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Joystiq eyes-on: How to Build a Better Being, with Will Wright

Zack Stern
Zack Stern|August 29, 2008 8:00 AM

We're starting to get a little sick from Spore fever, since we gamers have been hearing about it for what seems like eons. But once the title launches September 7 in North America (and September 5 in Europe and Asia), we'll have to ride the wave of hype again when the rest of the world hears about the title. Set your TiVos for one of the first (of potentially many) Spore tie-ins; the National Geographic Channel will air its HD special, How to Build a Better Being on Tuesday, September 9 at 10:00 PM. The production is also included in the $80 Spore Galactic Edition.

The show offers a primer in DNA and genetics beyond what we remember from high school, connecting science with Spore. It's less a look at the game directly and more of a handshake (sometimes literally) between Will Wright and genetic scientists.

How to Build a Better Being centers on the Creature Creator and the genetic basis for the game's evolution and multitude of parts. After watching a screener, we wish it also covered science behind other parts of the game. However, the hour-long show works as a companion to that fundamental Spore angle.Spore fanboys will froth within the first few minutes, with some of the show shot on-location at EA's Maxis studio. After a flashy opening full of stock animal footage--the stuff that sells HDTVs--Wright appears out of an animated montage, holding a frappuccino-like drink. He walks through the ground floor of the office, past various Spore figurines and logos.

Lest we claim we're better than those fanboys, we compared those backgrounds to our visits to Maxis. We'd guess that National Geographic shot footage at least a few months ago. Don't expect any Spore spoilers.

Most of the show is slickly produced, featuring animation, elaborate transitions, and moody interview lighting for Wright and others. But only rarely did it feel like a Spore commercial, usually sticking to science. A National Geographic representative told us that nature channel contacted EA to create the show, and EA wasn't directly involved with writing and production.

Most of the show is about mutation and evolution, created by a misfiring set of "toolkit genes." These genetic plans give simple instructions to begin building a creature in embryo: an arm goes here, the brain goes here, a foot here. Then the specific arm, brain, and feet -- and even more specific parts within those -- get built with that layout.

After a visit to the U.C. Berkeley fly lab, geneticist Michael Levine shows a mutated fruit fly that has functional legs where its antennae should be. He says that the lab can even create its own rearrangements, although reprogramming fruit flies usually kills them. But this sort of swapping connects to the Spore Creature Creator letting gamers reposition parts on a body.

The show continues to explore the role of toolkit genes, comparing the near-identical DNA found in vastly different creatures. Wright personally explores the Chicago Field Museum with a flashlight, full of kooky flashlight-at-camera effects.

And while other scientists offer their own insight -- and then go design game creatures with Wright -- the video gives little information about Spore's game design, and how closely they tried to model it to established science. In one of the only tidbits, Wright says he considered changing the game's visuals depending on your creature's eye quality. Ultimately, Spore would have been dark or hard to see with primitive eyes, so they didn't pursue that design.

How to Build a Better Being is about genetics and toolkit genes much more than Spore. The two topics connect fairly well, and the show is good background material for gamers. Fanboys will also be able to obsess over a few shots within Maxis. But unless you get excited about seeing which movie poster is on the wall at a game developer (spoiler alert: The Simpsons Movie), watch it for science, not for Spore. Science!