Interview

Thomas Vu explores Spore

We sit down with Maxis' producer

Spore - the latest brainchild of Sims mastermind Will Wright - had teased us for long enough. It was time to sit down with Thomas Vu, producer of Spore, to find out what really is going on with EA's latest...

Thanks for chatting to us about Spore. How do you begin to describe Spore, when asked about it by someone who knows nothing, or very little, about gaming?

Spore is a computer game loosely based on the idea of evolution. The player starts out as a tiny microbe cell and eventually becomes a galactic space-faring race. Throughout all of this, the player has power over how their creature evolves. Should it be carnivore, herbivore, or omnivore? Should it be friendly to other species or seek to extinct their neighbors? Should it choose to be a military, religious, or economic superpower in its quest for global conquest? Should it be a benevolent space explorers or cruel exterminators of lesser life forms? Thomas Vu explores Spore

The player has the opportunity to define who they are because Spore is a game of possibilities and to that we’ve given the player powerful editing tools to define who they are. Whether that is a creature with 3 legs and 7 eyes full of spikes or a tank with giant rocket boosters that floats around from a zeppelin. The power to create in Spore is fully realized and this empowers the player to tell and share their individual stories.

Given that the game contains a number of seemingly distinct elements, how do you maintain continuity while ensuring players 'get' each part of the experience?

Think of the game’s five phases as stepping stones to the full Spore experience. Playing any individual phase will give you some perspective, but the complete experience of Spore is only fully realized starting out from the cell phase and completing the game at the end of the space phase. We’ve come to the conclusion that certain phases will appeal more to certain audiences, so, we’ve allowed access to any of the phases from the game entry. Think of this as your universe in a box where you can go anywhere and edit anything you’d like. Keep in mind though that certain rewards will only unlock through playing from the start of cell phase.

To tie all of these phases together, we’ve implemented the timeline. This tracks the history of the creature and every decision made by the player as they are proceeding through the game and allows for the continuity between the phases. In the end, Spore is an open-ended experience similar to SimCity and The Sims, where we don’t necessarily force the player through each part of the experience; instead the game strives to allow the player to direct their own path and pull whatever meaning and story that is gleaned from their experience with it. Thomas Vu explores Spore

How will the online / multiplayer side of Spore integrate with the singleplayer mode?

Spore has been called a massively single player online game, because once connected online, much of the content found in Spore will have been created by other players. We call this system Pollination and this content will include such things as creatures, buildings, vehicles, and even UFOs. Although Spore is a single player game, this pollinated content can be updated dynamically during each game session making every play experience unique.

To allow players this much creativity over the content of their game requires an equal amount of control over which content that comes into their game. We give players that control through the Sporepedia. The Sporepedia is where you go to view the aggregate of all the shared content created by other Spore players. Here, the player is able to browse through their Sporecast content and has the ability to decide which of the content they would like to show up in their game. A Sporecast is any set of created content that a player decides should be put together. For example, if a player wanted all things in their world to be thematically reptilian and the color purple, they could easily create a Sporecast of all the content created by others that fit into this category. These Sporecasts are then tagged to be easily searched by players who may want to subscribe to all things purple and reptilian. Access to Sporepedia isn’t limited to the game but can also be found on the Spore website allowing players to browse and manage their creation, Sporecasts and friends from anywhere as long as they are connected. The full Spore experience can only be appreciated once connected to others online.

Are you worried that even Sims fanatics will be daunted or even confused by the seemingly infinite possibilities of Spore? Thomas Vu explores Spore

Much of the development team on Spore had previously worked on the The Sims and SimCity line of products so there is quite a bit of knowledge and influence carried over from those franchises. For The Sims and SimCity players, playing Spore should feel familiar because of the infinite possibilities found in those games. As a sandbox game, The Sims allowed players to add a mixture of ingredients such as personality, relationships, and motives into their world producing emergent and oftentimes surprising results. In SimCity, the placement of zones, tax distribution and utility management contribute to its very large possibility space. Spore is in the same vein in that it requests limited controlled inputs from the player to output a great deal of possibilities and experiences that is strictly unique to the player and to his story. Ideally, The Sims fanatics will be the least daunted by Spore, because as a strategy/simulation game, The Sims is one of the deepest found in this genre.

The scope of ideas behind Spore is incredibly daunting and distilling them down into simple game mechanics for the player is what the team strives to do everyday. Taking a microscopic cell and evolving it into an intergalactic space-faring race, while interacting with thousands of creations along the way is conceptually a monumental undertaking. Ultimately, Spore is going to be consumed by the fans, and the fans and the community will be apart of its evolution and development, populating and pollinating each others’ universes and also ours.

Is Spore a PC game through and through, or can it be fully implemented elsewhere too? Thomas Vu explores Spore

Spore is currently planned for the PC, Apple Macintosh, Nintendo DS, and Mobile Cell phones. The PC and Mac design and game are the same but unique designs have been created and executed for some of the other platforms to take particular advantage of their capabilities. For example, the Nintendo DS version will roughly encompass the creature phase while the Mobile version will cover the cell phase. As enticing as it would be to create Spore on other platforms, Maxis games have always started out as PC games. With Spore’s ability to seamlessly connect and download content from other players along with the mouse and keyboard oriented controls for the RTS-like portions of tribe and civilization phase, the PC is a very fitting and natural home for Spore.

Visually, what kind of a look have you gone for in Spore, and how rich and detailed are the world's we'll be crafting?

Ocean Quigley, Spore’s art director puts it best: "I think of Spore as a toybox filled with toys that you can create and play with, so the core look is playful. We want to make it look like you have an amazingly detailed toy world filled with vehicles and creatures and buildings. It's a look that makes it possible to combine a wide range of player creations gracefully.

"I want to make it look like you have a toy galaxy filled with toy planets. And I needed to work with the scale of the game, which is simultaneously vast and intimate. The planets for example are only a kilometer across, so I knew we'd never get an epic vista out of them, they're just too small. And there are millions of planets, so we needed to come up with a style that we could proceduralize. Thomas Vu explores Spore

"Spore's an interesting challenge, in that the aesthetic isn't solely designed by the art director and designers. Rather it's completed by the players. The most that I can do as art director is nudge the player in one direction or another by providing parts with a particular bias, but the player who wants to can build all kinds of different styles with them."

How did you conceive the game's phases, and what research went into this grandiose tour of, well, everything?

As it currently stands, Spore has a total of five phases, cell, creature, tribe, civilization, and space. Early in development, there were additional phases that were explored in design, but we’ve narrowed the phases down to the five most clear and distinct moments that we feel should define the evolution of a creature. Each of the phases has a very specific feel to them distilled down to the most basic ideas. In cell phase, the core objective is to eat to survive and eventually grow. In creature phase, upgrading your intelligence through interacting with other species is vitally important, while eating now becomes secondary. Tribe phase is all about advancing tool usage and interacting with neighboring tribes in a local area. Civilization phase is about ruling the world by military, economic or religious means. In the space phase, the game is about the freedom to explore other systems and stars while discovering other life outside your home world.

Many of the systems and ideas behind Spore have gone through a period of prototyping and gestation that helped the game define itself. The team comes from a wide breath of disciplines that extends beyond their roles as game developers. This unique mixture of talents has proved beneficial because of the different perspective that each team member brings to the table. The result of this is a testament to some of the most innovative systems found in Spore – procedural animation, paint scripts, pollinated content, editor rig blocks, procedural sound, social gameplay, planet terrain scripts, and the core evolution design. All of these help make the Spore experience vastly different from anything that is currently found on the market today. Thomas Vu explores Spore

Does Spore have an ending, and if so, how long will the experience last?

This may surprise Maxis fans, but Spore does have an ending, though it is probably not what you’d expect. Players can continue playing past the end if they choose to and continue to explore the hundreds of thousands of planets that populate the Spore galaxy. We are not ready to announce what the end of the game will be, but trust that it will take a dedicated player some time to complete the game. Additionally, each of the individual phases can be played in isolation for players who may prefer some phases over others along with all of the editing and creation tools for those who may just want to create things like creatures or buildings for others to play with.

We also included an achievement system layered on top of the game that will give players special reward badges to share on the community website depending on the way they played their game for bragging rights. Some of these achievements can only be accomplished through playing on hard mode which is an expert version of the game. Along with pollinated content from other players, all of the different ways that players can approach Spore help add replay to the game and extends its life and value.

Finally, how important is Spore to Maxis, and where will you head next, now that Spore seemingly covers "life, the universe and everything"?

Spore is the next big franchise from Maxis following in the footsteps of SimCity and The Sims. We are busy making Spore the best that it can be and we expect to support the game and the community to the fullest extent after the game is released. What’s next is, of course, unannounced, but we are always thinking about where we can take the systems that we’ve implemented during the development of Spore.

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