Time Ex­tend

Why this over­reach­ing mashup shouldn’t be an evo­lu­tion­ary cul-de-sac for UGC


Re­vis­it­ing Spore, the am­bi­tious Maxis sim that shouldn’t be an evo­lu­tion­ary cul-de-sac for UGC

Of course it had penises. Fil­ters and re­port­ing tools are one thing, but you might as well try to build a snow­man on a heat lamp as at­tempt to stop the world’s col­lec­tive of PC-own­ing males from plas­ter­ing wangs on ev­ery­thing they can. While the mod­er­a­tion of this im­pulse is the clas­sic bur­den for all de­cen­tralised cre­ative en­deav­ours, where off­line so­cial mores do not ap­ply, at least in most other con­texts you aren’t reg­u­larly sculpt­ing a tube of flesh. Yet a cav­al­cade of sapi­ent knobs was a small price to pay for the best bit of Maxis’s cap­ti­vat­ingly am­bi­tious and crush­ingly dis­ap­point­ing de­par­ture from The Sims.

That bit be­ing its suite of cre­ative tools, a re­mark­able se­ries of ed­i­tors for pop­u­lat­ing

Spore’s then-un­fath­omably vast pro­ce­dural uni­verse with your own crea­tures, ve­hi­cles and struc­tures, plus the tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions to fill in the gaps with the works of oth­ers. Offering all that would be a not-in­signif­i­cant tech­ni­cal chal­lenge for any game, but it was un­prece­dented for one started in 2000, and even for one re­leased in 2008. This, af­ter all, was a pe­riod when pro­ce­dural gen­er­a­tion was best known for how it had been ex­ploited in an­cient ti­tles such as Elite and Rogue, or in ex­per­i­men­tal de­moscene pro­duc­tions and in­die out­liers such as Dwarf Fortress. It was also be­fore Minecraft – and, to a lesser ex­tent, Lit­tleBigPlanet – in­sti­gated the cul­tural land­slide that con­vinced the men in suits that user-gen­er­ated con­tent was the gilded key to Scrooge McDuck-like vaults of trea­sure. It still wasn’t enough to sat­isfy the grand am­bi­tions of Will Wright. As be­fits a game with the work­ing ti­tle

of SimEvery­thing, Spore would see the feted Sims cre­ator and his team vastly over­reach, also at­tempt­ing to mash to­gether top-down ar­cade-like ac­tion, 3D ad­ven­tur­ing, RTS ex­pan­sion and a sim­pli­fied take on the 4X genre. The goal across the five stages – that’s Cell, Crea­ture, Tribal, Civ­i­liza­tion and Space – was to sim­u­late as­cend­ing the evo­lu­tion­ary, food and so­cial chains from cel­lu­lar life to star-con­quer­ing em­pire.

Pre­dictably, that wide-an­gle view on all of life as we com­pre­hend it meant that Maxis could fo­cus on ex­actly none of the con­stituent parts ad­e­quately. While the Space seg­ment was the most me­chan­i­cally var­ied, ev­ery sin­gle stage of Spore failed to stand up as a com­plete slice of game­play in its own right. What Spore did do suc­cess­fully, how­ever, was turn mil­lions of play­ers into 3D mod­ellers.

Tak­ing crea­tures as

an ex­am­ple, the idea was en­tic­ingly sim­ple: of­fer a vast box of ready-made parts, called Rig­blocks in­ter­nally, to be slapped onto a sin­gle, sculpt­able Play-Doh-like body. Rig­blocks them­selves were more than a lit­tle bit spe­cial, an ar­ray of sim­ple de­for­ma­tion han­dles pro­vid­ing each hand, bal­cony, tyre, eye or spine with a kalei­do­scope of po­ten­tial sizes and forms, yet re­quir­ing only sec­onds to ad­just in-game. Add pro­ce­dural tex­tur­ing and an­i­ma­tion tools, and the world sud­denly had ac­cess to My First Maya, ex­press­ing them­selves through fully re­alised 3D art with min­i­mal tech­ni­cal artistry re­quired. Play­ers rel­ished the free­dom: thanks to a mix of raw in­ge­nu­ity, lawyer-bait­ing pla­gia­rism and have-a-go spirit, the com­mu­nity had spawned over 30 mil­lion mon­strosi­ties just one month af­ter release.

Minecraft would ar­rive less than a year later, but it was long enough af­ter Spore’s first-wave buy­ers had emerged from the promis­ing tidal pools of crea­ture cre­ation, found lit­tle dry land to sub­sist on and mi­grated. Mo­jang’s project would slowly un­furl from its sim­ple block-build­ing ori­gins to re­alise an in­creas­ing num­ber of

Spore’s am­bi­tions. Like Spore, it of­fers a pro­ce­dural land­scape and a grow­ing tool­box of ready-made parts with de­vel­oper-de­signed prop­er­ties to be plugged to­gether as you see fit. Un­like Spore, whose com­plex­ity lim­its and parts at­tributes pushed play­ers to­ward sub­sets of Rig­blocks for the abil­i­ties needed to progress, the dif­fer­ences be­tween Mo­jang’s build­ing blocks were are at once more pro­nounced and less pre­scrip­tive. The sim­ple fo­cus of Sur­vival mode made Minecraft a far more fun sand­box to play in, too, suggest­ing ob­jec­tives (build a shel­ter; make it bet­ter), while the spi­ralling po­ten­tial com­plex­ity of new tools and ma­te­ri­als of­fers a sense of mean­ing­ful pro­gres­sion in an open-ended way. But no game has yet bettered Spore

in terms of its blend of own­er­ship and dy­namic shared space – that what you made would take on a new life be­yond your con­trol in other game worlds, just as what oth­ers cre­ated would in yours.

There’s a pos­ses­sive thrill to see­ing your painstak­ingly crafted race of alien dragon-spi­ders skit­ter­ing about the grassy plains of the Crea­ture stage that even the most won­drous pro­ce­dural gen­er­a­tion al­go­rithm has yet to match. Like­wise, hov­er­ing over herds of bizarre three-legged graz­ers in your cus­tom UFO takes on a dif­fer­ent air when you’re look­ing for in­tel­li­gent de­sign, in­spect­ing them not with the eye of a con­sumer tak­ing in the work of pro­fes­sional art staff or maths seed, but a fel­low cre­ator. Along with the gen­er­ous dose of off-kil­ter Maxis charm, such per­sonal cre­ative in­vest­ment was more than enough to carry a few playthroughs of even a dis­ap­point­ing game. Imag­ine what kinds of ob­ses­sion it could drive were Spore’s long-for­got­ten tech housed within some­thing you wanted to play for more than a few dozen hours.

If that sounds a lit­tle like star-gaz­ing, then re­mem­ber that many of the ideas and much of the pro­ce­dural tech pi­o­neered in

Spore is cur­rently be­ing rein­vented for a new gen­er­a­tion. Here we are in 2015 bog­gling at the vast pro­ce­dural uni­verse of

No Man’s Sky, with its 18 quin­til­lion plan­ets, won­der­ing how it could pos­si­bly gen­er­ate so much playable mat­ter and pop­u­late it with things to see and do. But in a se­ries of SIGGRAPH talks back in 2007, Maxis artists were show­ing off how they gen­er­ated a vast va­ri­ety of spher­i­cal worlds from cube maps and script-con­trolled brushes, how they largely au­to­mated their UV process to seam­lessly tex­ture a stag­ger­ing di­ver­sity of crit­ters and ob­jects, and how they could use In­cre­men­tal Hamil­ton Code to pop­u­late empty fields with pseudo-ran­dom fo­liage. While the lim­i­ta­tions of home com­put­ers at the time are ev­i­dent in the even­tual de­tail of the game, Spore’s tech­no­log­i­cal foun­da­tions could eas­ily have put to­gether var­ied worlds enough to fill more than the Milky Way-like star map that served as the Space stage’s back­drop. Th­ese days, the likes of Elite:

Dan­ger­ous and No Man’s Sky are feed­ing new pa­ram­e­ters into new equa­tions, but they stand on the shoul­ders of gi­ants. Yet it’s all too easy to forget that a for­ma­tive, high­pro­file stab at th­ese ideas was made by a main­stream, pub­lisher-funded sim game that many look back on as light­weight.

It’s telling that the scant few words to emerge about the over­all de­vel­op­ment process, as op­posed to the well-pub­lished ad­vance­ments of Spore’s tech­nol­ogy, in­clude a bald tear­down of a cul­tural split at Maxis. Af­ter years of the stu­dio’s of­fices be­ing a breed­ing ground for tool de­vel­op­ment but pro­duc­ing lit­tle that was playable, the con­flict arose be­tween the orig­i­nal ‘sim’ team (who saw Spore more as a toy­box) and ex­pe­ri­enced hands brought on late to in­stil sat­is­fy­ing game­play. For­mer Civ­i­liza­tion IV




lead de­signer Soren John­son, who was part of the lat­ter camp, per­son­ally iden­ti­fies this di­vide as the cause of the awk­ward version of Spore that shipped. The prob­lem cer­tainly wasn’t tal­ent: Alex Hutchin­son ( As­sas­sin’s

Creed III), Ocu­lus Medium sculpt­ing tool di­rec­tor Brian Sharp, and Chris Hecker ( SpyParty) are all Spore alumni. But a di­vi­sion of vi­sion is plain to see in the fi­nal pack­age, as ahead-of-their-time cre­ative tools and pro­ce­dural tech were forced into strange con­tor­tions to look like a game.

Spore, then, should

be viewed as a cau­tion­ary tale: the ex­em­plar case that proves even the most daz­zling tech demo ‘game’ is naught but a cas­tle made of fog when put onto the re­tail shelf. But what is sur­pris­ing, and waste­ful, is that a rich seam of its un­re­alised ideas has lain un­tapped. While ex­pan­sions would add user-made mis­sions, and 2011 spinoff Dark­spore would res­ur­rect the crea­ture cre­ator in cut-down form, no game since has redeemed the golden thread of crea­ture con­struc­tion and sub­se­quent cross-pol­li­na­tion that won

Spore most of the fans it ever made. Yet. Of course, there’s a stigma there: Spore sold in ex­cess of two mil­lion copies in its early weeks on sale, but the se­ries’ re­turns have clearly di­min­ished ever since. And now there’s a tem­plate to fol­low, Rig­blocks have been for­got­ten for the ver­sa­til­ity of hum­ble cubes. But for ev­ery mis­step made, Will Wright is still a vi­sion­ary, and noth­ing il­lus­trates that bet­ter than a line from his TED talk of May 2007: “I think, per­son­ally, that toys can change the world.”

Jump cut to 2015 and Minecraft et al have shown the oceans of po­ten­tial in dig­i­tal Lego mar­ried to a solid game­play core. Dis­ney Infinity’s Toy Box mode has demon­strated how much fun it can be to make up our own dig­i­tal games for phys­i­cal ac­tion fig­ures. Toys have changed gam­ing, and some of the most pop­u­lar games have in­cor­po­rated el­e­ments of toys. Which is why it’s mys­te­ri­ous that

Spore’s dig­i­tal Play-Doh has been ab­sent so long. But it won’t be for­ever. Who else but Me­dia Mol­e­cule to bring back sculpt­ing forms or­gan­i­cally and build a game around shar­ing the re­sults? Dreams has par­al­lels with what Maxis dreamt up 16 years ago, and now faces the time­less prob­lem: when offering un­bounded cre­ative po­ten­tial, how do you stop peo­ple just making dongs?

The Space stage’s hy­per­ag­gres­sive Grox were a pain, but ter­raform­ing worlds to seed with life and colonies was both a tech show­case and a nov­elty for play­ers

A fa­bled jump from sci­en­tific art style to cute looks is ap­par­ently bunkum, but the Cell stage’s car­toon eyes and spikes cer­tainly favour play­ful­ness over au­then­tic­ity

De­spite all the talk of mul­ti­ple paths, Spore’s crea­tures largely had to di­vide their time be­tween so­cial­is­ing and fight­ing when not seek­ing the parts to im­prove their odds at dom­i­nance in both

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