In my short time on Earth I've been grateful to have had the ability to play many, many games. A side-effect to my love of games, or so I think anyway, is that no matter what the game is I almost always find ways to improve on it. I wouldn't call it personal QAing or my dream career, but I've always wanted to make a new review format where instead of giving face-value to a game, I note where it can be improved and how. This will be a hopefully growing series of reviews I like to call "Self-Improvement". By no means is this made to be an insult at the hard work designers the world over put into their games. I just want to offer my constructive criticism.
For the first of this series I've decided to review Spore, by Maxis and published by EA. It's a well known and addictive little game that is not without its faults. With a little polish, some QAing, and the integrations of a few tried-and-true mechanics, Spore can be a great game.
It goes without saying that the primary fault with Spore is that it is too simplistic and easy. I'm sure this was done intentionally to encourage sales since an overly complicated game doesn't appeal to EA's primary fanbase. EA is known for providing sports games, casual shooters and not taking too many chances with their products, while Maxis is known for its famous Sims and Sim city series; neither of these businesses have made many complicated games with too many moving parts before. In order to bridge the gap between the creative crowd and the casual crowd, the game's UI and much of the features were made as simple as pointing and clicking.
The problem with this, particularly in the 4x Space stage of the game, is that simple doesn't work with the types of gameplay used to show off the Spore creation and graphics. They wanted to depict the development of a race from its beginning to its peak by using one "Eat N Grow", two RTS styles, an adventure game and a 4x game. Not only does it make the game boring at times with its simplicity, but it also makes the game lose sight of each stage's uniqueness. So how could this be imrpoved? Well, each stage would need some adjustments, and a few would need complete overhauls, but it is doable.
1A. Cellular focus:
The Cell stage speaks for itself. You eat and you grow until you grow big enough to get a pair of legs and go onto land. The creature you control is directed with either a mouse or the traditional WASD keys and the only real thing the player has to do is guide his cell to it's food (meat or plants). There's a strategy to it when facing down more complex cells and you have to hit their weak spots, but for the most part you could just cover your cell with mouths, go get lunch, come back and you'll be ready for the creature stage (hyperbole).
To make matters worse, you aren't given access to all the upgrades off the bat and can just purchase them when you have the DNA, but instead you have to find them. This was probably an endeavor to add variety to the activities you do, but it just frustrated me because I couldn't buy poison when I wanted it and usually I wouldn't have all the upgrades before I moved to the next stage.
The first improvement that should be made is the aforementioned inclusion of all upgrades off the bat, and possibly add a few more upgrades to give the gameplay variety. The second fix would be to tweak the ai of the opposing creatures to give the player more competition; if you have to fight harder to gain your food then there's more challenge. Reducing the amount of food available from each kill or plant would also add scarcity, but the greatest thing you could do to add challenge is to give the deaths in game consequences. This isn't the type of game where death is a learning experience in strategy, like Bioshock, but more a mini-game with simple features that are easier to grasp. Perhaps a loss of experience or DNA or even an extinction mode (lose x cells and you start over) would discourage the amount of chance taking players use. finally, I believe some more landmarks in the sea would give players more direction and help them navigate the sea, as opposed to the endless void that is already there.
B. Creature Feature:
So in the creature stage you go around literally hunting animals to extinction or doing a song and dance for them. The ultimate goal is to befriend or kill enough animals to gain sentience while upgrading your animal with parts you find from bones. There's a suspension of disbelief here that is broken by the fact that an amphibian can become a bird in nothing flat, but that freedom in creation is preferable to being constricted to transitions.
At times this stage can feel like filler; it is almost a gap between being a cell and being a chieftain. You run around, take in the view, run from Giant beasts, mate, and inevitably gain enough sentience to discover fire. The problem is that's all it really is; it is a test mode of the creature creator because it's improbable to change your being into an entirely new creature by the tribal stage, impossible by the civ stage and impractical to do so as a cell. Of course, sometimes this whole game just feels like a test run of this engine and feature. Dark Spore was the evidence that they want to capitalize on this concept as much as possible.
So the creature stage is filler, but that's ok. Filler can still be fun, or even enjoyable, if done right. What is resource gathering in RTS games but filler between battles? The first thing they need to fix though is the stiff repetition. Kill Monster A to get 30 DNA, impress monster B to get 40 DNA, ect. How about some side quests? Better yet, let's ditch the grind and turn this into a tried N true point and click where the creatures you create begin the slow process of tribalism. You find pieces of wood and stones, you begin experimenting with them, you grow and develop. Maybe even borrow some ideas from minecraft and Infamous 2 with the whole customize your world premises; everyone else has. I'm just saying that this stage would be a lot better if it was more engaging than wandering to each nest and killing things until your species decides to move. Just because you're technically a dumb animal here doesn't mean you can't do more complex things. Finally, give other animals in the game more diversity in behavior. Not every animal nests; make some go nomadic, some attack other animals, and even some explore. Yeah this would be hard to pull off in a world where customization rules, but if you can classify an animal by carnivore or herbivore then obviously you can classify them by migratory behaviors, flight, aggressiveness (not just passive or violent) and other characteristics. Even simplistic games like Operation Genesis and tropico have pulled this idea off. Customizing my own creations behaviors would be great because it seems like I bump into them every time I start a new game.
C. Disregard Tribes, Accquire food:
instead of opting for and Age of Empires style game with multiple resources, stages leading up to the modern Era, building freely (in a free game), and and ultimate goal where your species grows beyond stone knives, Spore just opts for you to build your tribe and then cars. It almost feels like something is missing, and I believe that thing is everything between the stone age and information age. Technical limits aside, why wasn't there more strategy? Like the creature stage, it is kill or befriend everything that is on par with your intelligence.
That in itself is a problem because it really does feel like just after you grasp the basics you have already conquered the last rival tribe. I get that there are plenty of save files and they expected you to do this again with other species, but that's really a poor excuse for simplifying an RTS. There's no expansion, no upgrade system besides building more huts and adding clothing to your creatures, no deep strategy on how to 'rule them all'; all there is is food and diplomacy. Food lets you domesticate animals, brings gifts to other tribes, create more villagers, and build buildings.
You can easily get all the food you'll need for the whole game (even if wild animals snack on it now and again) by making the first tribe you face nuetral and then just gathing for a good 20 minutes. Also, save for a zerg rush at the start of the level by enemy tribes, the stages gets easy fast. Just arm every tribal with either an instrument or a weapon, make sure they're fed, then rush the enemy. Stage complete.
The first and most obvious fix is to add one or more resources, which would add depth. You can't make huts without wood, weapons without stone (and eventually iron/oil), ect. This could also add an economy to the game by trading with friendly tribes for what you need. Have one or more tribals set to trade stone for food and ect.
Second, make the map bigger and have the ability to build where you want to. Resource spots like where herds gather and fish domesticate are already there, so making these spot coveted would cause more aggression and have you fighting with tribes over them instead of just burning huts.
Upgrades here aren't optional, and research should be added. An age system like in AOE or Empire Earth combined with smarter AI would give a new victory condition and add more challenge. Maybe make it like civilization where you can win in one of four ways (economics, diplomacy, military, and technology). This could still work because depending on how you play in the game your civ becomes oriented towards one capacity or another. Also, nothing would be more satisfying than watching your species go from stone to bronze to gunpowder. Rivals would be seen as a threat instead of an inconvenience.
The final fixes are minor tweaks. Make hunger take longer to dwindle your tribe, or remove it altogether. Make the maps bigger and the huts defensible without sacrificing available hands. Make weird and interesting occurrences that affect your species more common and interesting (aliens, volcanoes, meteor showers, ect.). ADD A RESTART STAGE BUTTON.
D. One world governments are overated:
With your first city (nation) in tow you spread out to conquer the world and reach the peak of your existence on the homeworld. Now the game shifts into an entirely new RTS, instead of just making the previous stage have a longer and more gradual transition. From stone knives to motor vehicles and boats you wage valliant wars over spice (I think fuel, oil or precious metals would be a more competent investment in war efforts).
The civilizationg stage is easily the most difficult part of the game. You wage wars, trade resources and convert cities to your belief system. Of course, depending on how you played the previous missions you can only really do one of these.Spice and factories in the cities give you the money to fund whatever method you are using to conquer, and your vehicles will bite it by the dozens as you march. This level has some strong parts, as it is the first time the player feels challenged and is the first time you have a real economy.
The problems here are plentiful, unfortunately. However, this must be covered in part two. Hopefully all of my beloved readers found this informative.