In 2008, the popular video game SPORE was released. Players started out as a single-celled organism and progressed to become a space-faring race with an empire on a galactic scale.
And overall the game was pretty enjoyable. Players got to design their own creatures and their own spaceships, along with buildings and vehicles. It was a revolutionary concept, and there were multiple expansion packs. But something about the game also left a lot to be desired.
Death By Micromanagement
The early parts of the game were interesting. In the Cell and Creature Stages, players could collect parts and DNA points that they could use to build a better creature. The Tribal and Civilization Stages also had a strategy-game type vibe, which was especially interesting since players got to design their own units.
Personally, I would love to see that sort of concept in a Starcraft II-style game.
But after players got past the earliest parts of the Space Stage a lot of the game became a repetitive chore. There was constant bickering between small empires and constant calls from across the galaxy that some animal species had a glowing tail virus and if you did not come kill them the ecosystem on that planet would collapse.
My take on that was “Look, I am halfway across the galaxy fighting the Grox. You have tanks and airplanes and spaceships. WHY can you not kill the glowing virus two-headed hippobutts yourself?” (And it seemed that environmentalist species tended to be hit the most by these. What’s up with that???)
A player could use a couple of devices to prevent eco disasters or pirate raids on their own worlds, but on planets inhabited by near-useless alien allies, this was not an option. Of course, these and other micromanage-chore missions could all just be ignored after a while.
Even worse, when it came to managing one’s own empire, the game was a mess. If an alien race attacked one of a player’s planets, the inhabitants could not figure out that they should probably rebuild a house or a factory after the attack. So a player would have to fly across the galaxy to go fix it. And if one wanted to settle a new planet, every single colony, building, and turret had to be placed by hand. (This latter part was, in my opinion, the very worst part of the game.)
And then the game did not always work properly. As a fan, I still play at times, but the thing that made me finally break down and write this article tonight was the fact that when I buy an alien homeworld with 8 cites for 10 million sporebucks, 5 of those cities routinely disappear, leaving only 3. So what was the point of buying that system or uplifting an alien species in the first place?
The SPORE game has a lot going for it. In terms of concept and creativity, I give it an A, but in terms of execution, I have to give it a D- at the Space Stage at best. Other stages might get a C or a B, but the Space Stage is supposed to be the culmination of the game, not a long series of endless chores.
How To Reboot The Game
There are two primary aspects of how I would approach rebooting a game like SPORE. These are expanding creative freedom, and reducing micromanagement. But there are also other key aspects that I would suggest for game improvement.
The wide range of creative options for players who want to create buildings, creatures, and spaceships was well done. But I think that the creative options should be expanded. And I don’t just mean giving players more parts to work with, or easing up on the complexity limits, I mean completely reimagine what’s involved in designing a creature.
Not only should players be able to make creatures, perhaps they can make and upload parts as well. Since this is a Lego-style virtual game, why not give players the freedom to design their own creature or vehicle parts?
And I don’t just mean create more options within the existing system. The interface should be redesigned from the ground up. I have no idea how to make that happen, but if I had the freedom as a player to easily make a detailed dragon or octopus, it would be an incredible experience.
An interface like this would not have to be overly complicated. Some players might throw arms and legs on a body, while more advanced players might be able to create a unique multi-jointed limb that could be shared on the servers.
Also, as someone with a career in the life sciences, I object to the whole dichotomy of sharp teeth = carnivore and flat teeth = herbivore. Have you ever seen a fruit bat skull or a panda? Reduce that sort of limitation in creature creation, and give players a little more freedom in terms of creative license. It will be more accurate towards biology that way.
The game would be even better if players could create somewhat realistic humanoid creatures. Being able to play the game as a human being from Earth would be an option a lot of players would go for. Since Maxis also makes the Sims games, this ought to be something that they can integrate.
Obviously, the micromanagement has to go. If a player sets up a colony on a planet, then give the colonists the ability to build new cities, and improvements, and trade with other worlds. Having to build every city from scratch is a real chore for those who are trying to take a break from their lives.
During the course of The Sims series, Maxis eventually gave Sim characters the ability to go to the bathroom on their own. Perhaps they can do the same with brave, space-faring colonists in galactic empires.
(Previously, players had to tell characters in The Sims series to go to the bathroom when their bladder was full. This level of micromanagement became annoying for obvious reasons.)
Maxis might also take inspiration from other space-colony type games. The game Civilization: Beyond Earth had a lot of options in terms of how much of the game was micromanaged by a player, and how much could be automated. In fact, most games that deal with a large number of units have automation to some extent or another, so that a player can focus on moving forward in a story.
Rebooting The Story
A moment ago I touched on the need to move a story forward. One tip I learned in a book on writing fiction was that readers (or in this case players) have to have some sense that a story is progressing. If I still have 2,000 Grox star systems to take over, and I am doing the same thing over and over again, then that sense of progress is not happening. (Even without the glitches.)
But there is something even more important. The most important part of writing fiction is conflict. I use the term “conflict” here in an almost technical sense. Explaining the details of how conflict works is beyond the scope of this article, but ask any successful writer, and they will explain that if you do not have conflict, you cannot have a good story.
A character in a story may want to rescue the princess and collect the treasure, but perhaps there is a fearsome dragon guarding the castle — a dragon that is more powerful than the character and which will try to kill any hero who comes too close.
Without that conflict, a character is simply finding gold in a castle — there is no conflict, no struggle, and no growth for the character. We may very well be happy that he found some gold, but we are not invested in any sort of struggle or accomplishment that the story has to offer.
The concept of the Galactic Adventures expansion was a step in the right direction, but it needed to go further.
On a galactic level, there ought to be a sense of some existential threat. This evil alien race is going to destroy everyone and everything I love, and it is my job to stop them. The Borg in Star Trek do that well and represent a threat that people relate to in many ways, the fear of Collectivist slavery, and the fear of technology being used for evil purposes (rather than a fear of technology itself.)
The Grox come across as silly bad-guys. But what if they were something more? What if there was a race going around conquering other races and assimilating them into their cause? This could be done Borg-style, or in the style of interstellar locusts.
More complex adversaries could be used as well, such as rival empires with mixed intentions that may or may not align with the protagonist species. (Consider the Klingons from Star Trek and their mixed history with the Federation.)
A species with 5 star systems “at war” with a guy who can wipe them out in an hour represents a nuisance, not a conflict. They are like a mosquito. They are an annoying insect to be squashed, not a dragon to be conquered. They do not represent any real threat that adds to a story.
In the vein of Galactic Adventures, I would also like to see real battles that take place on a planet. Those custom designed tanks, navies, and aircraft from the Civilization Stage could make for some seriously interesting StarCraft II — style battles. The fact that they are only really used for about one hour in the actual game is a lot of wasted potential.
At the end of the day, I would love to see an upgraded version of a SPORE-style game that allowed players to have a lot more freedom to play and provided a lot more potential for satisfying and enjoyable gaming experiences.
While I still periodically enjoy playing SPORE, the game leaves a lot to be desired. Maxis would do well to update some of the gameplay with some patches, but ultimately I would like to see the game totally rebooted, either by Maxis or by one of their competitors.
A galactic-level game with real story, real conflict, and real gameplay but also with the creativity of SPORE has the potential to be something incredible. The main key is to get game designers to actually build it.
G.S. Muse - Medium
Read writing from G.S. Muse on Medium. G.S. Muse, also known as GreenSlugg on YouTube or simply as "Greg" is a lab…
SPORE, Evolution, And Biology — Sidebar
As someone with a background in the life sciences, I really enjoyed the concept of making my own creatures. I also enjoyed terraforming and colonizing planets with these creatures. In many ways, it reflects my career goals in biotechnology, albeit in a more theatrical way.
Some people claim that this game simulates Darwinian Evolution. I personally found this to be a surprising claim because it just shows that these people do not know what Evolution means or what it is supposed to entail.
Darwin’s theory proposed that living things evolve as the result of small, gradual, random changes that are filtered by natural selection. In Darwin’s mind, this purely natural process could take a single-celled organism and slowly cause it to evolve into all of the life we see on Earth today — with no need for direct intervention from an outside intelligence.
The SPORE gameplay much more closely follows biochemist Michael Behe’s concept of Intelligent Design, rather than any sort of Darwinian scenario. In SPORE, players give creatures a feeding apparatus or a flagellum or eyes or limbs as whole body parts. Some are more simple or more complex than others, and creatures may become gradually more complex as they go, but the whole process is driven by an intelligent agent (the player) making rational, not random, decisions as to how to best improve their creature. And later, creatures are either intelligently adapted (one might say genetically engineered) or made from scratch for the player to colonize planets.
Compare that to Darwin’s concept. Evolution, by definition, is supposed to be a natural process devoid of any intelligent designer, while SPORE obviously has players designing their own creatures over the course of progressive gameplay.
While Darwin believed in a sort of deity, the whole point of his theory was to explain how life could evolve without the direct involvement of some kind of designer. The proverbial watch without an intelligent watchmaker. This means that most concepts of “Theistic Evolution” become essentially a contradiction in terms, where they have unguided guided evolution by some sort of deity.
One can, of course, believe in the existence of a deity and Evolution, but depending on exactly what one means, to say that a deity guided Evolution generally shows that one does not understand the philosophical underpinnings in modern evolutionary thought. The whole point of Evolution is to explain design without a designer.
But does the case for Darwinism (in any form) hold up when looked at critically?
I personally studied molecular biology in college, and the more I learn, the more clear it becomes that the case for design is much stronger. That is why a growing number of biologists are embracing design over Darwin.
Mutation and natural selection are good at explaining some aspects of how living organisms adapt to their environment, but they fail to explain the origin of fundamentally new specified complexity within the genome.
As an undergrad, I saw a lot of students and PhDs alike who changed their minds on this topic when they saw the arguments from biologists who argue for either Creation or Intelligent Design. Most were not even aware that there were scientists critical of Evolution, but once they heard both sides, it became pretty clear to many that the arguments for design were much better than those for any form of Darwinian Evolution.
This, of course, is a topic that will raise a lot of questions, and one that I talk about more in other articles and videos. But to summarize part of my thoughts, my studies in molecular biology have lead me to believe that biological life must have been designed, and from further study, I think that the designer is the God of the Bible.
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My name is Greg. I am a research technician by day, and an author, blogger, and YouTuber by night. I like to create…
G.S. Muse - Medium
Read writing from G.S. Muse on Medium. G.S. Muse, also known as GreenSlugg on YouTube or simply as "Greg" is a lab…
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