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Spore, and miscellaneous other stuff
Bar Harbor
1:25 PM
While waiting in line, I started reading Prensky’s book. A quote in it prompted me to share with him the anecdote of how, when I was in High School, learning how to drive, and playing the Star Wars arcade game were mutually reinforcing each other in my brain development. Then we got let in!

Spore demo was very impressively done, though a lot of it was still smoke and mirrors. It mostly focused on the Creature creation and the final Space mode of the game.

Creature creation looks wonderfully straightforward. You can easily adjust the basic body shape, then drag-and-drop limbs, sense organs, and the like. The parts are also adjustable in size and shape. Interestingly, the various parts come with attributes that affect the creature’s performance. The mouth that you choose determines the creature’s voice. After the shape is created, you can paint it. This is also very easy, since they have implemented a bunch of algorithmic routines for painting, so you just, for instance, hit the “stripes” button, and it applies stripes to the creature appropriately. The various parts come with animtions, either built in (eyes blinking), or algorithmic (legs walk, albeit sometimes in a clumsy manner).

One of the biggest ideas in this game, from my POV, is “pollinated content”. After giving the user tools to affect all the content in the game, that content is uploaded to their servers, then spread out to other users. They *claim* that the content that gets downloaded to any particular user will be in accord with the aesthetic choices that that user has already expressed in their game. Sounds like an AI-hard problem to me, but I’m intensely curious how they’re approaching that under the hood. If you like some particular content, you can “Friend” that creator, and the servers will preferentially download content from them. It is still a single-player game; content that originated with other users will retain its original stats (some of which will determine its behavior), but there will be no direct player-to-player interaction.

Creatures, when in the world, exhibit pack behavior, and protect their eggs. Their behavior (what we saw of it) “read” extremely well. It reminded me of what Ken was talking about a few years back, about how the next AI revolution would be in animal behavior.

The player controls one particular creature (at this stage of the game), and does various social or combat activities to collect “DNA”, which is effectively the currency used for character growth. The avatar can “mate” with another creature of its species (very cartoony, currently with cheesy 70’s mood music), and produce eggs. If these eggs are protected long enough to “hatch”, the player can go back into the creature editor and spend DNA to upgrade various components of his creature. After this edit, the player re-enters the game as a “baby” version of the creature which will grow over time.

Eventually, the brain will get upgraded to the point of intelligence, at which stage, the player enters the “Tribal” phase (which we didn’t really see much of). Once in the tribal phase, you can edit the flora of the world as well, and start creating buildings for the tribe. The next stage after that is Cities, and eventually Civilizations. You can create different kinds of vehicles, which are the mechanism that communicates between cities (in various modes: military, diplomatic, cultural).

At the pinnacle of the Civ phase, you can buy a UFO and unlock the final, Space phase of the game. The UFO is also highly editable, of course. It can have an Abduction Ray, which can be used to remove specimens from one planet in order to seed another planet with them, possibly for terraforming. The abduction ray is almost mini-game in itself; if you manipulate it in the “wrong” way, you can fling critters violently through the air. Apparently even into orbit if you get a good angle :) This was apparently one of those happy accidents in development that they left in because it was fun.

With your UFO, you can visit other planets in your solar system, or zoom out to your local star cluster, or even further and further out, all the way to a level which is an entire galaxy. There can be literally millions of unique planets.

Out in space, the game is very open-ended. You can try and form galactic alliances, or conquer, or explore for ancient artifacts, or terraform hostile worlds. Apparently, you eventually get access to large-scale terraforming tools, and can reshape entire planets. There are “missions” that will be generated in a semi-automatic fashion, and which you may or may not undertake, as you like. Although, the one mission we saw didn’t look *very* optional – the demo-er had incurred the wrath of an alien race, and her own homeworld called her up saying “Help! We’re under attack!” One of the available responses was “Uh, that’s actually my fault, I sort of accidentally destroyed one of their cities.” :)

There’s an online “Sporepedia” reference system that stores the stats of every object, creature, planet, everything that you’ve encountered. It has a sort of trading card metaphor, and there was some mention of actually building a real-world trading card game around this.

Having been recently (if peripherally) involved in the creation of a high-end demo experience, I’m aware of just how many of the “emergent” events of the demo were almost certainly carefully scripted. Still, what was there was very impressive. I do suspect that the phases of the game that we *weren’t* shown were still in a great deal of flux, looking for the ever-elusive “fun”. There was one mid-demo crash. I’m optimistic that this will be a great game, and will sell like hotcakes, but it’s still got to be at least six months of development away, if not more.

After getting out of Spore, I saw that there was a line to get into see Assassin’s Creed. Sadly, it turned out that even *that* was “media only”. Sigh. Someone at the Qt3 thing last night said he had seen some of the demo, and it actually was almost as good as the teaser trailer. I find this hard to credit, personally, but I wish I could judge for myself.

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