Hands On with Will Wright's Spore

The eagerly anticipated "God game" is almost ready, and Electronic Arts is finally taking the wraps off the title's numerous innovations
Players begin Spore at the "cell" stage as a microscopic bacterium gobbling up smaller organisms and trying to avoid larger creatures.

Electronic Arts' (ERTS) long-delayed Spore, the brainchild of legendary game designer Will Wright, will finally go on sale Sept. 7. Originally slated to hit store shelves last year, the game, which lets players develop from single-cell organisms to civilized tribes or even sophisticated space-faring creatures, generated enormous buzz when it was first shown in 2005. But development problems and setbacks prompted delays, leaving fans to ask when—or if—the game would ever be released.

Now, Wright and Co. have taken the wraps off a nearly finished product, unveiling a slew of new features and giving detailed hands-on demonstrations to the press. Spore's developer, Maxis, announced the title would be available this fall worldwide, with versions for PC, Mac, Nintendo's (NTDOY) DS mobile game system as well as some cellular phones. "The wait is almost over," wrote Wright in a pre-prepared statement timed with the announcements. "[We] can't wait to see the cosmos of content created by the community," he added.

Endless Playground

He's referring to the fact that much of the game's content is user generated, letting gamers explore an infinite virtual universe of worlds populated by the creations of other players around the globe. In other words, all the creatures, vehicles, and buildings created by players will be uploaded online, creating a vast universe of user-generated content for all to explore. But, unlike virtual worlds such as Second Life or massively multiplayer online games such as Activision-Blizzard's (ATVI) World of Warcraft, this game is contained. Players may interact with others' creations, but they don't interact with other gamers per se. Wright calls this universe in a box, as it were, a "massively single player" game. Fans, meanwhile, refer to Spore as the "God game" or "Sim Everything"—a reference to Wright's other work, The Sims, the best-selling PC game of all time.

So will Spore live up to the hype? That sure seems to be the case. The game has advanced considerably in the two years since it was first shown. The rich cartoon-like graphics and animations are entertaining and engaging. Controlling the movement of a creature is intuitive and should be easy enough for even game novices to pick up and play. And yet, the so-called sandbox, or open-ended gameplay, creates enough variety and possibility that hard-core players should be able to challenge themselves as well.

Spore's designers have done away with many of the rules other games force players to follow. There are no "levels" in the conventional sense; a gamer can just as easily play as an advanced, space-traveling species as a simple single-cell amoeba. "You can even start at the end," laughs Alex Hutchinson, a senior designer on the project. "But, the No. 1 idea is to promote creativity, then share that with others, and only third, play the game," he says. (There will, however, be incentives to play the game from the beginning.)

The emphasis on creativity and innovation is apparent in the game's 14 object and creature editors. Easy-to-use morphing tools allow players to create complex 3D shapes, new limbs for a character or the parts of a building, for instance. "We wanted to make it easy and intuitive enough to give a 5-year-old the ability to create something a trained 3D modeler could do in Maya," says Hutchinson, referring to the sophisticated software tools used by special-effects companies.

A Life of its Own

This creative element, enabling players to limitlessly create and share new creatures and objects, seems to have the most scalable potential, making Spore a kind of endless digital playground. Hutchinson estimates that up to 20% of players will be so taken with these artistic tools they won't ever play the title in traditional story mode.

It's not possible to assess yet how well the background functionality of the game will work, but if all goes according to plan, new content will automatically and continually be refreshed in the background. And, in a nod to Web 2.0 functionality, players will be able to create short videos of their creatures and e-mail them to friends or upload them to Google's (GOOG) YouTube video Web site—directly from the game.

The company also aired a spate of new features: Quirky cinematic sequences track the development of a player's creature. In one sample video, as a creature begins to form a civilization, the short parodies Stanley Kubrick's famous simian sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Other newly revealed features include a sophisticated music generator Wright co-developed with musician Brian Eno. Mobile-phone and Nintendo DS versions of the title, meanwhile, are intended to take the experience of designing a new creature on the road.

And, in perhaps the most encouraging sign of all, designers are already talking about the tools and features they plan to add via free, automatic updates once the game hits stores this fall, such as new editors to tweak terrain and plant life. All in all, despite the delays, Spore does not seem to have lost any of its grand ambitions.

For more on Spore, see BusinessWeek's slide show.

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