February 14 2008: 11:14 AM EST
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Game of the year

The latest creation from the folks who brought us the Sims is overdue - and truly out of this world. An inside look at Spore, the most hotly anticipated game of 2008.

By Michael V. Copeland, senior writer

sims.03.jpg
Legendary gamemaker Will Wright and executive producer Lucy Bradshaw with some improbable species that have escaped the confines of the game.
The game of life
A preview of the videogame Spore, which lets users design a universe from single cells to solar systems.

(Fortune Magazine) -- A gray-and-red-spotted lizardlike creature with two heads peers at me from the computer screen through eyes located, Cyclops-style, in the center of each forehead. It lets out a howl and bounds off its marbleized perch into a prehistoric forest. That was probably a howl of embarrassment. This poor creature has arms stuck around its ears, raised up and flapping comically in the wind, like a Hell's Angel riding a chopper with impossibly high handlebars. So much for intelligent design.

"You attached the arms to the head," says Theresa Duringer, one of the people helping finish Spore, the computer program that gave birth to this fully animated, if sad-looking, being. It took me less than three minutes to create the beast from a palate of clay-colored parts, and only a few swishes and clicks of a mouse to rearrange its arms and heads in a more conventional order. As if in thanks, my little two-headed Cyclops launches into a sort of victory dance.

If you haven't heard of Spore, you will. Although it's not due out before midyear, Spore is already the most eagerly awaited computer game of 2008 - the recipient of more than half-a-dozen critics' awards even before its release. That's in part because of the oversized reputation of its creator, Will Wright, one of the world's most famous and successful game designers. Starting in 1989 with his breakthrough computer game SimCity and following with titles that include SimEarth, SimAnt, SimLife, and SimFarm, Wright's franchise of simulation entertainments has generated more than $2.5 billion in revenue. His biggest hit, the Sims, is the bestselling computer game of all time.

Sim everything

Spore is easily Wright's most ambitious project yet (its original title was Sim-Everything). Whereas the Sims and its many expansion packs came with pre-made characters and drew on easily recognizable earthbound life, Spore gives players the tools to construct their own creatures, from single-cell organisms paddling through warm seas to sentient beings that can make friends, form tribes, and build complex civilizations. Play your genetic cards right, and your civilization can take to space and colonize other planets and galaxies.

Moreover, the game puts a new twist on what's currently the hottest game craze - massively multiplayer fantasies like World of Warcraft, in which players use the Internet to bloody, bludgeon, and maim strangers they meet online. There's not much violence in Wright's simulations, but there's plenty of interactivity. The creatures you create in your copy of the game - using what is essentially a consumer-friendly version of a high-end Hollywood 3-D modeling program - are automatically added to a central database and used to populate other players' universes. Wright calls this novel arrangement massively single-player gaming.

Given the power of the modeling software, however, players may decide to blow off the formal game and do nothing more than explore its design tools. Wright and Lucy Bradshaw, the project's executive producer, have provided a variety of ways to take the characters and environments created inside Spore outside the confines of the game. Spore creations could become widgets on a Facebook page, animated videoclips passed around on YouTube, even physical objects etched in plastic by a 3-D printer. "When you unleash a new level of creative tools at a mass level, it usually explodes into something unpredictable," Wright says in his toy-filled Emeryville, Calif., office. "We have no idea what these tools will be used for, but it's going to be interesting to find out."

Interesting - and very profitable, hope executives at Electronic Arts (ERTS), which acquired Wright's company in 1997. Spore, which will be available initially for PC, Mac, Nintendo DS, and some mobile phones, could sell five million copies in its first year, according to Michael Pachter of Wedbush Morgan Securities. It is being launched at a time of extraordinary growth in the gaming industry. In 2007 the videogame market grew 43%, generating almost $18 billion, according to the NPD Group. All told, Americans bought nearly 154 million videogames and more than 36 million computer games last year, or an astonishing nine games per second.

Wright's waterworld

One problem for Electronic Arts is that the game is almost a year behind schedule and, according to analysts, over budget, with development costs approaching an estimated $35 million. Spore was supposed to be on store shelves in time for the 2007 holiday season. When EA announced last May that the game would miss Christmas, industry watchers - and gamers - began to wonder aloud whether Wright might have finally overreached.

"A lot of people left the fan sites," says Anthony Affrunti, creator of a web comic called PreSPORE on the fan site Spores Illustrated. "When Wright first announced Spore, nobody realized we would have to wait three years to play it." But like many dedicated gamers, Affrunti says he's willing to wait a few months more and will even camp outside a store if that's what it takes to get the game on the day of its release.

"Every once in a while, a genre-bending game comes out," says Affrunti, who has seen this one demoed several times. "Spore is the best I have seen in a long time. If it's successful, it will set the example for a lot more games to come."

But without the finished game in hand, that's a big "if." Even Wright, drawing a metaphor from the hit-and-miss film career of Kevin Costner, admits to some misgivings. "This," he says with a wry grin, "could be our Waterworld."  To top of page

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