Time to write about another Maxis game. I remember when Spore was first announced. It was going to boldly go where no game had gone before. You thought SimCity and Civilization were cool, being able to control cities and empires? Well, how about the entire universe, from the microscale all the way to the macroscale? It was the grandest scale game ever promised at the time, a SimEverything! And it was going to make science fun!
Of course, we all know that the end result was, less than promised. Instead of an organically flowing life simulation, we got an awkward, barely-connected mismash of 5 stages which play more like simplified role-playing or real-time strategy games. Instead of a natural progression of creatures and buildings, the features were cosmetic, and evolution was more like Pokémon than Darwin.
Apparently, the development team had a conflict between scientific and cute, the latter won, and it shows. And it shouldn’t be surprising; with such a grandiose concept, inevitably, people were going to butt heads regarding the direction the game should take. Should we make stat spreads more scientifically realistic, at the cost of potentially inhibiting creativity in aesthetics? (after all, so many RPGs with custom equipment end up making the player character look ridiculous when optimized) How would we accurately program limb placement and environmental interactions to such a complex degree? Would we have to take 50 years to finish the game if we truly tried to simulate everything? The game was destined to be below expectations, since most developers still face challenges trying to make games based around just one of the individual gameplay components, let alone all of them at once. Like I just said in my previous post, SimCity had enough trouble being true to life, despite its pedigree, so imagine that inaccuracy multipled tenfold and you have this game.
In the end, Spore became, effectively, a 3D modelling program, and indeed, that’s what the player base used it as. The creatures, buildings, and vehicles everyone created were supposed to be the window dressing for the simulation game itself, but in fact, it was the inverse; the traditional game elements were the window dressing; simply an excuse to show off the community’s creations. And this was where the real fun of the game came from.
I remember starting off on the official forums. My early creations were either overdesigned creatures with too many body parts or hastily put together coloured blocks with no regards for aesthetics. And yet, many of the users were pushing the modelling software to its limits. You had people making elaborate towers, mascot characters, beautiful exotic animals, eggs, even portraits and many other things you wouldn’t expect the software to be capable of at first glance. I was inspired to do better, to go beyond the initial boundaries, and was proud of my first green smiley face (the maximum rating a creation can receive). I participated more in the community, reveling in its willingness to help and support each other, and my mind was whirring with ideas (my Gravatar in fact is one of my Spore creations). I was proud, to discover a creative side of me that I never knew existed, to admire and support others’ boundless creativity, to also be praised for coming up with unexpected things, and to be a part of one of the most positive gaming communities I had ever experienced. Sure, the main forum was full of complaining about the game (which was somewhat justified), but for us creators, we had little time for that, and we made do with the many tools we had.
And, it was through Spore that I met my first crush. She was something of a leader in the community, having written a guide about buildings, several showcase trophies, and her amazing, beautiful creations were frequently featured on the front page. I was honoured to see her happy for one of my compliments, and that she would regularly leave comments on my own creations. Even if I never saw her face, I knew she was very pretty, since her kind, supportive personality shone through her messages (and it helped she had a pretty username that became one of my go-to names for video game characters).
In the end, she moved on from the game, and so did I and much of the community. Spore would never be the same, or as exciting as it was at its peak, because it was the people who made the game what it was. But even if I stopped playing, I would never forget my experience. Years later, I would continue creating things and being inspired by people. I would make custom greeting cards for my friends. I would join the university craft club, and indulge in my love of biology and creepy things. I would transcribe songs from online by ear, and later, try creating music of my own. And I would try my hand at fiction writing (which I hope people enjoy, even if it’s full of stilted early draft dialogue that I have yet to fix). I hope, too, that the friends I’ve met from the game, however short-lived it was, are also too still out there making things for the world to enjoy.
So for a game that has brought me so much joy and life-changing experiences, could I really call it a bad game, or a disappointing one? Sure, it failed at its overly ambitious primary goal, and perhaps other games do what it does better. However, for all its shortcomings to the scientifically-inclined and students of RPG and strategy games, it succeeded in appealing to a different audience, the artistic types, for which the universe was their canvas. There’s a simple joy in beaming down a hologram of the creature you spent hours crafting, and having it walk around your decorated, terraformed planet; simply soaking in all the sights of land and sky, your magnificent buildings juxtaposed against the splendid randomly-generated scenery.