The Evolution of 'Spore'

With Will Wright's hotly anticipated video game now in stores, Janet Hetherington chats with the creators about how Spore was cultivated.

Spore is the highly anticipated video game in which players create early cellular lifeforms (above) and evolved species, build civilizations, forge alliances and battle in outer space. All images © Electronic Arts.

September heralds the frantic back-to-school activities of children who reluctantly leave behind the last freedom-filled days of summer. However, this September also brings Spore -- Will Wright's new creative video game vision for this wired generation of youth.

Launched in Europe on September 5 and in North America on September 7, Spore (from Electronic Arts and Maxis) is a video game for PC or Mac in which the player moves from the creation of early cellular form of life, to evolving species, to building civilizations, to forging alliances or undertaking epic battles in outer space. Spore Creatures for Nintendo DS and Spore Origins for mobile phones are also now available worldwide.

Following the game's launch, the National Geographic Channel is scheduled to premiere How to Build a Better Being, a companion documentary to Spore, on September 9. The show -- also included in the limited-run Spore Galactic Edition -- features Wright and leading scientists exploring the genetic information that humans share with all animals, including creatures that have never previously been envisioned.

The creatures of Spore also infiltrated MTV News during Video Music Awards coverage from September 5 to September 7 on MTV and MTV2. Creatures viewed breaking news through their own special lens -- reacting in ways that only Spore creatures can. EA is also pursuing licensing television and movie rights to Spore.

Wright said in a Reuters interview, "With Spore, we're looking way outside the game space, such as TV, movies, etc. We're basically planting the seeds to spread Spore out to a much wider group of people than would ever play a computer game."

With Spore, Wright is also asking, "What are the things that evolution has at its disposal to define a creature, to mix and match the parts, and eventually come up with a unique organism that's going to live its life and try to reproduce?"

Spore's designers describe the game as a "personal universe in a box," allowing players to create and evolve life, establish tribes, build civilizations, sculpt worlds and then explore universes created by other players. Players take control of their creatures' fates as they guide them through six evolutionary phases: Tidepool (survival of the fittest at the most microscopic level); Creature (venturing onto dry land to evolve); Tribal (caring for an entire tribe); City (bringing the creatures into an era of technology); Civilization (seeking out and interacting with other cultures); and Space (moving on to other worlds in the solar system).

Players take control of their creatures' fates as they guide them through six evolutionary phases: Tidepool, Creature (above), Tribal, City, Civilization and Space.

Some eight years in the making, Spore has already won a Leipziger Messe Best of CG Award for Best PC Game and an E3 2008 GameSpot Editors' Choice Award for Best Strategy Game (PC).

Spore's procedural animation architect Chris Hecker joined the team over three years ago. "EA was willing to give this game the time it deserved in development. It had time to simmer, which shows in the game," Hecker says. "While it's still a game in that it fits into that definition due to its player interactivity, Spore tends to kick it up a notch with its 'Creature Creator' and other features."

Senior producer Morgan Roarty says that the game basically has three levels of difficulty, with the ultimate goal of getting into space. It can take a player four to six hours of very basic play to evolve from single-cell activity to space exploration. However, building the weird new-species creatures and their environments may be as attractive to some players as completing the core game and conquering distant worlds. "Spore is unique because while you can play it as a game, some people may never go into the game," Roarty says.

Mr. Potato Spore

Spore provides players with a wealth of creative tools to customize nearly every aspect of their universe -- creatures, vehicles, buildings, spaceships and more. Roarty compares Spore's Creature Creator to the classic building toy Mr. Potato Head, because of the player's ability to add complex features to his or her creation, such as different skin tones and textures or multiple limbs.

"The combinations are just insane," agrees Hecker. He explains that special blocks have been rigged for body parts such as mouths, long snouts or short snouts. "However," he says, "the players use the blocks in different ways than we ever thought they would." For example, some creative wags have taken the mouth rig and repurposed it to create a blossoming flower.

Spore provides players with a wealth of creative tools to customize nearly every aspect of their universe -- creatures, vehicles (above), buildings and spaceships.

Hecker knows how creative Spore aficionados can be because the Creature Creator component has been available to players in advance of the boxed game release. A free demo version was made available worldwide in June via download, as well as with the June release of the SimCity boxed game. The demo allowed players to shape, paint and play with an unlimited number of creatures, using 25 percent of the creature-making parts from Spore. A complete retail version of the Creature Creator hit stores in North America in June, priced at $9.99, giving players access to all the creature-making parts in the game.

All creatures designed with the Spore Creature Creator can be imported into September's full-console versions. Players (including demo gamers) are able to share their creations with friends, including uploads to YouTube. Players can also share their creations with the world via Sporepedia online and explore new galaxies created by other gamers.

At the time Creature Creator was released -- or unleashed -- Wright commented, "The amazing creations players design this summer will help populate the game universe we all enter when Spore ships this September, so in a sense, the Spore Creature Creator is the birth of Spore."

The early implementation of the Creature Creator also provided Spore's developers with the opportunity to tweak aspects of performance and animation. For instance, Hecker called for examples of broken animations back in June, asking players to visit his Spore page and to tag creatures for identification purposes.

The request stated, "Please tag creatures that animate poorly with 'breakprocanim' so we can find them. By poorly, I mean popping, limbs buckling, extreme jerkiness, parts flying off, bad gait, and that sort of thing... but not intra-creature penetration/clipping/collision, meaning legs are allowed to go through each other, etc."

However, Roarty recalls that this request yielded some unexpected responses. "People were asking, 'please don't fix this!' because even certain bugs were being exploited in new and different ways," he says.

For some players, building the weird new-species creatures and their environments (above) may be more engaging than playing the actual game.

In the Beginning

It's not just the players who are passionate about Spore. Roarty notes that the professionals hired to take the game from concept to reality, and who had to embrace the notion of procedural animation, needed to be artists and programmers both. "There was no context for making the things we wanted to make," he says. "It was a blank slate."

"Our animation system is really crazy," Hecker says. "We were creating intuitive graphics."

At Montreal's 2006 ADAPT conference, artist Christian Lorenz Scheurer spoke about being hired as conceptual art director on Spore in 2004, during which he was asked to previsualize prototypes of planets, creatures, vegetation, vehicles and architecture and their various building blocks. Scheurer noted that some of his most rewarding work experiences have been in game design, because there are generally fewer constraints than in films.

Roarty says that animators with special talents were needed for Spore. "The question was whether we should hire people to deliver programming who then learn how to animate, or do we hire animators who can program?" he says. "In the end, we turned to animators who can animate."

One of the key methods for developing the procedural animation was to watch how animators would animate in Maya. This was eventually translated into the game by Spore's animation tool, known as Spasm.

With procedural animation, creatures and vehicles move based on how the players construct them. They behave and interact based on gamers' input and by their in-game encounters. There is no predetermined path that must be followed, and the game evolves based on players' decisions.

This means there are lots of choices. "There are scripts for terrain, trees, water... all those objects can be modified with paint, texture map, etc.," Roarty says. However, there is no "planet edit" function in the game, because players get to sculpt -- to terra form -- the planetary bodies themselves.

Spore's complex programming and rendering techniques utilized NVIDIA development tools, including PerfHUD 6, an improved version of NVIDIA's graphics debugging and performance analysis tool for DirectX 9 and 10 applications. PerfHUD is widely used by game developers to debug and optimize their games. The new version included comprehensive support for optimizing games for multiple GPUs using NVIDIA SLI technology, powerful texture visualization and override capabilities, an API call list, dependency views, and more.

Alec Miller, Maxis graphics engineer, noted, "Spore relies on a host of graphical systems that support a complex and evolving universe. The ability to overlay live GPU timings and states helps us rapidly diagnose, fix, and then verify optimizations. As a result, we can simulate rich worlds alongside interactive game play."

Music underscores the epic events that take place in Spore, with the two largest categories being "editor music" and "in-game" music. Each editor and each game has a different musical treatment, and all levels use some procedural or random elements.

The game basically has three levels of difficulty, with the ultimate goal of getting into space.

"The theme of the music changes... it's reflective and responsive," Hecker says. "For example, the theme of the City will change. Or, for creatures, it will key up depending on what parts you put on."

Two notable Spore composers are Cliff Martinez -- a composer who film director Steven Soderbergh often uses and who wrote the galaxy theme music -- and Brian Eno, who worked on many aspects of the game's procedural music.

Planting an Online Spore

At Comic-Con International in San Diego, Wright commented on Spore and about the new way of the world -- including the evolution of the Internet, which originated as a defense research tool. Wright noted that the Internet has shifted from a problem-solving tool to an entertainment vehicle. "It now aspires upward into art," he says.

In addition to being creative, Spore is focused on the "amazing social experiment" aspect of the game. "This PC game has a heavy online presence," Roarty says. "There are three million creatures sitting there."

The online aspect offers players a sense of community and the opportunity to explore other gamers' creatures and worlds, in addition to their own. "If you're not into creating things, you can go look for creatures in a Sporecast [a collection of a person or group's creations that have been gathered together, usually by a specific theme, and made available for other players to subscribe to] that have already been created," Hecker says.

Will Wright.

Gamers can also visit SporeWiki, which was founded in January 2006. Created as a means of cataloging information about Spore, the site was designed as a wiki because it was intended to be expanded and explored by the Spore fan community as a whole.

However, Spore creatures can also populate the printed page or become web comics via the MashON Comic Book Creator. "What we're seeing is the emergence of a new multimedia form of communication," says Philippe Benoliel, CEO, MashON. "Whether you're creating a single-cell e-card or a multi-page comic book, yearbook or scrapbook, the ultimate objective in most cases is to communicate and share that creation with others."

"We see the ability to quickly email or post these creations on social networks as an incredibly powerful way to express oneself in a creative fashion, to a larger audience than ever before," Benoliel continues. "The digital form of distribution provides speed and cost-effectiveness and can place your creation in front of millions of people in seconds, which could never be achieved with printed material. Moreover, we see the emergence of 'Wiki Comics,' where people around the world could collaborate to build and extend a story -- imagine the power of that!

A new multimedia form of communication has emerged with Spore; players can explore other gamers' worlds, visit a Sporecast, SporeWiki, or use MashOn Comic Book Creator to put their creations before millions of people in seconds.

"Having said that, we recognize the charm attached to printed comic books and, with that in mind, we offer MashON users the ability to print their creation through our professional print tunnel, which would deliver to them professional printed comics such as they would buy on the newsstand. So anyone can now create and publish their own comic books."

Benoliel says that for MashON, the richness of the Spore world and its characters seemed an ideal way to showcase the power and flexibility of its new MashON Creator, which is now an entirely Flash-based, online suite of applications.

"We were able to customize the applications to look and feel exactly like the Spore application and give users the capability to work with EA's amazing artwork, as well as utilize their own," comments Benoliel. "We were also able to work closely with EA's team to integrate video content from the game, which makes the story that much more attractive and interactive."

Benoliel says that he believes that Will Wright said something "very true" during his speech at Comic-Con. "He said, 'If you ask a group of five-year-olds who [among them] can draw or sing, most will put up their hands... if you ask 40-year-olds the same question, almost no hands will go up.'" With the Comic Book Creator, like Spore itself, Benoliel says, "You don't have to be creative or technical, but you can still create a high-quality multimedia mashup in minutes. And most importantly... it's your story."

Hecker notes that Spore has been planting the seeds of the next generation of animators. "Creators are being inspired to do 3D modeling and to create videos," Hecker says. The YouTube generation is creating original content, including videos featuring scenarios like dancing Spore creatures."

"We've been using the Creature Creator at schools with six- to nine-year-olds," says Roarty. "You put in eyes and a mouth and it will blink and move. It comes alive. For those kids, it's simply mind-boggling."

"One of the magical things about Spore is that it is not limited," Hecker says. "It unlocks your creativity, and that unlocking pertains as much to adults as it does to kids."

Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist in Ottawa, Canada, who shares a studio with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.

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