The Evolution of Gaming

The new game Spore from Maxis of Emeryville lets users create life itself. But what if video gamers don't want to evolve?

The year’s most-anticipated new PC game — Spore — is getting publicly dissed by the in-crowd just days before its release. Here at the San Jose Convention Center in late August, for every awestruck gamer mumbling “cool” as he fiddles with a mouse and keyboard, there is another kid behind him watching and snickering.

“Ha ha, I think I’ll make a Penis Erectus,” one such kid says to his friend. “Yeah, make a Dildo-saurus.” They walk away from Booth 411 swilling a BAWLS energy drink and laughing.

Spore is supposed to be the most artistically dazzling and technologically sophisticated game ever released. But over in the next booth, it’s the rote shooter game Crysis drawing fanboy “oohs” and “ahhs” for its twitchy graphics. Under the hood, games like Crysis are a yawn to the people who make them. Those industry types have bookmarked a lecture from Spore‘s makers later this afternoon, because even to them, what Maxis studios of Emeryville has done is ostensibly magic. Spore creator and designer Will Wright is the Walt Disney of gaming — his company’s Da Vinci or Kubrick. He’s also two years late.

“I thought this game already came out,” says more than one passerby.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” add still others.

Spore was announced in 2005 for release the following year. But it was repeatedly delayed, and development costs are believed to have soared to at least $50 million. The often-fawning gaming press long ago bestowed upon Spore no fewer than seven Game Critics Awards like Best Original Game, only to endure embarrassment when the product didn’t actually ship. Today, some of those same journalists seem to be seeking retribution. The harsh spotlight even earned Wright’s divorce a mention in the staid pages of The New Yorker; where he was portrayed as an obsessive, distant modeler, but not a model husband.

Now that Wright’s game was finally released on September 7, his company’s titanic parent, Electronic Arts, will discover if Spore is 2001 or Waterworld. Although last year Electronic Arts earned $3.6 billion in annual revenue churning out safe titles like Madden NFL 08, lately it has hit a creative and financial dead end. Its stock has suffered six consecutive quarters of net losses, and the company lost more than $400 million in the last quarter of fiscal 2007.

Spore is so extremely different from other games in its field that it has the power to single-handedly burnish the company’s reputation or buttress its critics. Wright has given game players unprecedented artistic license, but will it be rewarded? After all, in the hangar next door to Booth 411, three hundred geeks are killing or being killed in World of Warcraft and Call of Duty 4. They’re playing for 36 hours straight to earn a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. The mere idea of these fraggers crafting dinosaurs with birdlike plumage and then teaching them how to dance or fly a spaceship seems absurd — even surreal.

Wright has just given PC gamers the tools to fashion just such an evolution. The question is whether they are willing to evolve.

At Wright’s desk at Maxis, a two-week old coffee drink from the species Mocha Frappuccino is evolving new life forms of its own.

Wright, the studio’s visionary founder, departed in early August for a promotional tour of America, Europe, and Asia. His workspace is small, dark, and cluttered. Barely big enough to house a large primate, it sits empty on the second floor of studio headquarters, off Powell Street in Emeryville. On the wall: posters of galaxies, ant colonies, and foliage. Guarding the door: memorabilia from the Soviet space program. In the corner: an ancient Macintosh computer gathering dust since its release in the late-80s — the dawn of personal computing and Wright’s career.

Downstairs, a forty-pound bronze creature with a toothy sucker-mouth lurks in the foliage near the receptionist’s desk, ready to pounce. The office halogens are dim, the air is cool, and the office mood is subdued, yet intense. Ship date looms. The game creators are on vacation, but the game maintainers are just finishing preparation for the onslaught of creatures to the Spore universe.

Maxis General Manager and Spore Executive Producer Lucy Bradshaw orbits a low-walled cubicle quad in the center of the office with producer Caryl Shaw and two more women who control the brains of the operation. They are surrounded by bright posters of alien silhouettes in neon and black, which shout slogans such as “Space-Time Is the Right Time. Voyagers Welcome at” Bradshaw says the humor was eight long years in the making.

In 2000, Spore was just an idea in Wright’s head. Players would get to make their own characters, and then competitively evolve them from single-celled organisms to land-walking creatures, through tribal and high society and into galactic space. Later, players can colonize other planets or destroy them entirely. The game would mirror the evolution of game play itself, going from 2-D to 3-D, and from being the main character to controlling whole societies of characters.

In many ways, Spore is the synthesis of its creator’s life. Born in 1960 to an engineer father and an amateur magician mother, the model-loving Wright thrived as Montessori student engaged in self-directed learning. He dreamed of being an astronaut but actually never graduated from college. But his genius for problem-solving was apparent by 1981, when he won an illegal cross-country road race similar to the one depicted in the movie Cannonball Run. He dominated the race through the early use of night-vision technology. With it, he could drive 120 miles per hour after dark, thus both avoiding police and making great time.

Wright eventually turned his ever-shifting attention to the nascent video games of the ’80s. The features of his two major titles would make game history, as well as create the seeds of Spore. He started building obstacles and terrain for the game Raid on Bungling Bay. In the process, he had so much fun that he envisioned a game in which the players themselves could create game levels. The resultant city-planning simulation, SimCity, may have sounded like a snooze but proved to be brilliant. It kick-started an entirely new type of gaming. Released in 1989, it turned game development into the game itself. Time magazine made it a sensation. The CIA, Defense Department, and other government groups sought Wright as a simulation consultant.

Orinda-based Maxis went nova, expanding from two people to 200 and going public in 1995 with an IPO of $35 million and a $6 million first-year net. Investors clamored for more hits, and new management rushed the process. “Going public gave me a really deep appreciation for how incredibly stupid Wall Street is,” Wright eventually told the press. The company’s commercial low came in 1996, when SimCopter contained a famed game error remembered as “muscle boys in swim trunks,” allegedly a gay programmer’s idea of a joke.

The following year Maxis reported a net loss of $2 million and became an acquisition target for Electronic Arts of San Mateo, which acquired Maxis for $125 million in stock, with Wright taking $15 million of it.

Wright’s next gem came from playing dolls with his new daughter and the disastrous Oakland Hills fire of 1991. His family lost its house, and the process of repurchasing all its earthly possessions resulted in The Sims, which puts players in charge of navigating the daily trials of a person and their family. “I don’t think people realize how much tactical and strategic forethought goes into their daily lives,” Wright told reporters at the time. “There’s a whole subconscious time-efficiency layer in our lives. In essence, real-time strategy is our lives.”

The unlikely “strategic life simulation computer game” came out in 2000 and sold 6.3 million copies by 2002, making it the best-selling PC game in history. A highlight of the game was its customizability and open-endedness, which initially lends lent itself to what Wright calls the “Calvin syndrome,” named after the mischievous star of the cartoon strip Calvin and Hobbes. The idea behind the syndrome is that inside all of us lives a four-year-old kid eager to investigate boundaries. The Sims, like the equally revolutionary Grand Theft Auto, provides players unprecedented leeway with the script of their story. In real life, an inclination to burn down the house, kill the occupants, and run over the baby in the front yard might occasionally consume completely normal people. That’s reality. But in a game with no consequences, such behavior can rise to the level of entertainment. Wright told audiences, “Yes, you can have a voodoo family and starve the characters or have them fight.”

By 2005, The Sims and its spin-offs had sold 16 million copies, but Wright was already deep into Spore, which would combine SimCity‘s “gamer-as-developer” concept with the personal puppets and anything-goes options of The Sims.

“Wright had this incredibly grand and epic vision,” Bradshaw recalled. “And the challenge was, ‘How do we execute this vision of something that’s going to give players this amazing, enabling tool — these creators?’ There’s been a lot of this type of work done in academia but not really in terms of the game sphere.”

Perched on cubicle walls is the most tactile result of that challenge: the staff’s personal creatures — designed in the game and fabricated using a rare, in-house 3-D printing machine that can make custom figurines out of resin with the push of a button.

“After a while, I started to think of the game itself as this little gremlin,” Bradshaw said. “The challenge was trying to get him in the box. He did not want to go in the box.”

The key to getting him in the box was perfecting the game’s Creature Creator. If all the universe is Wright’s stage, the Creature Creator is his costume shop and casting call. It would be built and rebuilt ten times — pioneering, blue-sky work without a clear map or timeline.

Creature Creator creators Dan Moskowitz and Chris Hecker had no idea exactly what they were unleashing on the public this summer. But they already knew it had gotten weird.

Spore took from 2000 until 2008 to develop because Maxis wasn’t just putting a new skin on old technology, as was the case with top 2008 games such as Call of Duty 4, Metal Gear Solid 4, and Electronic Arts’ own Madden NFL 09. Spore‘s extended development required adapting bleeding-edge underground visual computing tricks for a consumer market.

Moskowitz and Hecker are onstage in a side room of the San Jose Convention Center, giving a presentation to an elite batch of 75 game developers. They’re talking about exactly how they pulled off the game’s core component — the Creature Creator and subsequent Building, Vehicle, and Spaceship Creators.

“What type of detail level are you guys looking for?” Hecker asks. “With zero being ‘no detail hand-waving’ and one being ‘immense detail.'”

“Five!” the rabid crowd shouts.

Almost a decade ago, Hecker figured out some of the rudimentary steps needed for a computer to make a moron’s creations look professional. His demo showed how one could deform a smooth, donut-like object and get the computer to infer what it should look like under the new, deformed conditions. This mathematical inference capability is called “procedural computing” and it is at the heart of Spore‘s Creature Creator. If a program can fix a deformation to a donut, it can fix deformations to other shapes like a worm and, later, insects, amphibians, birds, and mammals.

Most games go through a standard development cycle that Moskowitz calls “mix,” “bake,” “ship,” and “play.” Mixing involves making all the character models and animations. Baking is the heavy code-crunching that turns it into a finished cake that the consumer’s computer can load up really fast. Ship and play are self-explanatory.

“In contrast, Spore is a little crazy,” Moskowitz notes. “We ship first and it comes with these editors that let you make everything in the game. Then it bakes internally on the fly.”

In essence, Moskowitz and team made a $50 Easy Bake Oven that can cook any recipe you mix into a delicious, edible cake.

For example, most animators write software code for specific characters like Lara Croft of Tomb Raider. But Spore‘s animators had to give a professional look to anything a user could think up. If your Lara Croft has seven legs, Spore has to know how a seven-legged Lara should walk. If you give your Lara no legs, Spore bakes in slug-like locomotion. Spore knows which hand an eight-armed Angelina Jolie would use to grasp a high piece of fruit. (Duh, the highest one.) Between 2000 and 2006, the Creature Creator went through ten iterations. By comparison, Hecker said, the Building, Vehicle, and Spaceship Creator were easy to clone.

In June 2008, Maxis released a free version of the Creature Creator with two hundred body components such as legs, feet, arms, hands, eyes, mouths, and appendages. Hundreds of thousands of people quickly downloaded the tool, and began fashioning creatures and uploading them to the Sporepedia, the game’s online encyclopedia. Creatures flooded into Maxis servers at a rate of six per second, and the Maxis staff was enthralled.

To ensure that everyone’s creatures looked professional, the Creature Creator didn’t allow for asymmetry and other weirdness. “We wanted to make it difficult to make ugly stuff,” Hecker says. But the public soon found ways around that limitation. “Usually they’re called bugs, but in user-generated content they’re called features,” he says with a laugh.

For an hour, the duo runs through their favorite user creations: perfect trademark infringements of Star Wars‘ Yoda and Super Mario‘s Yoshi, as well as Yetis and no fewer than 1,628 Pokemon Pikachus. The duo laughs at a spaceship shaped like the vacuum cleaner from Spaceballs and a UFO shaped like a stove.

Moskowitz says the public figured out in days hacks that the staff of Maxis took eight months to learn, like tweaking the “angler fish” component to create entirely new creatures dangling from other creatures. Users figured out flying squirrels by exploiting a limb bug to create webbing between arms. Moskowitz shows off a bipedal alien with two droids hovering over his shoulder mimicking his every move.

“The Internet is so creepy smart,” Moskowitz says with awe. “I have no idea even how to make that and I built the thing.”

But with the good came the banal and, of course, the profane.

“There’s a law that says 90 percent of everything is crap,” Hecker says. “As you can see, significantly less than 90 percent of what people are uploading is crap.”

But that still left room for a whole bunch of walking penises.

Almost immediately after the Creature Creator was released into the wild, people began molding its “starter torso” into penises and breasts. And it wasn’t just fourteen-year-old boys. The video gaming press got in on the joke. PC Gamer, the world’s number one PC gaming magazine, is a huge game booster and a proud member of the enthusiast press. It is not in the habit of dissing major titles or jeopardizing cozy advertising relationships in a tightly held industry. Yet PC Gamer’s Tim Edwards lays claim to fabricating the world’s first Spore penis. Soon thereafter, PC Gamer Editor in Chief Kristen Salvatore created “Boobalicious” — two, giant, purple mammary glands on tiny legs.

PC Gamer’s porn stunt signified a new trend. The usually placid gaming press started to dog Spore. Articles made MSNBC and other major outlets. “It’s a simple equation that marketers can’t seem to grasp,” wrote Kristin Kalning for MSNBC. “The Internet plus free modeling tools equals giant dancing penises.” Wired magazine, which thought enough of Wright to let him guest-edit an issue in 2006, virtually ignored his new game in its September 2008 issue save for a thin column on the product’s ever-evolving release dates.

Electronic Arts could not have been amused.

Tasked with creating such a family-friendly blockbuster — once the Creature Creator went live, the company’s small Spore community team began removing thousands of offensive creatures from the Sporepedia, asking YouTube to remove spornographic videos, and sending e-mail notices threatening to ban such Sporn creators for violating paragraph 54 of the Electronic Arts terms of service prohibiting “strong vulgar language” and “crude or explicit sexual references.”

Yet the material lives on forever in places like Kieron Gillen’s June 18 post on the gaming blog “You give humanity a creative tool, the first thing a human will do is — well — make a tool with it,” he wrote. His post, “NSFW: A Beginner’s Guide To Sporn,” categorizes existing spornography into classes like “Coitus,” “Mobile Phalluses,” and “Forlorn, Yet Disturbing, Attempts to Make Hot Women.”

Users rushed to post comments.

“Oh god, the first one cracked me up so bad that I’m afraid to click on the rest,” wrote one commenter. “There’s something absolutely hilarious about subverting the perfectly innocent piece of software to such an end.”

“Gah! this is not what evolution is about people!” wrote another.

“This is the end of video games,” added another.

“So, the kids are making walking pee-pees,” another wrote. “I have a question. So the fuck what?”

The answer to that question is “perception.” Sexuality is the Kryptonite of game sales. Even the smell of untoward sexuality in an otherwise wholesome game of planet-nuking genocide can get you sued, boycotted, banned, or fined. Millions of dollars rides on Middle America and Wal-Mart’s perception of the G-rated game, which is supposed to be fun for the whole family. Electronic Arts began assuring media-savvy parents very loudly that sporn has no place in Spore.

Caryl Shaw, who oversees the Spore online community, says the game comes with 2,000 vetted creatures preloaded for you to discover on your own planet and others. But when your PC talks to Spore‘s servers it will download thousands more approved creatures that other users have made. You can tool around the galaxy in your custom UFO for years playing the game and never see the same species twice.

The game allows a 21-year-old player with sufficient technical know-how to populate his or her universe with as many spornographic creatures as he or she can tolerate. Indeed, a universe of Sporn is possible, but only for those who want it, says Shaw. But the game also ensures that a five-year-old kid will never encounter anything but a G-rated version.

Spornographers are just one species in a sea of malcontents who will try to ruin any social game. In contrast to many of her peers, Shaw spent the week before Spore‘s proper release with more work rather than less. After September 7, she’ll be hosting tens of thousands of new Spore-ons, some of whom will throw sand in the eyes of others. On the Internet they are called “griefers” for the grief they cause. Their game is simple: ruin yours.

Spore‘s estimated $50 million in development costs may be comparable to costs of leading Metal Gear Solid 4 and half those of the $100 million blockbuster Grand Theft Auto IV. But Spore might well lead its industry in post-game expenses. Electronic Arts doesn’t disclose numbers but analysts estimate that the game will cost $25 million in extra costs like maintenance — an order of magnitude ten times higher than those of gaming eras past. Electronic Arts doesn’t disclose staffing numbers but up to a dozen full-time employees could be managing Spore. The hardware and software costs of managing millions of new users boggles the mind.

“I can guarantee you the message board will be hit the first week,” Shaw said into the phone to someone on her team. “Mostly it’s just been limited to people who leave nasty comments on other creatures or give everything they see one star.” But on September 7, who knows?

To those commenters like Gravatar, who wrote, “Truly i think defending your world from a slobbering horde of vagina and dick critters would be an extremely entertaining evening,” Shaw’s reply is that once the game is launched, its multitude of possibilities will make spornography seem like a waste of time.

If you ever want to be amazed by your ten-year-old, leave Spore running overnight,” says the moderator back in the demo. “You’ll have one hundred creatures by morning.”

Indeed, seven-year-old Marcos Morales of Arizona literally bounces in his seat in the demo crowd, asking for “Bowser” and “Pikachu!” and “R2D2!” as fast as the game’s creators can search the Sporepedia to satiate his desires.

Marcos and his mother are visiting the conference with their father, who is in the computing industry. She says her child won’t use crayons or paint, but has gone absolutely gaga for the Spore Creature Creator, and spends hours creating animals and playing with them. She’ll probably buy him the game because of its lack of overt violence and emphasis on scientific concepts.

“I want to make Mario,” the kid whispers reverently. When the demo finishes up, the young Marcos follows Hecker back to Booth 411 to play some more.

Within two weeks of its release, Spore‘s Creature Creators had made 1.8 million different species, roughly the same number of species as exists on planet Earth. Wright told the press that humanity has 60 percent the efficiency of God, who reportedly took seven days.

As of press time, the species count stands at 3 million, with as many downloads of the free software. And that’s before people get their hands on the Building, Vehicle, and Spaceship Creators.

Twenty-six-year-old Kyle MacDonald of Arizona, who stopped to play at Booth 411, said he had no idea what he was doing but was having a blast figuring it out. “I like it because it’s so lateral,” he said. “I get bored with a real scripted game. I want to just go off and do whatever I feel like and I’m definitely getting it when it comes out.”

Maxis hasn’t just made a game, it has committed a volatile act of public performance art. Wright once called the Creature Creator “an unfamiliar interface to an almost deviant act,” and indeed, the audacity of playing God equals just how different it is from almost everything at the convention center kill-fest.

Nearby booth 411, the three-hundred-nerd world record attempt is in hour 27 of 36. Portly, sallow-faced young men have passed out still holding their joysticks. On-screen, a hand holds a gun and awaits its next target. These are the hard-core gamers, and their rows and rows of shooters, drivers, and more shooters live light-years from Spore‘s creative, hippie ethos.

Maybe Maxis has gone too far. Maybe not.

Back at Maxis studios, a huge timeline on the outer wall of the main meeting room is covered with existing accomplishments like finishing the game and shipping it. Then the timeline moves into the future. Index cards read: “Spore in Webster’s Dictionary,” or “Spore creature in Hollywood film.” Versions of the game for the Nintendo DS and iPhone are shipping. Later, likely console versions for the Playstation3, Xbox 360, and Wii.

But Spore‘s evolution can only mirror our own. Electronic Arts shipped a game where genitals are banned but genocide is a belly laugh. Real evolution moves in fits and starts. It is slow and random, and fraught with dead ends.


Newsletter sign-up

eLert sign-up

clear sky
45.9 ° F
49 °
44 °
81 %
1 %
59 °
59 °
55 °
53 °
52 °