Sims creator releases new epic game

The hotly anticipated Spore, which hit the stores earlier this week, is being touted by publisher Electronic Arts as "your own universe in a box."

Like the record-setting SimCity and subsequent Sim games, Spore is a creative tool that lets users create and build a reality. But Spore picks up where the Sim games left off. Starting with single-cell organisms and eventually reaching beyond the galaxy, players can customize creatures, buildings, vehicles and whole civilizations.

"In Spore, basically, the theme of it is the complete view of life -- from its early origins through evolution. ... But at every level, the player is creating something," Wright said.

Wright sat down with to talk about the origins and evolution of his own latest creation. Here are a few excerpts from that conversation.

Where did the idea for Spore come from?

The idea of it came from a broad interest in science -- since I was a young kid, especially in astronomy -- and more recently, my interest in the SETI [Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] project, which is searching for aliens out in the cosmos.

And, also, I think what players were doing previously with the Sims. We had this community making tremendous amounts of creative characters, houses, objects and stories. And so, I was interested in basically how we could take that to the next level.

We've been told that Spore is a single-player game but incorporates elements of social networking. How does that work?

In some sense, we basically took what we saw happening in social networking sites ... where players aren't necessarily online at the same time, but can go to [other] pages and browse [their] stuff and leave feedback.

In the game, as I'm moving around my universe, I'm encountering creatures and societies that were made by other players. I can click on those and find out who made them. If I like their stuff, I can put them on my buddy list. I can build collections of other things that I find.

At that level, the game is like browsing this huge art gallery. But just about everything you encounter in the game was made by other players.

Unlike other popular games out there, such as Halo and Grand Theft Auto, Spore -- much like the Sim games before it -- really draws from the real world and exposes users to the sciences. Did you mean for it to be an educational tool?

In some sense, Spore was an attempt at showing the unity of all the sciences. We don't chop up the sciences and say, 'This is geology' and 'That's biology.' But, in fact, they're all part of one whole thing.

We take the universe and build a toy out of it. And at different parts of the game, you're playing with a toy character or a toy city or a toy species. We kind of simplify reality and make it a caricature. So, it kind of gives you some aspects of the way evolution works and how societies work.

What kind of person was this game intended for?

Most games shoot for a fairly narrow demographic, usually 15- to 25-year-old males. We were shooting for a much, much wider demographic ... We were looking at a group with a) more gender balance, and that, b) was much more generationally-dispersed.

We actually have a lot of stories of people playing with their 3-year-olds in their laps. It was a really interesting partnership, because you have the adult with the hand-eye coordination, and you have the kid with the imagination. And the kid doesn't have the hand-eye coordination, and the adult doesn't have the imagination, but together, they had a lot of fun playing with it.

PC games seem like artifacts from the past, now that so many games are console-based and work with Nintendo's Wii and Sony's Xbox. Yet, Spore is a game for the PC. Why?

We're also rolling [over] to lots of other platforms, as well. This week, we're releasing a version for the iPhone and the Nintendo DS, and we'll be looking at other platforms, as well.

The PC was a good starting point because we were inventing a lot of new technology, but also because of the online connectivity aspect. Most PCs are on the Internet and that was a fundamental aspect of the game. Consoles are getting on the Internet, as well, but not quite as connected as PCs are.

The gaming industry is booming, but often gets knocked for glamorizing violence and sexism. What's the state of the industry, in your opinion?

I think it's getting better. I think games like the Sims allow [players] a lot more creative self-expression than a game like Halo. I love playing Halo and first-person shooters [video games distinguished by a first-person perspective], but pretty much everyone's going around blowing up the same stuff.

A game like the Sims is actually more focused on the player driving the experience. You get to create the characters, and then the environment, and then, eventually, you unfold the story that's the player's story. It's not a story that the game designers are trying to tell you.

Is the industry moving in this direction?

I think that's where games should be pointed -- in encouraging players to tell stories and extracting these worlds from the imagination of the players, rather than necessarily imposing the story, or imposing the environment, on the player. I think this, in general, is a more powerful use of the medium.

Within the industry, I think we're actually seeing a diversification of games and platforms, driven by things like the Nintendo Wii, that are opening up games to people who wouldn't touch them normally. ... We're finding that people in retirement homes are playing these games, and little kids.

The gaming industry is in much better shape than it was five or 10 years ago. We were in danger of closing off the door to a lot of new players.

Spore has received a mix of positive and negative reviews from the media and users. What do you make of the criticism that the game isn't as engaging as it was expected to be?

Spore was definitely leaning on the side of creativity ... and so, in some sense, the game play isn't really punishing on the early levels. And for a hardcore gamer, it is going to seem very simple, until you get to space level, where it does actually get quite complicated and interesting for people who want that.

When we looked at the Sims community, we found that the players who were really into it were probably spending less than half their time actually playing the Sims, and around half the time involved in the community aspects of the game -- you know, going to Web sites, building collections [and] downloading stuff.

This is the part of Spore that we're just starting to see kick-started.

I checked our database yesterday. We had about 5 million unique objects that players had made. And I checked it today and it was up to 8 [million]. ... So, what we have is this huge pile of creative output from players.

In some sense, shipping the game, for us, was [being] about halfway done with development. You know, we're outsourcing a lot of the content development to the fans. And I think, in a couple of weeks, they will have made huge strides on the second half of development.

So, in some ways, the reviewers haven't played the finished game?

It'll be a nice thing to see how different the game feels two to three weeks from now.

Actually, if you go back to the original reviews of the Sims, [they] weren't that great. But after a few months, players started creating huge fan sites with all these cool objects that you could download.

And what happens next for you?

The community is really the most important object here. In some sense, the game is just a tool to launch a vibrant, powerful community. And looking at the way the community is structured, what the dynamics are, and what the social currency flowing through that community is, is going to be the really interesting part for me right now...

It's actually amazing, you spend all these years creating something that will entertain people and, at some point, they start entertaining you back.

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