What does "game 2.0" look like? Games are already highly participatory, but over the last few years game designers have been giving players more control over the gameworld and experience. The ultimate substantiation of this is Spore, a game in which players invent their own life forms and manage their evolution. Spore was released in September of 2008 to huge sales expectations. It was intended to be a casual game that unlocked the creative potential of tens of millions of non-gamers. But it hasn't realized that goal, and it's a cogent example of what happens when you conflate self-expression with participation.
Two years ago, I wrote about Will Wright and the rise of "God games" in which players not only function within but control an expanding universe of characters, scenes, and conditions. Last week, Wright spoke at the Web 2.0 Expo about Spore, and claimed that the power of Spore is not as a game but as a "self-expression tool." Players design their own life forms, from the strange to the powerful to the very silly. These creatures can be registered on a wiki, and there are easy tools to upload videos directly to YouTube from the game of your creature taking its first steps and yawlps. There are over 100 million player-created creatures roaming video game consoles all over the planet.
Spore is being cast as a "Web 2.0" version of a video game. Spore does pass the basic test by getting better the more people use it. Each new Spore creature is automatically uploaded to a central database and then redistributed to individual players' universes. The more creatures, the more variety you can add into your own little world. The automatic tools for uploads to other venues (like YouTube) enhance the sense that Spore creatures and activities exist outside the walled universe. I particularly like the celebration of players and their creations on the Spore wiki, where you can read the stories behind the creatures, which often gives you a window into players' own lives and interests.
But Spore is an entirely "creator"-focused experience, which severely limits its potential for adoption. If you do not want to make creatures and watch them grow, this is not the game for you. Yes, the tools available to help you make creatures are lovely, but you still have to have that inclination in the first place. Spore gives players more control over the experience than Wright's other "god" games. In Sim City, you had a limited number of options available to you as you grew your metropolis. In Spore, literally, the universe is the limit.
Strangely, Spore is being billed as casual game, or even a toy, and is focusing on audiences that don't want to log hundreds of hours deep in the intricacies of a complex game. Wright argues that the power of Spore is to unlock the capacity to be a game designer to anyone regardless of programming ability, that it lowers the barrier to entry sufficiently that everyone can create. But openness can be daunting, especially to casual gamers. Not everyone wants to design games, just as not everyone wants to write a blog or post videos. Spore banks on the idea that we all secretly want to be creators, despite research that shows that people like to participate in different ways. The simple tools for creation mask the fact that players need personal drive and intention to pick up the game in the first place.
While other Web 2.0 platforms offer opportunities for creators, critics, joiners, collectors, and spectators, Spore requires every player to be a creator and offers few useful constraints on creations. Upcoming expansions will allow players to create their own "adventures" by prescribing the gameplay at different stages. This seems to be barking up a very niche tree of appealing to the same kind of folks who like to be dungeonmasters or write their own fan fiction. And while there is a thriving community of self-motivated would-be game creators, it is not a massive casual gaming market. Spore is a chemistry set without instructions, and only some of us are motivated to invent our own experiments.
What does the ultimate "game 2.0" look like? How will it balance creative acts with other forms of player participation?