… but will Spore sell?

The latest New Yorker has a nice long profile of game designer Will Wright and his upcoming game, Spore; coupled with last month’s Wright/Spore profile from New York Times Magazine, it’s the strongest possible cultural affirmation of Wright as one of the world’s top artists in any medium. (Something gamers have known for decades, though it’s taken awhile for the rest of the world to catch up.)

These profiles are also part of a gathering storm of interest over Spore, Wright’s truly groundbreaking “god game” in which your goal as player is to shepherd your custom-designed creatures up the evolutionary ladder, from protozoa all the way to space-colonizing civilization.

Set for a mid-2007 release, it will almost certainly be a masterpiece, and expand the potential of computer games beyond measure. That plus Wright’s track record with the The Sims and Sim City games is why Spore publisher Electronic Arts has invested so much money and promotional effort on this one title. It’s also because, as The New Yorker notes, the company’s stock has declined by 30% since April, and has seen a 20% drop in overall sales from last year. In plain terms, as the article puts it, EA is “counting on Spore to help shore up its bottom line”.

That’s the strange thing, and I hate to be the first one to ask, but here goes: why is Electronic Arts risking so much on a game with so little chance of selling well?

Of course Spore will be a bestseller, easily moving hundreds of thousands of copies on the strength of Will Wright’s name alone. But EA seems to be hoping it’ll spawn a blockbuster franchise that’ll become a key revenue source for the company, the same way Wright’s Sims games and expansion packs have earned them $129 million in revenue. And it’s just implausible anything like that’s going to happen.

The Sims became a phenomenon because its dollhouse-style gameplay was immediately accessible to people outside the gamer dude demographic; it was popular especially with women and girls, and older “casual gamers” who rarely play in-depth simulation games. Spore, by contrast, involves bizarre, blobby creatures running around on alien landscapes, often killing and eating each other. (Check this video of Robin Williams riffing off it during the last E3.) And instead of being set in a suburb, or even an identifiable location, like Wrights’ SimCity, it’ll take place in prehistoric miasmas and far-off galaxies, in a gameplay arc inspired, Wright says, on Charles and Ray Eames’ famous but esoteric (1977) movie “Powers of 10”.

Revolutionary game design, sure, but sound like something you can see your kid sister or the casual gamer in the accounting department playing?

The New Yorker’s John Seabrook more or less puts this question to Electronic Arts’ chief executive Larry Probst by asking, “[H]ow do you convince a casual gamer, who is just looking for distraction, to play a game that is about evolution, city building, conquest, and interstellar travel? Probst’s answer, “You tell people it’s a Will Wright game,” does not inspire much confidence. Almost by definition, a casual gamer hasn’t heard of Will Wright, except perhaps in relation to The Sims, which Spore is decidedly nothing like. Just as worrying is the game’s lack of any true multiplayer component; instead, players will upload copies of their creatures to a central database, where they can be downloaded and enjoyed by other players. A wonderful idea to foster hardcore modder-type fandom– but again, it’s hard to see a demographically broader community of players emerging from that. (A smart move would be to re-position the game for the educational/family market, and hope it becomes a kind of Bionicles Online for boys.)

The Sims sold 3.2 million copies in the US, and about as much worldwide, but if I were to guess, Spore will ultimately sell far below those numbers– somewhere between Black and White, Peter Molyneux’s similarly-ambitious (and quirky) god game (530,000 units sold in America) and Wright’s Sim City 3000 Unlimited (1.1 million copies sold). Let’s say 750,000 units. Which would make it a giant bestseller, to be sure, but certainly not the savior of the company’s market valuation that Probst imagines it to be. Whether those numbers would financially justify the game’s 7 year production cycle or the tens of millions spent during that time, or the millions spent by EA to promote it, is hard to say, as well.

This is one prediction in particular that I hope I’m utterly wrong about. I’d love to see Spore become the first game that’s a crossover cultural phenomenon, played by everyone from kids to college professors, and Electronic Arts get rewarded for gambling its fate on one of pop culture’s few undisputed artists. But right now, at least, I’d have to say the chances of the game dominating are about as likely as a Spore creature with no teeth and stubby legs making it to the stars.

All game revenue and sales figures from Next Generation’s indispensable guide to The Top 100 PC Games.