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.