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Finally! A non-shoot-em-up game to get excited about!!!

Cheap Ego

TRIBE Member
Masters of their own domain
A giant killer has been unveiled at this year's E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo. Poised to become a ferocious and ravenous force in the video-game market, it's actually about cute little life forms that players create and evolve, brought to you by The Sims people. By Murray Whyte
May 14, 2006. 08:07 AM

The line-up snaked and curled away from the tiny theatre all day, every day, at E3 this week. Some guessed it was at least an hour; many waited two, or more. "This is the one," said one young game designer, quietly, leaning against the black wall, in line. He'd come all the way from Ohio. "Out of all of this, this is the one I really want to see."

All of this, in this case, is a lot. E3 is essentially a high-volume shouting match between the biggest kids on the gaming block. Over there, Ubisoft, with its massive, bombastically violent Assassin's Creed, occupying a three-storey-high screen. Over there, Sony's Playstation 3, rolling scenes from the bloody military espionage kill-fest, Metal Gear Solid 4. In Microsoft's expansive, lime-green zone, a theatre rolling a trailer for its carnage-fest, Gears of War.

But here at E3, amid all the bigger, louder, bloodier and more explosive fare on display, Spore, a little game about the evolution of life itself, has trumped them all. On the door, a string of awards: Best in Show, from Gamespot, IGN, and the Game Critics Association — all the more impressive, as the game appeared here not in playable form, but rather only as a 20-minute demo.

Among the deafening field at E3, it was unique. Call it the non-gamers' game: There are no assassins, no killer androids, no gruesome kill scenes or complex swordplay. The graphics are simple, cartoony, even. Neither does it offer simple tasks — not shoot this, nor kill that — but instead a broad invitation to dream, without limits, about the base elements of a social world.

Sound a little esoteric for mass appeal? Think again. Will Wright, the game's designer, has been down this road before. In 2000, he created The Sims, a massive, cross-demographic commercial hit. It was a virtual world that mirrored our own, where virtual people went about the rituals of daily life.

"How do you fight monsters — that's a really simple system," Wright said, speaking at E3 last week. "How do you form a guild, how do you form the basis of social interaction — that's the basis of the intuitive landscape."

As a player, it was your responsibility to make your Sim happy — get him friends, a job, a date. Fail, and the consequences — depression, solitude, grumpiness — were no more cataclysmic than they are out here, in the real world. Which is to say, by being so real, they were more so than any gruesome, splatter-fest virtual end.

The Sims touched a nerve. In a gaming world centred on bombast and splatter, it became not only one of the best-selling games of all time, with players numbering in the tens of millions, but it achieved a previously unheard-of distinction: There were more women players than men.

Going against the grain works for Wright. Which explains Spore. So much of the pre-E3 chatter was about gaming consoles — Sony's new PS3, Nintendo's Wii system — but by the end, it was the quiet, thoughtful Spore, played on a personal computer, not a console, that had taken centre stage.

Its depth of thought was a refuge in the din. It is both tiny and vast, in every sense.

Here's the idea: You're playing with life. Not like in The Sims, but existence, carbon-based, itself. You begin as a single cell, multiplying and evolving in the primordial soup, guiding your species, step-by-step, onto dry land, into social systems, tribes, societies, and eventually, into outer space.

Spore's universe, to be widely seen upon its release in 2007, is both virtual, and real. In the great beyond, when your species makes contact with other species on other planets, they'll be the creations of other players. Linked online, millions of planets and species will be spawned by players all over the world.

The tendency toward chaos is palpable. But that's exactly how Wright wants it. For all its bluster about "interactive entertainment," most games follow a linear, prescriptive path. The will of the player is exerted only in how long it takes; in the end, to finish one level and move to the next, a checklist of tasks — get key, murder guard, blow up gate — must be completed.

In Wright's world, the game belongs to the players. "With The Sims, I really became intrigued with the game as a means of self-expression, not just something to play," he said. "Really, you can think of the games as model kits, and the players are the model builders. We're basically outsourcing the content to the players, and giving them highly leveraged tools to help create that experience."

Certainly, The Sims has allowed for that kind of expression. The variance in play is limited only by player impulse. Try a Google search of "Sim" and "starve" and you'll find endless forums with handy tips on how to sadistically torture your Sim — put him or her in a room with no doors, no bathroom and nothing to eat. Some have even figured out how to make their Sims spontaneously combust.

That's a lot of leeway in what's meant to be a simulator of real life. But it is telling of the range of human behaviour, and social — or anti-social — impulse, and Wright's games embody more of it than any other game out there.

Spore's ambition is to be even more so. Wright's "creature editor," which players use to help their critters evolve (you score DNA points by eating and mating, which you then spend on adaptations like faster legs or bigger claws), is a screwy, playful palate of bio-diversity. Choose one type of mouth, the creature is a carnivore; another makes it a herbivore. Give him fast feet if his environment — lots of predators, maybe —requires it; opposable thumbs might be nice at some point, too.

"I want players to spend time with the creature editor, and make something that really comes to life and surprises them," he said. But it's not just the creatures themselves that propel the game. It's the structure they form. "What happens if my carnivores become tribal? Or my herbivores? Their culture is going to be different."

Those kinds of questions have propelled Wright's life in gaming since the beginning. His first game, in 1984, was a helicopter shoot-'em-up called Raid on Bungeling Bay, where the chopper would strafe islands that Wright had built.

Wright quickly realized he was far more interested in making islands than shooting them, and his first game notion, for SimCity, was born. As its title suggests, SimCity asked players to manage the building and administration of their own town, from road building to policing to job creation to urban design. By 1990, it had become not only wildly popular, but had been adopted by schools as a teaching tool on civic policy.

SimCity spawned others, like SimAnt (managing life in an anthill), SimFarm (agricultural management) and SimEarth (managing the planet) — "I've always been shifting scales," he said — and eventually, The Sims.

From there, Wright went off in every direction — forward and back, to far-flung future and distant, primordial past. It was a natural progression. Wright has always been fascinated with Drake's Equation, the complex mathematical theory of Dr. Frank Drake that's meant to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations there might be in our galaxy.

Wright, a close follower of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), immersed himself in astrosociobiology —the study of possible extra-terrestrial civilizations, and projections of their development and behaviour — and xenobiology, the study of how life evolves in physical environments, and not necessarily Earth.

That fascination underpins Wright's appreciation of the only random factor in the universe: life itself. "When you look at the universe, it's actually pretty predictable. A star is complex, but it's not that complex. It's certainly not as complex as, say, a paramecium," Wright said. "Really, Spore is about throwing life into a lifeless universe, and the unpredictability that brings."

He also became engrossed in books by zoologist Dougal Dixon, like After Man and The Future is Wild, both of which imagine a future Earth, millions of years from now, and what lifeforms might inhabit it.

About six years ago, he had a vision. "That's when it started percolating in my mind, as a designer — oooo! Could I make a game that could take in all of that?"

Spore, so far, is a fascinating attempt. At the demo, one of Wright's team guided the small audience through a high-speed tour of a few millennia: Her creature, freshly emerged from the primordial gunk, needs to evolve. In the editor, she determines the thickness and curvature of its spine, picks its mouth (suitable for a carnivore) and selects legs, eyes and hide. Quickly, it's skittering about a pristine green landscape, looking for food. It attacks one tiny creature, and is immediately set upon by other members of its herd.

"They're fighting as a social group — that's what happens when you design a game with emergent behaviour," she said , laughing. When her character dines — scoring DNA points — she goes back to the editor for a little evolution. Quicker feet, she chooses, and another set of appendages. A chart at the top right of the screen shows how far along the creature is: Brain level three. "Almost sentient," she said. That's where tribal behaviour and social organization begins.

Flash forward a few millennia, and the creatures have built cities and purchased a spaceship. From there, it's off to other worlds and other planets and species. Colonize to bootstrap your economy back home? Befriend and create alliances against aggressive species? Or destroy and become an aggressor yourself? The choice is up to the player in Spore's complex socio-political fantasy.

If it seems like a brainful, it is. But it's also comic and engaging, and the most humane, thoughtful game E3 had to offer. So Wright's project continues. "That's the front door — a universe everyone can relate to," he said. "But if we're trying to do anything here, it's to give people an appreciation for complex systems and emergence, and a sense of how non-linear the world really is. And if you give them the right tools, they'll surprise themselves with how creative they can be."



TRIBE Member
Yeah there was a LOT of hype about this game after last year's GDC.

Check out videos here: http://www.spore-net.com/videos.html Check out Will Wright's GDC presentation. It's about an hour long, but REALLY worth watching if you've got the time to spare.

I think this is the game that I'm looking forward to the most out of anything in the near future.