Sometimes when I’m cooking a big meal for the work week, I make a big trip to the grocery store and grab a little bit of everything that’ll go well together in a pot. Bell peppers, mushrooms, ground turkey, beans and tomatoes … Walking through Safeway, I start constructing the ultimate pot of chili in my mind.
Life gets in the way before I can start cooking, though, and I might end up chopping a pepper into a pasta sauce or throwing the tomatoes on a sandwich. By the time I’m ready to cook the chili, I’ve used up some of my original ingredients and I have to improvise a few of the flavors. Maybe I’ll have to replace a jalapeno with a green bell pepper. Maybe instead of the turkey, I pull out some beef I had in the freezer.
Optimistic, I throw everything on the stove. From a distance, it still looks like my original recipe, but the final product ends up looking much different from my original, ambitious goals.
Even though it still tastes good (to me), it’s practically a different dish — and it makes me wonder, what if I had made the original meal? What if I had every ingredient and spice I needed?
It makes me think, if this final product worked out despite the sacrifices I had to make to finish it, my original version could have been legendary.
Anyway, let’s talk about Spore.
Spore is a 2008 computer game released by Maxis (famous for The Sims series) and published by EA. Originally given the working title “SimEverything,” Spore is an adventure/strategy game that allows players to create a tiny primordial organism and guide its biological and social evolution until they’re in control of a fully-fledged, space faring race.
Everything about Spore screams ambition to me. This is a game that’s really trying to be five different games in one. The Cell stage is a 2D, eat-or-be-eaten stage that sort of plays like an old school flash game. Eventually, your creature enters the Creature stage, a third-person adventure game where you fight, eat or ally with other animals.
The Tribal and Civilization stages take on a real-time strategy flair and play sort of like stripped-down Civilization clones. The final Space stage plays like a stripped-down 4X strategy game, where you manage the economies and relationships of your creature’s society and others you meet through wandering the galaxy.
(A really odd but surprisingly fun DLC titled “Galactic Adventures” allows you to beam down to planets to complete Star Trek-style side missions, usually featuring goofy story-lines. It uses the same engine as the creature stage, except you have access to laser guns and jet packs. Pretty neat.)
The game uses a pretty robust creation tool for sculpting creatures, buildings, spaceships, and many of the other things you interact with. In fact, I probably spent about as much time making creatures as I did actually playing the game.
Spore blew me away when I first played it in middle school. While each stage in isolation wasn’t fun enough to play for a long period of time, the real fun was in seeing how my previous decisions carried over as the species became more intelligent. Establishing myself as an omnivore in the cell stage made fishing easier in the Tribal stage and provided a discount on equipment at the Space stage.
The game switches between the stages quickly enough to blur its shortcomings. As fun as Spore was and is, much of the game play is simplistic and feels like the sugar-free version of other strategy and adventure games. The Cell, Tribal and Civilization stages are pretty short and play mostly the same way each time and the Creature stag is fun but drags in parts.
The Space stage, while initially intriguing, ultimately boils down to the same series of actions each time you meet a new space-faring race or try to terraform a world. So Spore is definitely a game that’s greater than its individual parts; once the seams start to show on one stage, you can jump to another or just start anew from the Cell stage.
Early demos and reporting on the game indicate that developers, at least early on, wanted a somewhat more serious and with less cartoon-like visuals. It would have included an additional water stage between the Cell and Creature stages, bloodier fights and more, uh, ‘realistic’ mating animations, and other mechanics that didn’t make it into the final product. Many of those original features didn’t make it into the game as shipped.
A lot of these changes were for the best, in my opinion. Including a water stage stalls the game’s momentum; your creature is inevitably destined to develop lungs and the ability to traverse the stars, so I can see why it was streamlined.
The game we got is sort of a messy compromise between the science-based foundation some developers wanted and a cuter, more ‘googly-eyed’ design. Creature anatomy may have mattered more in early versions, as explained in a forum post I linked above:
In the extremely early versions that I toyed around with, I was able to make creatures that shifted under their own weight. Creatures that exploited the length of their arms or legs for greater reach. Creatures that behave and move true to how they were built. A short bunny-creature would definitely be out-run by the long-legged dragon-giraffe. That was very neat, and it implied several exciting possibilities in gameplay. … For example, spikes placed behind your creature saved you from being bitten when chased. But, the strategy that earlier prototypes implied went beyond placement of parts. The length of limbs or spine felt like it mattered. If you had a forward-heavy animal with legs placed in the back, it would run poorly as it tries (and fails) to counteract its own weight.
Now that sounds cool!
I still love Spore for what it is, but it’s an example of a game that tries to go where no game has gone before. It’s an infamous honor shared by No Man’s Sky, which similarly promised features intended to make nerds drool like procedurally generated planets and creatures.
It’s an understandable fantasy to dream of a science fiction game that elaborately models space travel, alien biology, and the economics and psychology of a vast galactic society. It’s also understandable for talented developers to try and even have a measure of success in delivering those goals. But cash and time are limited, publishers want twice as much game done in half the time, and most players won’t notice the difference if your simulation isn’t perfect.
In Spore’s case, the general consensus is that forces within the development team pushed Spore to be more ‘cute’ than ‘science’ out of a reasonable fear that a hard-science perspective wouldn’t sell very well, and that the game’s central conceit was goofy enough that it was more appropriate to make it more toy-like.
I wish we could have seen the ‘science’ team’s vision of the game, but the Spore we got is like the chili I end up making every month or so. It tastes fine.
Even when these games fail to reach the insane expectations held by players and developers, they achieve something important just by reaching for those heights. Hello Games has updated No Man’s Sky fairly significantly since it was released two years ago, adding better multiplayer and base building mechanics. It’s still not the kind of game I’m interested in because it doesn’t create a compelling reason for me to start playing. But for those who found the core game play fun at launch, it’s probably blossomed into a great experience.
I talk a lot about Star Wars KOTOR II, which is another game created with high expectations but hamstrung by practical limitations and the Christmas release schedule foisted on Obsidian by Lucasarts. That game, like Spore, worked for me because even with all of the bells, whistles, glitter, and cherries on top removed, I still like the taste underneath.
Like my Sunday afternoon chili, it might not have turned out exactly how I wanted. Doesn’t mean I’m not gonna eat it.