The year's most-anticipated new PC game — Spore — is getting publicly dissed by the in-crowd just days before its release. Here at the San Jose Convention Center in late August, for every awestruck gamer mumbling "cool" as he fiddles with a mouse and keyboard, there is another kid behind him watching and snickering.
"Ha ha, I think I'll make a Penis Erectus," one such kid says to his friend. "Yeah, make a Dildo-saurus." They walk away from Booth 411 swilling a BAWLS energy drink and laughing.
Spore is supposed to be the most artistically dazzling and technologically sophisticated game ever released. But over in the next booth, it's the rote shooter game Crysis drawing fanboy "oohs" and "ahhs" for its twitchy graphics. Under the hood, games like Crysis are a yawn to the people who make them. Those industry types have bookmarked a lecture from Spore's makers later this afternoon, because even to them, what Maxis studios of Emeryville has done is ostensibly magic. Spore creator and designer Will Wright is the Walt Disney of gaming — his company's Da Vinci or Kubrick. He's also two years late.
"I thought this game already came out," says more than one passerby.
"I'll believe it when I see it," add still others.
Spore was announced in 2005 for release the following year. But it was repeatedly delayed, and development costs are believed to have soared to at least $50 million. The often-fawning gaming press long ago bestowed upon Spore no fewer than seven Game Critics Awards like Best Original Game, only to endure embarrassment when the product didn't actually ship. Today, some of those same journalists seem to be seeking retribution. The harsh spotlight even earned Wright's divorce a mention in the staid pages of The New Yorker; where he was portrayed as an obsessive, distant modeler, but not a model husband.
Now that Wright's game was finally released on September 7, his company's titanic parent, Electronic Arts, will discover if Spore is 2001 or Waterworld. Although last year Electronic Arts earned $3.6 billion in annual revenue churning out safe titles like Madden NFL 08, lately it has hit a creative and financial dead end. Its stock has suffered six consecutive quarters of net losses, and the company lost more than $400 million in the last quarter of fiscal 2007.
Spore is so extremely different from other games in its field that it has the power to single-handedly burnish the company's reputation or buttress its critics. Wright has given game players unprecedented artistic license, but will it be rewarded? After all, in the hangar next door to Booth 411, three hundred geeks are killing or being killed in World of Warcraft and Call of Duty 4. They're playing for 36 hours straight to earn a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. The mere idea of these fraggers crafting dinosaurs with birdlike plumage and then teaching them how to dance or fly a spaceship seems absurd — even surreal.
Wright has just given PC gamers the tools to fashion just such an evolution. The question is whether they are willing to evolve.
At Wright's desk at Maxis, a two-week old coffee drink from the species Mocha Frappuccino is evolving new life forms of its own.
Wright, the studio's visionary founder, departed in early August for a promotional tour of America, Europe, and Asia. His workspace is small, dark, and cluttered. Barely big enough to house a large primate, it sits empty on the second floor of studio headquarters, off Powell Street in Emeryville. On the wall: posters of galaxies, ant colonies, and foliage. Guarding the door: memorabilia from the Soviet space program. In the corner: an ancient Macintosh computer gathering dust since its release in the late-80s — the dawn of personal computing and Wright's career.
Downstairs, a forty-pound bronze creature with a toothy sucker-mouth lurks in the foliage near the receptionist's desk, ready to pounce. The office halogens are dim, the air is cool, and the office mood is subdued, yet intense. Ship date looms. The game creators are on vacation, but the game maintainers are just finishing preparation for the onslaught of creatures to the Spore universe.
Maxis General Manager and Spore Executive Producer Lucy Bradshaw orbits a low-walled cubicle quad in the center of the office with producer Caryl Shaw and two more women who control the brains of the operation. They are surrounded by bright posters of alien silhouettes in neon and black, which shout slogans such as "Space-Time Is the Right Time. Voyagers Welcome at Spore.com." Bradshaw says the humor was eight long years in the making.
In 2000, Spore was just an idea in Wright's head. Players would get to make their own characters, and then competitively evolve them from single-celled organisms to land-walking creatures, through tribal and high society and into galactic space. Later, players can colonize other planets or destroy them entirely. The game would mirror the evolution of game play itself, going from 2-D to 3-D, and from being the main character to controlling whole societies of characters.
In many ways, Spore is the synthesis of its creator's life. Born in 1960 to an engineer father and an amateur magician mother, the model-loving Wright thrived as Montessori student engaged in self-directed learning. He dreamed of being an astronaut but actually never graduated from college. But his genius for problem-solving was apparent by 1981, when he won an illegal cross-country road race similar to the one depicted in the movie Cannonball Run. He dominated the race through the early use of night-vision technology. With it, he could drive 120 miles per hour after dark, thus both avoiding police and making great time.
Wright eventually turned his ever-shifting attention to the nascent video games of the '80s. The features of his two major titles would make game history, as well as create the seeds of Spore. He started building obstacles and terrain for the game Raid on Bungling Bay. In the process, he had so much fun that he envisioned a game in which the players themselves could create game levels. The resultant city-planning simulation, SimCity, may have sounded like a snooze but proved to be brilliant. It kick-started an entirely new type of gaming. Released in 1989, it turned game development into the game itself. Time magazine made it a sensation. The CIA, Defense Department, and other government groups sought Wright as a simulation consultant.
Orinda-based Maxis went nova, expanding from two people to 200 and going public in 1995 with an IPO of $35 million and a $6 million first-year net. Investors clamored for more hits, and new management rushed the process. "Going public gave me a really deep appreciation for how incredibly stupid Wall Street is," Wright eventually told the press. The company's commercial low came in 1996, when SimCopter contained a famed game error remembered as "muscle boys in swim trunks," allegedly a gay programmer's idea of a joke.
The following year Maxis reported a net loss of $2 million and became an acquisition target for Electronic Arts of San Mateo, which acquired Maxis for $125 million in stock, with Wright taking $15 million of it.