How Spore ended up "cute" and dumbed down

I am posting this here, verbatim, before a heavy handed Maxis EA moderator (e.g. any and all of these douchebags) deletes the original thread, which is currently getting a lot of traffic due to Reddit.

It’s basically an in-depth researched post into why Spore ended up ‘cute’ and all of its scientific aspects which we saw in demos and heard Will Wright talk about prior to the game’s release nixed from the final game.

Spore’s one of the games that I was really looking forward to that turned out to be nothing short of a piece of dumbed down game that feels like a for intelligent design propaganda.

So there’s two sides of this debacle, the DRM issue and the dumbed-down gameplay. (The DRM issue has already been discussed thoroughly elsewhere, this topic is not about that.)

However, one man who is highly responsible for the dumbed down gameplay is Chris Hecker. (You may remember him as the Maxis employee who said the Wii is a “piece of ****” and merely “two gamecubes stuck together with duct tape”.) While Will Wright headed the movement for science to take a primary role, Hecker apparently thought that would be too complex for the wider audience, and that instead cells should have eyes and creatures should wear sneakers. Excerpt from the Seed article:

This was Spore’s central problem: Could the game be both scientifically accurate and fun? The prototyping teams were becoming lost in their scientific interests. Chaim Gingold, a team member who started as an intern and went on to help design the game’s content creation tools, recalls a summer spent playing with pattern language and cellular automata: “It was just about being engaged with the universe as a set of systems, and being able to build toys that manifested our fascination with these systems and our love for them.” But from within this explosion of experimental enthusiasm came an unexpected warning voice. Spore’s resident uber-geek and artificial intelligence expert Chris Hecker was having strong misgivings about how appealing all this hard science would be to the wider world. “I was the founding member of the ‘cute’ team,” he says with pride. “Ocean [Quigley, Spore’s art director] and Will were really the founding members of the ‘science’ team. Ocean would make the cell game look exactly like a petri dish with all these to-scale animals and Will would say, ‘That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen!’ and some of us were thinking, ‘I’m not sure about that.’”

Soon rival camps had formed. New recruits were taken out to lunch and covertly probed to discover where their natural leanings were. Quigley’s microscopically accurate concept drawings were vandalized with stuck-on googly eyes; there were suggestions that it might be cool if the creatures wore sneakers. It might have been painful for the founding members of the science team, but Quigley acknowledges the need for compromise. “From a single-celled organism through the four-and-a-half-billion year history of life on Earth to a self-projected future where we are gallivanting around the stars? I mean, it is so absurdly vast, so radically outside of any scale that people can really empathize with, we knew we had to turn it into a toy.”

Note that Chris Hecker states that Will Wright would be ecstatic about what he saw, things more like the earlier demos, while Hecker was opposed to this. There are numerous accounts on the official forums of people stating that they more enjoy the early prototypes than the actual gameplay. The hype was generated by the science-heavy early prototypes, and the actual reaction to the game has been mediocre, now that it lacks those science elements.

Further information posted by an ex-Maxis Intern on the game, now that the game is released and his NDA isn’t a problem:

First I’d like to dispel the rumor that the 2005 demos were “rendered” or “heavily scripted”. I’m not 100% certain to what extent the demos were “scripted”, but at the stage of development when I was there the builds of the game already had most of the mechanics that we see today.

The creature editor that was available at the time had some of the most amazing procedural animation work I’ve ever seen anyone develop. Perhaps, somewhat more innovative than what we see in the game today (more on this later).

Creature creation seems over-simplified
This was a big deal for me. In the extremely early versions that I toyed around with, I was able to make creatures that shifted under their own weight. Creatures that exploited the length of their arms or legs for greater reach. Creatures that behave and move true to how they were built. A short bunny-creature would definitely be out-run by the long-legged dragon-giraffe. That was very neat, and it implied several exciting possibilities in gameplay.

For instance, creature morphology actually mattered. This implied deeper strategy to creature creation. You have a small inkling of this in the Cell stage where placement of parts somewhat mattered. For example, spikes placed behind your creature saved you from being bitten when chased. But, the strategy that earlier prototypes implied went beyond placement of parts. The length of limbs or spine felt like it mattered. If you had a forward-heavy animal with legs placed in the back, it would run poorly as it tries (and fails) to counteract its own weight.

And, a later post:

Oh boy here we go with the “prove it” post :)

I’m in the credits as Michael “Flux” Chang. Go check it in the credits section of the options menu.
And here’s my old website from college (2005) along with resume and all of that jazz. Anyway, take it or leave it. Those are my thoughts.

As said in the Seed article, apparently poor Hecker was having “Strong misgivings about how all this hard science would appeal to the wider world.” The poll on the official forums currently suggests that 75% of the forum users would have preferred a “Science-Spore” while only 6% dislike such an idea. (16 people, compared to the 192 wanting Science-Spore)

The Gamespot review gave it 8.0. IGN gave it an 8.8. Press average is 8.1. The consistent cons listed are generally a lack of complexity, and oversimplification.

Another Excerpt from the Seed Magazine article:

Steve Grand, who made the big sim-life hit of the 1990s, Creatures, also faced the task of reconciling the limited behavioral range of virtual life-forms with the advanced expectations of players. “There are two ways to tackle this problem,” Grand says. “Try to make the behavior look more real, or stop lying to people. As far as I can tell, Spore takes the former approach, to gently and quite openly fool the user into thinking she’s engaging with real living things, while Creatures took the latter — I did my best not to fool anyone, even if that meant the results weren’t so playable.”

Spore’s decision — to preserve the illusion of life at the expense of the actual facts of life — made for some substantial casualties. First to go in the cute-versus-science war were the extreme ends of the scale — galaxy formation and originsof- life simulation — dismissed as being too abstract and dissipated. Next, small and then big laws were shattered and remade. Wright’s determination to represent faster-than-light travel as impossible crumbled in the face of making the spacefaring section of the game enjoyable. Evolution, despite his staunch Darwinism, became a massively telescoped process that depended on the external, deliberate interventions of the players. And so, instead of becoming the ultimate science project, Spore gradually became the ultimate game.

The snag is that Spore didn’t just jettison half its science — it replaced it with systems and ideas that run the risk of being actively misleading. Scientists brought in to evaluate the game for potential education projects recoiled as it became increasingly evident that the game broke many more scientific laws than it obeyed. Those unwilling to comment publicly speak privately of grave concerns about a game which seems to further the idea of intelligent design under the badge of science, and they bristle at its willingness to use words like “evolution” and “mutation” in entirely misleading ways.

Official Forums: Seed article about devteam’s debates over science vs cute
Seed Magazine Article it Refers to
Official Forums: Thoughts on Spore from an ex-Maxis intern.
Official Forums: Should Maxis make Science Spore?
Particular post about Chris Hecker

(This section is in a quote block as it is not as neutral as the rest of the post.)

My Opinion:
It seems to me, the cute crowd led by Chris Hecker is responsible for a number of things. The ecosystem dynamics were removed. The Creature Game was replaced with a simple “Good or Evil” RPG where you either play Simon Says or grab your +5 Swo- uh I mean Hand and go grind on a few Generic Monster Nests. In addition, for the purpose of “creative freedom”, a ten-foot tall SPORE can be as effective as a Lion in combat, as fast as a Cheetah, and as stealthy as a one foot tall chameleon. And because this is so, the Sporepedia is filled with such impractical creations.

Maxis moved away from Will Wright’s original design choices and away from the theme of the original prototype. The resulting game is conceived as not meeting the expectation created by seeing the prototype. Why they chose to overturn the design decisions of their lead designer is beyond me. It seems to me the past few years were spent making the game less entertaining than the prototype, because the prototype was “too complex” for us dull consumers. We wouldn’t be able to take that hard science. Ironically, I hear better reviews of the gameplay of the free released prototypes than the game itself.

I hope that Maxis announces that it intends to rectify this odd deviation from their plan through expansion packs, including a complete overhaul of the Cell Stage and Creature Stage, at minimum. The forced linear progression of the game and forced evolution should also be removed from the Cell and Creature Stages, as it is not faithful to the freedom of the advertised product. (Evolution to a better brain should be optional, at least in the Creature Stage, as it was in the earlier videos.) I do not believe that we have a right to demand it be free, as the development costs of this game are already astronomical. This may have not been as much of a problem if they hadn’t been spending the past few years removing content.

tl;dr version (Too long; didn’t read):
An employee named Chris Hecker decided that the game was too complex for “average folk” and managed to convince a bunch of people at Maxis, so that Will Wright was forced to give up on making the game scientific and they spent a year or two removing content from the E3 demo instead of adding new things. Apparently science limits creativity. This is why the gameplay feels like an undeveloped MMORPG and the animation went from “innovative” to “generic and boring”. This is a gross simplification of the situation and potentially biased. Reading the whole topic is suggested.

Hulk mad!

It’s a pity. The more Sciency version of Spore sounds a lot more entertaining than what was delivered.

The real reason for me: EA as publisher with an army of suits only listening to their shareholders. They wanted to have some game for casuals and Sims lovers and that’s what they got.

Even without this in-depth analysis one knew after 1-2 hours that this game is shit as a game. Maybe great as a creative tool but so are crayons.

That’s approximately how long I played it for. 2 hours. I spent more time with the Creature Creator and enjoyed the possibilities (I kept telling myself that the game would have even more versatility and evolution) and I’m sad that I plunked down money for both products.

I think it’s only fair we hear a counter-arguement

…Chris himself doesn’t need any defending, but since he has no voice here (Maxis or EA will not allow any of their employees to post in most general cases) you are not inciting a dialogue, but simply causing a riot. And since he’s not here to defend himself, I feel free to state that Chris I’ve met is very professional, obsessed about video games (and as much of a Spore “fan” as you or I), a brilliant programmer, and much a harder working than you or I.

In fact, the first time I googled for “rigid body dynamics” to learn about physics in game programming, his name came up number one on the list. That’s how big of an influence he has.

My point is, you simply cannot come to any sort of conclusion based on some measly snippets and quotes. Your perspective of the situation completely changes once you take into account the fact that the design team is a highly complex entity, and not one person could have force the game along a particular path. Throwing blame down on one person is entirely unfair…

Personally, I’m having flashbacks to people trashing Randy Smith for Invisible War, when we eventually discovered the reasons behind the changes and the flaws of that game were more complex than Randy just wanting to “dumb down” the game.

checker posts here, so at least we might get a response.

I don’t know shit about what happened with Spore but I’m sure it was a lot more complicated than presented here and the game seemed to be pretty much stuck in the mire long before Hecker even started working with them on it… but I do love some good nerd raging, so rage on!

I still haven’t delved deep enough into Spore - the rather annoying Civilization phase, which is easily the least satisfying in input required vs. output gained - stifles my interest in the game beyond that point. I can’t say it isn’t awesome though flying around in and out of the atmosphere of so many different planets. But Spore does certainly lack something, that magical fishing hook, so to speak. I haven’t played it very much at all recently.

Something about the relative lack of challenge and how there is virtually no customization in the Tribal phase that matters seem to break the flow of the game up so jarringly it just doesn’t hold together past that point. Or how, for ex, the Creature phase seems so… disinterested in your creature design. There is no plant editor, for ex., from which different creature designs could push off of as evolutionary forces.

Now we really don’t know if Chris is 100% to blame for this but it’s not the first time he’s shoved his foot in his mouth. He did call the Wii a “piece of shit” and “two gamecubes stuck together with duct tape” after all. At the very least, he was a leading member on the Spore development team and from the sound of it, he was one of the leading proponents of the ‘Cute’ argument, and this can be backed up by his own statements in the magazine as well as statements of former employees.

No offense, Sol, but you’re a very argumentative and belligerent poster. I think it’s more constructive, if Spore needed change or improvement, to point out such flaws as it has, rather than try to find some kind of scapegoat for all it’s troubles and issues. Even if there were one or a few people responsible for a change in direction it was still a decision agreed upon by the governing parties within the company, and you have very little idea of how alike or not the “other” game that would have emerged from the design process from the game we have today.

In his defense, this is really not that far off the mark. It really is jsut an overglorified gamecube with a novel controlling scheme. :\

C’mon, dude, acknowledging that you’ve just compared Spore to the Holocaust doesn’t make it less of a batshit crazy comparison.

Spore isn’t the Holocaust, and Chris Hecker isn’t Hitler. Climb back down off that ledge already.

And really, I think you’re missing the point of the argument – it’s not “he works hard so you can’t criticize him”. It’s “he’s actually a very smart and knowledgeable person in this field, so have you considered that the simplistic explanation might be an oversimplification pushed by someone with an agenda and a chip on their shoulder”?

There’s so much I could say in response to this, but instead I’ll just ask one question that should reveal your true colors. If you feel so strongly about this subject, why don’t you go on record with your real name?

And thats why is so succesfull.
I like more the ‘science’ approach, but its a game and games have to sell.
The ‘cute’ approach sells more than the ‘science’ approach so its a no-brainer why they took this path.

Sorry for my english.

“Simma down now!!!”

Voicing his opinion was one thing, but all this covert “recruiting” of new employees and such is just evil. It’s obvious that there was a conscious effort to hijack the project and change it to what Chris Hecker wanted, not what Will Wright wanted. That is, if this is all to be believed.

But he’s edgy!

Respectful musing from an outsider to follow:

What does potentially misguided “nerd raging,” against a single public figure that may or may not have been correctly identified as the source of the “problem” and may or may not be fairly/unfairly to “blame” for the perceived “problem,” accomplish? Does it strike a blow into the black heart of a corrupt evil empire? Does it make up for a time squandered not accomplishing what we really wanted to do in life? Or does it just queue up the bandwagon to start jumping up and down on "guy we’ve never heard of who is apparently to blame for a ‘problem’ someone else expects us to believe is a ‘problem’ "?

Why the kneejerk reaction of “Well, I personally would have preferred this alleged ‘science’ version of Spore I know hardly anything about other than some very vague hearsay description that was copy-pasted from another forum” despite not knowing whether such a version actually, truly existed, and if it did, what it actually was like? Is it possible that Wright’s original vision was, in fact, too far removed from anything that might be considered fun as a game? Apparently not, because some guy posted something on a forum, and some other guy quoted it with a highly negative and critical slant, and it’s much easier to leap onto the bandwagon than it is to stop for two seconds, use our own brains, and consider that maybe, just maybe, there’s more than one side to the story?

In a larger sense, what does it even matter? Spore, the game, is out, and it is what it is. If you enjoyed it, great, play it and continue to support it by purchasing what will clearly be a long line of supplemental products that publisher will release. If you didn’t enjoy it or hated it, don’t play it, don’t talk about it, and use your limited moments between now and the grave to do something you enjoy, such as playing a better game. What is accomplished by trying to tear out a pound of flesh from someone we don’t even know, under circumstances we clearly don’t understand, for offenses that may or may not even be offenses, in regards to a game that already shipped and about which everyone has already formed their opinions and made their decisions? Does an evil dictator get toppled from his throne, groaning “Nooooo…” as his powers are stripped from him by this triumphant forum thread? Do enslaved orphans suddenly receive their freedom and get their first taste of sunshine and fresh air? Does this expelling this kind of vitriol against these could-be-evil-game-developers somehow fill the void that was left when there stopped being saber-toothed tigers for cavemen to slay? Does it fill the same void that other people fill by going on actually meaningful crusades against real injustice, such as lobbying for humanitarian treatment of the oppressed, or joining the Peace Corps and making a positive difference in the world?

Everybody knows a good employee quietly does what they’re told and never tries to influence the direction of the project they’re working on. It’s especially out of bounds to try to talk to other employees and convince them that your opinion is valid.

Back in your cubes, drones.