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.