down everything. I guess I’ll have to write “figure out how to simulate swimming realistically without too MUCH realism” on my list of things to do.
The true shame of Spore is that they dumbed down the science to make it a better game, but in the end it’s not even a very good game. The creature creator is nifty, but the game itself is shallow and lacks replay value. It’s essentially five mini-games, each of which is similar to games that have been done better elsewhere.
Could a game be made that was scientifically accurate in its depiction of evolution, ecology, and biology, and yet still an interesting and fun game? I believe so, and have even written up some ideas for it, but I don’t expect to ever see it built. Mainstream game publishers are reluctant to put large amounts of money into game concepts that don’t match already successful designs. It was only Will Wright’s reputation that got Spore made at all, and in the end it was dumbed down anyway.
“I am however playing World of Goo now, a physics based puzzle / construction game that can only be described as utterly delightful. ” – Ted Dahlberg
I second that recommendation. I’m tempted to call World of Goo the most innovative game I’ve seen in a decade.
Your last paragraph hits the nail squarely on the head, PZ. I’ve watched gaming mutate from “profitable art” to “corporate product” over the years and been disgusted with the result. The only places the quality and art are allowed to survive are those which just happen to naturally fall along mass interests (such as shooters.) This has watered down countless titles and killed entire genres.
Thankfully there are always the odd exceptions, especially those that exploit a genre’s popularity to get away with an approach they normally wouldn’t have. And the indie developer movement is viable and growing.
The problem I see with Spore is that it’s five games, all of which suck compared to games that are dedicated to the genre.
Stage 1: Pacman-lite.
Stage 2: Diablo-lite.
Stage 3: Populous-lite.
Stage 4: Civilization-lite.
Stage 5: Elite-lite.
In any event, I read the reviews and noticed that there was a lot talk about how “simple and fun” it was, something “childlike” in its simplicity. Plus lots and lots of gushing about its “concept.” By the time I finished reading the reviews, I knew it’d be five attenuated concepts that were more mini-game than polished project and that the game was getting undeserved credit for the concept, and for the genius that is Will Wright, and not the actual game that shipped from EA.
What’s funny are the Amazon.com reviews. They’re blistering and overwhelming negative:
5 star: (198)
4 star: (122)
3 star: (64)
2 star: (140)
1 star: (2,592)
I honestly feel sorry of anyone who dropped their $50. In my book, this game is a bigger debacle than the Black & White or Daikatana.
As an ardent player and original enthusiast I can say: no, there is no chance of its revivification. EA executives have their fingers firmly in their ears, and EA marketing is readying the excuse that it’s still too “sciency.” As an example, the recent “patch” had the “improvement” of cubic planets.
Some of the development team are saying it’s not just Chris Hecker – but I can tell you that if you are blurting out doom to a marketing department that doesn’t get the kind of games Will Wright makes (there is after all no “Spore” demographic…) you end up with their support. He couldn’t have moved the whole ship on his lonesome, but he was up yanking at the wheel and led the mutiny by marketing.
By the way, I’m “Gritmonger” if any players want to look at my now abandoned gallery of creatures. Most of the ones of us who wanted to make creatures of varying fitness have left, disgusted by cheering fans who want any creature to be successful. And that’s the sick part: you can make it through creature stage without eating. You just mate, your “food bar” is full up again. That was the final straw for me.
just john says
I must loudly agree with your annoyance at media’s pushing of the “Science is hard!” notion.
You know what’s really difficult? Fashion!
It seems to follow no laws, it doesn’t seem to be quantifiable, and no two people have the same understanding of it.
Yet they put the fashion stories in the newspapers in the “lifestytle” section, where any kid can run into them.
Rev. BigDumbChimp, KoT, OM says
I played through once. Will not be playing again. Only reason I haven’t uninstalled it is because I haven’t needed the space.
If you want a well made extremely enjoyable game, Fallout 3.
Greg @ #7,
I agree wholeheartedly.
I firmly believe that all computer software should be supplied with Source Code, irrespective of whether or not free distribution is encouraged. Not having the Source Code does not keep people from copying software, but it keeps a hell of a lot of people from making the fullest possible use of it by constraining them to a particular OS and a particular workflow. And code plagiarism would be easy to detect, what with the plagiarists being obliged to release their source code for the original authors whom they plagiarised to peruse.
Thanks for the info, PZ — I wondered what happened between the awesome game I heard about years ago and the crap game I bought. I feel like I was sold something I couldn’t buy. It’s a black mark on Maxis’ name, frankly — how could the designer of Sim City produce a game that I played through once and then shelved forever?
I was really excited when I first heard of this game. Sounds like they fucked up though. Instead of wasting money trying it out I’ll probably just do this:
I don’t get the “market the game to the broader gaming audience” approach. Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I’m under the impression (based, admittedly, solely on my anecdotal observations) that the gaming demographic is generally pro-science. We’re geeks. We’re nerds. We love science, and we love dorky activities like playing video games. Why would they dumb down the science of a game to appeal to the jocks and ditzy cheerleader crowd who already have reservations about a video game because of the stigma of uncoolness associated with the fact that it’s a video game?
My thoughts precisely. It’s still an enjoyable game from time to time, but it’s not a very accurate representation of evolution.
The predestined path to sentience is my biggest complaint, as well. I don’t WANT to have to evolve hands.
I would be more than eager to pay for expansion packs that concentrated on the far more intriguing and diverse possibilities of a more scientific approach. I hope they can make the game that will finally live up not only to the hype but to the wondrous possibilities and creativity.
If you’re interested I wrote a review of the science in Spore some time ago.
If you ask me, the problem isn’t so much that it’s very “cute”, but rather that the bigger ideas are missing. I don’t care so much that the cells have googly eyes, as I care that there is no emergent fitness and no natural selection. But these two things would completely change a game, so I don’t really expect it to be added in the next patch.
The Chemist says
I am one-hundred percent confident that someone could pull it off in a free flash game that would end up being more popular than Spore itself. All you need is an evo-devo biologist with a little time on his hands.
MikeInside, when you’re ready to start getting paid for your work on EvoRunners, I’d like to be among your first paying customers. My own crude efforts at creating physics engines came to a screeching halt when I first discovered SodaConstructor, and I’ve been an addict ever since. I’ve been looking forward to trying Spore, but reading this thread has lowered my already modest expectations even more.
I’m going to have to disagree with all of you. I love Spore as it is, and frankly, Gingold’s idea doesn’t sound very fun. Hard science is fascinating- I’m studying it in college, as a matter of fact- but rarely is it fun.
The cell stage is my favourite part, mainly because it’s absolutely beautiful to look at, and I seriously doubt that a realistic petri dish would have been nearly as interesting (Gamefaqs has a cheat code that apparently makes everything look as if you’re viewing it through a microscope, but I haven’t tried it yet).
I do think they could have come up with something a little more creative and true to life than having the player collect new body parts, though.
Oh, if people are looking for a simple game that simulates natural selection, try Primordial Life. The trial version is a free download.
I’m kind of surprised that the comment thread got this far without the phrase “casual gamer constituency”.
And by the way, a couple of toy-like games that use (gasp) emergent or scientific principles:
Web Game Powder
No, neither of these is any fun. Nope, not at all. In case you didn’t know, I was being sarcastic.
Look, you guys that are complaining about liking it the way it is: It doesn’t need to be a simulation of evolution, but as it is right now, it is infantile. You cannot lose. You can “win” creature stage and become a sentient with only a mouth and without eating once. By the way, it’s only slightly more challenging that way. It is a non-achievement. In the interest of “everybody wins!” the achievements are rendered meaningless. The entire hope of Spore was that each tiny tweak of the creature-creator would actually have some game meaning. Instead, to supposedly “enhance creativity” – everybody wins. But to make it a “game” they made it a fitness-detremental trait to have more than two legs or more than two hands, or more than a few pieces of decoration. The “creative” aspect now favors bipeds, period. Great enhancement of creativity.
“What’s funny are the Amazon.com reviews. They’re blistering and overwhelming negative:”
Sounds like Amazon.com is going to have to do another purge of reviews that didn’t review the product at all but instead are just protests.
Btw pirates are real stupid. They gave bad reviews to Titan Quest which in it’s pirated form caused major issues on computers while the legit version ran smooth like butter.
Oh for those who like World Of Goo the wiiware version has two player coop and other features not found in the pc version. There are number of games on the wii that use similar physics deals such as the upcoming Gravity and released Boom Blox.
For the ultimate interactive evolution game with total realism and scientific accuracy, I suggest this thing called ‘plant and/or animal breeding’. These games are awesome; they have 3D interactive objects and no computer hardware requirements at all (although a farm is recommended for full enjoyment). Expansion packs and interactive play are available via the American Kennel Club, your local 4H, Seed companies, etc. For the wargamers, there’s an expansion pack called ‘Genocide’ (illegal in some states).
Dave: If you have some spare space for large-ish pots, you don’t even really need a farm for the Plant Breeding game. We’ve been trying that with 4 o’Clocks here for the past three years with our little one (she’s almost 7 now) and it’s been a huge hit. Which should be an indication that it’s wrong to underestimate the abilities of children.
Pat, #42: Would Phun be suitable for a beginning reader? She can read 1st-grade-level stuff independently, but we’d probably be playing together.
Brian X says
If the reviews are correct, this game is not only a tremendous insult to science and to gamers’ intelligence, but to Will Wright himself. And this Chris Hecker feller sounds like a complete and utter tool.
Michael Howard says
King of Ferrets and Others:
Originally Will Wright’s games were all based on Science. Sim Ant was based on Ant behaviour models, Sim City on City Modelling etc.
What you guys should look up is Sim Earth. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SimEarth . Based on Climate models, you didnt directly control any life. You did however have control over placing water, raising lowering terrain, changing any climate variable (such as cloud cover, etc). If you screwed up, you boiled off the oceans and earth died. If you succeeded, you watched as one type of life evolved, took steps onto land, became sentient, built cities, and eventually left the planet in one giant exodus.
It was a great game, espcially if you loved the thought experiment of Whales becoming the dominant life etc. The graphics were a simple bitmap grid, but it was still fun. I was hoping that Spore would be Sim Earth 2, but apparently I was mistaken. Looks like Will has to play ball with Marketing to get his games published these days.
I apologize if this has already been brought up — there are already a ton of posts in this thread, and I don’t really have time to read through them all at the moment, and still make a comment.
It is unfortunate that the science team was overruled. There are already a ton of good games out there (from AAA to indy games) where science is a major part of the game. World of Goo is little more than a physics simulator, while my understanding is that many of the puzzles in the Half Life games are only possible because of the underlying physics simulation. It is clear that good games can be made with a solid core of scientific understanding. It is disheartening that Spore chose to go the cute route.
My son is autistic and still has a blast. He’s in second grade, and as long as the first-grader is curious, it only takes a few clicks to start making things. The easiest thing is to make a car – a box, two circles, two hinges. The hinges have a pull-down to make them motorized, and bingo. It also comes with a bunch of pre-made scenarios that my son also had a blast with… simply making shapes in real-time and trying to keep them stacked is fun. Kind of like dynamic-Jenga.
tootiredoftheright, Dave: and it begins again. People like me complain NOT because it is not science-y enough, or because we are pirates (thanks again – that’s the accusation EA marketing has been using for two months now to ignore users).
We complain because the game is infantile. It has, right now, NO replay value. None. In this wise it is the first Maxis game (aside from SimCopter) to do this.
The other Maxis games were toys, freely manipulated and tweaked to tease out the hidden interactions between otherwise simple parts. Spore is none of that. Not a bit. It, quite simply apart from the creators, sucks. And the most unkind cut of all is that Marketing chose this route instead of the obvious money-maker of offering 3-D printing. Why? Because their EADM (EA Download Manager) is a free-to-them way to distribute electronic media, and so a mainlining of money rather than a complicated ground-transport actual production system. Nevermind that people like me, if we’d gotten the game we were expecting, would have forked over huge bank for 3-D models of their creatures.
Marketing can’t see beyond EADM’s alleged “no-cost” distribution. It doesn’t help if nobody buys what it’s selling.
I’m frankly amused at how many people seem to be complaining that you can’t lose in Spore… because you can. In the Space stage, you can easily paint yourself into a very tight corner. This has actually been changed in the game’s first patch, because it was simply too easy to screw up everything once you got into space.
And really, no, the point of the game isn’t min-maxing optimisation of every little factor, and I’m glad for that. Changing the creature still changes how it plays. Going through the creature stage with just a level one mouth and no other body parts… is a boring, dull grind that nobody would ever actually want to try. It’s just a way of bashing the game for not being “hardcore” enough.
Spore is, ultimately, more interesting for what it does that is new – procedural content creation, massive usage of player content through the ‘net – than for what it does well. It’s a must play for people that are interested in video games as a medium, and it’s certainly entertaining enough for a more casual demographic. The science in it is mostly restricted to tangential learning, but the result is that Spore is sort of the Understanding Comics of video games. It doesn’t have the sheer abstract brilliance of Scott McCloud, of course, but it’s still something that someone entirely unfamiliar with the medium can pick up and be introduced to the breadth, if not depth, of it. You see a very basic arcade/action game, a MMORPG-alike, a small God Game, a small strategy game, and a small Elite-like.
Spore is a game first and science education second, and I don’t think doing it the other way around would work. It’s sort of like pulp super-science – it’s unrealistic, cartoony and silly, but it creates an interest in science that is overwhelmingly positive.
Browmian, OM says
I remember the day that SimEarth was released. I was Grade 10, and my friends and I, being fans of the original Railroad Tycoon and SimCity, had waited weeks with bated breath for it. Dave had a job at McDonald’s and had saved the $59 bucks, and that Sunday he borrowed his mom’s truck and we raced to mall (ah, how many Edmontonians remember Heritage Mall before its choking demise to economics and geography?), blowing through a couple of red lights at dead intersections to get there before the store closed at 6:00.
I too hoped that Spore was going to be a SimEarth 2, using modern gaming and computing technology to model an evolution simulator (minus SimEarth‘s goofy New-Agey treatment of feedback mechanisms.)
Brownian, OM says
By the way, I’m really enjoying the links to the simulations and stuff popping up in this thread.
The download link for SimEarth at Home of the Underdogs* says ‘check back later’, but somebody here had posted a few games a while back, so I’ll add them again. They’re Darwin Pond and Gene Pool by Jeffrey Ventrella (I think Gene Pool is the later, more developed version).
*I didn’t link Home of the Underdogs due to Scienceblogs’ moderation of comments with more than one link, so please forgive me for forcing you to Google.)
Brownian, OM says
Sorry. Ventrella’s site is http://www.ventrella.org.
I thought the Maxis teams were the Sim City team and the The Sims team, another battle where the better game lost to the cute game, rather than thriving alongside it. The high end cool game concepts are lost in the name of simplicity and an assumed short attention span. As with every “update” to a maxis game since SC4 Rush Hour about 5+ years ago, I expect little from Spore. I hate to say it this way, but Maxis is throttling their best concepts by trying to make them ‘girl-friendly’, rather than just making both kinds games and letting the kids sort themselves out.
Notorious P.A.T. says
Count me among the people who was excited about “Spore” until it actually came out and I read up on it. What a disappointment. You can’t even make aquatic or flying creatures. Too bad.
By the way, what’s a DRM?
“From what I understood, the only point to changing one’s creature was to make it look pretty”
Is it wrong to complement a creature’s looks? Sorry, couldn’t resist.
I, too, lament the loss of the science bent, but your argument that it hurt the game’s profitability is weak. Yes, surprise surprise, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris would like the game to contain more science. That doesn’t mean the average gamer would.
Digital Rights Management. In this instance:
The article sums up everything I found wrong with the game. Complete waste of money really
As with every “update” to a maxis game since SC4 Rush Hour about 5+ years ago, I expect little from Spore. I hate to say it this way, but Maxis is throttling their best concepts by trying to make them ‘girl-friendly’, rather than just making both kinds games and letting the kids sort themselves out.
Notorious P.A.T. says
I get what you’re saying, and you have a point, but right now the Humane Society is jam-packed with animals left by people who thought it’d be fun to breed dogs/cats/hamsters etc. but eventually gave up for whatever reason.
It’s a pity that they sacrificed the science content on the altar of perceived profitability.
The game, as it is, isn’t a evolution sim or biology sim or whatever it was marketed as. It’s really a space exploration sim with a 3-4 hour prologue/tutorial, and needs to be played/enjoyed/judged as such.
A true evolution/biology sim would have to focus the majority of gameplay time on the Cell Stage. In fact one could make an entire game out of that. (I envision a Civilization-like game wherein you start by designing your cell by picking from a limited number of basic genes for harvesting energy/food, and reproducing yourself. Then you reproduce like mad, earning “diversity points” for each successful descendent your create. When a certain threshold is reached, you get to speciate, designing a new cell and using your accumulated diversity points to unlock new genes or tweak/improve the genes you already have. You would also get the choice of continuing to play as the new species or remaining with the old one. At the same time, other computer controlled lineages would be doing the same thing. The win condition would be to eliminate all the other lineages, making your original critter the last common ancestor, or ala Civilization and colonizing Alpha Centauri, you could do an end-run and win by evolving your lineage into multi-cellularity)
Thus, Spore 2: The Primordial Ooze sets the stage for Spore 3: Warm Little Pond, which would do the apparently axed Ocean swimming stage, which goes on to Spore 4: Survival of the Fittest, which redoes the creature stage.
They should’ve made it truly realistic by having you wait decades for a single, tiny microevolutionary change.
Nerd of Redhead says
BKD, what a liar and bullshitter you are. Darwinism is not anything. Scientists don’t worship Darwin, and acknowledge that many things he said were wrong. He just put a lot of small things into a much bigger picture. The science, evolution, has moved far beyond Darwin. About at 140 years beyond, so your attempts to portray evolution as a cult of personality says lot about your integrity–none if it good.
Brownian, OM says
True, but if you read the official game forum, you’ll see many ‘average gamers’ who share the sentiments about Spore as have been expressed here, from the lack of science to lack of depth to replay value to the insidious use of SecuROM.
Behe has done more to help Darwinism than any other person, most people are just evolutionary biologists, but Behe has made sure that 99% of scientists now support “Darwinism”. Quite an achievement tbh
'Tis Himself says
When I initially heard about Spore I was interested by the concept. However, after reading the reviews and hearing about the DRM, I decided not to buy it.
BTW, I’ve recently got a domination win in Civ IV on the Sid level. Am I a geek or what?
“I suspect, however, that they’ve been taught a lesson by the sales debacle this game took”
The only debacle I recall was over the draconian DRM the game used, which isn’t really an issue with the actual game part…
I wish they’d just release the rest of the creators (vehicles, buildings, etc) stand-alone like they did the creature creator. Because the latter is amazing…
chris crawford says
I used to be a game designer. I know both Will Wright and Chris Hecker. They’re both extremely bright people. I also know something about the culture at EA. I think that the most important consideration here is that a proper evolution game is extremely difficult to design. I’ve made several stabs at the problem, and it’s a killer, because the statistics operate on low-probability events taking place over many trials. You can turn up the dials by increasing mutation rates but the player is still stuck with the selection problem: how do you insure that the player doesn’t spend 99% of his time selecting against bad designs?
There’s also a big problem getting the verb list right. Exactly what SHOULD the player do in such a situation? Select individuals with the traits they like, out of a big population? That’s boring. The best overall solution is to give the player a set of dials for each phenotype and let the player fiddle. The problem is that it is impossible to define a complete, consistent, and orthogonal set of phenotypes — the phenotypes keep changing as the system evolves.
I haven’t seen Spore yet, so I can’t judge how well the Spore team was able to deal with this immensely difficult problem. If there was any error, I suspect it was in the ambition of the overall concept.
Wouldn’t a scientifically accurate “Spore” be a game with no user input at all? ;-) In fact, to avoid any ID-ism at all, the user couldn’t even decide when to play the game. :-D It would just start up at random based on a signal from a USB device that amplifies quantum tunneling noise from a field effect transistor or noise diode.
Geez, people take gaming way too seriously, and this is from someone who has been gaming since the release of the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972.
In other parts of the gamersphere, some people are upset that you *cannot* kill children in Fallout 3. Yeah, read that sentence again.
That always disappointed me about the original Fable. I can understand why it was taken out of the game, but still… you could do it in Black & White. Ahh yes, there’s nothing quite like picking up the little children with your God hand then hurling them into the side of a cliff, or even still having your creature go into an enemy’s village and eat the little ones.
I guess there’s a difference between actually doing it as God and as a person; at least the bible makes that distinction. Killing children is only cool if it’s to teach a pharaoh a lesson or to get revenge on the Babylonians.
It’s a shame we live in a time where the view has to change at 12 second intervals
Uh, welcome to the world of video gaming?
Here’s some games you might like:
– Continental Drift: The Race For The Pole!
– Abiogenesis: A Primordial Soup Sim
– Grand Turismo 6: Glacier Racing
– StarCraft 4: A Real Time Star Formation Sim
That always disappointed me about the original Fable.
Some of us were more disappointed by, say, the awkward method of changing spells in mid battle, but… okay.
(backs away slowly)
It’s not really a hard decision for a game developer choosing between a making tons of money or creating a scientifically accurate game for a niche decreasing their sales by 70-80%.
An evolution simulator would be a really nice game but the more scientific accurate it gets the less fun to play for a casual player becomes. Basically it will become a toy for a few or an education tool (which is not bad but it doesn’t pay the bill quite well)
As a game developer you learn that you have to trade realism for fun, and people do play games for fun. This is what they had to do.
Another issue is that it ain’t trivial to develop an evolution simulator. Actually it’s extremely complicate. Basically this is one of the computer science research directions for artificial life/intelligence: accelerated evolution in an artificial medium in order to evolve more intelligent entities.
“- StarCraft 4: A Real Time Star Formation Sim”
Good one :))
Nerd of Redhead says
I thought all four titles were amusing. The last one was the best, as the previous posters have pointed out.
It’s not that I want to go around killing children, I just found the restriction a break from immersion. It’s more that because you couldn’t kill children, you couldn’t go on a killing spree in those towns. Though the game had no problem with animal cruelty, I remember kicking chickens being quite a casual thing to do.
David Harmon says
I haven’t played the game, but the thing is, I understand quite well why they couldn’t make a real evolution simulator on anything like that scale. The thing is, real evolution involves repeated jumps to new “epiphenomenal levels”, where new developments get affected (and effected ;-) ) by the collective results from lower-level developments.
To give a simple example, consider the “oxygen transition”, where the anaerobic life clears out the organics in the atmosphere to the point where light becomes a useful energy source — and as it happened, the reactions which used that light produced oxygen, which was so poisonous to the prior lifeforms that practically everything had to adapt to it. Could things have gone differently? Damdifino, but I sure wouldn’t want to try simulating the attempt.
At a later stage, consider that there could certainly have been a different path than the route from, say, the ur-bilateral to the first thing with limbs. The results could have looked quite different, and had very different implications for future developments such as terrestrial locomotion. Consider the possibilities offered in just one book, say Vinge’s Fire Upon The Deep, or any of Anthony’s Cluster series (yeah, fluff fiction, but the critters are mostly pretty plausible), or Barlowe’s Expedition.
Or how about one that’s still going on? Consider the “background” development of ground cover — mats of roots in sand? Layers of dead or discarded plant matter (such as pine needles)? Or, perhaps, aggressive decomposition and transformation of the discarded plant matter into humus…. Our own world did all three of those. One remains restricted to limited environments, where neither of the others can survive… but the other two took hold over large sections of the planet. Except that when they were belatedly brought into contact (by humans), one of them turns out to consistently displace the other! And that’s much of why the North American conifer forests are dying out, displaced by the humus/earthworm matrix and the stronger ecology which it supports.
Does anyone here really think their home PC has the power to manage simulations of that level of detail and flexibility?
I really don’t mind that it’s not a true evolution sim, what I found annoying is that the gameplay is boring and tedious. Once the novelty wore off, Team Fortress 2 became a lot more fun to play.
AJS @ 32: Consider that to the game company, you’re asking them to give away free copies of their work product.
Not just the source code as a whole, but the way they chose to do what the code does and how it works within the given operating system environment. It’s not gonna happen.
It’s too bad that the “dumb it down/cute-it-up” crowd won.
But that’s what you get from EA.
I’m willing to forgive Spore for quite a lot. The sheer concepts behind it (procedural animation, player-produced content) are pretty awesome, and I’ve had loads of fun playing around with the Creature Creator (yes, it’s intelligent design, but who doesn’t want to create a hideous twelve-legged abomination with eyes on its knees and a head on each end, AND THEN MAKE IT DANCE?). I won’t, however, be willing to forgive Spore 2 if Maxis/EA doesn’t learn from the mistakes made.
@: BonSequitur (#51)
Well, I’m not a “hardcore” gamer. I tried that because I was curious if it was as dumbed-down as it seems. It is a boring, dull grind that nobody would ever actually want to try, no matter which way you cut it.
I’m not looking for a hardcore shoot-em-up. Nor am I looking for a tenth-decimal-place accurate evolution simulator.
Spore was advertised as if your design decisions actually made a difference.
You can go through creature stage without eating, or without mating (some people took their cell all the way through to sentience – no difference) or both.
I never stated I wanted to min-max: that’s what the game encourages now. What I want is trade-offs. I want an actual interesting result to what I’ve made, the design decisions I’ve put in including number of joints, size, height, limb-length – apparently all this was in there before, but was taken out to Hecker-ize it for Marketing.
Chris Hecker may know AI, but he knows nothing whatsoever about how to design something fun. The guy has no published games of his own beyond Spore, yet somehow he got influence on the order of gutting it?
I have great respect for Will Wright, but he failed on the concept level with this one. A creature centric control frame (early in the game at least) precludes actually having any sort of actual evolutionary dynamics. Evolution is about populations. Given that frame, making a toy out of it (which is the point) pretty much invariably leads to a very fancy doll-maker. (That can be a fun and somewhat educational toy, but it is called The Sims. Making “The Sims Creature” would have been a better frame for that.)
I’ve been involved with some real artificial life work, and making it into a good toy is very tricky. One route is to have a ‘fish tank’ sort of thing where the player is basically passive or has godlike control over environmental parameters (Sim Earth or more abstractly, Sim City follow this model). This would have been the obvious route for Spore as well. To make it computationally tractable, the possibilities for individual adaptations would have to be pretty limited, but that isn’t nearly as bad as you may think since combinations are, well, combinatorial.
A variant of that basic route which could more directly interactive pits design (and player control) against evolution. Basically, you play an organism/lineage (or patron god of a lineage) and the competition evolves. This is a fun toy, but narrative is weak. That can be ok though.
EA really should have just left Maxis alone creatively. EA is good for sports games (which I don’t like, but I can appreciate), and that is their cash cow. The movie industry seems to understand this model of ‘independent labels’ pretty well, but not so much for the game industry.
HOLY CRAP! Re-fucking-lax! I found the game no more than cute , BUT my 7 year old loves it. It doesn’t do ALL the teaching itself but it creates lots of TEACHING MOMENTS. For instance, millions of years pass on the timeline in the cellular stage compared to the creature stage. This prompted an interesting conversation about exactly how much change happened during that time. The time line shrinks further in the tribal stage and we talked about the difference between cultural evolution and physical evolution. Totally fun and very important core concepts.
The EA sports games are inferior to most other companies working on sports titles. It’s just they have the licencing and the brand name.
Brian X says
I think most open-source-type people would find a reasonable compromise in giving away the engine source code (if, perhaps, after a delay like id Software and, formerly, Bungie) and letting the data side of things be proprietary. I’m not sure how well that would work for sim-type games where the environment itself is heavily programmatic, but for any scenario-driven game, it’s perfectly sensible.
What game franchises have been destroyed by piracy? The real problems are twofold. One: people don’t want to pay for shitty games. EA is one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world and has long ticked people off with lackluster and unimaginative games. The butchering of Spore shows where their priorities as game developers are, and it’s exactly the same as any other big entertainment concern — don’t take risks on interesting niches, bend over backwards not to piss anyone off, don’t do anything that could potentially cost money (because I mean look at those poor stiffs at Rockstar, only rolling in buckets of money because they can’t fill all the trash bins). Two, their business model is, like that of the rest of the entertainment industry, based on the idea that they’re moving a physical product. The fact that wide pipes and easy high-bandwidth sneakernetting (station wagon full of DVDs, etc) have largely rendered the physical scarcity issue moot doesn’t stop the BSA/RIAA/MPAA from trying to find legislative solutions to preserve a business model that hasn’t been practical in a decade and a half.
Some companies adapt (Blizzard (WoW), Valve (new Half-Life content, bonus material through Steam), Apple (the iTunes Store)). Some create entirely new business models from the ground up (Linden Labs). Others sit in the mud and whine about piracy while turning out mediocre product. I’m not arguing in favor of war3z per se; I’d rather run Scribus than a pirated copy of Quark or InDesign. But you have to admit that there’s a point where a business model breaks down and arbitrage — grey market or black market — takes over. (We passed that point years ago with commercial music, and the online music stores have only partially solved the problem.)
Mary Warder says
I used to work in the video game industry, and the unique ideas almost always take a backseat to marketing. Games are a huge investment,and there is a perception among the maketing and exec types(imagine the girls you hated in junior high) that science does not sell. They also have really insulting ideas about the things women apparently like in a game and I really wish my gender would stop proving them right by buying their crap.
One of the most painful things for me to come to terms with in the industry is that game company leaders don’t want to make art. They don’t want to break genre boundaries. They don’t want to teach or geek out or inspire or innovate. They want to make fat sacks of cash on each investment as quickly as possible,and if they can better do that by reveling in mediocrity several times a year rather than spending 3 years on a masterpiece,then so be it. It almost always means replacing “interesting” with the shallow but less challenging “cute”.
I would love to play a real evolution sim. Hell, I’d love to write one and so would many others… So keep your eye on the indie scene…you may not fat the flash,but the geekiness will not be DOA.
You haven’t seen it? Well, to summarize: it never really was meant to be an evolution simulator. It is more of a creature designer; then a cultural designer. The problems in translating creature abilities as varied as they could be into game terms easily understandable by regular Joes: immense. But Spore gave up and didn’t even try.
I’ve been after this same problem since 1991: I worked early on with a programmer on a hex-based game that gave you essentially development points to spend on making your creature. The trouble comes in simulating an ecology, not so much in simulating evolution. A single person with whatever traits is easily bored without an ecology with which to interact: the problem is, all of our “game” ecologies so far have been of the “Dungeon/Doom” variety. Monster random encounter tables, or lists of monsters that wait for you until they see you.
Until we advance beyond this, expect continued disappointments like Spore.
Quiet Desperation says
It’s not that I want to go around killing children, I just found the restriction a break from immersion. It’s more that because you couldn’t kill children, you couldn’t go on a killing spree in those towns.
(continues backing away)
Some of us were more disappointed by, say, the awkward method of changing spells in mid battle, but… okay.”
Or how damn fast you age, or the fact that that projectile weapons could hurt allied/neutral NPCs (melee weapons can’t).
Damn it, this is just like the internet censorship debate.
“I don’t think any content should be censored”
“So you want to look at child porn?”
I don’t want to go around killing kids on screen. I’m just disappointed that it was taken out of the game, especially when you could kill helpless men and women and kick the shit out of animals.
(insert picture of Spinal Tap Here)
Tim N says
As good as SimEarth was, I’m surprised no one’s mentioned SimLife yet. That was the closest thing to an evolution sim that I’ve played and one of the things I really liked about that was that there were energy costs for having energy-intensive traits like flight or large litters. When I first heard about Spore I was hoping for a SimLife II.
I’m quite partial to something like King of Ferrets’ (#18) artificial selection idea where you have to evolve a species by changing the environment. So you’d have your landscape with a population of critters roaming around and you’d do something like increase the temperature or interfere with a food source or somesuch and the you’d get a selection process happening. I’d rather sculpt organisms that way than by earning ‘evolution points’ or whatever they’re called.
Ben Gray says
Spore reminded me of EVO, an old SNES game. And yes, Spore took all the excitement I had for it and moulded it into boredom. I found EVO on an emulator not long after, it’s still a better game.
Seriously PZ, it’s EA. What kind of design process were you expecting?
I feel for Will. I really do. But expecting EA to put out quality is like expecting Ben Stein to put out quality. It’s a company run by managers.
I feel that PZ and quite a few people are being overly harsh here. I suspect that, secretly, most of PZ’s ire is due to the fact that the game limits you to vertebrates ;)
Although there are certainly a lot of valid criticisms to be made, expecting some kind of state-of-the-art (research-wise) artificial life simulator, great graphics and playability is highly unrealistic. The comment on each different stage being “InsertGameHere-lite” was pretty spot on, though. I played through the game several times, and definitely thought the Tribe/Civilisation stage were the weakest.
For those who haven’t played it, you get “DNA” currency with which you can buy parts to put on your creature. Each part gives them one or more abilities (of differing levels), such as singing/dancing/posing for more social creatures or biting/slashing/charging for aggressive creatures. Your creature’s abilities definitely *do* make a difference to the Creature stage, even if it is technically possible get through with basically nothing.
In a realistic sense, what would be nice is more trade-offs and encouraging more decoration/legs. As mentioned by another poster, the game strongly favours bipeds simply because more legs cost money and don’t really give you anything (although you do technically get another foot “slot”). Also, each piece of decoration still costs money even if it doesn’t improve your creature’s stats in any way. Generally, this means that most interesting creatures are not created in-game.
Also, someone pointed out all the 1 star reviews of Spore in Amazon: it’s worth noting the vast majority of those are protests about the use of the DRM system, *not* actual reviews of the game.
If it wasn’t for the various creators, Spore would be a very, very boring game.
I don’t even play it; when I want to relax a bit from studying, I simply start messing with the creator. It’s a great stress-reliever IMO: the only thing that’s fun about the whole game. The rest is nothing but extremely simplistic gameplay (I’ve seen better RTS and 4G gameplay in flash-based games), and lame childish humor.
Hopefully someone, sometime, will apply all the code that’s already there, and make a decent game.
They marketed it as a game about unlimited creativity when, in fact, the whole of the game is already laid out for you. The only creativity you really get is in how your character looks and that’s the way I feel about the whole game: all looks, no style.
I have a long standing personal policy about buying games with copy protection so I won’t be playing Spore any time soon.
I really liked how it displayed how to take flight slowly by skipping and jump around at first. However. I really didn’t like how even the strongest ranged spitting mechanisms were horribly weak. I wanted a poisonous frog that would drop huge beasts.
Simple….Spore such because it’s not multiplayer. This is what is called make a simple problem hard.
Simple….Spore sucs because it’s not multiplayer. This is what is called makeing a simple problem hard.
I didn’t buy the game because it wasn’t cost effective.
I date a computer nerd, hence i may go through three computers a year. He builds them all…usually cannibalizing the parts of the previous years. We currently have a quad core pc that runs windows 64 bit XP, two laptops, one cheapo that we can’t get to run anything but a cantankerous vista and one le magnifique laptop that looks like an hp but runs like a beast (and consequently weighs something like 18 pounds…it lives on the coffe table). Not to mention the cannibalized XPS that runs as a virtual machine for our 64 bit system since windows doesnt produce drivers or driver support on 64 bit for half of our software
the point is there’s my three installs…come january second these will all be gone…turned into virtual machines or server parts, or cannibalized by other computers (plus my work laptop will get jacked on the train or out of my car atleast once in the next year in this town)
What’s the point of having this fluffy little game if it’s defunct three months after i get it?
I’m all for a better Spore game, but it can’t get to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SimLife levels of boring.
I lost interest in Spore a long time ago, right when it became apparent that it wasn’t going to be a better version of the Creatures series. Those were some Games With Science.
One good thing about Spore: It’s easy to create creatures realistically modeled on actual fossils, animate them, then post them to YouTube. I’ve created a few and many other people have, too. I’m actually showing these YouTube videos to my intro geology classes as a way of bring the fossils to life in a realistic, 3-d way.
Attn Maxis: I would totally buy a “science team version” expansion of the game.
yay for getting the game for free from a friend!! it was pretty fun. not great, but pretty fun. but wow is much better
Free photos says
I really didn’t like how even the strongest ranged spitting mechanisms were horribly weak. I wanted a poisonous frog that would drop huge beasts.