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.