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The Human Condition (1): Hannah Arendt

Spore - An Assessment

Pc_spore_logo_2 With the release date slipping yet further into the future, Spore seems even more distant than it ever did. Will Wright's latest and most ambitious project to date, Spore is almost guaranteed masterpiece status even before its release - and given that Wright seems to have the luxury (in common with other great designers, such as Shigeru Miyamoto) of holding the project back until its "ready" there seems little reason to doubt the quality of the finished article, whenever it should arrive.

The purpose of this piece is not to question whether or not Spore will be a great game - I am in little doubt that Spore players will love this game with an abiding passion - but rather to question the impact on the games industry this title has had, and may yet have.

Firstly, I wish to be blunt about the market potential for this title. I do not believe this game can outsell The Sims, which to date has racked up 16 million unit sales (and 70 million unit sales of expansions), making it the best selling PC game of all time. Spore should clear 5 million units without breaking a sweat, after which it is likely to begin to struggle, as the early adopters will all be sucked into the vortex, and there may be a struggle to push the number higher. I predict ultimate sales figure of approximately 8 million units for this game, assuming it is easy enough to use that it can reach out to a wider more "casual" market. This would put it into the Top 40 Best Selling Games of all time, but a long way shy of the Top 10 (The Sims, incidentally, is the number 6 Best Selling Game of all time).

The problem with this game's ultimate appeal is that evolving an organism from a microbe to an interstellar empire is an awesome hook for many dedicated PC game players and science fiction geeks - but it is a poor hook outside of this kinds of people. A World War II shooter has more inherent mass market appeal than anything so focussed on pseudo-scientific details. Evolution games are not new, and have never been commercially successful - how many people remember Seventh Cross (NEC Home Electronics, 1999), which was probably the best of the crop so far? Only the talent of Will Wright and his team, and the money of EA, will permit Spore to break this trend, which it certainly will do.

Trouble is, EA are very much counting on Spore - and there seems to be a growing fear inside the company that they have banked too much on its success. Because, frankly, until the announced restructuring, EA was still not signing original content: Spore was one of very few original titles in development inside EA. Since the last announced delay on Spore, there seems to have been a change internally to EA, and a realisation in the wake of their dipping share prices that they might actually have to do more than continue the sports franchise production line.

And here we come to the next problem. Spore has swallowed up the game industry's available new talent. I started to become concerned for this when Jenova Chen, whose inventive indie company was behind Cloud and Flow, was hired as an addition to the team. I appreciate that Spore relies upon extremely inventive procedural content tools, and this requires a lot of talent to make it happen. My concern is what happens to this team after Spore is finished. If they take this awesome resume point and leverage it into their own inventive projects, then my concerns will be unwarranted. My suspicion is that most will remain tied up inside EA, and thus unable to pursue their own projects.

A final problem with Spore is perhaps an unfair criticism. The games industry is in desperate need of innovation - new directions to explore. Spore doesn't really give us that. It's going to be an amazing piece of software, and no doubt an engaging play experience. But beyond that, it seems like a dead end. If it proves to be more successful than I predict, it won't help the industry because no-one other than Wright's team could afford to make a project of this nature. And if it proves to be less successful than I predict, will that make it even harder than it already is to push innovative projects through the publishing mill?

I have little to gain from Spore's success nor, for that matter, from Spore's failure. That makes it hard for me to be excited about its release, now scheduled for sometime around April 2008 (although don't be surprised if it slips further). This project will be a great achievement for Will Wright. But alas, it doesn't seem to hold the promise of expanding the market in that incredible and unanticipated manner than The Sims did.

Comments

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Funny, I was thinking about Spore today. I was wondering if initiatives like Metaplace could eventually steal Spore´s thunder on issues like easy content creation for diviersified audiences. Well, there´s probably room for both of them, I guess...

Personally - and that´just a guess - I think talents like Chen will gain, not lose, from Spore, after it´s finished. They´ll be more experienced, and I don´t think EA would not invest in their potential. And if that´s not the case, I believe they will be much stronger to pursue their own projects.

Or perhaps the idea of creating and following cute critters that you designed will be more appealing than you think.

Just throwing that out there.

chico: I hope you're right. I think you are probably correct, but I have to wonder...

Chill: well we all rushed out and bought Graffiti Kingdom, didn't we... ;)

Seriously, I'm sure making critters will be fun, I'm just not sure if the mass market audience will push through all the earlier evolution games in order to do so. I'm certain a great many gamer hobbyists will love it to bits - but without the wider audience reach, EA won't quite have another The Sims on their hands.

Thanks for the comments!

Chico makes a good point, Metaplace is much faster cycle, much cheaper to produce, a perpetual beta, launch-and-update kinda thing, an inherently more agile beast. I recommend you do a comparative analysis.

Chen left Maxis about 10-12 months ago to work at TGC, which he co-founded. I visited there in May. Kyle Gabler left to do his own studio.

Relax man, you're living in the past, I recommend you spend an acid trip listening to Dan Deacon and doing internet yogas.

Patrick: Thanks for the input. Yes, I guess I should... well, maybe I´ll have wait for them to be released, but there some aspects that can already be analysed.

Didn´t know about Chen and Gabler. It´s a good surprise that I was right about that question.

Patrick: I'm aware of Metaplace, but the overall success of any game is (sadly) more influenced by marketing than by concept. My capsule comparative analysis is "EA have scads of cash: Spore will not be negatively affected by Metaplace in any way". (This does not, however, means that Metaplace can't succeed).

And I didn't know Jenova Chen had left Maxis! See me fail to keep track. ;) Thanks for the update!

You're still thinking in old terms, when what we're looking at it a qualititative, quantum-leap.

I would counter you're still trusting in your "new world order", while the centre of the market is still dominated by thinking far older than mine. :) It will be interesting to see if your faith is validated by future events.

According to Wikipedia the #1 selling game for PC is Sims, followed by Sims 2, and then Starcraft.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_video_games#PC
Starcraft is a rts, and Spore has many rts elements in it. From what I can see Seventh Cross is nowhere near as customizable as spore.

ohh... and spore is not an evolution game. that is merely a part of it.

The biggest problem with Spore at the moment is the combination of the high expectations and the delays. I think the name of your blog is appropriate it is in fact "only a game". Having said that, I've been an avid follower ever since I googled for "evolution game". I am a gamer, have been all my life, but I'm not into First Person Shooters or Sports Games. The current fresh wind, currently led by Nintendo, is very welcome and I believe Spore fits nicely into that, bringing it to PC owners too. :)

Hello SpaceOddity,

Sorry for the shameless self-promotion here, but since you´re interested in games that deal with evolution, why not try a quick and casual take on it at

http://www.flora-game.com/demo_en/index.html ?

Mind you: it´s not Spore!

That's kinda cool, the changes are not always very visible, but well done. *thumbs up*

Thanks a lot, SpaceOddity. :)

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

Cattrain: of course, Seventh Cross is not a patch on Spore whichever way you look at it. But my point was, evolution games have not historically been very popular even among dedicated game players. Also, I aware that Spore has more to it than the evolutionary theme, but that to me and many others is what characterises the game... How would you characterise the game succinctly if not as an evolution game? I'm curious.

SpaceOddity: I think the delays are the issue at this point. Excitement for the game was rampant when the game was first revealed, but it's several years on now...
But I'm certain this game is going to be loved by its core audience when it finally does arrive.

Best wishes!

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