A Sneak Peek at Spore, EA’s Ultra-Web 2.0 Game

I finally understand why Spore has been delayed for so long. Originally expected for a 2007 release, the simulated evolution game from Electronic Arts (ERTS) studio Maxis was suddenly withheld, much to EA’s chagrin. Maxis head Will Wright explained the delay, saying that the company wanted to make the follow-up to its wildly successful Sims franchise more accessible. [digg=http://digg.com/pc_games/A_Sneak_Peek_at_Spore_EA_s_Ultra_Web_2_0_Game]

That turns out to be an understatement, as I found out yesterday at an advance press peek hosted at Maxis’ Emeryville, Calif. office. During the hold-up, Wright and his team (led by Executive Producer Lucy Bradshaw) re-tooled Spore into a Web 2.0 phenomenon designed to extend far beyond the actual game. A perfect example is the thumbnail pic above, from a YouTube video of the Spore monster I made with Maxis’ Spore Creature Creator, which is being released on June 17. (The full game won’t hit shelves until September.) The YouTube video creation and upload process is seamlessly embedded in the Creator software. As Bradshaw explained, the fan community’s ability to create and share Spore content is just as important as the game itself.

But that’s just the start.

By releasing the Creature Creator months before the game, Maxis is encouraging its fan base to develop a vast international ecology of user-created content. (It’s launching simultaneously on both Mac and PC, and the community sites will be available in 22 languages.) That includes a “MySpore” page for each player, which as the cheeky name suggests, is part of a social network for Spore creatures, and has similar functionality to MySpace and Facebook — your Spore Creature can friend other Creatures and share content across the system. (If the game becomes successful, it’s easy to imagine kids abandoning their real-world social networks for MySpore.) There’s an embeddable Spore web widget, and even an RSS feed, so you can track comments made on your MySpore page.

At the beginning of Spore’s development cycle, Bradshaw (pictured above) told me, “Sharing was intended to be under the hood” of the larger game. Instead, Maxis has made it the key feature — a testament to Web 2.0’s influence and a response to the what its passionate fan base has done with previous games. (The Sims games have a vast network of fansites featuring screenshots and machinima.)

Perhaps most ambitious, the content-sharing aspects of the Creature Creator can actually be integrated into Spore gameplay. While Maxis has made its own beastiary for the solo game, players can import their friends’ user-created creatures into it too, via a “Sporepedia” buddy list. The game tracks creatures’ meta data, and deposits them where appropriate in the game’s evolutionary timeline. You can even set preferences for the kind of creatures you prefer in your game, and Spore will search the player-made database for appropriate species and send them to your computer. (Sort of a TiVo for monsters.) Bradshaw told me Maxis is hoping to publish aggregated creature data on its site, showing which species are most popular and successful. It’ll be fun to see what creatures thrive in a kind of crowd-sourced simulation of Darwinian selection.

But will Spore appeal to a wide audience? The Sims succeeded so much because it was embraced by girls and women, who tended to enjoy its anarchic, virtual dollhouse quality — 60 percent of its player base is female. With its emphasis on spoogy, fanged creatures, by contrast, Spore seems more immediately appealing to boys. Bradshaw told me the game has tested well with girls, and anecdotally, even got her mom to enjoy it. Even more anecdotally, I challenged a nearby publicist named Katie (pictured left) to try her hand at the Creature Creator, and while hardly a hardcore gamer, she managed to whip up a scarily toothy snake-like beast as inventive as anything the dudes with the game press were making at nearby demo PCs.

“Making things,” as Bradshaw put it, “turns everyone on.”