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.