Spore fails to engage…

Title Spore
Developer Maxis/Electronic Arts
Type Strategy
Platform(s) Mac, PC
Kelly Score ™ 50 / 100 game;
85 / 100 toy

Spore is the new creation by game “God” Will Wright, the genius behind the SimCity and The Sims. The man is recognized as a computer gaming visionary, and Spore is considered by many to be his crowning achievement: Will himself called it “Sim Everything”.

I wanted to like Spore, I really did. I tried to avoid the hoopla associated with it so I wouldn’t build up a lot of expectations. Anticipation has been building for years now, so that avoidance was challenging. Perhaps in part my success was helped by the fact that I’m not really that huge of a fan of either of Will’s previous franchises, SimCity or The Sims. I enjoyed SimCity in a couple of incarnations, but would never likely rate it above a 7 out of 10 on my gaming goodness scale. I guess I prefer games with some kind of objective rather than more open ended simulators. And Spore continued my pattern of not really liking Will Wright’s games that much… without even the redeeming “simulator” qualities I’d found in SimCity. But I can certainly perceive what attracts others to these games, and thus my double-barreled score for Spore. One score as a game, and another score as, for want of a better word, a toy.

By now, unless you carefully avoid any information about computer games, you’ve heard about the premise of the game. Spore has been described as a simulator of evolution, from single celled organism to space-faring intelligent species. It presents this massive scope in five relatively bite sized chunks or “phases”, each of which could be considered a separate game. The five phases are: Cell, Creature, Tribal, Civilization, and Space.

Looking at each of the phases independently reveals my main disappointment. None of the “phases” have any real depth to speak of. As games, they are almost comically trivial: the Cell stage is like a Pac Man clone without very good scoring. The Creature phase is like Pac Man with legs. The Tribal, Civilization, and Space phases are like progressively improving strategy games, starting with something a 12 year old might cobble together, and ending with something barely comparable to the earliest strategy games for the PC. If you think of Spore as a game, which I unfortunately am prone to, it is barely worth considering.

But at all levels, Spore provides anyone playing it with an outlet for creativity. Probably the best fun in that regard for me came from the Creature phase, and you can get a taste of this with the Creature Creator component. It is downloadable for free on their website, and I highly recommend it. The civilization and space phases let you flex your creative juices further, opening up building, city, weapon, and spaceship design tools for your exploration.

The flexibility the creation tools permit is astonishing: there are literally millions of different creatures and structures that players have created. And that leads to another intriguing aspect of this “toy”: the fact that all the things you create can be shared with other players, more or less seamlessly. From the Creature phase onward, selections from the player submitted database of critters, structures, and machines are used within the world you play in. You can selectively filter or even block all player made creations, but I would say then you’d be missing half the fun.

I really can’t call this aspect of Spore “simulation”. As with the game, the things that are simulated do not model any kind of reality. There are no complex Darwinian evolutionary algorithms in the creature phase. No calculations of wind drag, sail area, maneuverability, ballistics, or armor plating effectiveness in the war machines you build. The buildings aren’t based on architectural principles, and the cities don’t have the complex logic of traffic patterns, growth/usage characteristics, or economics you might find in SimCity. And don’t expect to find systems for managing space faring trade, science, or economies: there is nothing like that in Spore.

Instead, you have a neat 3D “building block” tool for creating machines and structures. A cool system for creating and animating creatures and places for them to wander around and look interesting. And nearly infinite variability and options for customization for these things you create. What you do not have, in any significant way, is a game.

If a game is what you are looking for, steer clear of Spore. If instead you are looking for a sort of Lego or Mr. Potatohead on your computer, and get off on the idea of sharing the things you create with others, Spore is probably a great toy for you to try. In either case, download and check out the Creature Creator I link to above. And don’t expect anything beyond that, really, in terms of a game. If that fills your needs, go buy Spore.

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