Many reviews of Spore have noted that it’s a great toy, but a weak game, and I agree with that consensus. I also have some thoughts about why it is a weak game, and why I suspect that the fact Spore strikes me as a weak game says more about me than it does about the game.

But first, my little dude, dancing:

In Spore you play the intelligent designer of creatures using a vaguely Lamarckian-based evolutionary process. You begin in a tide pool as a little amoeboid critter who showed up on a meteor. The little amoeboid critter can be an herbivore or a carnivore, and it evolves by collecting enough DNA points and (this is highly amusing, in a Discworld way) new parts. So if you want your critter to have fins, first you have to swim around and hope you run into fins among the detritus of the meteor crash, and then you have to eat enough (while avoiding being eaten) so that you can afford to add the part.

The first stage of the game is brilliant, because not only do you get to design your creature, your design decisions directly effect how your creature behaves, and your decisions will be shaped by the environment. If you never find fins, you won’t be moving quickly. The little dude up above started off life as a carnivore, but then he ended up at one point being surrounded by bigger critters that he couldn’t eat, and lots of plants, and I’d happened to find an omnivore mouth. I couldn’t advance unless he ate, so I redesigned my amoeba with a proboscis. Om nom nom!

The latter stages haven’t been as much fun to me, because while the find-a-part, earn-DNA model still holds (until it’s replaced with build-a-car, build-a-ship), the effect of the environment on one’s design is lessened, and the design on the creature’s actions is much less than I had hoped. This result in a game that ends up being fairly easy to figure out.

My little dude can hop and glide on his wings, but he gets that ability just from having the wings with a +4 glide stuck onto his body somewhere, not because I placed them in a place that would ensure he would balance well when he glided. He has an impressive jumping ability even though I chose to make his legs spindly. He has a fearsome bite attack even though I shrunk his mouth and gave him an underbite.

This bothers me. And it probably shouldn’t, because there’s a good reason, game-wise, to have what the creature looks like vary somewhat independently of what the creature can do, because otherwise in three months the game database would be full not of interesting cute creations, but the one armored tank uberbiter model that maxed the stats. It would be a lot harder to balance the game. The game is thus fundamentally more about creating nifty critters than it is about the survival of the fittest, except that there’s nothing in the game itself that promotes niftiness.

It’s a bit similar to the Sims in that respect: a house needed a bathroom or your Sims would pee on the floor and cry. But it wouldn’t matter to the game whether one made the bathroom beautiful, or put it in a place that made sense in the rest of the house, as long as it was there and had a door. This meant that creating a beautiful house didn’t have any instrumental effects within the world of the game.*

This might not really be the fault of Spore; I think I’m not the target audience. If I look at all the games I’ve played and enjoyed, I’d have to say that the biggest attraction for me in a game is that defeating the game depends on figuring out the best strategy to win, as opposed to executing that strategy very well (via button-mashing or similar.)* And what’s peculiar to me is that once I have figured out the best strategy, I have almost no interest in repeating it over and over and over in order to execute.**

Spore should appeal to me, because the strategy that one needs to take to win does vary based on what one designs. If one ends up with no teeth, one should not attempt to advance by biting things that have teeth. It just doesn’t vary enough to force me to make any tough decisions. Plus, if I run into an area where my creature needs to bite things, and my creature has no teeth, I can just edit my creature so it has some teeth.

Spore also isn’t a game one can lose. Your critter can get killed, if you pursue the bite-things-while-having-no-teeth strategy of dominance, but all that happens is that your critter wakes up back at the nest.

I think I’d like it more if I could mess up badly enough to go extinct.

*Also, you couldn’t declare war on other Sims. I would have liked the game a lot more had there been a War option.

**One of my favorite games is a card game called Fluxx. Fluxx is a simple game: play cards on the table, and if the cards match the goal at the end of your turn you win. But as the name suggests, the goal can be changed at any time, and so can the rules. A rule change might go from ‘Draw One, Play One’ where you can hold as many cards as you want to ‘Draw Five, Play Three, Hand Limit Zero.’ This can be evil. To be good at Fluxx is to design a strategy based on the cards that you have, that can be won in one turn, while screwing over everyone else until you have a chance to enact that strategy.

*** I recently rented the game Boom Blox, which is wonderful largely because it is essentially knocking down stacks of blocks for grown-ups, arranged in a series of clever puzzles. Some puzzles are puzzles which require a lot of thinking: set off a chain reaction, knock down this tower in one shot. Some are puzzles whose solutions are easy, but the execution of those solutions requires a lot of repetition. It’s really interesting to me how little patience I have for repeating a task which I have figured out the best strategy given that I have no particular problem with replaying a level 30 times if it requires one shot to win.