Wednesday, September 10, 2008


I got Spore on Sunday, like many other people in North America.

As you may know, there are several stages of life as we know it. Spore splits them into Cell (really bacteria, I suppose), Creature, Tribe (the beginning of sentience), Civilization (politics), and finally Space. At each stage, you customize your body, tribe (probably the weakest), buildings, and vehicles with almost endless variety in 3D editors that are years ahead of the state-of-the-art (they kind of invented their own state-of-the-art). There are various goals that you pursue in the first levels to proceed up the evolutionary ladder, such as subduing or befriending tribes, or eating things.

The reviews have been mixed so far. Everyone thinks that the content creation tools are great. Everyone who is playing is automatically uploading their content to central servers, which then spread them back out to all the players' individual games. There were 4 million shared objects in that database last weekend, the creature creator having been released a couple of months ago. Today, less than a week after the release, there are 12 million creatures, buildings, and vehicles in there (and no, that figure is not going to stand up if you read this post a week from now). And there is some stuff that is totally unreal coming out of it, like animals that look like cars, as well as more humdrum creatures with two arms, two legs, two ears, two eyes, etc (of course, a lot of people are trying to make Homer Simpson and all their favorite characters, so it's not as humdrum as all that). Here's my page of stuff.

But the goal-based gameplay in the first few levels is kind of dumb. I started on Easy, and it was pretty impossible to screw up (I still managed to die three times on Tribal phase). You'll pick it up pretty fast and get on your merry way shortly. But a lot of hardcore gamers didn't like this. They wanted a challenge from the get-go, and the gameplay lacked the kind of depth they are used to in the various genres that Spore pays homage to: Diablo-type third-person action games, Starcraft-type real-time strategy, and Civilization-type world-conquest games.

It is becoming more obvious to me now that the gameplay was made deliberately easy in those first four stages for two reasons: one, for the creative people who love to make stuff but could care less about being challenged, the gameplay was made simple enough not to get in their way; two, the first four stages are not much more than a glorified tutorial for the awe-inspiring Space stage, and the game designers wanted everyone to get there.

The Space Stage is one of those gaming experiences that hearkens back to the best of the grand strategy games, the Star Controls and the Civs, the buy-low, sell-high of Drug Wars, the space exploration of VGA planets... it brings some new things into the mix too, in modeling planets with food webs, atmospheres, and temperature. For some reason, I am really enjoying terraforming worlds and filling them with flourishing species.

Each world that supports life can have any combination of those animals, vehicles, and buildings, and can be at any of those stages of evolution that you passed through. There are (hundreds of?) thousands of stars in the galaxy, and several worlds per star... you could never see everything. It beggars the imagination.

I recommend starting on Easy. It will help you learn the ropes. I had many aha moments as I went through that will help me a lot on the second time through. I don't know if I'm going to finish the story part of the game, first time through. I am tempted to take what I know and start over, ready for a bit easier time of it.

I recommend it highly for anyone ready to get creative, have their mind expanded, and invest a lot of time. I spent about six hours just getting to Space the first time (it would be a lot faster second time around), and Space, the galaxy, is basically an endless playground.

PS There is a kind of protest going on about the digital rights management (DRM) the game distributor, EA, put on Spore. If I understand it, it only allows you to install the software on three computers, then you have to call in and prove you purchased the software somehow to keep installing it. It also phones home with your license key every time you connect to EA's servers for content.

A lot of people saw this as pointless, because you could download the software from various Bittorrent establishments on the day it came out. That is, the DRM only harms legitimate customers who went out and bought the game, while doing nothing to stem piracy.

Thus, for starters, people started giving Spore one-star reviews on Amazon. It has 2133 reviews, 1961 of which are one-stars. If you didn't read around, you wouldn't know about the critical acclaim it has received (with the caveats I mentioned above). It's a five-star game in my book.

Has the DRM hurt sales of this great game? I think so... I hope the end result is that the DRM is removed, that's a win-win. I am not a fan of DRM in any of its forms, I just couldn't help myself on this purchase.

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