Sunday, 22 June 2008

Spore: The New Cambrian

The release of the Spore Creature Creator has resulted in a Cambrian explosion of content creation where amateur creature designers have populated the Sporepedia with hundreds of thousand of different creature designs - at least 754,495 to date (at the time of writing) at a rate of more than 100,000 every 24 hours. This is a tidal wave of new virtual life, sweeping up the gamer community in creationist controversy as would-be-gods evolve from the puerile (or should I say penile) to mimicry (of game controllers, Star Wars space ships, gaming icons and pop art) to highly original creations. What challenges beyond the obvious problems of a procedural Hot Coffee mod every minute does this tsunami of content create?

The Spore designers cleverly used PNG chunk types to embed the total content of a single creature into the picture data for that creature - allowing quick and ready transfer of the Spore creatures by dragging and dropping images from the Sporepedia into the creator. They've also incorporated ready sharing of existing content as well as 3rd party media integration with You Tube, and user tagging of creature types. But the huge amount of content has clearly exceeded the ability of the Sporepedia website to deliver it effectively.

At the moment, the Sporepedia interface allows 24 creatures to be displayed per page, and an editorial component of the site has offered up a selection of 'featured' creatures - 40 to date. Rated creatures, that is creatures where second user has provided some rating information on the quality of the creature design, number some 154,000 or so. Searching by tag doesn't appear to be supported - and there is very little other criteria to slice up such a huge database of information, except by individual author.

In order to download Spore creatures, the interface restricts me at best to 24 per page, a microscopic drop in the bucket of the total content out there. Where are the tools to let me download the most popular 10,000 creatures - or to have an RSS feed of the top 100 creature creators so that I can see their new work - or to dedicate 10 GB of my hard disk to automatically fill up with new creature types? How do I define an 'ecology' of creatures, with predators and prey, or a phylum so that I can have a consistent series of creatures evolved from a single antecedent? How else can users organise, sort and select data from a database of this magnitude in an effective manner? Clearly editorial control is failing to address these issues, as can be seen by the ratio of editorial selection to user content. I suspect EA and Maxis have their hands full just removing inappropriate content in this regard.

These issues of information management are at least manageable. Consider another statistic - to date, the Spore Creature Creator tools has populated one virtual game with approximately twice as many different creatures as all beetle species discovered to date. From wikipedia: 'The Coleoptera (beetle) contains more described species than in any other order in the animal kingdom, constituting about 25% of all known life-forms'. In other words, Man (actually avid gamers) has virtually created life at approximately a quarter of the rate that the Bible describes God achieving.

Divine hubris aside, extrapolation from the current creation rate suggests that within a year Spore will have approximately 30 million creature types. Forget the problems of trying to organize this information within Sporepedia - it is unlikely that the human brain is equipped to distinguish this many different creatures. In one sweep, Will Wright and co have created a tool capable of matching or exceeding the Earth's ability to generate new species since it's inception.

It is likely Spore only supports so many types of different creature morphology, and the specific creature characteristics are well defined within the editor. This may mean that the brain is able to filter on less specific criteria than the individual creature, and give the player a chance to recognize the important features of any in-game encounter, without having to refer to Sporepedia every minute of the game. The game design seems to have planned to an extent for these kinds of numbers: the Spore galaxy supports at least 4 billion planets, which suggests after a year of playing, you will only encounter a unique species every hundred planets or so.

The total number of creatures may not be an issue, as much as the player's ability to consume new content. For arguments sake, let's assume that a new creature is encounter every game minute. Over a typical ten hour a week playing pattern, this means the player could potentially encounter 6,000 new creatures - in reality, far less than this. Every year, this is 300,000 creatures, and an adult human lifespan of 50 years of continuously playing Spore, a total of 15 million creatures could be encountered. Therefore, within six months, Spore will have enough creature content to exceed anyone's ability to encounter it all in game in their lifetime.

Spore has created an unexpected set of design problems: the reverse of virtually any other game. There is literally too much content for any gamer to experience; and the tools to manage and select wholesale from this content don't yet appear to be in place. This is an ideal position to be in, and a reason that more and more games are moving to procedural content generation as a part of expanding the overall gaming experience.

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