Spore turns seven years old next month. It’s a strange, innovative, daring, and unsuccessful game, and I thought now would be a good time to look back on what went wrong.

Will Wright has enjoyed a long career as a game designer, and is now a legend of the industry. He’s been the designer behind two of the best-selling franchises in gaming. He rose to prominence with Sim City, the great-grandfather of all Sim games. He went on to make Sim Earth, Sim Life, Sim Ant, Sim Farm, Sim Golf, and The Sims. He comes up with new genres and new gameplay concepts about as easily as most developers come up with new IP. If you look at his titles, you can see them getting gradually more ambitious and complex over time. He’s the Thomas Edison of game design. Not everything he invents is a hit, but when he does make a hit, it shakes the industry.

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His focus has mostly been on designing interconnected systems with emergent properties and letting players experiment with them. The whole “this game isn’t really a game” argument we’ve been having over the last few years? That’s not a new debate. Wright himself called his games “software toys” because you couldn’t really win, or lose, or even reach a defined conclusion. Usually there’s no story, no game over screen, no win state, and no score. It’s up to you to decide what your goals are, and to interact with the systems to discover how to reach them, or figure out if they’re even possible.

First demonstrated to the public at GDC in 2005, Spore was going to combine all of those past successes into the ultimate version of the “software toy”. The biology of SimLife! The scope of Sim Earth! The simulation management of Sim City! The group management of Sim Ant! The up-close personality and immediacy of The Sims! The original title of the game was actually “SimEverything”. The pitch was enough to make any Sims fan go wide-eyed with excitement: The game would let you design your own lifeform, beginning as a little single-cell creature and growing it into a ambulatory, intelligent, social, space-faring civilization.

In the 2005 demo, it seemed like like the hardest part of the job had been done. Maxis had made a system that would let you build a creature of varying size, with varying number of appendages of varying length. That’s difficult enough, but the game could also model, texture and animate that creature well enough that it would walk, run, fight, and even dance. These are all things that usually require the hand of a competent artist, and Wright’s team had found a way to automate all of it in code. And it looked fantastic. Chaim Gingold, one of Spore’s early developers, said at one point:

“To me, the project was an intellectual love letter to all of existence, a depiction of the entire universe as a complex of interlocking self-similar systems. Patterns emerged ― everything, from disease to culture and space travel could be represented through some combination of cellular automata, agents, and networks. This was my summer dream job: make toys about anything in the universe, using everything I knew about interactive graphics and simulation, for the greatest simulation connoisseur in the world.”

It was an exciting idea, from the best possible team for making it happen. The public was excited. The technology worked. What could possibly go wrong?

Apparently the development team was divided into two camps. One group wanted a cute, friendly, accessible game that encouraged creativity, and the other camp favored a science-based approach to simulating evolution. Wright referred to these groups as the “cute” group and the “science” group.

The perception among fans is that the “cute” team won, and ruined the game in the process. I’m not comfortable saying that. Yes, the Spore we got is not a great game, but we didn’t play any of the early “science” minded builds. Maybe they didn’t work as a game or a toy? Maybe there’s a good reason the cute team won. It’s hard to say. In these conversations we end up comparing all the theoretical different versions of Spore: The game Maxis envisioned, the game Will Wright demoed, the game the public expected, the game EA marketed, and the game we all got. But we only played that last one, so it’s a little unfair to insist the other versions were better.

Spore screen

The game we got was indeed shallow and dull. The creature builder was fun, but it didn’t have any bearing on the gameplay. It didn’t matter how your creature looked. Sure, that’s true in an RPG like Mass Effect where giving Commander Shepard a big nose doesn’t impact how people react to him in game. But the face builder isn’t the focus of Mass Effect. If Mass Effect opened up the face builder every time Shepard gained a level, it would feel sort of strange and pointless. As it stands, Spore is like a version of Sim City where it doesn’t matter where you put your buildings in relation to one another.

The mechanics didn’t work either. It mostly felt like playing a terrible shallow World of Warcraft knockoff. You just walk up to a creature and fire off the abilities on your hotbar. The world wasn’t fun to traverse, the foes weren’t fun to fight, and there was no depth to any of it. There was more to the game in later stages, but most of it was like the WoW-clone: Shallow, repetitive, unfulfilling, and completely disconnected from the creative tools that made the game so special.

On top of all this, the science was ludicrous nonsense. Just one example of dozens: To evolve new parts on your lifeform, you have to find bones of dead creatures to unlock the new parts. It’s strange and goofy and doesn’t even work as an abstraction of evolutionary forces. I don’t think people would have minded these sorts of scientific compromises if the game had been interesting or fun to play, but it seemed like since the game couldn’t be entertaining, at least it should be educational. It’s supposed to be a game about evolution, but if this is about evolution then Call of Duty is about gun safety.

But here is why I bring this up: It’s clear there’s a good game in here somewhere. Talk to anyone who played the game. You can hear the frustration in their voice. The game wasn’t fun, but the idea sounded so exciting and it feels like Maxis was so close to making something great. If you play the game yourself you’ll probably go through the same arc everyone else did: An initial burst of excitement and delight in playing with the creature, and then complete boredom and disappointment when you realize none of these systems are connected and none of your creative decisions matter.

I know I’m always going on about how EA is run by suits that don’t understand the fundamentals of the business they’re in. This is a great illustration of that problem. The public could see the potential. Spore wasn’t a horrible game. It was a bold experiment filled with new ideas, and they (Maxis) didn’t nail the gameplay on the first try. If you listen to people talk about the game you can hear the same small number of totally fixable complaints come up again and again.

Not every great game is a hit on the first try. Heck, the first version of SimCity was abysmally shallow and repetitive. The expensive prototyping and technology groundwork of Spore was done and paid for. They just needed to iterate on the gameplay. They just needed to take that feedback and make a sequel that delivered on deep(ish) Sim-style gameplay.

But no. Instead they released Dark Spore, a “fast-paced, science fiction action-role-playing game in which the player battles across alien worlds to save the galaxy from the mutated forces of Darkspore”. It was multiplayer, action-oriented, and about as far as you can get from what the fans had been asking for. It was a game that completely overlooked the potential of Spore to chase after a completely different and unrelated market.

EA didn’t see the potential in Spore because the only thing they understand is sales figures. The game sold poorly? Then it must be a terrible idea and the public doesn’t want it. (We certainly wouldn’t want to blame the low sales on the ghastly DRM!)

While we can forgive Spore for not getting evolution gameplay right on the first try, it’s less forgivable that the EA leadership seems so incapable of adapting to their environment. Unable to learn from their mistakes, discern growing trends, or understand what the public wants, EA is left to chase sales figures in the most primitive, reactionary way.

And that’s a shame. Because as boring as I find Spore, I would gladly put my money down if Maxis was allowed to give the idea another try.

Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and crank. Have a question for the column? Ask him! askshamus@gmail.com.

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