By now, most gamers know about Spore, the next game from Will Wright, designer on SimCity and The Sims. The game will let players create a custom-built microscopic germ that can evolve into a macroscopic critter that can walk on land, build its own cities, and eventually discover the secret of space travel. One of the most intriguing features of this open-ended game is how it will focus on "procedurally generated content"--that is, content that's created on the fly by the game in response to a few key decisions that players make, such as how they make their creatures look, walk, eat, and fight.
Spore is currently confirmed for release only on the PC, though as Wright explains, the computer game could be just the beginning. For more information on the game, consult our previous coverage.
GameSpot: Give us a brief update on the development of Spore. What aspects of the game is the team working on at the moment?
Will Wright: We've basically got all the levels playable at this point, so we have a lot of tuning ahead of us, because we've finally integrated all the different styles of [gameplay]. At this point, it's basically iterating on the gameplay, doing a lot of tuning, finishing up some of the [art] assets, interface, design...stuff like that. So, in some sense, we're in the home stretch. Although the home stretch is pretty long nowadays (laughs).
GS: How big is the team at present? How much of the team is working on art, programming, artificial intelligence, design, and other areas?
WW: Our team is probably around 80 people right now. We have a disproportionately large number of programmers on this team and a small number of artists, because of all the procedural content. So, probably 40 percent of the team is programmers, which is pretty high. The art staff is probably about a third of the size of [the art staff assigned to] a typical EA game. And all our artists are very technical as well, so they're doing a lot of the programming and scripting.
GS: We understand that the game will be going on tour in Germany for the Games Convention later this month. What's being shown there?
WW: We're going to be at Leipzig. We'll have [Spore] on the floor so that people can actually come up and experiment with it. We'll be doing demos. [Editor's note: According to EA, Wright himself will be present on the floor, giving demonstrations in person.]
GS: And the creature creator editing tools will be playable by the public, too?
WW: I think that's the plan, yeah. There are other parts that we haven't decided on. The tricky thing whenever you do a show like this is: How much time do you spend getting ready? E3 was always a one-month distraction as we were trying to get together our presentation, and that takes away from your development timeline. So, we're going to have to be careful to manage that and make sure that we don't do too much throwaway work for a particular show or presentation.
E3 is turning into some kind of "industry insider" thing. So, Leipzig might become the big show that we attend every year. Who knows.
GS: Much of the game is based on procedural content. Tell us about how the game takes user input and turns it into, for instance, animation for creatures based on their bodies.
WW: It's pretty technical--it happens at different levels. First, you're sculpting the outer form, using the torso, which is like clay, then the parts that you stick on[to the torso]. But even the parts have a lot of "morphability"; you can stretch and bend them in all sorts of interesting directions. And from that, we generate a mesh and a skeleton. Next up is painting; we use procedural textures and layers to make a lot of different combinations, but most of these things get compressed to a very high degree so we can send them over the Net cheaply. And then, the last level is the animation, which is the hardest.
We found that the state of research in digital animation was fairly limited and almost exclusively based around human animation. The first people I hired on the team were actually specialists in that field to crack that problem, and because we didn't know what players would make--whether [created creatures] would have seven legs, or tentacles, or whatnot, so we had to approach the problem on a more fundamental level than people were approaching it with human character animation, where you know you have a biped that's roughly five or six feet tall.
GS: How did the editor end up being something that average players could understand and use?
WW: The other problem we faced was: How could we make the easiest system for players to edit and create their creatures? The real hard part there, for the most part, turned out to be figuring out what Z-depth the player was inferring. At the highest level, what we're trying to do is build a 3D editing system that an average Sims player can use, right? Something that has roughly the power of Maya, but that a casual gamer can approach.
[After testing,] we were able to go back and say, "I think we should infer from this, or from this part, or from the way they turned the camera in this direction," so we added a lot of subtle cues to help the computer roughly guess what players were thinking while they were moving things around.
GS: How does the game use procedural content to create entire ecosystems?
WW: Because it's procedural, we can reduce what players do to a fairly small number of parameters, so your creature is, maybe 3 megabytes in size, and you can compress that down to 3 kilobytes. Which means that we can send it over the Net very cheaply. We also store a huge database on [players'] local hard drives, or cache them very cheaply as well. So, when players make these creatures, we're actually sucking [the creatures] up onto our server and using them to repopulate everyone else's world.
You've also got stats associated with them, so I can look at a creature and say, "oh, it's this fast, and this strong, and it eats meat." Not just creatures, but other things as well: "This tank is this fast, and has this much offense, and this much defense." So, these things are sorted based on their properties, and that's how we use them to fill out other players' worlds--finding a balance of creatures, where some of them are above your capabilities and some are below, so you might have things that are coming after you and some things you can eat. And in some sense, it's a form of dynamic difficulty adjustment. The game tries to make a challenging environment unique to where you are.
And we do that with different things, too. Sometimes [objects] are sent to you to match your abilities and skill level; other times, they're sent to you to match your aesthetics. [The game] is trying to fill out your world with things of a similar aesthetic to the things you choose or design. When you're designing a city, for instance, and you want to build a factory, [the game] opens a screen full of factories which other players have designed that you can shop for. And again, [the game is] trying to populate your shopping catalog with styles that are similar to the ones [the game] has seen you choose in the past. So, if I start choosing [objects] that look, you know, European-style, or Dr. Seuss-style, or Pixar-style, the game will start populating my shopping catalog with things of that style. So in some sense, [the game is] learning your aesthetic very much like the way Amazon.com's recommendations system does.
GS: Tell us about how the game will let players sort and rate different kinds of content that they and other people have created.
WW: We're going to have a couple different systems for that. One system is going to look at how popular content is. For instance, when we open a shopping catalog for buildings, we can see how often people choose various buildings. So, in that sense, we're getting a popularity rating automatically. And if you design a piece of content like a creature or a building, you'll be able to get a report back about how popular it is amongst all the other players, and how it's being used by other players, as well. That's what we're calling our "metaverse report." So there's going to be kind of a meta-competition amongst the players to make the coolest creatures and the most popular buildings or vehicles.
There's that, and then, of course, like we do on the Sims Web site where players have the ability to flag content as being inappropriate, we'll have those types of controls as well.
GS: We saw at E3 that Spore's creatures may not live just in the game or in editors, since the game catalogs them using an interface that looks a lot like a collectible card game...
WW: We're looking at how we can leverage all the stuff in the game and bring it outside. So we're exploring all those things right now; we're not really announcing any of it yet. But I think the amount of ownership that people feel over this content they create is amazing--just in testing, watching people create a creature, how proud they are of it, and how much they want to bring other people to the screen and show it off to them.
GS: What are your general thoughts on next-generation game consoles and handhelds?
WW: We were kind of assuming that the next-gen consoles would all be superpowerful, but now we're looking at how expensive the Sony [PlayStation 3] is, trying to leverage the value of Blu-ray; we look at how cheap the Nintendo Wii is going to be and its innovative controller; we're looking at Microsoft's early mover advantage and its focus on network games. We're actually seeing the manufacturers going off in their own directions, which is interesting. And at the same time, we're seeing that handhelds are very different from each other; they appeal to very different groups with very different styles of gameplay. So, I think we're seeing a kind of explosion of gaming, where games are going out to all these different platforms, with all these different styles, and we're starting to see lighter, more-innovative, more-casual games on some of these lower-end platforms.
GS: Do you see a home for Spore on any of the new consoles or handhelds in the near future, or is it too early to say? What can you confirm for us at this time?
WW: We're certainly looking at [Spore] as a franchise. The PC [version of the game], for me, is the tip of the iceberg. You can imagine Spore in a lot of different variants, because we have all these different types of gameplay. We can pull out individual levels; we can use the editors in totally different ways; and so on. I can easily imagine Spore on any conceivable platform, and that's something that we've definitely been looking into. We're not announcing anything yet, but it's pretty obvious that I want Spore to take over the world (laughs).
GS: Then what we can confirm is that Spore is a game with the potential to expand somewhere else, but right now, it's only for the PC.
WW: Yeah, but my ambition is for it to become a major franchise. You can take that for what it's worth.
GS: So the idea is that this is intended to be a franchise that goes beyond being a computer game? Where else will it go?
WW: I think [Spore] definitely wants to go beyond being a computer game. I think the essence of Spore as a franchise is creativity. So, we have these editors with which players will be making huge amounts of content, and the question is: How can we leverage that content into other game styles, maybe other platforms, and other experiences? I think that's what will distinguish Spore as a franchise from a lot of the other games out there--it's not totally dependent on peer-to-peer, head-to-head gaming. That's why I don't feel Spore is as constrained to its original platform.
GS: We understand that you've been focused primarily on Spore and you no longer work on The Sims on a day-to-day basis. But while we've got you here, could you share your thoughts with us on the Sims franchise?
WW: I think The Sims struck a chord with a lot of people, a lot of nongamers. It was interesting watching how a lot of players didn't really convert into "gamers," even though for a lot of them, The Sims was the first game they'd ever played. So, I think it's very important that we don't lose the accessibility that brought the core group into The Sims...but also to push things into more of this creativity direction, because I think that where The Sims really struck a chord was how players felt like they were authors, or directors.
My answers on The Sims are almost of a speculative nature--this is really what I'd like to see in the game, but it doesn't necessarily mean that [the Sims development team] is actually working on it.
GS: Finally, we've heard a few different dates get tossed around for the release of Spore. When is the game scheduled to launch?
WW: We're saying the second half of next year  for now.
GS: Thanks, Will.