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TVG discusses the finer specifics of the genetic drift with the producer of Spore...
Ever since Spore grabbed many of the major awards at E3 2005, the game has been on the most wanted lists of PC gamers the world over. Its elusive release date has now finally been pinned down to the weekend of September 7th, which will be well over three years since the game was first revealed. TVG caught up with Thomas Vu, a Producer on Spore, to discuss this hotly anticipated game.
TVG: Firstly, could you take us through the key features of the five games, with a stress on the Space mode?
In Cell game it's about surviving. The basic instinct of a creature is to flee, or to eat. So, that's Cell game; you just have to survive to evolve. Then you get to Creature game and that's all about higher brain order, so you're evolving by having your brain get larger. The other thing in Creature is that you're trying to become the dominant species on the planet, which can be done by conquering and making other creatures extinct.
However, we had this idea of extinction or befriending. As you move through the world, other creatures are evolving too. Some creatures won't evolve because they're like the Dodo - they're dumb and they'll just die off. But, other creatures are evolving too and you want to be sort of like their masters.
As you evolve you get pack numbers. It's kind of early man being singular, and then they start to form groups as they get smarter. Then they get domesticated animals - like guys that you'd domesticate and befriend, who become your animals.
Tribe game, the way I see it, is that there are different tribes like different strains of man - like Crow Magnum versus Neanderthal - and the idea here is that you gather all the tribes into one Civ. As that one Civ, in the Civ game, it opens up and there's a bunch of other Civs , while different nations of the world start popping up. At that point there will still be tribes that haven't evolved and you can take them over. In Civ game you try to conquer the whole planet by Religious means, Military means or Economic means. By Economic means you kind of buy the whole planet - you buy all the Civs up; Religious takeover is where you convert everybody to your religion; the Military option is conquering the whole planet, whether with Nuclear weapons or whatever.
In Space game you discover space travel, then you go out and meet other space-faring races. Some will like you, some won't like you, but you need to ally with some and destroy others, thereby spreading your empire. There are tons and tons of planets out there. Some of them are inhabitable, some are not, and you have powers like terraforming with which to terraform the planet. Then, with a UFO, you can abduct players and put them on that planet so that they change the ecosystem a little bit. Eventually, you can place a colony down and as you expand your empires there are a lot of other empires who don't want you to expand too far. Then you have this conflict whether you want to play the war-monger game, or are you satisfied with staying at the size you are? There are different types of archetypes that players conform to.
TVG: Some people have compared the five different game modes to classic games such as Asteroids/Pac-Man for the Cell phase...
The original intent was Pac-Man, Diablo, The Sims for Tribe, Civilization for Civ and MMO for Space.
TVG: And that's how you guys see it, is it?
In some ways - that was sort of the spirit of it. A lot of it's still there, but we don't want to make it too similar. Cell is not Pacman, right? But it has some elements of Pacman. Creature has elements of Diablo and WoW - you know, an avatar based game. Tribe has elements of Sims and also micro-strategy RTS games, while Civ is like Civilization - macro-strategy. The Space game is like freedom; MMO; space-faring.
We really wanted the game to feel continuous. Obviously, casual players might not like RTS; that's why we split it up. But, to get the full Spore experience as a gamer, you'll want to go through all the games because you'll get the sense that, at the end, you've accomplished something where the decisions you've made determine what you are in the end.
TVG: Do you see Spore moving towards the casual market?
The way we approached it was, we wanted to focus on both the causal and mainstream markets. Creativity will apply to both, so both casual and hardcore gamers will like this aspect of making things.
We added the difficulty levels and achievements more for the hardcore gamers. However, Spore starts out very casual - it's easy playing the cell creature moving around and eating things. As the creature gets a little more complicated and with Tribe you start to do micro-management. Then, the Civilization mode introduces macro-management, so it's much more hardcore. Space is open-ended, so you can go hardcore at it, or you can just be casual.
That's the reason why we did the universe in a box. Players can enter any game phase they want and the reason why we wanted to do that was because we found that the hardcore gamers will play through (from Cell to Space, with Tribe and Civ being more hardcore), while casual players might just play Cell, Creature and then Tribe, before jumping to Space. It tends to appeal to both and, going forward with Spore as a platform, we'll likely supply more casual games for people who create and add casual things to it.
TVG: By spreading the game across five genres, do you think that there might be a risk of spreading yourself to thinly on each one?
We try to add depth, but not make it any more complicated. The game needs to be taken as a whole. Imagine the five phases as five stages in one game. If you take each phase as a single piece, then the Civ mode isn't going to feel as deep as Civilization. There's no way, right? Civilization is an incredibly deep game; Tribe won't feel like The Sims. But, if you take the five games as a whole, it's actually quite deep for a huge game.
This game is really long and if you take it as a whole evolution, it's going to be a deep game. If you take one game and compare it as somebody who's spent all their time on one thing, it's not really going to compare because that's not really our intent. We obviously our cognoscente of the fact that some people are going to make that comparison, so we try as much as we can to get people understand that you should take it as one big game because it's one big game.
TVG: Regarding the Sporepedia (a.k.a. the Massively Single-player Metaverse); what do you think features such as the Sporecasts and social networking elements will bring to the game?
It's interesting because we've always wanted to do Pollinated Content. If players can make whatever they want, we want them to be able to get that into other people's games in an easy way. For a long time it was behind the scenes so it appears to just happen by magic. But it's such a powerful concept and just recently we decided that it was something we should put some work into, in terms of making it much more robust and letting players control it, so that's how Sporepedia came about. You'll be able to see all that content as it's coming in, and it's astounding because you'll start to see that there's a lot out there and a lot of people making creative things.
And I always said, "Why don't we make some Sporecasts so that people can control the content that's bought into the game?" After that we thought, 'Well, social networking sites are huge - people like talking about their content; people like commenting - let's create a social networking site that comes in parallel.' So, it starts to build the community around building things.
We imagine that a lot of players will just build things; that's what they'll buy the game to do. They might end-up playing the game through once and then spend the rest of the time building for a few years, hopefully.
TVG: How much will your design of a character effect how well it adapts to its environment?
The way it works is; we wanted the player to be able to create any creature that they want and still succeed. But, the way they create their creature will dictate how they play the game. If you're a carnivore then you're going to have to kill other creatures; if you're a herbivore then you can go down a different path. You can still be a herbivore and kill other creatures if you want.
We want to make sure that as players are making their decisions in the Creature game, it effects the subsequent games; that Tribe and Civ will be affected in ways that are dependent on how you play the Creature game.
TVG: So you carry that one Creature through all of the game modes?
Yeah, and there will be multiple things - a bunch of things that you carry through that would dictate the differences in Tribes.
TVG: In the Creature game, there seems to be a lot of levelling up going on. For example, you go around collecting fossils to raise your social skills so that you can dance or sing with creatures that have higher skill levels - it all felt a bit like WoW. Was this what you were aiming for?
It's not even an MMO, it's a classic RPG - getting experience, buying items etc. Killing a creature gives you money (which is their DNA); you use that DNA to buy parts (which is armour, weapons and abilities), and then you use that to face other, harder creatures. It's a very classic loop, so we used a lot of that because it's something that people understand and it fits very well within our fiction.
TVG: Definitely, but with this Pollinated Content coming in from other user's games, perhaps it could open your game up to advanced user creatures that require a lot of levelling up to battle/socialise with. In that sense, could it be like an MMO, although the users aren't actually playing?
It's actually different from an MMO, because in an MMO the NPCs are sort of static and unchanging. But in our game, you meet a creature and it's been Pollinated so you're like, 'I'm not sure if this creature is more powerful than me; does he have more social abilities?' It's this really interesting mix and, ideally, we want players to look at a creature and think, 'Oh, look! He has legs. Let's see if he can dance.' So, if you're going to socialise with them, make sure you can dance.
If creatures have hands then they can do postures; if they have a nice mouth, then they can sing really well. So you have to figure out what you have and what they have, then evolve your creatures to match them.
TVG: How much will AI vary from one creature to the other, and how much will a player's design impact on that?
The AI doesn't vary through Pollination. The archetype matches up to a creature that is a spitter - a guy who spits. If you meet him in the world, his AI is going to be that of a ranged guy. So, he's going to be spitting at you, then hocking up and spitting at you again. You might meet a guy who is like a charger - he has legs that charge - or a guy who's more of a brute with up close combat. So, that's how much the AI will change and react, but it doesn't go much further than that. You can't really dictate, through making a creature, that this creature will move in a zigzag style and do lots of jumping attacks.
TVG: In Creature and Tribe, your basic goals appear to be socialise or exterminate. If you're a herbivore, you'll want to socialise with other creatures; if you're a carnivore, you'll want to exterminate them, while an omnivore is a mixture of the two. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Currently we're working through how they all fit together to make it much stronger, so these won't be the only goals that you have. In each of the games there will be different events that occur. In Creature game, your species actually migrate across the world, so you have to go and find them and walk through the world. Sometimes you'll see random events occur, like there could be a meteor strike or a UFO from Space game visits your Creatures and abducts other dudes. We paste in things that are fun and things that could happen. But, the strategies that you make get cemented and they get more and more complicated as you move up.
TVG: So, the meteor strikes and things like that. Are they for Creature and Tribe games? Or are they throughout the whole game?
They're throughout and they serve as landmarks to orientate yourself by. This is because the planet that you play on is actually the same planet throughout the games - we don't swap in anything. So, you go out in this new world as this creature; you start to travel in it and, in Tribe, you pull-out and you're like, 'Oh, I see a bit more'; in Civ you're like, 'I see the whole planet'; in Space you see your tiny planet in the galaxy screen where there's hundreds and thousands of other planets.
TVG: There's been a lot of talk about what consoles Spore might end-up on. Obviously we've seen the DS and PC versions here today, but can you tell us about any of the other systems that it could be released on?
We are exploring what we want to do on the console and which console is appropriate for Spore. It's natural for us to start out on the PC because you can do a lot of these things. Just think about something like controls: RTS controls on the console haven't been the best, that's why you don't see very many RTS games on them.
So, there are lots of questions like that we've had to answer and technically we have to figure out - how do you port it? How does it Live update? There are lots of things like that we have to work through. But, at this point, we're really focused on making the PC game the best it could be. Because, once that's done and if it hits critical mass, then all of those other things come really easy because we can figure out - is it worth funding this project? Is it worth funding an Xbox version? There's nothing to announce right now, but that's sort of like how we look at it.
TVG: Okay, so the DS and PC versions are confirmed at the moment, but anything else might come out further down the line after the PC game is released?
Exactly. We're not working on an Xbox version right now that we can release with the PC version so, if we do an Xbox version, it would have to be down the road.
TVG: And as for the Wii and PS3, they'd have to be after the PC's release?
TVG: In many ways the God game genre has died in recent times. Spore could possibly be the God game of all God games, in that it takes so much from its predecessors and gives you the power of creation from the dawn of life to way into the future. Is this what you were aiming for and can you tell us a little bit more about it?
Yeah, it does. In some ways it's almost like the history of games. Early games were really simple and then it got a lot more complicated, and got larger. The history of man maps the same way. Early man was doing really simple things and now it's super complicated - no one knows what the future holds. With Maxis, The Sims and Sim City were all God games (you move things around; you have complete control; you cheat). We encouraged all those things and Spore won't be any different. Spore is all about playing the way you want to. If you're a gamer, play it like a game, but if you're a casual dude who likes to make things, play it that way. We want to give players the tools to play it the way they want and celebrate the content that they create.
In a market full of shooter games, and a market full of sequels, hopefully this is a reminder that there is something different out there; there is a different way to play games. You don't always have to be killing zombies or aliens, although it seems like that's all we're doing nowadays. It's a nice change of pace for the industry and hopefully it's a game that will spur the creation of other games of this type, so we don't get the generic remakes. There are lots of things riding on the game, obviously, and lots of aspirations for the team to make sure it's good. Hopefully you got a glimpse of what we're trying to do. It's ambitious and we're kind of crazy for making it, but that's the sort of position we're in.
TVG would like to thank Thomas Vu, a Producer on Spore, for taking the time to speak with us about Maxis' upcoming game, due out on the weekend of September 7th for PC and DS.