Evolution Is a Slow Process

When I first saw Will Wright's Spore at his offices just outside of San Francisco, this videogame addict felt as if he'd glimpsed Nirvana. Like all of Wright's games, from the hits SimCity (1989) to The Sims (2000) (the Sims franchise has sold more than 95 million units so far), it splices an ambitious premise—you get to design your own species and guide it from a lowly single-cell organism all the way to the heights of intergalactic domination—to a charming visual style that invites playful experimentation. So taken was I that I wrote the following in the pages of NEWSWEEK: "Nongamers often ask when videogames are finally going to get their 'Citizen Kane.' But when Spore ships sometime next year, this infant medium might receive its Torah, its 'Origin of Species' and its '2001: A Space Odyssey' all rolled into one." I penned that excitable prose in 2005. Three years later, Spore has yet to hit store shelves, and readers can only wonder why I was hyperventilating. But last week, publisher Electronic Arts announced that Spore will be released for Windows, Mac, Nintendo DS and mobile phones on Sept. 7—two years later than planned. When I caught up with Wright by phone, my first question was the most obvious one: What the heck took so long?

The answer, as it turns out, falls somewhere between the ironic and the entirely fitting. Spore's various interfaces, like its plethora of creatures, needed to evolve—far more than Wright had initially anticipated—in order for the game to engage a mass audience. "The biggest design challenge was keeping it very accessible to players so that every bit of the game was intuitive, easy and approachable," says Wright. At the same time, Wright's team was mashing up different types of games—as players move up the evolutionary ladder, the gameplay mutates as well, mimicking classics ranging from Pac-Man and Diablo to SimCity and Civilization—and the designers needed to find a way to keep the game controls, camera angles and rewards consistent.

One of the biggest challenges involved the development of a key Spore feature: the ability for players to easily share with one another the items they create inside the game. Wright and his development team at Maxis are no strangers to what is essentially user-generated content: long before it became an Internet media catchphrase, Sims players were exchanging virtual tuxedos, vinyl couches and other objects that they'd made. But having built 16 tools directly into Spore that allow players to design their own creatures, create their own buildings, manufacture their own spaceships and even compose their own music, he realized that the amount of items that users would have to navigate was exponentially bigger than that of The Sims. "As you play the game, our servers are continually sending you new content for your world to fill out your galaxy, drawn from our database of content that other players have made," Wright says. So he needed to come up with a way to help users make sense of the, um, universe of content that would be just a mouse click away.

Wright solved this problem with an assist from the ever-evolving Internet, using wildly popular social-networking sites such as Facebook, Flickr and YouTube as the final bit of inspiration to help solidify an already inspired game. As a result, the game will feature Sporecasts, which are playlist-style compilations of user-created content that you can put together and share with others. It will have buddy lists, to prioritize adding virtual objects that your friends have made. You'll be able to tag what you've created and add comments to other people's stuff. "These are terms that a lot of our players will already understand in different kinds of arenas. It just hasn't really been applied to games before," he says. In seven months, when players see it all in action, I may finally be vindicated.