The concept behind Spore is that it was a journey from the origins of life to an era of space exploration and interplanetary empires. What we got in practice is five disconnected mini-games, only one of which was actually good at what it was doing, and that’s because each of them felt like a simplified tutorial level that they forgot to build greater complexity on top of and only the Cell Stage was actually a tutorial level. Today I’m going to mourn the first great betrayal of my early teen years by talking about all the missed opportunities in Spore.
The Molecular Stage
I only bring this up to mention that cutting it was a good idea. The Cell Stage is already a straightforward tutorial game and playing Tetris for ten minutes to get into it would’ve only dragged out a start-to-finish playthrough. Life in general is about 4 billion years old on Earth whereas life reasonably similar to the microbial creatures seen in the Cell Stage only emerged about 1.5 billion years ago after plants and eukaryotes were invented, but those 2.5 billion years were interminably dull and it’s not a big deal that we skipped them.
The Cell Stage
I said earlier that the Cell Stage is actually good at what it does because it’s supposed to be an oversimplified tutorial stage. The only flaw in the Cell Stage is that you are required to play through it the first time. It should’ve been skippable from the beginning. Otherwise, it’s a perfectly acceptable 30-ish minute introduction to the game that has minimal customization before throwing you into some reasonably interesting gameplay, giving you some time to actually have some fun before you’re dumped into the Creature Stage and its far more complex customization and gameplay. The problem, of course, is that the Creature Stage didn’t really feature far more complex gameplay, in fact going from the positioning based gameplay of the Cell Stage to the hotbar gameplay of the Creature Stage is a lateral move at best.
The Creature Stage
The whole point of Spore is to use procedural generation and extensive customization to explore life forms that could have been, but weren’t. Obviously, the game was never going to be up to the task of requiring evolutionarily plausible creatures while also being reasonably accessible, but the point here is that precisely following the path of evolution as we know it would result in basically the same animals evolving, and where’s the fun in that?
Nevertheless, I think Spore’s failure to follow even the broadest outlines of evolutionary history is a missed opportunity. I’m far from the only one to mourn the loss of the aquatic phase of the Creature Stage, but it’s not just that underwater creatures are neat (although they are), it’s that doing so jumps the timeline ahead from 1.5 billion years to like 100 million years ago, and unlike cutting the Molecular Stage, what we’ve skipped over in between is actually reasonably interesting: The Cambrian Explosion. The Cambrian Explosion is when you get trilobytes and all kinds of other crazy marine life. It’s the moment when biological life developed a sense of actual drama to it, y’know, hunting and reproduction and such. Later in the Carboniferous and Permian periods we get a bunch of giant insects, bigger than even Australia can sustain, because the oxygen levels were way higher back then. At the end of the Permian Era there was some kind of meteor storm or volcanic eruption or something that killed basically everything, and that ushered in the most famous prehistoric eras of them all: Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. After another, less deadly but more famous extinction event, we get Ice Age life that’s recognizably similar to what we have today, and which then, of course, directly evolves into what we have today.
Hooray for that impromptu lesson on paleobiology, but why do we care about this as a game? The extinction events and changing oxygen levels present potentially interesting mechanics, to begin with. Higher oxygen levels mean more plantlife which allows for larger herbivores, which can in turn sustain larger carnivores (note: I understand this is hideously oversimplified, but it’s a decent enough approximation for gameplay purposes). While there are obvious advantages to being a goddamn brachiosaurus, the disadvantage is that if an extinction event suddenly decreases the availability of food, you’ll be the first to go. Extinction events – signalled by falling meteors that, as in the actual game, cannot actually harm the player creature directly – cause a sudden decrease in plant life (unlike in the actual game), which causes herbivores to begin dying of starvation as their food meters run out, which then causes the same to happen to carnivores. The game, then, is that when an extinction event hits, you must rapidly produce a new generation that is lightweight enough to survive in the new, suddenly less abundant environment.
And then there’s temperature changes! The Earth has varied from temperate poles and tropical all elsewhere to temperate equator and arctic all elsewhere. Lower temperatures make plants more scarce and snow more common, favoring white coloration and fur. Higher temperatures make plants abundant, favoring green and brown coloration and scales (or however we represent cold-bloodedness – scales is probably a good way to go, unless we want to introduce a bunch of toggles on the creature editor that don’t affect appearance).
Between re-adding the watery origins and implementing the fluctuating oxygen and temperature levels, not to mention giving extinction events some real consequences (in the actual game, a meteor falls and…that’s it, nothing changes), the Creature Stage has slightly more variety and is moderately more interesting, but there are still two huge problems. The first is that herbivore gameplay is still boring. The second is that the Spore developers don’t seem to have any idea what makes WoW-style MMO gameplay any fun.
The problem with herbivore gameplay is that herbivorous strategies for survival are totally ignored in favor of a mini-game where you play Simon Says with other herbivores to make friends with them. Those other herbivore species do not then go again to share the planet with you in the later stages of the game. Actual herbivores tend to survive by being big and hard to hunt in large herds – think of bison, rhinoceroses, elephants – or by being small, stealthy, and fast – think of rabbits and sparrows. The former is just combat gameplay where the carnivores come to you instead of the other way around. The latter worked great in the Cell Stage, where you’d scurry away whenever a carnivore big enough to eat you came around, and can work just as well in the Creature Stage, just with a few more movement options on either end: Dodge rolls, sprinting, leaping, climbing trees, taking flight. Stealth could also be an option, with certain parts granting either a passive or activatable buff that decreases the aggro range of carnivores. Playing a small herbivore is more of a stealth game, with the goal being to get to lucrative loot without getting eaten. Playing a large herbivore is more like king of the hill, where the goal is to camp on an abundant area and resist attacks by competing large herbivores as well as carnivores looking for a high-value meal. Playing a carnivore is gameplay familiar to gamers the world over: Find a thing and kill it, with bigger, more powerful things being worth more evolution points but also being more dangerous to hunt.
But then there’s the big problem, which is that MMO gameplay revolves quite a bit around progression, but the Creature Stage’s progression is completely unsatisfying. In an MMO, you know that the level 30 (or whatever) area is over there, and once you’re strong enough you’ll go and find it and face new enemies. In Spore, the change nest quest is thrust on you randomly and moves you to a new area with new species more commensurate with the amount of evolution points you’ve picked up (and also prevents you from starving to death on account of having wiped out all nearby species, if you’re a carnivore). It would be far better (albeit not especially realistic) to have different biomes which contain different species. Tropical biomes are full of tons of food for herbivores, which means large herbivores tend to congregate there, which means tons of food for carnivores, too, with size constrained more by how thick the foliage is than by the evolution points available. Savanna biomes have grass everywhere but few trees, which means lots of herbivore food and no size restrictions, so this is where the truly titanic will congregate. Arctic and desert regions tend to have smaller creatures in smaller numbers fighting over the smaller amount of food (whether they’re herbivores struggling to eat the scarce plants or carnivores struggling to eat the scarce herbivores).
Then there’s quests and dungeons. The function of an MMO quest is to direct players around a region, and the purpose of a dungeon is to provide a party-based challenge to cap a region’s plot line off. The Creature Stage does not really need either of these. Regions in the Creature Stage are procedurally generated biomes and have no plot line attached, which means that there’s no specific locations to be directed towards, nothing to cap off with a big finale, and all members of the same species have more or less the same build, which means a dungeon would have to be some weird cross-species collaboration. That said, you can still have raid bosses of a sort, in the form of the kaiju sized creatures that can populate the savannah during a high-oxygen period.
The Creature Stage should begin in an aquatic biome, with a quest to nudge players in the direction of coming up in an arid or colder region without any super-predators like the tropics get. Players can instead choose to exit straight into a tropical region, if they feel like a challenge. As they build up evolution points and spend them on a more complex, more calorie-intensive creature, the player will naturally gravitate towards biomes with more food to help keep their hunger bar full. Climate-changing extinction events will occasionally necessitate a panicked retreat towards what climates friendly to the current build still exist, or failing that, a rapid mating for a costly but necessary drastic overhaul of the current creature.
Both the Tribal and Civilization Stage suffer from the same basic problem: They’re an RTS that has no depth and terrible AI. Winning is so easy as to be boring, and even if playing against humans were possible, the lack of unit diversity means it would be pretty dull.
The Tribal and Civilization Stage aren’t going to have a clear delineation from one to the other like the 2D Cell Stage had to the 3D Creature Stage, but gameplay will gradually evolve over time, so that the end of this combined stage will play pretty differently to the beginning.
Our model here is a mix of Age of Empires and Civilization. Unlike Age of Empires, we won’t nail ourselves to specific ages, instead using Civilization style tech trees in which new ages aren’t gated by a special “new age” tech researchable at town center, but instead just have pre-requisite technologies from earlier ages. We definitely don’t want to ask the player to return to the building editor to create a total of three sets of buildings (plus the generic stone age set). We’re also going to cut down on the number of resources in some areas while expanding them in others: Quarries and lumbermills both just provide “building material,” and we don’t care to explain how bronze age lumberjacks managed provide materials for the brutalist concrete buildings the player has designed for their civilization. We also don’t care about the difference between iron and gold. It’s all just metal. We do, however, care about the difference between meat and grain, because unlike AoE or Civilization, our civilization can potentially be obligate carnivores or obligate herbivores and that was actually a major gameplay decision that we need to honor.
The stage begins with the player in command of a nomadic tribe of hunters, gatherers, or hunter-gatherers. Their basic villager units have stats derived from the basic creature stage template: Carnivores with deadly natural weapons do more damage, if they have natural armor they get more hit points, they might move faster or have higher sight range or be harder to detect by AI units. They can be set to gather berries from wild plants or hunt wild animals as appropriate, and can also spend time pondering, which builds up tech points. With just a bit of pondering, you can invent agriculture, which may actually be mostly ranching, but it gets you started on the tech tree, able to build a stone age town center that can stockpile both meat, grain, and building material (your first TC is free, other buildings require an economy), and unlocks buildings like a barracks, a temple, and a farm/ranch. At the barracks you can recruit military units, while at the temple you can recruit priests, while farms/ranches harvest food at a steady rate while also creating a zone around themselves in which no other buildings can be built (farms need fields, ranches need pastures), much wider for ranches than for farms. On the other hand, ranches bring in meat, and making military units with meat makes them stronger. Buying military units with grain makes them weaker. Priests and villagers are unaffected one way or another, so if you’re an omnivore, you can make priests with grain and military units with meat, or you can go pure-grain and use tighter-placed farms in order to be able to rapidly reach the population cap, and rapidly replenish to the population cap.
Priests do the wololo thing and are the pacifist route to victory, while barracks produce melee units in three varieties: Slashing, smashing, and stabbing. Slashing units come with shields, which can be shattered by smashing units, which can be poked to death from a safe distance by stabbing units, whose polearms can be deflected by the shields of slashing units. Also, artillery units, although they’ll all have to use thrown weapons, because animating a bow and arrow would be a pain. Notably absent is cavalry, because trying to procedurally animate an arbitrary creature riding another arbitrary creature would also be a showstopper. Even pacifist civilizations will probably want some military units to shield their priests while they convert.
The discovery of metal allows for upgrading to more powerful units, while non-military buildings like universities enhance the rate at which tech points accumulate while also increasing the conversion power of priests. Advances in metallurgy push you into the iron age as your metal harvesting becomes drastically more efficient, allowing for more metal-focused armies and the creation of more religious icons and other artworks that provide conversion auras. A new resource, spice, is eventually unlocked, which can be used to create vehicles and, with another tech upgrade, firearms. Initially limited to siege weapons, as the tech tree progresses, vehicles can be tanks, with trade-offs in the anti-personnel machine guns, anti-vehicle tank cannons, long-range missile launchers, and laser guns that provide point-defense against missiles while also being mediocre-but-not-useless weapons on their own, all of which adds not only more cost in metal and spice, but also more weight, which means a more expensive engine is necessary to keep up a decent speed. Vehicles can also be tractors or mining hulks or…cattle…taxis? I’m not sure what the fast-meat-harvesting vehicle would be, but the point is you can have vehicles that not only move much faster than your creature units, but which also harvest much faster, thus making it much more plausible to interact with both resource spots and other civilizations that were previously out of reach. Towards the end, you unlock aerial units, which are practically immune to everything but missiles and lasers (and even then, lasers are the same “eh, not bad” weapon against air units as everything else) while being able to serve as fighters and bombers.
For the pacifist route, you don’t rely so much on vehicles, although you will still want harvesters. Instead, you work on making communications networks. As the vehicle era begins and priests get phased out due to their terrible movement speeds, you start to work more and more with passive conversion auras provided by buildings as you create theaters and libraries, and then link other cities using train tracks, then phone lines, and finally satellite internet. These technologies spread a certain fraction (a larger fraction as you get further up the tech tree, natch) of the passive conversion aura of nearby buildings all long their network. For example, if one train station/phone center/satellite uplink is within thirty tiles of a theater, a fraction of that theater’s conversion aura is passed on to every other train station/phone center/satellite uplink in the same network. A pacifist civilization’s goal is to connect all cities to their networks and then have a higher conversion aura on that network than anyone else, something that gets easier first with phone lines allowing cities separated by oceans to be part of the same network and then with satellite uplink, which provides a significant enough science bonus that not having one in a city means falling behind in the arms race right as the space race is kicking up. With a sufficient economic advantage allowing them to build more culture buildings and faster, all rival cities will eventually convert, turning what used to be competing culture buildings into friendly culture buildings that enhance, rather than resist, your conversion aura on the network.
Speaking of that space race, near the end of the tech tree come intra-solar space ships allowing colonization of other planets in the same system. This opens up a huge land rush for new resources, and means that civilizations that are lagging behind technologically (like, for example, if they refused to join the satellite uplink network for fear of being converted) will suddenly be hideously outmatched economically as a nation that previously controlled just five percent of the resource spots on the starting planet suddenly controls half of Mars. With such a massive resource advantage, a pacifist (mostly) civilization will be able to easily afford a big enough military to shield a construction vehicle while it puts up a satellite uplink near enemy cities whether they want one or not.
Finally, once you have spice unlocked in the medieval-ish era (when siege engines come online), you can just buy town centers. The price of initiating a buy-out is the same regardless of tech, so early on it’s prohibitive, but later it becomes a viable strategy. When you initiate a purchase, a countdown begins, and the current owner of the town center (or anyone else looking to buy it) can put up even more spice to outbid you for control, which resets the timer. If the timer ticks down to zero, whoever has the current leading bid gets control of that town center and all buildings within range of it. If going with the economic route to victory, your goal is to control spice, and whether you do that with conversion auras, military units, or both doesn’t really matter.
Spore did this weird thing where after four stages of gradually controlling more and more of a civilization, you suddenly shrink down and are commanding one starship, which seems to have only one character aboard it. Like, yeah, there’s a whole space-faring civilization behind you, but you no longer directly control it. Being a Star Trek captain in a galaxy full of procedurally generated aliens is a cool idea, but being one spaceship solely responsible for advancing the interests of an entire space empire is frustrating, especially since, if there’s a way to plausibly take over a fully developed enemy planet (like an enemy homeworld), I never got far enough in to discover it.
This article is plenty long enough already, so I’m not going to explore how to make the space stage work right now, but I will point out this fundamental problem: In order to be more than just the Civilization Stage but IN SPACE, the Space Stage does need that Star Trek captain angle, but in order to make the Civilization Stage (and its predecessors) worth the player’s time, the civilization needs to provide something other than just a couple of minor buffs based on which of red/blue/green toggles you flipped in various stages. Their space civilization needs to be something the player can control at least parts of directly without having to fly their spaceship around to each and every colony to issue commands.