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What's so special about 'Spore'?

Does 'Spore' have a chance at mainstream video game success?

Just released in the U.S. on Sunday, September 7, Spore is Electronic Arts' big holiday push for the still-alive PC gaming market. The game is from Will Wright, creator of the best-selling Sims and Sim City franchises, and developed by the same company, Maxis, so expectations are naturally high.

But despite the buzz, which includes full-page stories in the New York Times and numerous TV news segments, does Spore have a chance at mainstream video game success at the level of GTA4 or Guitar Hero (or The Sims)?

After spending the last week playing an early copy of the full game (where we created the Danosaurus, which lives on the planet Danlandia), we're ready to say that Spore is a monumental achievement in game design, and a genuinely engaging experience, but at the same time, it may lack that mainstream accessibility needed to resonate with non-core gamers.

The Sims is one of the best-selling game series of all time, PC or console, and has sold more than 38 million copies in the U.S. (compared with about 12 million for World of Warcraft, the other current PC game tent pole). Non-core gamers, and even people who have never played a video game before, were able to get into The Sims because it allowed them to build virtual versions of the friends, family, neighborhood, etc. It had the appeal of the familiar, and became more of a 3D dollhouse than a serious game.

Spore's main concepts, designing a creature and eventually building a habitat for it, are actually intellectually similar to The Sims, but the setting is much more abstract. It's much harder to identify with a single-celled organism, or even an intelligent, technologically advanced Spore creature--they simply lack the sense of familiarity that made The Sims a crossover hit.

Spore also scales up in difficulty fairly quickly, and may leave casual gamers behind. The first two sections, swimming around as a single-celled organism, followed by an evolutionary spurt where you grow some legs and run around making friends with (or eating) other animals, are easy, almost arcade-like fun. Jumping into the third stage, where your creatures form a tribe and set off down the path of civilization, the game abruptly switches to a very traditional real-time strategy mode, requiring the player to manage several tribe members, gather resources, and work with, or against, rival tribes.

This is one of the hardest game types for casual players to get their heads around, and the game's sparse onscreen tutorials will leave anyone not familiar with the conventions of the RTS genre lost (there's an extensive in-game manual, called the Sporepedia, but that requires actual reading).

We're sure Spore will be a best-seller, especially in its first few weeks of release, but if EA expects Sims-like sales, the company may end up being disappointed if early word-of-mouth paints the game as too difficult for mainstream gamers.

Check out the Reuters TV segment below to see me further pontificate on all things Spore.