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
IMAGINE WHAT OBSESSIONS IT COULD
DRIVE WERE SPORE’S TECH HOUSED IN
SOMETHING YOU WANTED TO PLAY
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