"Will really wanted to make a single-player MMO." With this blunt and baffling statement, producer Thomas Vu sums up the last, most remarkable thing of the many remarkable things about Spore. This is an entirely solo, yet massively multiplayer experience. At no point in Spore do you compete or co-operate with other players. But you're in their company - or that of their creations, at any rate - every step of the way, and it's a profoundly social game.
This is exactly the sort of twisted, contradictory, inside-out idea you'd expect from Will Wright, the man who is at once gaming's foremost nerd and, as creator of The Sims, one of its greatest populists. The basis of the idea is "pollination", the process by which Spore - provided you connect it to the Internet - populates the universe of your game with the creations of other players.
In the beginning...
For those who haven't been following it since it was announced three years ago - only seven more months to go! - Spore is a game of evolution in five stages. The first, Cell, is a top-down arcade game of eat-or-be-eaten, starring a single-cell organism of your devising. The second, Creature, is a 3D game of adapt-and-survive, as your beast gains legs and crawls onto land. The third, Tribe, is basic action-RTS as a band of creatures learns to work together, and the fourth, Civilisation, is all about strategic social engineering, town-building, warmongering and species supremacy. The fifth, Space, is a game of exploration and transcendence, as the scope of the game explodes into a universe of planets and species to discover, mould and conquer. You can jump into any of the five stages at any point, and start mucking around.
At every stage, the player creates things: cells, creatures, buildings, vehicles, spacecraft, using simple building blocks and powerful, supple, easy-to-use editors. Spore works out how they work and animates them, and their properties - carnivore or social creature, arms factory or church - dictate the shape of your game.
Every other Spore player is doing the same, and through pollination, their creations are spread throughout your world, and vice versa. "We thought of doing pollination from the outset," says Vu. "Because we allow players to make whatever they want, we totally want them to share it." And as it turns out, automatic pollination is just the simplest way to share.
I upload, therefore I am
Maxis is so confident about how much fun people will have creating, showing off, and collecting the creations of others, that it's building a sophisticated content-sharing and social-networking system around Spore that puts it head-to-head with Sony's lovely LittleBigPlanet in a bid to be the MyFaceTube of gaming. The hub of this is the Sporepedia, a Spore browser available both within the game and on Spore.com. It allows you to assemble and publish your creations in themed sets (or Sporecasts) - one example is a group of creatures modelled on letters of the alphabet, another a selection of cars and buildings in an art deco style - comment on and download other players' creations, select specific sets to dump into your game, or set the rules by which it selects them automatically. Among other things. The possibilities are head-spinning.
"We found that with games that are built around community, say World of Warcraft or The Sims, the website is integral in terms of building gamer support," says Vu, before announcing an open attack on office productivity. "If you're at work you're not really playing the game, but you can log on to the website and comment on other people's creatures, start assembling your content, and then when you get home you can start playing with it."
Maxis is leaving no stone unturned when it comes to allowing players seed Spore into every area of their life, from offering gamertag-style profiles and RSS feeds on your in-game achievements, to a straightforward video-capture option to make that YouTube upload of your freakish beasts in action a matter of a couple of clicks. There will even be a Spore Store - the button's already in the game - where you might be able to buy t-shirts starring your favourite monster, or even a bespoke figurine of it. This is no less than a bid for world domination - which, considering the none-more-epic arc of the game, is kind of appropriate.
The whole world in his hand
As with all good plans for world domination, it has several fronts, and a next phase. Spore proper, on PC and Mac, will release at the same time as DS and mobile phone offshoots. The mobile game is a Snake-like arcade game based on the Cell phase, while the DS game is a story-driven RPG twist on the Creature phase in the Pokmon manner. There's a full creation tool for its sweet, 'Paper Spore'-style 2D beings, and you can swap them with other players too.
Although Spore is, theoretically, a game without end - there's a conclusion to its arc, but no limit to what you can see and do in the Space phase, and an endless well of user-created content for it - Maxis certainly imagines expanding it in future, with new tools, parts and playing styles. "There's going to be a segment that wants to play more Spore," says Vu. "There's also going to be another segment, the creators, they just want to create things, so they're going to want more editors and more parts in the editors. There's going to be another set of players that want to grab things that have been made and use it in other different ways that aren't a part of the game or the creation process. We have way too many ideas."
He doesn't even rule out an eventual multiplayer mode: "I wouldn't put it past the studio to put something online, because it's very relevant. The RTS portions can definitely be played as an online game. But there's nothing in the plans."
So that's the big picture. But what's the little one? The one of you, sat at your monitor, playing Spore? Are you actually having fun?
As Ellie already mentioned, the game is practically impossible to get a satisfactory feel for in a brief preview session. What we can tell you is that we spent more of our hands-on time in the editors than the game itself, and that's no kind of insult. It's hard to express how compelling and entertaining it is to tease and sculpt some adorably freakish life-form into shape and cycle through its animations; how miraculous it is to see it set down in the game and act. On a more mundane (but no less important) note, the user interface is exemplary, clear and flexible and consistent at all times.
There are limits to your imagination - a budget that restricts how many limbs you can stick onto your poor little Frankenstein - but as Vu says, limitations are the mother of invention. "We realise that giving players whatever they want is nice and fun, but it won't hold their attention in the long run. What we've seen is, when we gave them an unlimited budget, they just made porcupines. Creatures with everything on them. But we put on a budget, we started to see much more interesting and creative ideas come out of people."
Whether created by Maxis, its testers, or a games journalist in ten minutes, not one creature in Spore fails to delight, amuse and amaze. Although necessarily less magical, the buildings and vehicles have a potent character, too. No matter how customised, the whole game has an inescapably Sporish look to it - and its bulbous, cartoony lines won't be to all tastes - but that's better than the hideous mishmash that would be born of total aesthetic freedom.
It's the depth of the game phases themselves that you have to question. There's a steady accumulation of complexity and stuff to do, from a single control - click to eat! - to an array of terraforming tools. But most phases seem a little aimless, without clearly defined goals or structure: you feel that progress happens by default rather than your own doing.
Perhaps, though, it's a mistake to judge Spore by the standards of other games. It was never intended to be a deep tactical challenge; it is, above all else, a playpen. And it's becoming apparent that it's a playpen of mind-boggling size, containing every single player, and everything they've made. Sophisticated play mechanics might almost be a distraction from its true selling point: a toy universe of infinite variety, and infinite scope.
"It's the story of evolution, of powers of ten," says Vu. "It's the story of starting off really small and ending up really large. And the content creation makes it continuously surprising, you're continuously exploring, wondering if evolution is something that's replicated on other worlds, what would it be?" Spore isn't just one answer to that question, it's - potentially - millions. Now that really is massive.