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Joystiq hands-on: Spore (the whole thing)

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As equal parts excuse and contrition, I feel it's necessary to add the following disclaimer to this writeup: spending thirty minutes with something like Spore is like spending thirty minutes on the history of the Russian space program or spending thirty minutes on the theory of evolution (or any other seemingly disparate discipline you may find in one of Will Wright's famously schizophrenic presentations) – it may be deep enough to wet your toes but there's an ocean out there. At a recent EA event in Los Angeles, myself and the rest of the E3 Judges had an opportunity to get our feet wet (figuratively, of course).

Before being lead into a private demo area with a half-dozen high-end gaming rigs outfitted with the latest build of Spore, Will Wright – along with what seemed to be every other team at EA – gave a short presentation covering ... well, he covered a lot (see above). I was able to extract two fascinating details from my furiously scribbled notes.

First: Wright (and EA we presume) was hoping to have 100,000 creatures created by the time the game ships in September; of course, they beat that in the first couple hours. In fact, they had announced the night before that 250,000 creatures were created and, after getting a quick real-time check during his presentation, estimated they would hit half a million before the end of the day's event. (They did).

Second: Wright told us that they expected to "exceed the world population of 3D models in Spore" within the first couple months. If we heard him right, that means there would be more 3D models in the Sporepedia than every other game, movie, you-name-it combined. And, wrapped in the embrace of Will Wright's own special reality distortion field that afternoon, nothing seemed more plausible.

Gallery: Spore (EA3) | 5 Photos

At our appointed time, a group of a half-dozen or so journalists were ushered into the demo room. Will Wright was seated at one terminal and, after a really short introduction, we were off. I initially fumbled around the interface, overwhelmed with the simplest of decisions: where to start. Spore is almost five distinct simulations – cell, creature, tribal, civilization and space – and each one offers unique objectives and a unique game type. After some equivocation, I settled on "space" and, after selecting my spacecraft (an 8-bit Mario, if you're curious) from an already jam-packed Sporepedia page (and this is just Maxis designers!), I was off exploring a seemingly infinite outer space.

As I futzed around, I had attracted an audience of one, interested in my unique mode of transport. Will Wright was seated just over my right shoulder and, for the duration of the 30 minute period, he sort of provided a real-time director's commentary on everything I was doing (mental note: more games should come with 30 minutes of the designer's time). He coached me on how to terraform the lifeless rock I had stumbled upon, carving out bodies of water while adjusting the atmosphere to make it sustainable for life. It's an imprecise balancing act, helpfully charted out for you in the display. After briefly making an atmosphere that looked lovely (clouds!) it continued in that trajectory, tipped again towards a hostile environment. Oops! Alright, enough of that then ...

Then I got sucked into the Sporepedia, where I frittered away a huge percentage of my time with the game. My initial run-in with the 8-bit Mario ship – not to mention the huge number of creatures we'd already seen at Joystiq in the couple days the Creature Creator had been available – had me crawling through hundreds of procedurally generated creations. On occasion, Wright would remark on an interesting element or a particularly beautiful design. And, keep in mind, these are all from his internal team. In just six months, 100 EA employees created 15,000 items, he told us. The designs of one of those employees in particular consistently caught my eye: GalaxyKate. One of Spore's most social features is the Sporecast – an RSS feed of sorts for another Spore player's creations that any player can subscribe to. Here, I was crawling through GalaxyKate's creations, both Will and myself marveling at some of the things she's built. My favorite: A building that looked like an ice-skating figurine, with snow-mound base and pirouette pose. You can also subscribe to Will's own creations; his username is WillDude.

After selecting a building and selecting a creature (we were sort of hopping through stages of the game – helpfully rendered on your own timeline if you so choose) I was in the tribal stage, gathering items, making babies, and generally growing my village. I tried making friends with the neighboring village – another type of creature loaded from the Sporepedia at the beginning of the level – and after some effort including playing music, we were ... well, not friends. Let's just say we could tolerate each other.

Eager to round out my tribal experience, I tried hunting. My first prey: A giant, one-eyed creature who, perhaps unsurprisingly, became rather irate when attacked. Will informed me that I had virtually no chance of defeating a creature of that size right now so, I ran. I didn't run away necessarily, simply towards another foe ... which took me awhile to find. As it turned out, every potential meal was either too large or too aggressive for me to attack. Will guided me around a bit and was himself shocked that not only were there not enough animals (really, I had to hunt) but they weren't balanced very well. Of course, Spore's still in beta. He filed a mental note.

After poking around in the tribal stage for another couple minutes, we got the word that our thirty minutes were, in fact, up. Really? You see, we just got here and actually barely had a chance to do much of anything! What about the three modes I didn't tinker with? What about the Sporepedia (I barely put a dent in it!)? What about my blossoming friendship with Will? My imaginary pleas were greeted with an imaginary stoicism and this imaginary response: "Yeah, we know. You'll just have to wait until Sept. 7 like everyone else." That's just over two months away; who wants to take bets at how many creatures will be in Sporepedia by then?

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