Spore fails to live up to its potential

The long wait is finally over, and after many years of hype, Spore has finally been released. This news was immediately greeted with a huge backlash against the malfeasant Digital Restrictions Management included with the game, which limits each purchased copy of the game to three installations — ever. I’ve written about DRM multiple times in the past, so I don’t feel compelled to take this opportunity to make any statement on DRM beyond reiterating how terrible it is for the consumer. And judging by all of the negative reviews Spore’s DRM has engendered on Amazon, even Electronic Arts has to be questioning whether including such draconian DRM was worth it. As I write this, Spore has 934 one-star reviews out of 1,011 reviews total, a number that is only going to increase dramatically over the coming days.

No, what I really want to address about Spore is its failure to live up to the amazing game play that it once promised, an issue that has been mostly lost amongst all of the (justifiable) complaining over the DRM (although Ars Technica didn’t fail to take notice). What really sold me on Spore from the first times I read about it was the promise of truly being able to design a creature. I remember marveling at how all aspects of a creature were supposed to be procedurally generated based solely on the design of the creature. The characteristics of the legs you designed would affect how well the creature would be able to move — its gait, its stride, its jumping height, etc. Ditto for every other component of the animal. I was instantly fantasizing of three-legged creatures with a single exceptionally long appendage used for striking. Such a feature has never evolved naturally on Earth, either by chance or because natural selection is not conducive to creating it. The real appeal of Spore, to me, was being able to test out all sorts of bizarre intelligently designed body configurations that do not appear in the natural world to find the most effective ones. And it would be very telling if the most effective predators in the games looked curiously similar to tigers, lions, and bears.

Combine this ability to truly design your own creature with the Sporepedia, which lets you match up your creations against everyone else’s, and Spore would’ve been amazing. I could easily see myself spending days trying to tweak the ultimate predator, able to kill as many of the creatures created by other people as possible. But alas, such a thing is not possible with Spore the way it ended up, because the ability to truly design creatures was removed at some point during the development process (probably because it ended up being exceptionally difficult to do correctly). Don’t get me wrong, you still have the ability to fine tune the appearance of creatures to your heart’s content, but it is all cosmetic. The finished version of Spore, unfortunately, shipped with an ability-generation system that is all-too-familiar, not revolutionary.

In fact, the creature customization system of Spore is nearly identical to the spaceship customization system in Galactic Civilizations II. In GalCiv, ships are formed by taking a base shape, adding cosmetic shapes of various shapes and sizes on top of it, and then adding modules. Each module takes up a certain amount of space and costs a certain amount of money. GalCiv is all about min-maxing your ship designs: pack in as much firepower/defense/functionality as possible while trying to keep the costs as low as possible (since cost determines how many of them you can build). Spore is exactly the same. The capabilities of your creature are determined not by how the creature is constructed, but simply by which modules are placed on it, and you guessed it, each module costs a certain amount of “DNA points” and has specific statistics for Attack, Defense, etc., exactly like Galactic Civilizations II. It’s still an acceptable system, but it’s not the revolution that I had been hoping for.

So, in Spore, a creature with a Spikes attack module placed on its chest will perform identically well in combat as a creature with a Spikes attack module on a twenty foot appendage, even though, in real combat between such creatures, the ways in which the spikes are used would be completely different, and would offer up substantially different advantages to both creatures. This is the promise of Spore that simply wasn’t met. It’s a pity.

Add to this unexceptional creature creator the chorus of reports that Spore is more fun as a toy than as a game — most parts of Spore aren’t particularly deep or challenging — and you have one AAA title release that I am overwhelmingly ambivalent about. Combine that with the draconian DRM, and you have one game that I know I’m never going to purchase. It’s a pity. Spore showed such promise, but in the end, couldn’t execute.

9 Responses to “Spore fails to live up to its potential”

  1. Greg Maxwell Says:

    On the game, I have no opinion. I don’t play games, and never really been into any games that were big on ‘stats’ for determining behavior. (Puzzle games, OTOH, have wasted many an hour of mine in the past).

    On the subject of DRM: One of the problems with organized responses is that they make it impossible to gauge the actual backlash. They’re important parts in creating a real backlash, but you need to be careful not to mistake the process for the product and declare victory prematurely. The reviews mostly look like carbon copies. While I’m sure it’s raising awareness, I seriously doubt the DRM complaints are costing them a significant number of sales: It’s not like there is some other perfectly equivalent product that lacks the DRM problem. Spore is spore.

    I’ve still yet to see backlash from the general public over DRM *in general*, it’s almost always over extremely overbearing, poorly executed, gratuitously incompatible, or otherwise buggy DRM. Much of the DRM out there meets one or more of those criteria, but there is no reason that it will be so forever.

    Eventually some companies will really work out a DRM which is only ‘minimally invasive’, where “minimally invasive” means enough to maximize their control over you yet stopping short of being noticeable to most of the public. This will undermine the current campaigns against DRM which focus so heavily on the immediate inconvenience of DRM rather than the long term risks or the fundamentally perverse nature of your property obeying some other master.

  2. drinian Says:

    Re. “minimally invasive,” the iTunes DRM is there for much of the public already, just because they don’t look far enough ahead, haven’t bought more than one or two MP3 players, or can’t understand the distinction between technical barriers to playback (“this format is old, nobody supports it any more”) and artificial barriers (“we want to make you buy this song again in two years”). Add in the fact that most music and games are used ephemerally, for periods of no longer than a year or two, and you see why the outcry isn’t quite mainstream yet.

    Re. Spore, the reviews seem to be in line with my expectations from the old demo a few years back — it’s a fantastic simulator, but not so much of a game, like many “artificial life” games tend to be. I’m disappointed to hear that the procedurally generated life didn’t live up to its promises, as this was its best selling point to me.

  3. Greg Maxwell Says:

    A group of people I work with all have iPhones which get discussed fairly frequently, and pretty much every iPhone conversation is directly related to some limitation Apple has imposed. For example, there was a loophole that allowed you to use the iPhone to provide cellular internet access to your PC, but Apple quickly closed the loophole.

    Yet they aren’t irate about this, if anything they seem less upset about this then they would be with pure-technical glitches. And this is a highly technical audience, not the folks who confuse technical limitations manufacture imposition. Apple just seems to have the magic touch.

    Artificial life a game? Back in the day, yo, I had a lot of fun disassembling successful critters in Tierra simulations and determining how they functioned. The spontaneous and unanticipated evolution of viruses and the multitude of counter measures (including what is effectively sexual reproduction) in Tierra are utterly facilitating and are very compelling counter-evidence to those who claim that evolution can’t work. Neat stuff, though I never considered it a game. :) The Wikipedia article on Tierra is kinda sparse and doesn’t really do justice to that remarkable research. This page does a little better, though the really good stuff is in the various scientific papers which do not appear to be freely available online.

  4. Greg Maxwell Says:

    Ohh. Never seen it prior to now, but there is a video about Tierra: over here. Now: Thats alife!

  5. T2A` Says:

    I’m disappointed too. The DRM is typical EA shit — doesn’t surprise me in the least — but the lack of strategy in the game itself is enough to permanently shelve my want to play it. I got the Creature Creator awhile back, and it was disappointing too. Nothing like what I expected and ultimately little to no fun.

    After the idiocy involved with Mass Effect’s DRM, I’ll say Spore is the perfect game to pirate to hell and back. Someday maybe, just maybe, the idiots that publish AAA games will get it.

    I saw an article on Sins of a Solar Empire the other day that said it’s sold half a million copies. It seems apparent that PC gamers are willing to shell out $40 for a DRM-free game. Just imagine how many copies Spore would sell if it didn’t treat its buyers like criminals — Sins is an niche game in comparison and still managed very respectable sales. D:

  6. William (green) Says:

    I didn’t even realize Sins of a Solar Empire was out!
    I didn’t know Spore had been realeased, either, though… About all I can say is… “Well, that’s too bad.”

  7. Cyde Weys Says:

    Yup, Sins of a Solar Empire is definitely out. I even wrote up a mini-review of it back in March. I haven’t really placed it since though, so it didn’t have staying power with me like Team Fortress 2.

    Yes, I’m still playing Team Fortress 2 quite often.

  8. The twisted relationship between game reviewers and game publishers is still going strong | Cyde Weys Musings Says:

    […] up for years, with a truly astronomical budget, it was finally released in the past week. And yet it simply doesn’t live up to its potential (and that’s ignoring the huge Digital Restrictions Management fiasco). It’s just not […]

  9. Spore fails to live up to its potential | PC Game Fun Time Says:

    […] Cross-posted from Cyde Weys Musings. […]