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Spore Review

September 23rd, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 13 Comments · Electronic Arts, Gameshark, Maxis, Review

The review is up at Gameshark. It’s short, and a little low on original insight, mostly because so much has already been said. I do make a reference to a Broadway composer that most of my audience has no interest in, which I suppose makes me a swishier Kieron Gillen.

The review may seem to be heavy on the negatives for a B+, but I don’t use the word “joy” lightly. And I do think that Spore is on to something big regarding user interaction and tapping the imagination of average users.

Below is a video of the Schwartz song I reference. It’s from his off Broadway show, Children of Eden – a very sappy retelling of the Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel and Noah stories from Genesis. It’s not his best show, but it has a couple of really nice tunes and it has become quite popular with amateur theater productions. It doesn’t have the power of Pippin or the belting of Wicked or the melodies of Godspell. But Spark of Creation (sung by Eve after she eats the Forbidden Fruit and has her eyes opened to the possibilities of humanity) is a beautiful song. (In fact, the show is at its best when it takes the side of Mankind against God; Lost in the Wilderness is one of the great anthems of defiance in musical theater.)

Here’s Natalie Weiss:

I am the echo of the eternal
cry of “Let There Be!”

This is where Spore gets me. It is world building on the cheap – and they aren’t even complete worlds. If you’ve ever tried to drop an alien species on to your home planet, you know that the food chain fills up fast, and you’ll often get a message that there is no room for your creature; something else has filled that niche.

But this is a game where you take a look at your options and try things out. You can go for aesthetics or functionality or just plain weirdness. And when you see your muppets dance to a happy pipe tune, conducted by Bandmaster Chief Z, you have to smile. I remember when I first saw a flying creature take off after I tried to eat it. I remember leading my pack into an assault on a much stronger creature, stunning it with a roar and then tearing into the Alpha creature before the herd could recover. I remember stumbling into a friend’s spaceship and getting blown to bits – when you know the guy who made the enemy, it means something.

The Civ phase is my least favorite, I think. It is more a waiting game than any of the other phases. You wait until you get a new power. You wait until your powers charge up. There are super powers that can instantly win the game once you get a stranglehold on the continent to prevent that last-stand annoyance of one or two independent cities holding out and prolonging the pain. Even as a casual empire building game, it’s not very interesting.

So should you buy it? If you are interested in design, absolutely. I think The Sims is a deeper and better game, but if you don’t like The Sims that’s no guarantee that you won’t find something to like in Spore. It’s different; unlike any other game on the market, derivative of a dozen other games you’ve played, and hopefully the ancestor of a dozen similar games for the future.

There is a risk in that, of course. None of the Sims clones have been any good, usually because they miss the core idea of The Sims, that the mundane can be fun if you put enough carrots out there. I don’t think there will be any Spore clones, but it’s not too hard to imagine a Spore-like wargame where you design armies or ships or mechs and engage enemies created by friends and acquaintances. Or an infinite Gal Civ type game with races customized by the Internet.

This is Spore’s promise. Don’t blow it, EA.


13 Comments so far ↓

  • Thomas Kiley

    Interesting review, I have yet to decide what I am going to say. It is a really difficult game to review. But one thing I know I will end up ranting about it the lost potential, particularly with the space age. Should write the review this weekend.

  • Cautiously Pessimistic

    I think the biggest problem I have with the space phase is the one ship limitation. It seriously breaks common sense when you have a multi-system empire with only 1 military vessel that’s supposed to explore, defend, attack, patrol, and trade. The obvious problem is if you allow AI agents to act on your empire’s behalf, you lose personal investment in your empire. If you’re the ONLY guy in the ONLY ship, that gives you far more impact than if you’re just A guy in A ship. Still, I think it would be worth the loss of control/investment to have your empire act autonomously if the alternative is to have a mad scramble being all things to all planets and all other empires all at once.

  • Troy

    I look forward to your review, Thomas. I agree that this is a difficult game to review, and not because it’s a hard game to figure. It’s more that there is so much to say about Spore that it’s easy to completely lose focus.

    CP: That’s a good point. At every other stage of the game you are not alone. You have other creatures to mate with or a tribe to manage or multiple cities to work with. But the Space Stage makes you a one man Federation.

  • Thomas Kiley

    To be fair, you can have like a pack of ships. What they could do is if you could just have defence ships. They would be buildable, like tanks and would patrol that planet and would be capable of deffending against any minor attack.

    That is the bit that really gets me down. Having to, every 5 minutes or so, returning to your home planet to fight off enemy ships. That or balance it, so the AI only have one ship, or at least one unit of ships.

  • Cautiously Pessimistic

    Yes, you can have a pack of ships tagging along, but they’re essentially floating turrets that hover around your ship. You can’t send them out to do stuff, or tell them to guard something, or use their cargo space, etc.

    As far as the raiding, the thing I don’t like is having to replace destroyed buildings or turrets. It would be wonderful to have a ‘Replace/Repair All’ button for a planet or city.

  • Natus

    Schwartz? Really, Troy? Schwartz?? If you say so. That’s a neat clip and Weiss has a great belt, but I can’t say I’m a raving fan. All his songs sound like each other; I totally thought you were quoting from “Wicked”. I mean, if you want defiance, there’s always “I Am What I Am” from La Cage: “I am my own special creation”. Isn’t that pretty Spore? ;)

    Oh, wait, this is about a hit game? Sorry, carry on….

  • Troy

    I’m not a huge Schwartz fan – I’m a Sondheim and Finn nerd.

    But Schwartz has a pretty strong record. None of his shows are really, really great in my opinion. But I don’t think all of his songs sound the same.

  • Neil

    Spore is a hollow game. The grand promise of its creation and sharing tools is wasted on a series of ankle-deep games-within-a game that are barely related to one another.

    None of the games would be considered a good game by itself, and the games are connected so loosely gameplay-wise that the whole isn’t much greater than the sum of its parts.

    After the initial honeymoon, the thought that will preoccupy your mind is, “I wish I could put this cool stuff I made into a different game.”

    This game is not a sandbox. Every player has essentially the same experiences and stories as other players, and any deviation from the standard path is reset regularly as you advance to the next stage of the game. The environment/opposing factions/challenges don’t create new and varied challenges on replay; you do pretty much the same thing every playthrough. The space stage may have open-ended gameplay in that you can conquer in any direction or run optional repetitive missions, but the same is true of many strategy games with far more freedom and things to do that are not considered sandbox games.

    However, the game as a whole does suffer many of the faults associated with sandbox games: paucity of interesting/structured objectives, unsatisfying rewards and poor motivation, balance problems, etc.

    And whose awful idea was it to have a grand strategy game (space) where you can only act in one tiny part of it (with your ship) at a time? Just terrible design.

  • josemas

    You raise some interesting questions about future ancestors of Spore. Does EA milk it’s initial success, or morph this into the game that we all hope it can become?

    The game is very original and innovative which EA needs, and also has already shipped over a million units which EA likes.

    Yet, clearly this has disappointed some of us in the hardcore community becuase of inflated expectations vs. the gameplay simplicity that you mentioned. I am guessing that to some degree it is less than it could be with the casual community as well; it is unlikely to have the longevity and breadth of success as the Sims with the more casual audience, which I think might have been achievable with more rewarding gameplay elements.

    So, one possibility would be to revamp the game to make it more like the one that I, at least, had expected this to be, letting someone more strategy game minded take Will Wright’s amazing creation elements and building a deeper, more replayable game around it. But, that requires more money and more years and eventually requires people who may not have been stayed with the first game to buy back in. And it may also not attract the million+ casual buyers who dont want the depth?

    Alternatively there is the lower risk, but still lucrative path of just monetizing the bird in the hand with the ikea addons? (Great term, by the way).

    I am intrigued by the design challenges of doing a complete reboot for the sequel, that takes the charm of the creation elements but builds a deeper game.

    In reading the Rock Paper Shotgun developer interview, one of the developers highlighted the challenges of the sequential minigame format, where interesting things that you do in one game tend to break the other games, which leads to (my words not his) a dumbing down of the minigames. It made me think that this whole design effort was probably much more difficult then a non designer thinks about.

    So, if they take the more interesting route, how do they build the perfect spore? Should they go in the direction of smoothing the borders of the minigames and trying to do one relatively smooth bacteria-to-space experience? Or, is there a way you can beef up the minigames while maintaining a balance? Or do you stay with the structure of 4 simple minigames leading to a deeper space game, but make the space game better?

    I think it presents some really interesting design challenges.

  • Krupo

    In addition to being a great term, they really DID release an “IKEA addon” for Sims 2. Insane.

    What I think bothers most people (me included) isn’t so much the fact that you only have one ship, it’s that the alien races have SMALL FLEETS of ships!

    It’s like, “OH COME ON” every time you see 15-20 enemy ships attacking your planet. How the HELL do they get that many while you have your single “pack”. (I do like the pack though, it’s fun.)

    I end up ultra-fortying my planets with T3 max turrets supplemented by an uber-turret. That usually keeps all but the nastiest aliens at bay.

    Then I speed back to my richer planets to fix things up.

    The constant attacks make me want to go and buy a planet buster and kill the Donkey Kong alien-ship race’s home planet though.

    Hmm, I’ll do that now before caving in and buying Colonization 2. ;)

  • Krupo

    Oh, and the ‘manual turret repair’ grunt-work just screams out for automation. Which, knowing EA, we’re going to have to pay cash-money for, unless they want to win back our love by adding it in a patch. That would indeed be incredibly great.

    That, and a fix to the “zoom out from homeworld crashes the game because the game added too many “decorative” furniture pieces to your cities.”

    Seriously – how does a game leave beta testing with a big cruncy bug like that in the code????

  • Krupo

    *sp “crunchy”

    Troy, you need to steal RPS’ “edit your comment” code… :)

  • Neil

    The Spore gameplay really is beyond fixing, except perhaps the Space stage. They would need to throw it all out and start over to come up with something worthwhile.

    Even the Space stage is far too shallow to be worthy of more than one or two replays. I think that if the chores were automated and the colony management were not made artificially difficult, yes, it would be a better game, but it would also be more readily apparent that there is little substance to the gameplay and few decisions to be made. Which is probably why there is so much busy-work to begin with. As in the Sims.