Saturday, September 20, 2008

Spore: Biological Details

Spore makes use of some incorrect biological premises. However, it's all for the sake of good gameplay.

Creatures in Spore evolve by spending earned DNA to develop new body parts. In a very general sense, this is a decent representation of how real species develop different traits over time.

However, Spore ends up confusing modern evolutionary synthesis with Lamarckism, which has been disproved.

Essentially, Lamarckism is the the concept that individual animals who use a body part more than other individuals will have offspring with a better version of that body part. For example, if a gazelle tries to run faster than other gazelles, then Lamarckism states that that individual gazelle's offspring will be able to run faster than other gazelles.

This is how Spore gameplay works. The body parts you are most likely to discover through play are the upgraded versions of the parts your creature already has.

However, that's not how evolution works. A population of creatures (like gazelles) will have a variety of genetic traits that they have acquired over time through random mutation. There are all kinds of traits that individuals in a population can have (like long and short legs), and those traits can be good or bad, depending on the situation.

If cheetahs attack our gazelles, the shorter-legged gazelles get eaten because they are slower, and the longer-legged gazelles survive to breed. The next generation will have longer legs.

Evolutionary pressure doesn't happen like this in Spore. If you die, you are reborn with the same features you had before. Whether your creature gets chewed on by a sea monster or outruns an angry troupe of freeps, your creature's next generation doesn't get tougher skin or a better run speed.

From a gameplay perspective, though, would "realistic" evolution be fun? Probably not in Spore's context.

Pre-tribal gameplay is already rather low key. Basing new body part choices on what features allowed you to survive (or die) might result in the same Lamarckian options. Removing part collection would take away perhaps a third of the game.

On top of that, if you earned DNA mutations at a steady rate, all you'd have to do is survive in order to progress - you'd have no motivation to befriend other animals, only eat them.

In the end, the Spore cellular and creature stages probably incorporate the best of both the biological and gameplay worlds.

Spore: No Water World

There is one obvious omission from Spore: the 3D underwater phase, which, according to this interview, had been partly developed, but was cut.

I had wanted to take my cellular creations on a gradual path from the microscopic to the macroscopic in a 3D world filled with bizarre aquatic creatures.

However, instead, you go straight from a single cell to a vertebrate with legs, and find yourself somehow eating whole fruit with your filter-feeding tentacles.

I can forgive Maxis for leaving out 'water world,' but they could have incorporated a less abrupt system for the cell-to-land transition. Despite the heartwarming cut scene, it feels like it was cobbled together at the last minute.

Something as simple as requiring players to replace all of their cellular parts would have made for a better experience. For example, my first attempt at a land-based creature couldn't walk, because I had given it fins for feet.

My only clue as to what I had done wrong was the name of the fins: cilia. Real life cilia are like fuzz, so of course you couldn't walk on them. But because Spore let me keep my cilia as macroscopic structures (and they sure look like fins), I assumed my creature could still use them for locomotion. I was wrong.

On a more amusing note, another missing feature is procedural mating (they kept the dance, but not the finale). Apparently, the creatures of Spore have figured out how to produce hard-shelled eggs without internal fertilization - and good for them! Players are already going to spam the world with Sporn; there's no need for the game to offer them any encouragement.

Spore Creatures: Unavoidably Cute

As a student of both biology* and game design, I have followed Spore with great interest. Since my copy arrived in the mail, I have spent most of my free time playing the game.

Spore is a technological breakthrough dressed up in cutesy visual design. The creature eyes, sounds, and procedurally generated animations are endearing, but there's a less-obvious source of charm: every creature's torso, tail, and limb segment is nearly circular in cross-section.

You can shrink a Spore creatures' eyes as small as they go in order to obscure their adorableness, but there's nothing you can do about the rounded bodies.

It made me a little sad to discover that you cannot laterally or horizontally squash and stretch body segments. I tried using Shift-Mousewheel and other key combinations in an attempt to discover hidden creature-shaping features, but I didn't have any luck.

So, ultimately, there is no way to flatten your platypus's tail. You cannot make a disc-like body for your lizard, a deep torso for your horse, or a broad chest for your ape.

No segment is allowed to shrink below the built-in minimum thickness, either. There is no way to make a gracile leg for an insect or a bird, nor can you properly taper a tail.

All in all, these limits don't detract from the enjoyability of the creature creator. While they enforce a certain humorously cute body type, that type can take many forms.

However, no number of spikes, claws and toothy jaws seem able to make Spore creatures less cuddlesome.

* My best college paper incorporated kinglet banding capture data from Manomet. I wanted to see if evolutionary pressure could be seen in action on kinglet populations; would the size of birds caught be smaller in warm years (since being small allows them to feed more effectively at branch tips), and larger in cold years (since being large allows them to survive cold weather)? The data, sadly, were inconclusive.
These postings are mine alone, have not been reviewed or approved by any employer or company, and do not necessarily reflect the views of anyone but me.