We had a chance to sit through a lengthy Spore demo today that had developers playing through the first four stages of the five stage game.
The game opens up on the view of a galaxy littered with sparking stars. Clicking on any of the stars opens up a small menu that allows you to start a new game. When you start the game the camera zooms into the star, following the path of a meteor of frozen ice and rock as it zips past other planets, stars and finally into the atmosphere of the planet you selected, melting and breaking apart until it slams into the ground, exploding and scattering fragments into nearby pools of water.
The game then kicks into the first phase, a cellular level that looks on it's surface a bit like flow, but with more personality and color. Your initial creature is generated randomly. In the case of the demo, the initially creature was a small pear-shaped blue thing with a bulbous tail, three tentacles on its face and two large eyes.You move the 2D creature around what appears to be the surface of a lake, in the background colourful plants, rocks and sand shimmer beneath the water, absorbing smaller creatures and avoiding larger ones. Once you've sucked up enough body parts from the creatures you kill you can leg an egg, which launches the first character creation tool.
Here you can customise your little amoeba, adding the body parts you grabbed from the creatures. This stage progresses as you grow larger and continue to tweak the look and actions of your little creature until you're ready to evolve to the land, something that will likely take about 30 minutes, the devs said.
When you make it to the land your creature literally crawls from the water, dragging its legless body to a nest in a 3D world. You start this second phase as this worm-like creature, eeking out an existence once more trying to attack the smaller creatures and different worm species in a quest to earn DNA and body parts. The game now shows both health and food meters.
Once you collect enough DNA you can create a new creature and birth it in your next. You use DNA points to buy body parts and then use the creation engine to construct what will eventually become your civilised species. Different types of body parts give this creature different abilities, like the ability to eat both meat and vegetation, kill things with more efficiency, sing and dance.
While taking out other creatures is one way to collect DNA, it's not the only way. You can also befriend other species through song and dance, something that can result in some pretty funny and very unique animations depending on what your customised species looks like.
While the game comes packed in with a set of pre-packaged creatures that will evolve aside you, fighting and befriending your creations, eventually those will be mixed in with creatures created by gamers. Something that will eventually spread to all copies of Spore that have the online option enabled.
The developers said that players will have the ability to say they don't like a creature or want it in their copy of the game and if a creature gets enough votes like that it will be banned from the game.
Eventually, your creature will meet the requirements to make the leap from roaming creature to sentient being and part of a tribe. At this phase in the game your creature can no longer be changed, so you'd better be sure you like what you've designed.
The Tribe phase plays a bit like a watered down real-time strategy title, with you controlling the entire tribe instead of a single creature. You can click and drag and issue commands telling your tribe to do things like attack, hunt, gather and even try to get them to recruit other tribes. Once your tribe evolves it locks all of the other creatures, stopping their evolution, so all of your communication will be with the same species, the developers said.
Instead of using DNA to purchase things, the game uses food as the currency to purchase upgrades to your little village. At this stage it's important you increase the size of your tribe by either mating or winning over other tribes and convincing them to join you. Because tools become an important part of this phase all of those need body parts you added on to improve your dancing, your singing, your foraging, no longer matter. Now it's all about the tools.
In this phase you can create buildings to train your creatures for different jobs, like a warrior or an emissary. You can even set the game up to give each job type specific clothing, to help them stand out.
Reach a big enough population and high enough level of technological advancement and you can jump into the fourth stage: Civilisation.
This stage turns your village into a walled-city, themed to be a military, cultural or diplomatic civilisation, based on the way you played the game up until this point. Instead of using food as currency, this phase introduces Spice, a resource that has to be gathered and saved for spending on buildings and upgrades.
The initial city is a walled footprint with a number of pads you can use to construct buildings on. The developers said this stage is a bit like Civilization lite. In this level population size unlocks technology. You gather Spice, build up your city, build forces and either seek to recruit other cities or take them out.
At a population of 40 you can create military land units, at 60 you can create sea units and at 80 you can create air units. These units balance one another out, and you can also build defensive weapons for your city.
An interesting twist is that each city type, military, cultural or diplomatic, produces its own unique types of units and after you conquer or convert a city you can continue to produce those units from that city.
While creature customisation is no longer possible, you can still customise your buildings and your vehicles. Like one developer said: "Just because you are killing people doesn't mean you can't look fine doing it."
The developers said the first phase of the game will probably take about 30 minutes to play through, while the next three will take about an hour-and-a-half each. Of course you could also just spend endless hours customising the look of your creatures and city.
What the developers didn't show us was the fifth phase: Space. They said that space would play a bit like the final earthbound civilisation phase, with your traveling between planets to conquer by force of politics other species, but that there would also be some major differences. The space phase, for instance, would have missions and more of a campaign structure, something, they said, that will make the game endlessly playable.
I found the creation elements amazing and something that could well be worth the price of admission. It was hard to tell if the gameplay, though, will live up to those tools. Whether this is a full blown game or more a series of toys strung together with an evolutionary twist, remains to be seen.
The team said that the game is completely playable at this stage, that you can run through it from single-cell to space, but that it still requires a lot of polish. They also said that they are talking about whether to do an open beta, something that would allow them to stress test what are a whole bunch of new concepts in short order.