Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Spore preview

I'm subscribed to a magazine on PC games which comes with a video DVD with about one hour worth of games previews, reviews and similar stuff. This month a good part of it was a preview of Spore. In case you live in a cave and haven't heard yet, Spore is the game Will Wright, the Sims guy, is currently developing, to be released in September this year. And the game is heavily hyped. Which makes people wonder whether the game can possibly live up to the hype. So it was interesting to have a look at gameplay footage and see what the hype is all about.

Spore is actually not one game but five. Or a game in 5 separate phases with little connection between them. You start out the game as an amoeba in phase 1, develop into a creature in phase 2, form a tribe in phase 3, found a civilization in phase 4, and move on into space in phase 5, which is more or less endless; that is there is a final goal but you aren't forced to go for it and can just keep playing. In every phase you interact with or fight against computer-controlled NPC amoebae/creatures/tribes/civilizations/spaceships, Spore is a single-player game. But, and that is the main source of the hype, you can connect Spore with the internet. In which case Spore is *still* a pure single-player game. But the NPCs are downloaded from the internet using the player created creatures of the other Spore players. So not only does Spore allow you to build your own creatures, structures, and spaceships with an extensive editor, your creations can end up as NPCs in somebody elses game. Which basically makes for a game with an infinite number of possible NPCs in infinite variety, from minmaxed for optimum performance to just plain wacky. Apparently one dev made a set of creatures formed like the letters of the alphabet, and that's just one possible idea. Apparently there will even be "themes", so you could play a game in a winter environment, or one with an Egyptian theme full of animal-headed bipeds and pyramids. Or you could create such a theme yourself, the creative possibilities are endless.

And there's the rub: infinite possibilities for creative toying around. Spore is not in the strictest sense a game for gamers. The footage I saw and the comments that went with it showed that Spore will the ultimate casual game. There is no way you can lose, just like with a MMORPG you simply get reborn if you die. And the actual gameplay is relatively simple. In the early phases you just swim or run around and eat smaller creatures, avoid bigger creatures, and try to find bits of "DNA" which allow you to modify your creature with new features. Yes, in the later phases you'll have a civilization or space empire, but do not expect the complexity level of a Civilization or Master of Orion.

It is no wonder that EA loves Will Wright: Spore is a game that will sell millions of copies, and that's just on the PC / Mac. There will also be spinoffs on the Nintendo DS, mobile phones, and the Wii. And who knows on what other platforms, now that consoles are often connected to the internet, and how many expansions. EA milked The Sims for all its worth, and Spore will be no different. But how many hardcore gamers play The Sims? The main demographic for Spore will be the same as that for The Sims: casual gamers. So expect lots of "Spore is boring" comments not long after the game comes out. Me, I'm looking forward to toying around with Spore for a while, it looks really nice. But I don't foresee me spending hundreds of hours on it. Just like I didn't spend hundreds of hours with Creatures or Black & White. Spore will be a toy, not a game.

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