Sometimes it's nice to be reminded that not all games are about guns or cars or zombies. It's refreshing when a producer doesn't bang on and on about the number of weapons or the individual polygon count of the hero's eyelashes or why the enemies have machetes for limbs. It's good when they say things like, "I mean, playing as a carrot is not ideal. But you can do it if you want."
That's coming from Jason Haber, producer on the DS version of Spore. It's being developed specially for the handheld by Maxis, and they're not pretending it'll have anything like the scope of the EA game. "We knew that trying to take the entirety of the gameplay might have been a little too difficult for the DS, and we wanted to nail one part of the game," explains Haber.
"We were trying to hit the key tenets of what we feel Spore is, which is creativity, connectivity and exploration... We focused just on the creature phase of the game, because we felt it really worked well for the DS platform."
So you won't be evolving an entire civilisation from a single cell like in the PC game. Spore Creatures, as it's aptly titled, is all about designing your own unique creature and collecting extra parts with which to enhance their abilities.
Talkin' bout an evolution
Haber begins our demo of the game by showing off the creature creator. You start out with a simple torso shape and small collection of parts to stick on it. Each has different effects; a long tail will make your creature better at defence, for example, while extra eyes will make it better at spotting holes in the ground so it can dig for hidden treasures.
There are 30 levels of evolution and 275 parts to collect as you progress. Each part can be scaled and rotated, and there are lots of options for choosing your creature's skin colour, markings and so on. A good selection of parts is available early on, Haber says; the idea being it's simple to design a creature that's unique in terms of both looks and abilities.
Once you're happy with your basic level-one design, you can start exploring the tropical island it inhabits. Moving your creature is done by using the stylus to drag it around, or there's the d-pad option. "Generally I prefer to use the stylus," Haber states. "It's just more fun, and it means you can play with one hand." He really does like his game.
You aren't alone on the island, and much of your time will be spent interacting with the other creatures you come across. You can pet them by rubbing them with the stylus if you want to make friends. If the creature's feeling friendly back it'll invite you to dance, which in practice means playing a rhythm-action mini-game.
These get more difficult as your creature evolves, says Haber, and the amount of time and energy it takes to befriend others will depend on its sociability. Which, in turn, is determined by the design decisions you've made - the more eyes your creature has, the more sociable it will be, for example.
You can make as many friends as you want and invite up to two of them at a time to follow you round the island. The advantage of this is they can help you out in combat situations - not all the creatures you meet will be friendly. Basic combat takes place in real-time and involves drawing slashes on the screen with the stylus. Later on in the game you can collect special body parts that give you Bio-Powers. These enable your creature to do things like breathe fire, heal itself and its friends and put up shields.
Play your part
This ties in with the main theme of Spore Creatures. Yes, there are areas to explore and enemies to fight, but the game is really about using your own creativity, and seeing what effects your choices have. "The main goal is collecting new parts so you can evolve your creature," Haber reiterates. "You can make them stronger, more friendly, however you want to play."
To demonstrate the scope of this, Haber shows us some creatures he made earlier and some non-player characters he's befriended. There's a giant Loch Ness Monster-type, some kind of hybrid goat-human, a creature who looks like a giant baby. And a carrot. "It doesn't have a mouth so it can't eat anything. And it doesn't have any arms so it can't pick up anything. But you can certainly walk around as a carrot," Haber confirms. "It doesn't have any attack parts so if it gets attack, it'll just get killed. I mean, playing as a carrot is not ideal..." Certainly a first for videogames, all the same.
What's most interesting is that you'll be able to trade creatures with other players via Wi-Fi Connection. You can't interact with them online, but any creatures you download will appear as AI-controlled inhabitants of your tropical island. Any chance of connectivity with the not-officially-announced-but-inevitable Wii version of the game? "Right now we're just focused on the DS and PC games," says Haber. "So right now, it's just DS to DS connectivity." Right now.
Clearly, anyone who's expecting a handheld Spore with as much depth as the PC game is going to be disappointed. Spore Creatures is based around a much simpler concept and is a very different proposition. While the attraction of Spore for PC is the freedom to design an entire civilisation, this feels more like make-your-own-Pokmon.
The visuals are very different, too. "We went with a very specific 2D look," Haber says. "We were inspired by Japanese rod puppets and how creative people can be with those." The end result could be described as charmingly simplistic or plain and blocky, depending on your personal tastes.
Which is also what it's likely to come down to with regard to the gameplay. There are certainly plenty of Pokmon fans out there. For them, the prospect of being able to determine your character's appearance and abilities as well as their attack skills could be an appealing one. Not to mention the fact you get to play as a carrot.