Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Spore early impressions

After a couple days of playing Spore (way too much), here are some semi-random impressions. I numbered them for reference, but they aren't in any order. Overall, I like the game a lot and will probably continue to enjoy it for many months, but it definitely has significant problems.

(1) The Spore series will sell comparably to The Sims series, and might even surpass The Sims. It's basically a solid and polished game with mass appeal. It doesn't begin immediately with as many options as The Sims. But it doesn't look like a dollhouse game and the setting is accessible to a much wider range of audiences, including kids. So I'd say it has some advantages over The Sims and might see better sales over time. Spore will appeal to non-gamers and semi-gamers more than most games.

(2) It's a surprisingly linear, streamlined experience through the first four stages. The cell stage doesn't have many options, plays like Pac-Man without a maze, and you'll probably finish it within an hour (if not half an hour). There's no reason to linger on the stage once you have access to the next, because you can't journey to new territory or encounter new creatures. Stages get progressively longer, deeper, and more dynamic, but there's little or nothing to do aside from tackle the strictly defined goals and progress to the next stage when possible.

Space stage is considerably more open and self-guided. One could argue that Space is really the meat of the game.

(3) The Creature Creator is more polished than the other editors. Because not every object has the same adjustment tools (the angle ball, the rotation ring, etc), placing and adjusting things in the other editors can be extremely frustrating at times. The CC offers significantly more adjustment options than the other editors.

On the bright side, Paintbrush mode in the building editor is a very nice surprise; it's comparable to the "Fill" tool in old MS Paint. If possible, I hope Maxis will add this to all Spore editors in a patch.

(4) Populations are disappointingly repetitive. I've played three games up through the Creature stage, and one into Space. The Maxis-made Brawgle has shown up in all of those. You don't have to be a statician to realize that with over 10 million creations to date, the odds of a repetition like that are ridiculously low without some sort of preference being given. Surely, the game could find a comparable creature to fill that gap in the ecosystem.

The creatures in the Cell stage are the same Maxis-made creatures every time. The Creature stage is much better in this regard, but I hate seeing so many Maxis-made creatures. No offense, Maxis, but why should your creatures get any preference before players' creatures in the drawing? I want to see more of the community's creativity.

The Brawgle isn't the only creature I've seen in multiple playthroughs. I can understand why Maxis would make the player's own creations tend to show up as AI characters (though I wish they'd allow us to adjust or toggle the frequency), but too much repetition undermines one of the cornerstones of Spore is exploration (the other cornerstones being creativity/customization and indirect sharing). I liked seeing one of my CC beasts as an epic monster, and hunting my first CC creation to extinction with my new and improved predator. But even seeing my own creations scattered throughout the game when I expressly did not select a theme at the beginning can be annoying.

(5) L33t speak is in full effect. Spore might not be an MMO in the traditional sense, but the frequency of tongue-in-cheek names and uncreative creations is saddening. Thankfully, I haven't seen anything obscene yet.

(6) It is a good teaching tool for kids. I wrote about this before, but now that belief has been verified by hands-on time with the game. There are even some realistic elements in the game that I did not expect. For example: as a predator, preying on the weak is the most effective strategy for survival, and you can cut off an animal from its herd through maneuvering and intimidation. Normally fearful animals are brave and vindictive when it comes to their eggs and young. And I even saw an animal going to water to drink once.

(7) Spore is not about survival of the fittest. It's about domination. The difference is that a creature can be fit and not be at the top of the food chain or pecking order. Unlike in the Cell stage, creatures in the Creature stage apparently do not earn points for merely eating, breeding, and avoiding violent death. If you're a carnivore, you get points for hunting species to extinction. If you're an herbivore, you get points for making alliances. Survival isn't enough.

(8) The history feature is brilliant. Throughout the game, you have a timeline which shows every evolution and creation of your creature as well as deaths, alliances, extinctions, and other important events. This feature is great, not only because it encourages players to view everything as one great adventure, but because you can see how decisions and events shaped your being into what it is today. I hope there's a way to save and share histories in the future.

(9) Spore has three difficulty levels (Easy, Medium, Hard). If you choose one of the higher difficulties, expect your designs to fail on occasion. Death means simply being reborn. In the Space stage, your spaceship will be recreated with all your previous inventory and upgrades.

I recommend trying Easy difficulty at some point, even if you're a more challenge-oriented gamer. The higher difficulties seem to discourage variation in creature design. For example: not giving your predator arms will deprive it of an extra attack (Strike), thereby making it less able in a fight.

(10) Spore has plenty of fun surprises. In the Creature stage, you might hear a ruckus, see animals running, and wonder what's going on. Then you see meteors crashing into the land around you. If the music suddenly takes a sci-fi edge, it means there's a spaceship flying in the atmosphere above. The first time I saw this (a very exciting moment), the spaceship just passed overhead and flew off. The second time this happened, the spaceship was abducting creatures all around me and following me around (even more exciting!). I don't know if I could have been abducted, but I'd guess that it would have simply started me with a new creature as if I'd died.

(11) The music gets annoying sometimes. How frequently this happens will vary greatly from player to player, but I expect that every player will be annoyed at least on occasion. Perhaps that's just the nature of procedural music.

When you reach the Tribal stage (or is it the Civilization stage?), you can create a musical theme for you civilization. You create this theme by selecting a Beat, an Anthem, an Instrument, up to four Ambiences, and adjusting the notes provided (the Anthem) by moving note icons up or down within an octave or so. Yes, that's a single beat and single instrument, so don't expect to make anything lengthy or complex with this editor. As a lifelong songwriter, I was hoping for much more, but it's still very cool.

In Space stage, you'll hear a civilization's theme anytime you hover over one of their cities. So other players will presumably hear your theme. With that in mind, I don't understand why my musical theme shows up in my personal Sporepedia but cannot be uploaded to the public Sporepedia.

(12) The Space stage stands apart from the other stages. In addition to overarching goals, you're encouraged to take missions from the colonies of other civilizations and your own. This is actually very similar to the typical MMO system. Mission types include eliminating diseased creatures to save an ecosystem, aducting citizens or creatures for delivery, scanning a planet's flora and fauna, conquering a planet, and learning how to do things.

Terraforming and colonization require limited resources. You can buy or discover permanent spaceship additions which allow you to do things like raise or lower terrain. But changing a planet's atmosphere or installing a colony require expendable purchases. You must buy each colony before you can place it. You must buy and drop a machine to change an atmosphere, then purchase a new one. This is good in that it introduces a strong amount of strategy to gameplay, but many players will be disappointed that they won't be able to terraform for a long time.

Even on Easy difficulty, the Space stage will challenge some players. It's easy to spread yourself too thin. Or you might spend money on ship upgrades which should have gone to colony development or defenses (turrets). If you're eager to explore, like I was, then you might have to deal with more civilizations and planets than you have the resources and time to handle.

Here are my creations. The Kreppel are my first and only civilization so far to take to Space. Needless to say, they're dark and vicious predators. I had to make alliances with inferior beings early on to protect my colonies from a couple equally vicious invaders, but planet-hopping alone to the center of the universe. The Phemos is my social herbivore. It can glide pretty fast with those wings. The Sphinx is a failed attempt to make a scary building that looks like a beast.

Tomorrow, I'll tell the story of my first creature, from single cell to galactic domination. I'll also offer tips.


  1. Hmm my original comment seems to hve got lost...damn blackberry!

    Do you think that Maxis could have a better game on their hands if they allowed more of the game to be release as a demo?

    If the CC(which was a demo) is one of the most polished game mechanics in Spore then surely the case for a more concise demo is there?

  2. They shouldn't have to demo the whole game as incentive to polish. And the CC wasn't polished due to player feedback... it was as good as it is when they first released it to the public.

    Really, I wouldn't call the absent tools from the other editors a lack of polish. Features aren't broken, they're missing. Of course, I have to assume that Maxis left those tools out intentionally. I wish they'd say why.

  3. I would have thought though that as Spore is a community based gaming experience that players would have been consulted more on the gameplay elements, even if it was through forums rather than beta play.

    Just feel that it's a oppurtunity missed by Maxis.


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