Friday, April 10, 2009

Game Friday: Spore, Self-Expression, and the Pitfalls of Creating Your Own Universe

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?

12 comments, add yours!:

Jason Herrington said...

Spore is failing because it is a one-dimensional game that is trying desperately to appeal to a complicated and diverse audience. I think Spore's failure as a Game2.0 demonstrates that the typical platform for computer gaming is changing. The most successful games won't run through a single application, they will be pervasive, wildly visible and will have meaning internally and in reality.

Sibley said...

Respectfully, I can't say that I agree with Jason; the best first person PC shooters, PC MMOs, and action games on consoles will be among the most successful (if not dominate the list of most successful) game titles well into the future. The majority of the market still doesn't have much interest in the games having meaning in reality, if you look at the marketplace. I suppose Madden NFL could tie into fantasy sports leagues in some way, but I doubt that will happen soon, and it will remain one of the most successful game titles.

Casual gaming is having huge success by separate metrics, although no single game titles among that category are nearly as financially successful. But casual games are often single platform, one-dimensional experiences as well.

I think Nina nailed it - if you want a product to be mass market (which isn't the only way to be successful), then you can't limit the experience to predominantly really motivated creative people. That is the box that will keep Second Life, for example, a niche product unless it is dramatically changed.

Sibley said...

The holy grail is to fully tap the creative market with fantastic creation tools, like in Spore or Second Life, and yet have that feed into a game that is also fantastic for the people who like to filter / mashup content and the 90% who just want to play with it. That's what YouTube is - it's surprising no one has hit that with gaming yet in a big way. Not that it is easy.

Kylie said...

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.

Just for clarification, are you suggesting that a qualification for being a web 2.0 technology is that it be of interest and relevance to everyone? I know there are certain 2.0 technologies that I don't participate in, not because they aren't welcoming to my specific participation level (joiner, spectator, etc.), but because they don't interest me. Either I don't know about them, or I'm just not inclined to particpate. Flickr is an example for me. I may come across a photo when I'm doing a search, but I do not use the site for the social purposes for which I understand it to be intended.

I am also having trouble distinguishing between potentially classifiable social technologies that are "creator-focused" and those that have certain participation threshold requirements. Take facebook for example. To some extend I have to become a "creator" and a "joiner" as a threshold to "spectator" activities. I have to sign up (join) and create my own profile in order to view others'. Is this a fundamentally different situation than with Spore, or is it a level of degree? I'd say there are no thresholds for being a spectator with spore, if I can watch videos on youtube about different adventures or merely go to the website to view different folks' creations. Granted I have to use a seperate platform for viewing videos and commenting on them, but I can still be a spectator. Yet, facebook is thriving while while spore potentially won't.

Matt said...

Depending on your definitions, most games are "2.0" - the users are the ones who create the "story", the games are the platforms. Spore's problem is not that it's a bad 2.0 game, but it's a 2.0 toy (see his TED talk - aimed at a younger audience.

Jais said...

My thoughts on Game 2.0, whatever it may mean.

There's the 2.0 idea of authority as a platform provider, not a content provider, right? I think to really look at what Game 2.0 means, we have to look at what is considered a platform, and what is content.

When Spore tries to become a platform provider as Game 2.0, it's narrowly defining 'platform' as the ability for a player to become a game designer. "We'll give you the tools, and you can create your own game, which you can then share with others."

But to me, I guess, the real content of the game are the actions taken by the player. A developer as a content provider defines what a player can and should do through the course of the game. It clearly defines the actions a player can or can't take, and how and when a game 'ends'. Whereas, I think as a platform provider, the developers create a shell of a game that lets players how they're going to play and participate, whether it's by following a path determined by the game designer or moving off on their own.

I guess looking on it, I'm a little confused as to how to define games in a Web 2.0 setting. Are they platforms for social interactions, such as in MMORPGS? Are they social objects that get strangers to interact with each other? Does 'creation' within games refer to players creating content usually provided to game developers, or does it refer to creating intangible things like a guild of players or a strategy or even a whole new set of rules that work within an already constructed game world?

John Buchinger said...

You know Monopoly is 2.0. I can buy, or I can just continue to go around the board and quietly pay rent until I am out of money.
But why are games and 2.0 intricately connected? What are the implications for museums?
Is there a real connection for museum people or is it a geek centered phenomena that puts the social media and gaming world together?
What is most crucial for me
(because I believe that games have a powerful potential to make what museums do better) is present the ways the behaviors associated with social media can be captured to fit mission, benefit institutions, and make our content more dynamic. I work with lots of people who get either turned off when you mention games or they think that the whole world will be based on Linden dollars in the future.
Social Media must be translated into practice in the 3-D world right? And we are tasked with bringing people along with us in incremental steps
Many are so locked in our silos that we have become stale in our execution, so if it is Spore or a gallery treasure hunt its all good if it makes the end user in the real world context have a more meaningful engaged experience.

Nina Simon said...

John and Jais,
The reason I wrote about Spore is because it's an illustration of the fallacy that everyone wants to be a creator (a fallacy that many museums fall into).

Will Wright is banking on the idea that people don't want to PLAY games, they want to MAKE them. And while that's true for a few people, they represent a minority.

The same could be said for things like visitor co-created exhibits. Only a few visitors really want to make their own exhibits. But many may want to "play" them--whether that means just consuming them or participating at a lower barrier to entry.

Does that make sense?

Michael Dale WIlson said...

I think Rockband is a successful game 2.0. It allows and even encourages multiple social interactions, deeply teaches in the sense that you gain new understanding of the material, and is completly adjustable in that by downloading new songs you can shape the material or content of the game.

Addicting Games said...

Spore is awesome the game lets you travel the galaxy. There are over 500,000 unique planets to explore! That's just unbelievable! Also you can create any type of creature and all the creatures you run into are from other players. No other game can claim this.. The best part of this game is the space phase, you could spend a lifetime exploring all the planets and meeting new creatures.. This game is limitless, there is no other game that comes close to this one.
Anyway, if you have time, take a visit to my Download Games website.

العاب said...

I liked this game, Spore is a unique game, but it wasn't successful as they planned to, this is the first time i hear about this expression "game 2.0", but it's really describes well the game.

العاب فلاش said...

I liked this game