GC '07: Spore Impressions

We meet with EA behind closed doors to check out a playable version of Will Wright's evolutionary life-form simulation game.

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LEIPZIG, Germany--Earlier today during a meeting with Electronic Arts, we had an opportunity to sit in on a 30-minute presentation of Spore. Currently scheduled for release in the Spring of 2008, the life-simulation game from The Sims creator Will Wright is purportedly already far enough along in development that it can be played from start to finish. If you've been keeping up to date with Spore since it was announced in 2005, you'll know that the game is divided up into five distinct levels. In case you're not familiar with them, here's a quick rundown of what you'll be doing in each level:

Level 1: The "Cell" portion of Spore will see you assuming the role of a single-celled organism for around 30 minutes. Your goal will simply be to swim around and eat other organisms and, in doing so, enhance your DNA.

Level 2: The "Creature" phase will see you crawling out of the water onto land for the first time. When you get there you'll need to evolve your creature through either aggressive or social interactions with other creatures, through eating various meats and fruits, and using the game's powerful creature design tools.

Level 3: After getting the population of your new species to a certain size you'll enter the "Tribe" phase of the game, which takes the form of a somewhat simplistic real-time strategy game. As a tribe, your main goal will simply be to grow, which you can achieve through procreation or by recruiting creatures from other tribes by befriending or going to war with them.

Level 4: Once your tribe reaches a certain size--the required population appeared to be 15 in the version of the game we were shown--you'll enter the "Civilization" level. Although your creatures can no longer evolve at this point, you'll have the freedom to design buildings, vehicles, and such using tools similar to those with which you designed your creature. Interactions with other groups of creatures will become more complex at this stage, since you'll gain access to strategies such as diplomacy and cultural conversion.

Level 5: "Space" is the final frontier as far as Spore is concerned, and after winning the evolutionary race on your start planet, it'll be time to take to the stars in search of new ones to colonize or conquer. Along the way you'll encounter other species every bit as advanced as your own, and you'll have the option to trade with them, go to war with them, or simply do your best to ignore them.

Today's presentation focused on levels 2 and 3, so the first thing we got to see was a number of organisms identical to the player's crawling onto the land. The brief, in-engine cutscene that followed showed a pair of the organisms mating and then, when an egg appeared on the ground just a few moments later, we got to see the creature editor in action. The creature editor is a deceptively powerful tool that you'll use to determine the path of your species' evolution.

The abomination of nature that we saw created from scratch started out with a spine that the player was able to pull into just about any shape imaginable just by grabbing different parts of it with the mouse and pulling them around. The body of flesh surrounding the spine appeared to be every bit as easy to manipulate as the skeleton beneath, turning from skinny into bulbous and back again in seconds. Next, limbs were added. You'll have the freedom to add as many arms and legs to the body you've created as you see fit (within reason), and each of them can be manipulated in the same way as the body. Legs can be inverted, arms can be extended so that they drag along the ground--you really can do just about anything you want to them. Some of your creations might end up looking less than feasible, but Spore's own Mother Nature will animate them convincingly regardless. That's a bold claim, and it's not one that we heard from EA--it's based purely on what we saw for ourselves today.

What else did we see? The creature created during our presentation had four legs, two of which were inverted. It had two arms, it had spikes on its knees, its eyes were on what we would've assumed was the chest, and its mouth (beak, actually) was positioned high above its torso at the end of a long neck. In short, it looked like nothing we've ever seen before, but as our presentation progressed we got to see the ungodly creation walk, run, dance, sing, fight, and even re-enact a famous scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey by tossing a piece of wood up into the air in slow motion while orchestral music played in the background.

The gameplay in level two will see you assuming the role of a lone creature on a planet inhabited by up to 15 other species--all of which will have been created by other players, even though Spore doesn't feature multiplayer support per se. When encountering new creatures you'll want to interact with them so that you can earn DNA points and unlock new body parts to spend them on. Initially, your only option for befriending other creatures will be to sing to them, but as you evolve you'll learn to dance and make gestures such as waving. Your combat abilities will also be very limited initially and, as you might expect, the moves available to you will be determined in part by factors such as how many limbs you've given your creature. As you add new parts to your creature you'll find that many of them either afford you new abilities or enhance existing ones.

Another very important part of your creature's design, at least from an aesthetic point of view, will be its coloration. We didn't get to see the coloring tools in action for very long, but it's clear that will be large number of different colors, markings and patterns to choose from. Furthermore, you'll be able to layer different visual effects on top of each other to create a unique look, and we noticed later in the game that when tribes appoint an alpha male, said creature invariably becomes bigger than the rest of the group and exhibits much more vibrant coloring.

One of the most important abilities you'll learn as you walk around the planet on your own is the mating call, which can be used to locate or attract potential partners for procreation. You'll also learn to make friends with other creatures form different species, and if they agree to join your "posse" when you invite them to, they'll follow you around and do their best to help you out the next time you're in combat or attempting to impress another creature. To get a friend into your posse you'll first need to impress three members of its species, and when you get three friends in your posse you'll progress to level three.

As we mentioned earlier, the "Tribe" stage of your evolution will take the form of a somewhat simplistic real-time strategy game. You'll have a base, you'll send creatures out to obtain supplies--by foraging for fruit, hunting, or fishing--and you'll inevitably have to interact with other tribes at some point. During our presentation we watched one tribe try to befriend another by taking them gifts of food. That didn't work out on this occasion, so we then got to see a battle between two tribes, which was resolved when the attacking tribe managed to destroy the defenders' main hut. Any enemies that hadn't already been killed surrendered and joined the attacking tribe at that point, more than making up for the warriors who had fallen in the conflict.

By growing your tribe and stockpiling food you'll gain access to more advanced weapons, tools, and structures. Primitive clubs will become axes, for example, and one of the first buildings that we saw added to the tribe's camp as they evolved was a healing tent. Another neat feature that we saw in action during the tribe level was the option to create different outfits for your creatures that they'll wear when performing certain actions. Garments such as helmets and loincloths didn't appear to afford the creatures wearing them any attribute bonuses or anything, but when combined with the costume-like warpaint option, they certainly made it easy to tell which creatures were doing what.

When the tribe was 15-strong (our presenter was cheating to speed up the process quite considerably), level three came to an end. Before leaving the presentation room we were treated to a brief look at level four, "Civilization." You'll get to design buildings and land, sea, and air vehicles using tools very similar to those that are used for creatures. We saw a building that looked like some kind of monument, we saw futuristic-looking buggies, and we even saw a small squadron of military aircraft approaching what was presumably an enemy settlement. It could hardly have been further removed from the lone exploration of an island inhabited by colorful creatures that we'd witnessed earlier, and when the presentation came to an end it was hard not to be impressed by the scope and sheer scale of Will Wright's vision.

After being told that we'd get to play Spore for ourselves today it was, of course, more than a little disappointing to sit through a presentation instead. Spore still ranks as one of the highlights of day one at the 2007 Leipzig Games Convention, though, and we really can't wait to bring you more information just as soon as it becomes available.

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