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Can 'Spore' meet its lofty expectations?

Legendary designer Will Wright's new game has been in the works for years. Now it's almost out and everyone wants to know if it will succeed.

Electronic Arts' much-anticipated game Spore comes out September 7. But can it live up to expectations?
Electronic Arts/Maxis

When Electronic Arts' long-awaited Spore hits store shelves September 7, it will have the shadow of an extremely successful cousin looming over it.

Spore, of course, is the latest game from legendary designer Will Wright. And, as has been repeated more times than anyone can count, Wright's last all-new game, The Sims, became the best-selling PC game of all time almost overnight when it was released in 2000.

If all Spore had to deal with was that pedigree, it would already be facing huge expectations.

But Wright and his Emeryville, Calif.-based Maxis development studio have even more pressure on them because Spore is a totally original kind of title, an evolution game that tasks players with learning how to use a sophisticated set of content creation tools and then evolving their characters from the cellular phase through a tribal stage and, eventually, on out into the endless reaches of space.

Spore in many ways is five games within a game, each stage in some sense meant to recall the style and fun of an iconic video game from the past. As Soren Johnson, a designer and programmer on Spore told video game Web site Gamasutra in July, "I think Will (Wright) has said that...the first level was Pac-Man, the second level was Diablo, the third level was Populous, (and) the fourth level was Civilization."

At the same time, EA and Maxis have also been touting Spore for more than three years, putting substantial amounts of marketing energy and development resources behind it--it's the next Will Wright game, after all--yet the title has also been delayed from its originally intended release, for one reason or another, for as much as two years.

With those kinds of pressures, anyone could be forgiven for wanting to keep their head down low. Instead, EA is preparing for a major publicity push for Spore and now, with the game just about to be sent to manufacturing and less than six weeks from launch, the big question is: What really are the expectations for Spore and can it ever live up to them?

"Obviously, Spore comes from a very strong pedigree, and the title itself looks dynamic," said Colin Sebastian, an industry analyst from Lazard Capital Markets. "Certainly, the expectations are very high, (sales of) several million units. (But) I wouldn't put it in the realm of The Sims.

If Spore was from any other designer, it would probably only have to be measured on its financial performance: Did it earn enough to justify the investment?

But some feel that Wright's reputation as perhaps the video game industry's most accomplished wunderkind--and EA's faith in him--are also on the line.

Spore is the latest game from legendary designer Will Wright. Electronic Arts/Maxis

After all, while Wright was behind The Sims through its second full iteration, The Sims 2, that franchise--which recently topped 100 million units sold, counting expansions--has subsequently been spun off into its own division at EA, and since at least 2005, Wright and Maxis have been devoted exclusively to bringing Spore to fruition. And his legions of fans have been patiently waiting for what they've assumed would be nothing less than one of the most exciting games ever to hit a computer screen.

"In some sense, people expect more from Will Wright," said Brian Crecente, the editor of the popular video game news site Kotaku. "Amongst gamers, there's this expectation that (Spore is) going to be good. In many ways, he gets a free pass."

One theory, in fact, about Spore's prospects is that anyone who is a fan of Wright's or of The Sims will buy the $50 game.

If so, that could be a boon for EA and a solid base on which to build a large audience for the game.

"That's like half the planet," said Crecente. "I think they don't need to appeal to anybody outside the hardcore (Wright) and Sims fans."

To be sure, however, EA wants the game to appeal to the largest possible audience, not least because of the fortune it has surely cost the company to make Spore.

EA won't say how much money the game's development has cost, but it did tell CNET News that there are currently 92 full-time employees working on the game. Poll

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Indeed, while the game's early conceptualizing and prototyping period required a staff of just between 4 and 15 people, Maxis ramped up to a production team of 35 in January 2005, to about 50 a year later, and then has gradually grown to the current 92.

That means EA is sinking millions upon millions of dollars into the game, all of which raises the bar quite high for the number of units Spore must sell just to break even, let alone be profitable or head into Sims territory.

In an interview published on Gamasutra in May 2007, then-EA Chief Creative Officer Bing Gordon said that it "needs to sell in the millions and last a few years to pay back the investment. But you know, we were probably going to spend the money on something. It might as well be on Spore."

Officially, EA won't say how many copies the game needs to sell to meet the company's internal expectations. But it disputes the notion that Spore should be held up to the financial performance of The Sims.

"We don't provide financial breakouts for individual titles or any formulas we use in determining financial performance," said Patrick Buechner, vice president of marketing for Maxis. "That said, I can tell you that no one at EA is measuring Spore with the yardstick created by The Sims. They're two totally different animals. Spore is a game that has a lot to offer players long after they make the original purchase--a much different business model than traditional video games."

And EA is clearly banking on Spore having a long, and profitable, shelf life.

In its quarterly earnings conference call on July 29, CEO John Riccitiello hinted that the company thinks Spore could eventually become its own label, much as The Sims has become today, built around endless expansion packs, downloadable content, and more.

But before EA can start counting on the potential mint Spore could create, one fairly important question has to be answered: Is the game any good?

There's no disputing that people are enjoying the game's content creation system. That's because EA released the Spore creature creator in June as a free download in order to both stoke interest in the game and, perhaps more important, to populate the game's database of creatures with users' creations.

And it worked. The company says more than 2.5 million people got the creature creator and made more than 2 million different species, all of which will become part of the game.

What isn't known is how the rest of the game will go over, or how important that will be to whether it is a financial success. That's because, for the most part, EA hasn't shown very much of Spore's actual game play publicly. In a long series of demos over the last three years, it has mainly shown the creature creator and certain parts of the cell and space stages. But few people outside EA have seen extended play from the rest of the game.

To Crecente, however, it may not matter that much.

A big lure of Spore is the game's content creation tools. EA released the Spore creature creator as a free download in June, but the game also includes editors for making spaceships, buildings, and other things. Electronic Arts/Maxis

"While it's important to have an actual game within the game," Crecente said, "I think gamers are so fascinated already with the creature creator, and the ability to make buildings and spaceships (that) their expectations are going to be a lot lower than what (EA) would need in another game."

In part, he added, that's because Spore is coming out at an advantageous time when there is a "renaissance in gaming" in which users are getting more control than ever over the content of the games they play.

That has been borne out in the tremendous success of The Sims and that dynamic is expected to lead Little Big Planet, a forthcoming game for the Sony's PlayStation 3, to big sales numbers.

Still, it's obvious that EA would like Spore to appeal to a wider audience than just established hard-core gamers or Wright fans, and whether that happens likely depends on whether people have fun with it.

"I think part of it will result from word of mouth and viral marketing," said Lazard Capital's Sebastian. "Is it something that people want to talk to their friends about, friends and family taking notice and saying, 'Gee, I want to do that as well.' It's a little bit premature to say definitively whether Spore will do that or not."

And even industry insiders like Crecente who have a keen sense for what works and what doesn't say it's still too early to tell whether Spore has the kind of legs that will lead to big sales and the long life of expansions that Riccitiello imagines.

"Until I sit down and play the game end to end, I just can't judge," Crecente said. "It's like the four blind men trying to describe an elephant. I've had a chance to play various parts of the game, but until I get a chance to play it all, I just can't say."