LOS ANGELES--It's that time of year again: the Electronic Entertainment Expo is in full swing and so are private demonstrations of Spore, the upcoming hybrid strategy game from Maxis and EA. We had a chance to take an updated look at the game, which has had a fresh coat of paint added to what we saw at last year's demonstration, along with much more fleshed-out content.
The demonstration began with a cursory view of what we assume is a temporary game interface, one with six primary icons to represent the different evolutionary stages of your created critters: cellular, creature, tribal, city, global, and finally, space. Presumably, most players will want to begin at the beginning by creating an all-new critter from scratch. We skipped the cellular stage of development this time around and jumped right to the creature editor, which started us out with a mostly formless torso that contained a backbone with a few connected vertebrae. Wright demonstrated that shaping the creature's trunk was simply a matter of clicking and dragging the edge of the torso; he pulled the torso's spine upward and around to create a curved, slender neck, reminiscent of a swan's. Wright then slapped on a pair of legs with adjustable clawed toes--the designer explained that all appendages will have "morph channels" that will let you tweak the size and width of hands and feet, which will help govern their function. The designer then added a beaklike mouth to the front of the creature's body; apparently, the type, size, and shape of a critter's mouth will determine its diet (whether it's an herbivore, carnivore, or omnivore), as well as the sound of its voice (in our case, a birdlike squawk).
Wright finished off his creature and then jumped to the world view, where various other bizarre-looking beasties prowled through grasslands and forests. Wright affirmed that the flora in the game will be created procedurally (that is, automatically created by the game's artificial intelligence systems) or custom-created by other players, while other creatures will mostly be generated by other players and uploaded by Spore's online world server. We then took control of a specific critter, a comically scrawny, bug-eyed, six-legged critter with red-stripped yellow skin that might've been an evolutionary predecessor to Sesame Street's Big Bird. Wright took direct control of the creature and immediately began the all-important quest for food, first by attacking a flock of smaller, weaker critters. At this stage in your creature's evolution, combat seems to take place mainly by hammering on an attack key, which causes you to manually attack your targets until their health depletes to nothing from a vertical meter that floats over their heads (a meter that looks oddly similar to the motive bars from The Sims). Unfortunately, these little guys were too strong for us, so we fled in search of other creatures' eggs and were chased off by a protective couple of warthoglike creatures, but we were successfully able to take advantage of the gentle nature of a herd of zebralike herbivores to sneak past them quickly and gobble up their unborn offspring.
Wright explained that successfully eating earns you "DNA points," which then lets your creature mate and create offspring, which can, in turn, be edited again with the creature editor. Wright's creature sent out a mating call (indicated by a high-pitched squawking, as well as visible "rings" of sound emanating from the creature), which another critter of our species answered (with little Valentine hearts floating above its head, no less). The game's ambient music then switched to a romantic instrumental tune as the two critters bumped and ground against each other in a ritual that Wright described as "procedural mating." About two seconds later, the female was done and caused a pair of small nests to appear out of thin air, full of eggs. Wright then clicked on an egg and jumped into the creature creator to redesign his next generation to look tougher and meaner--and to have an extra pair of claws to fight with.
Apparently, once you hatch a new creature from an egg, you must begin life as a "baby" version of that critter. Wright navigated the tiny little monstrosity about the world, "annoying the neighbors" by encroaching on the territory of the same protective herbivores, then using another kind of "call" to gather other creatures of the same species to itself, thereby creating a herd. Herds eventually form the basis of the game's primitive societies at the game's "tribal" level of evolution--apparently, once you go tribal, you'll be able to use a "hut editor" to design the look of your creatures' dwellings, and once you advance to the city stage, you'll be able design more-modern-looking buildings and even ambient flora.
We then skipped ahead to the very end of the city stage, at which point your advanced civilization can research space travel. Wright clicked on his original town's "city hall" building and, with much fanfare (that is, tiny clusters of fireworks that seemed to greatly amuse our citizens), launched his civilization's first UFO. Apparently, once you launch your first UFO, you can then directly control the little spacecraft, flying along your planet's surface and using an "abduction ray" to pick up any other living creatures you wish, either to kidnap them (to try colonizing another planet) or simply to give them a little flick of your wrist while you've got them hovering in midair, which flings them off into the distance. But we're sure no one would ever misuse the awesome power of space-traveling technology for something so trivial as repeatedly picking up and hurling little creatures off into the horizon.
We then zoomed out our view past our planet to the solar system, and later, to the universe view. Wright claimed that the universe we were seeing in action contained about half a million different stars, each with about four different planets, which means literally millions of different worlds to explore, colonize, treat with, and/or conquer. The habitability of different planets can be gauged at a glance by checking a series of "slider" gauges that presumably indicate criteria such as temperature, atmosphere, and other things, as well as whether intelligent life already exists on that planet. We zipped past a more-bizarre-looking world with green oceans and purple landmasses and attempted to colonize it by dropping one of the creatures we had abducted from our home planet among a colony of indigenous creatures. That didn't work out so well, since our gentle home-planet creature was torn limb from limb by the distrustful inhabitants of this new planet. Apparently, all creatures in the game are cataloged in an in-game reference known as the "Sporepedia," which catalogs the power, speed, senses, stealth, and social abilities of different critters with numerical values on what appear to be trading cards (and may possibly open the door for some kind of collectible card game).
We then tried our luck at communicating with a new planet inhabited by intelligent life forms. These green humanoids came out of their homes as we hovered our UFO over their city, waiting and muttering to themselves in wonder. Wright first attempted to be diplomatic by setting off some fireworks from his UFO, which the inhabitants seemed to love. With enough fireworks, Wright apparently impressed the indigenous population so much that the people of that world began to bow down and worship his mighty UFO. Wright then decided to press his luck by abducting one of the planet's citizens, which the once-adoring inhabitants interpreted as a hostile act. Immediately, these folk ran to their planetary armaments, blasting at the UFO with laser beams that Wright was able to subdue with the advanced laser weapons on his own ship. This caused the remaining citizens to flee in panic through the streets as though they were being invaded by hostile aliens--because, in fact, that's exactly what was happening.
Wright then decided to pull out of the fight, claiming he preferred to keep things diplomatic between his race and that race of inhabitants. However, he quickly received an interstellar transmission from that population that demanded an explanation--the transmission then offered a few dialogue options, including an apology and a declaration of war. Wright attempted to apologize, but the damage had apparently already been done; the critters he had attacked were so incensed that they immediately launched a counterattack against Wright's home planet, which sent his ship another transmission, this time a call for help from invading forces. Rather than helping his home planet, however, Wright retreated to deep space to explore more celestial bodies, including a deserted lava planet not capable of sustaining life (but housing hidden items that could upgrade his ship). He also flew past a black hole, which, with a more advanced starship, can actually be used as instantaneous interstellar transportation across different ends of the universe.
Spore continues to look even more promising and intriguing, and the fact that we were able to see so much more of last year's hinted-at content for ourselves has gone a long way in quelling our natural skepticism. In fact, if the game actually supports just half of what Wright and his team aspire to create, it could be absolutely ground-breaking. Spore is scheduled for release in 2007. For now, be sure to take a look at our hands-on impressions of the game's creature editor.