Provided you've not been residing in the infinite abyss of space sans internet for the past few years, the chances are that you've heard about the newest title from Maxis under auspices of Will Wright - Spore.
To say that the game is ambitious is like saying Duke Nukem Forever has been delayed a tad... the fact the working title of the game was originally "Sim Everything" should give you an idea of the scope. A brief summary for those who haven't heard of Spore - or have forgotten... it's been in development for a while - the game concept is as follows.
Take your little microscopic chaps and accrue points to evolve them all the way up to sentience... This takes them to the tribal stage... which is kind of like the Sims... After you reach some critical point, your race goes to a city stage - ala Simcity - where you fight other city states and once you've wiped everyone else out, you can go forth and dance amongst the stars... interfering with other races, experimenting, abducting and destroying as you see fit.
If you can imagine that kind of variation in scale - from teeny tiny microbes to flying around the galaxy, trashing planets - and not think that it's hugely ambitious... then you probably look at Everest and go "Eh, could be bigger." Scale aside, there are two innovative aspects that have been touted as significant developments.
First - procedural generation... This is the more interesting part, instead of the usual approach games offer of giving you a basic body and then you sticking a bunch of pre-rendered bits on it... you can make whatever the hell you like stick it all together and then the computer goes "Hmm, seven legged brick with a shoe for a face... that would walk kinda like this." This is - apparently - going to mean that creatures are going to be only a matter of kilobytes in size... making the next part that much easier.
Second - massively single player... Massively multiplayer is known by all these days but this is an interesting twist on the concept. Spore is an entirely single player game but content from your game - creatures you create, buildings you make and so on - will be synched with a server and distributed to other people. Allowing people to see what other people have conceived and of course, saving them the hassle of making things for themselves. Not exactly something to keep you awake at night but an interesting concept and a logical inclusion of the oft generated community content.
So, all smiles and sunshine? Hardly. While Duke Nukem 4 beats Spore in terms of vapourware... it's by a fairly narrow margin... and they've been rolling Spore demos out at shows since 2005 and yet even now no definitive release date has been offered up. Obviously, a game such as this isn't going to be ready in the 2-3 year turn around you'd expect for a generic murdercide prole pleasing FPS but even so, there's a long history of delayed games failing to deliver. Lest we forget Daikatana...
Perhaps more worrying than the long development time - which isn't per se an indication of bad things to come - is our old chum, corporate monolith EA games. EA and originality aren't often seen in the same sentence together, barring someone condemning their lack thereof. Their crimes against it are in themselves worth an article, so it seems that EA is... an unlikely publisher for Spore to say the least.
Doubtless, you're thinking to yourself, "But this is all just negative thinking, we've seen the videos. This game looks awesome - not even EA could fuck this up!" Perhaps... Indeed, this might well be an exercise in cynicism but most of those videos are rather dated... newer ones seem to indicate an overall simplification of the game. The spectrum seems to have shifted more in favour of primary colours, animals seem cuter and cuddlier. Yes, it seems that the game is hastening toward the dreaded territory of family friendly.
That isn't to say a game can't appeal to a broad spectrum of ages... the Wii has shown that marvellously but then, EA aren't exactly Nintendo and there seems to be a more facile nature to the game in recent play videos. Everything is more cutesy... not that they've exactly been flooding the Internet with promos, which makes sense - the game seems as likely to be out in 2009 as 2008.
The greatest threat to the game though is neither of these things. It's simply the promise the game has. It's not dissimilar to the situation Black & White was in all those years ago. Peter Molyneaux standing on his soapbox promising gesture recognition technology, landscapes that changed to reflect whether you were good or evil and a Creature that learned etc... The learning and gesturing being laughable. The landscape worked fine... IN THE SEQUEL.
Not that the crackpot idea machine that is Peter Molyneaux's mouth should be compared to Will Wright, who has a fairly epic track record... but past performance is no guarantee of future success and Spore has many levels to fail on... and that's the danger... if any one of the stages - there are currently five... it remains to be seen how many will be in the released game - are subpar, it could spoil the gaming experience.
They don't need to be perfect, no but they need to be good. They need to be good AND live up to the hype that has been following this game. Hype shouldn't really come into how well a game plays but when you've been told ad nauseum that it's going to be great, even a hardened cynic can expect there to be something behind that marketing machine...
Of course, disappointment often follows... when otherwise it might not have. Wandering around B&W waiting for it somehow become more than tedious micromanagement and all about giant creatures fighting. Or waking up in a cold sweat, only to realise they did make a Deus Ex sequel and it made about as much sense as Bjork singing backwards in Welsh... and played about that well too.
So... in truth, Spore is it's own worst enemy. It's shown us enough to whet our appetites and set our imaginations in motion. It promises not just the Earth but the galaxy as well and hell, let's toss in mastery over life itself while we're at it. What red blooded gamer can resist thinking of building the ultimate race? Or toying with lesser beings? Will it all pan out though? Will it be as open ended as it promises?
Only time will tell. For all we know, we might well be asking this next year... it wouldn't exactly be a surprise. It would be a surprise if Spore was every bit as good as people are hoping it will be... after all, imaginations tend to be somewhat unconstrained by the considerations of coding and such. Still, if this game delivers on the promises, it could hail a far more versatile era for gaming and probably a cure for cancer and world peace... and isn't that what we all want from our games?