Spore's power struggle: freedom vs. beauty

What is a magic crayon? If you're envisioning Harold and his purple outlet of creativity, you wouldn't be far off from the intended metaphor. Chaim Gingold, design lead for Spore's editors and cell game, described the magic crayon as a toy that is simple to use and yet gives the user enough power to create something they'll appreciate.

Gingold kicked off his presentation, one of the last after a marathon of lectures and roundtables at this year's Game Developers Conference, by defining a magic crayon through example. Photoshop is not a good magic crayon, for example, because it is very hard for most people to use. Neither is Super Mario Bros., since you are not changing anything in the world. Kid Pix fits the schema for a magic crayon, as does the Mii creator, which is an "absolutely beautiful, wonderful magic crayon," he said.

"Soft mastery, you do something, you look at what's done, you give and take," he said. "Hard mastery is all about control and imposing your will." Gingold gives The Sims as an example of soft mastery and Civilization as hard mastery. Statistics have shown women are more interested in soft mastery, while men enjoy hard mastery, he said. Soft mastery is much easier to develop.

A facet of Spore is an exercise in Flow, a mental state where a person feels completely immersed in what he or she is doing. (Yes, That Game Company's flOw is inspired by this idea.) To accomplish that, Gingold explains that he has had to sacrifice some creative freedom in order to ensure what he terms disproportionate feedback, defined by a user not having to do much to get a lot back.

It is at this moment that Gingold stops to laud LittleBigPlanet. "My head explodes when I think about this program," he said.

The creature editor

The creature editor was the first and hardest to make. "It's also the only required editor in the game," he said. Gingold sought advice from the art department, noting that they asked how one would start a sketch a creature (in this case, draw a bean). From there, more options to the vertebrae were added. Complete control was not given, but from the rules given to the body, arms and legs, the computer will know how to properly animate the creature while the user can still make some beautiful, if not bizarre, creations. (See Robin Williams test the creature editor at E3.)

Other than the original blueprint, Gingold noted that he lived by the rule that if graphic artists were able to do produce amazing work, then it might be a bit too complicated. Many Venn diagrams are shown, redefining possibility (what the user can make), probability (what the user is likely to make) and desirability (what the user wants to make). Gingold shows some backend software that shows what the beta testers have been making, and his team has been using that to help set the freedoms and limitations of the editors.

The building editor

Magnetic poetry was an inspiration for the building editor, which Gingold wanted to work so that it would take "three clicks to make something good ... You also want to support the 1,000 clickers who make amazing things."

Pre-made content was not working, so Gingold decided to define elements of a building for the editor: body, roof, window and door. The team focused on making all the pieces available fit together and make something that looks cool. He returned to the idea of cohesion; now that the building parts are defined, the computer can help decide how all the pieces fit together (e.g. system can now help player add more bodies and roofs to a house, knowing how they fit.)

"Players don't necessarily know what they like and don't like, but they do know whether they like it or not once they get it," he said.

One-button design is discussed; Gingold praises games like Diablo and The Sims (heh, of course) and even applications such as E-mail and Firefox for the one-button simplicity of the interface. He also praised hardware such as the iPod and Wii remote. Not mentioned is the super cool and easy-to-use Steel Battalion controller.

Gingold talks about giving players a certain order to perform tasks. "Remember those cartoon books? Step one: draw a circle. Step two: draw a line. Step three: draw Mickey Mouse?" The audience has a laugh with Gingold. We're still pining for this game, promised for a 2007 release.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.