"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.