Spore, the upcoming 6+-years-in-the-making project from Will Wright (Sim City, The Sims, and Sim everything else) is releasing its fabulous alien species design tool, the Creator Creator today as a free download. Spore is Sim-Rise-of-Intelligent-Life-In-The-Galaxy, and it is a fountain of scifi awesomeness. I've followed Spore's development for a long time, and feel licensed to talk about what I've seen and speculate irresponsibly about what I haven't. (I should disclose at this point that periodically I work as a freelance game designer for Electronic Arts, which owns Maxis, which makes Spore.)
If you don't know Will Wright, he's the visionary standard-bearer for "sandbox" games – instead of exotic mazes with pre-packaged surprises, these are free-running simulations, where fun emerges from how players use the systems to accomplish goals they create for themselves – hence the industry buzzword, "emergent gameplay." So in Sim City, for example, you're free to make your city an idyllic Bedford Falls, or a sleazy, jazzy Pottersville, or a smoking crater. Plenty of fun either way!
In Spore you have whole alien species to play with. You design it, then guide it as it scratches its way up the evolutionary ladder, from micro-organism to animal life to tribal society, to global empire to space faring galactic civilization – as all species must! With each step, the scale of the game jumps an order of magnitude, like in the old Powers of Ten short, which was one of the game's inspirations.
The Creature Creator by itself is already a fantastic achievement in UI design – it's ridiculously easy to create a vertebrate organism, configuring the spine then choosing from a huge library of arms, legs, sensory organs, skin, body ornamentation, everything positioned, scaled, rotated. It's a powerful 3D design program broken into sweet, manageable toylike chunks, and makes the least of us feel like a Pixar animator. The engine's flexibility seems endless.
Spore then looks at your alien's anatomy and calculates how it walks, speaks, dances, and fights. It generates ability scores, and these presage something of the future strategic landscape, as interstellar diplomats or hegemonizing military horde.
But that's not all – once you've got your alien, it gets uploaded to a communal server, and is downloaded to populate other players' universes. Spore is a "massively single-player" game – the solo experience is embedded in the many tentacles of a fully -featured social networking service., letting you tag and sift and comment other players' creations. The Creature Creator is being released early as a free download, so that the "Sporepedia" will already be seeded with user-made content when the game launches (I assume there is some mechanism for filtering out the inevitable flood of aliens that look like penises and/or the cast of Family Guy).
As a science fiction fan, I like Spore's classic, friendly space-opera vision of the galaxy: It's a place where aliens of every shape can evolve, develop space flight, and cruise around to weird planets, messing with less-evolved creatures, and trading and fighting with other aliens. I feel in my bones that this is the way life in the galaxy should be, and now we're going to live it.
A few caveats. Powerful as the editor is, the aliens it makes inevitably bear a family resemblance to one another. Morph them how you will, share a rounded, fleshy feel that makes them look like they're made of many-colored putty. They move with the same stagy, cutesy toddler-like motions, so despite the fabulous variety in shape, it's hard to make something that feels truly alien or dangerous. Walking around the room, one parameterized alien starts to look like another, and I'm left feeling that the possibility-space of alien life is only partly explored.
And…it's an enormously generative plaything, but will it, ultimately, be fun? Without individualized characters or anything human to look at, will we come to care about our legions of BEMs? Will the algorithmically generated galaxy feel like a limitless universe of wonder, or just one randomized planet after another?
It's easy to take shots at a game as ambitious as Spore, a game whose scope, ambition, and top-notch level of execution are frankly jaw-dropping, but as a game designer and gamer, I can't help but cheer it on. Will Wright and the Spore team are hammering at the limitations of the video game medium itself, as a tool for storytelling and self-expression.
My prediction is that Spore will rock our collective world. Their vision statement references "Sandkings," so that's got to be a good sign. So download and begin seeding the galaxy! Just be careful when they make a castle with your face on it.