Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What Spore Got Wrong

And What LittleBigPlanet Got Right

Spore is not a good game. It is actually a terrible game, despite all the awards it won before it was released, because it is not really a game at all. The designers thought they were making a game, but it appears they became too wrapped up in making an amazing feat of programming that allows dozens of different parts to be connected, resized, and painted by the users but yet have these parts work as a whole. It is also visually beautiful. But the designers forgot the importance of narrative structure in a game (this is why Second Life is not a game, it has no narrative structure).

I have Spore. I have played it. I wanted to like it, but there is little to like, and it is difficult to choose a starting point since there are so many which are equally damning. Spore has nothing to do with evolution. The cell phase has nothing to do with cells. The tribal phase feels like a bad hack added at the end to try to justify the evolution angle (and it completely lacks design of any kind). The space phase holds the most promise and the most annoyance. There are no empire management tools whatsoever (you have to rescue planets from ecological disaster, which means killing 5 infected wild animals, since apparently the people on the planet cannot do it themselves).

Most immediately annoying is that almost all design choices you make have little or absolutely no consequences. I can design a house for a city, add lots of parts, resize them in multiple dimensions, and give it a custom paint job. You can take an unpainted sphere and proclaim it a house. No door. The two houses will function absolutely the same, since most things in Spore don't function much at all, they just act as placeholders. All houses are merely a house. All city halls act the same. All spaceship designs act exactly the same. You might expand your spaceship with additions that, one would think, might necessitate a larger spaceship, but no, you keep the exact same one. In the creature phase, and the cell phase, the body parts do make a difference -- faster, better at charming or attacking other species, and so on -- but these differences are thin. Give a creature one set of long legs, and another the same set of legs but shrink them, and there is no difference, because feet determine speed. But resizing the feet doesn't make a difference. Maybe it shouldn't, but this issue permeates Spore throughout.

It's not a game since there is no narrative to speak of. "Find the Grox" is the end game, but I haven't found that quest satisfying at all, and it is the only one. The Grox, a nod to Star Trek's borg, are one of several sci-fi borrowings in Spore, along with monoliths from 2001 and spice from Dune. Nice touches, but a game needs more than that.

Consider a game like the theater. There is a stage, there are the sets, props, actors, and the script (I'll ignore the audience for now). Spore gives people a stage and a lot of control over set making. You make creatures, buildings, ships, and can terraform and sculpt planets -- these are the sets and the props. But none of that has any effect on the script, which is too minimal to support a game. That is where Spore fails. Having content from EA, the company which made Spore, and content from other Spore users added to your game doesn't add anything either, except for more diverse visuals. (World of Warcraft, the MMO, fits very well into this "game as theater" framework, and this also explains why I don't like Starcraft and the original Warcraft -- there is no narrative except "build a huge force to crush the opponent" and the occasional "we need to mix things up so here is a maze level" in the single player).

Another game, a real game this time, which uses community created content like Spore, but allows the users to not just make props and settings but also narrative, is LittleBigPlanet. LittleBigPlanet is a PS3 exclusive, and I don't have a PS3, but I have seen a demo (at PAX), read about it, and watched the G4 people play with it with the developers. That's all I need to know they did it right. As far as I can tell, LittleBigPlanet is essentially a puzzle game, where you and maybe your friends solve levels. The LBP community of users makes levels, so, just like Spore, the community created content is essential. But with LBP this content is in a completely different area: it's the script. Each level is its own script, driven by the design of the level. If you don't understand the draw of puzzle games, think about the popularity of tetris, or sudoku, or Portal (which is essentially a puzzle game and was totally awesome).

So, LBP has the really amazingly designed and programmed design capability for the users like Spore has, but here design matters: it is feature rich, not meaninglessly superficial. More than that, though, the designing is for the narrative of the game, which is just as important as mechanics. We've seen that visuals aren't everything, gameplay mechanics are behind the success of the Wii, which was written off as graphically underpowered by people who don't understand games. Amazing graphics, like Spore, are only part of the story. Mechanics, which I have not discussed here, are vital, but so is the narrative structure that carries people through the game. In my opinion, games like Gears of War, Half Life 2, Oblivion, and the Halo series have all of these elements. I also like the Katamari series for the same reasons. I wanted to like Okami, which was visually striking and with a well-constructed narrative, yet on the PS2 the cut scenes couldn't be skipped, and this killed it for me (the cut scenes are long) since the mechanics were off. Narrative can be too heavy-handed, such as in games where there is only one path to success like in Condemned, but narrative is a vital component of game success.

This is why Spore made a big splash until just after it came out and people started playing it. LittleBigPlanet, on the other hand, continues to generate buzz.

Update: EA seems to have noticed this problem, and is coming out with an expansion to allow users to create missions. Sadly, I don't see how the game mechanics are going to allow anything interesting. Here's an accurate comment from a gaming site that sums it up, with a spot-on reply.