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.