Spore is in an awkward situation. It launched and sold masses of copies. Not in the league of The Sims, but enough that commercial necessity demands Maxis work out ways to - hnngh - expand the franchise.
However, more than any game of last year, it managed to alienate a lot of core gamers having other priorities other than just being entertaining. The team has been quoted as saying that the Spore experience is one third building, one third sharing stuff you've built and one third actually playing. People just interested in the final third are going to be annoyed.
Equally, the priorities for the first part were much more about just building stuff. Rather than make a game where the design of your creature and equipment was explicitly judged, maxis made a game where you could pretty much make what you wanted and go ahead and still play it. Fundamentally, it's a game of plasticine rather than a game of Robot Wars. And a lot of people just shrugged and wondered, "why the hell should I bother making anything then?" There was no point.
So, with all that going around my head, we come to the first real returns to Spore's universe - as I don't think anyone is going to count the Creepy & Cute Parts Pack for the mother game as anything serious. The newcomers are the Spore Galactic Adventures expansion pack for the PC, and Spore Hero for the Wii and DS. And after seeing them both in action, I get the feeling one of them may actually do something about that particular issue. The other will only annoy those previously annoyed even more.
Of the pair, Spore Galactic Adventures may be onto something. It has the potential to be the sort of expansion pack that extends the thinking implicit in the original game's design and turns it into a complete entity. Which sounds grandiose, but what I mean is it gives the building stuff a purpose.
Spore Galactic Adventures primarily expands the space stage of Spore. As well as a spaceship, you play a character - a captain - who is able to beam down to planet's surfaces to complete missions. Basically, you do the Captain Kirk thing, going to a planet with some manner of problem, beaming down, solving it and heading off. As you do so, you can level up, gaining more and better equipment.
So far so normal. But where it heads into more interesting terrain is how it integrates into the create-and-share bits of Spore's design. As well as a mass of Maxis-created missions, the game ships with an actual adventure creator, so players can make their own. These are, like Spore's other content, shared with everyone else who's playing the game. After you play each mission, you get a chance to rate it, and that feeds back into who gets to play the mission some more - as well as showing a leaderboard for the mission.
Linking back to what I said earlier, where this is interesting is that it takes what was creation-for-creation's-sake and turns it into creation-for-a-reason. In other words, before, that guy who spent all that time making a building look like a chair was just showing off. Now, he's a source of props for everyone who wants to make a mission featuring a chair. Spore, as a game, decided that it wanted to be about people's creative urges, but not their scientific engineering urge. And the ability to actually use that creative stuff to make your own mini-games gives Spore something analogous to a real endgame. The point of making an alien that looks like a Dalek is that you want an alien that looks like a Dalek for a level.
(It also adds a fun level to the idea of Spore recapitulating games' development. Starting with simple arcade games it goes through all the genres, ending in an almost-freeform exploratory god-game thing. And now, on top of that, there's another level where you become the actual creator of games.)
Which all sounds terribly exciting, but whether it works is down to the creator (as in the tool - not Him). From my brief look, it seems to lean towards the friendlier end of that scale, rather than something incredibly ornate. Still, you're able to do things like create multi-stage adventures where each act leads to new things appearing or disappearing, tied together with user-generated text.
In other words, expect to see my Sweary Adventures, featuring thousands of enormous and monstrous phalluses. In terms of obvious things missing, there's no ability to add your own music, own voice-acting, no riding vehicles ("yet") or to have something akin to a conversation tree, but there's plenty of potential for people to easily create stuff. For example, during the demo, gargantuan penguins are created hidden behind a wall of exploding barrels. After they're defeated, there's an attack by unicorns. Player objectives and sound effects are thrown down randomly. It's not much of a level, of course, but it's been done in seconds. I'm immediately thinking what sort of things I could do. And more so, what those who actually put the effort into Spore's character creators are going to do.
And then there's Spore Hero, which goes completely the opposite way, and immediately raises the hackles of anyone who ever liked the idea of Spore in the first place. It's basically an arcade-adventure with you playing a Spore creature. In other words, it's a little like the creature stage in the original game, but leaning towards a traditional Nintendo-esque action/exploration game rather than the MMO vibe. You walk around, you fight, you solve quests, you communicate, you explore.
All that really remains of Spore is the fact you design your character with the parts-based system. You locate pieces throughout the game - in a semi-random fashion - and then can redesign yourself, sticking on new abilities as you desire. Of course, you can also do a Spore thing and cheat, adding a tiny pair of wings to your underside to allow you to fly and reach those unreachable areas, but without breaking your carefully thought out design. However, bar your mutable lead character, the rest of the game remains totally stationary, designed by the team, similar to Spore Creatures on the DS.
When questioned, the developers argue that they decided to go this way so they could actually have control over the actual narrative of the game. After all, if they don't know if a character is going to be scary looking, how can they do a quest appropriate for it? You do see the point, but there's an excluded middle where some of the characters in the game could be from others while key ones are defined by the team. As it is, we're left with a game that's basically just an adventure where you can design your character. And while there are apparently elements like other characters responding to what you look like, in a Fable-esque style, that's not enormously exciting.
Between the next two Spore releases, you can see the best and worst possible futures of Spore playing out. In one, just surface-fiddling and brand-servicing. In the other, opening a Pandora's Box of possibilities which not even the designers know. As such, while we don't know the results of either, Galactic Adventures is the one holding our attention.
Spore Galactic Adventures is due out for PC in June. Spore Hero is due out for Wii and DS later this year.