I bought Spore in 2008 when there was some amount of hoopla around the game. Some of it was deserved – it promised to ship with bad DRM that made the game functionally useless if you put a foot wrong and then installed it. Some of the hoopla had to do with the near Peter Molyneux levels of evangelizing that Maxis were doing for the title. According to them, it would probably be the last game you’d ever need. And, naturally, some of the hoopla was just about how intriguing the game was. It was doing something that modern games keep attempting: procedural generation on a scale that had never really been seen before coupled with the ability to build and share your works in the Sporeverse.
But somewhere in all this hoopla – this fanatical chest-beating about it being the only game you’d ever need, Maxis forgot something very important.
It forgot the gameplay.
Your Humble Beginnings
Let’s start with the obvious. The technical achievement of Spore is pretty staggering, really. They called it a “Universe in a Box” and to some extent, that marketing is correct. You start the game, you make a cell-stage creature and you get dropped into the game. The problems, unfortunately, start right here. Beautiful as the engine is – and engaging as it is to glue parts to your cellular creature, the game that confronted you was so simple as to be absurd. You were playing a very nicely rendered version of “Feeding Frenzy.” Yes. Really. A casual game from 2004.
Anyway, your goal is to eat and grow as much as you can until you can evolve. At this point, you gain legs and can walk onto the nearest beach. This nudges you into probably the best mini-game that Spore has to offer: the creature stage. Here, you forage for food, make friends and/or kill other tribes, collect bones and move your nest several times as you gain more brain power from doing all of the above. It’s shallow and quaintly MMO-light, but it works – it’s also the best place for you to forge a bond with your creation. But upon reflection, it’s still pretty shallow. The number of things you can do is canned and this is exacerbated by the length at which you’re stuck in the stage. Want to grind out all the parts so you can make a nifty looking creature? Good luck. You’re going to be trapped there for a while.
And so the game goes: the creature stage is followed by the tribal stage, a short, shallow rts-like mini-game where your creatures band together to form a city so they can take over the continent they’re on. This, in turn is followed by the civilization stage which is absolutely named for the game it’s patterned after – but – unlike Civilization-of-old, this is real-time. If you’re worried about failure, here never fear: all you have to do is create a vast army and swarm your opponent. It’ll turn out just fine.
These stages all yield to the final, all-encompassing space stage. A stage that’s so staggeringly vast that you won’t know what to do – and that’s part of the problem. While it’s great that the game then turns into a somewhat simplified early-Elite clone, it’s terrible that it just abandons you, where – previously – it had been very pushy about what to do next.
So, Spore’s design is a little all over the place.
But the Builders, Man!
I want to pause very briefly and talk about the builders, because the builders are amazing. Well, within limits. One of the very worst things about gaming is generally how little you can actually tailor and customize your characters and your surroundings. It’s gotten a little better over time, but for the most part, developers have carved out your character in a very specific mould and it’s incredibly difficult for you to break it. Quick: go download the latest MMO, install it and drop into it’s character creator. Then come back and tell me if you can make a fat character. What’s that? You can’t? The body slider only allows for mild burliness? And only on males? And only on some races?
Spore thinks that’s ridiculous and it wants you to know that it has you covered. Want to make a centuar-like creature? Have at it. Want to make a blob with one eye? You do that. You should probably add arms, though. But it’s not required. Want to make an ooze? It’s possible. And this doesn’t just extend to your creature. It extends to everything. Late game, you get tools that allow you to terraform planets. Along the way, you can build very specific buildings to your exact designs. OK. To be fair. You can’t make sprawling mansions, because the game does impose some limits. But so long as you’re happy with building in a small-ish space, you can get away with nearly anything.
And that’s laudable. Couple it with the way the game randomly generates everything around you? That’s even better.
In the end, though, I can’t recommend Spore as a game. I can recommend it as a one-off experience to play with all the builders. But you shouldn’t be spending a lot of money to do this. At launch, it cost $60. It wasn’t worth it then. Particularly not with the hassles it offered up in terms of DRM. If you can find it for $5, I’d spring right for it, though. You’ll laugh at how shallow the game play is and marvel at how dense and interesting the creators are.
Ultimately, I think that Spore should have been built around the creature stage. And that should have included all the builders, worked in somehow. And with less shallow game play, obviously. That would have been a winning formula.
This, however? It’s an interesting curiosity with a fair amount of charm and tools other developers should learn from.
I did a let’s play of Spore. You can watch it here.