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Behind the prototyping of 'Spore'

Many of the components of Will Wright's highly anticipated evolution game started out as small concept projects that are now available to the public.

'Spore,' the new evolution game from Electronic Arts and 'SimCity' and 'The Sims' creator Will Wright, started with a series of small prototyping systems. Electronic Arts/Maxis

Electronic Arts' much anticipated evolution game, Spore hits store shelves Sunday in North America, and for those that have been on the project since the beginning, it has been a long road from concept to completion.

The game's creator, Will Wright, who is famous for previous games like SimCity and The Sims said recently that the game has been seven years in the making, meaning the project was getting under way not long after The Sims launched and became the best-selling PC game of all time.

Wright has talked at length about how Spore's origins lie in the SETI project and other flights of his fancy.

"The original concept was sort of a toy galaxy you could fly around and explore," Wright told me last month. "As we thought about, it became apparent that evolution was a very important component. Some of the very first prototypes involved how you would move around and visualize the galaxy."

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In the highly anticipated lead-up to the Spore's release from EA studio Maxis, in Emeryville, Calif., almost all the attention has been on the game itself or on its Creature Creator, which gives users an easy and sophisticated way to create complex beasts and which was made available in June as a free download.

But for many people, an equally exciting element has been the series of prototypes available for free download on the Spore Web site, each of which provides a look at the origins of a small piece of the larger game.

In fact, the prototypes were a crucial part of making Spore a reality. For example, since the procedural animation of the creatures in the game is one of its most-heralded elements, it's notable that before the system was ever built into the game, it started as a prototype.

"The earliest prototypes were making strange topology creatures and seeing if we could teach the computer to make them move plausibly, and later, show emotion and behavior," Wright said. "We had to find out whether the project was doable or not, or if some part of it wasn't doable, where we have to scale it back."

The first programmer on the Spore team was a Maxis veteran named Jason Shankel. Prior to joining Wright on his evolution project, he'd been working on a project known as SimMars, which was essentially a Mars terraforming game that was supported financially by NASA before the plug was finally pulled.

'GonzagoGL' is the last of the prototyping systems built for 'Spore.' The prototype, which took nine months and five full-time programmers, 'places the player in an environment with predators, prey, shelter and vegetation.' Electronic Arts/Maxis

"Even though SimMars never quite jelled for us, much of the technology we developed there made it into the early efforts on Spore," Shankel said. "We had systems for simulating planetary climates and things like that."

All told, Maxis produced between 30 and 40 prototypes, of which Shankel said between 10 and 20 are "unique and interesting."

And they're essential for the development of games like Spore because, as Wright noted, they can help the designers figure out exactly what works and what doesn't as they move forward with a larger project.

"Game design prototypes are small, lightweight applications designed to explore specific questions or risks in game development," Shankel said. "You can think of them as screen tests in film, or sketches in art."

The value of making the prototypes is that they provide a way to inexpensively test out whether an idea works or doesn't. As Shankel points out, the creation of a large-scale game like Spore is tremendously expensive, and there's not much room for error in a finished product. But along the way, there's plenty of opportunity to break out small ideas into prototypes.

"Prototypes can be developed by small teams working rapidly," he said. "We don't typically worry bout things like bullet-proof stability, cross-platform issues or compatibility across multiple PC configurations. They're just little toys that help us decide what we'll really want to do when we roll out the big guns."

The practice of prototyping along these lines is not unique to Spore. But this project differs from most in that the folks at Maxis and EA decided to make some of them available to the public.

Currently, there are 11 available on the Spore site, and among them, they explore things like "the behavior of large bodies of water on uneven terrain," "the evolution of complex behavior from simple components," "a SimCity-like simulation of the spread of life and culture across a planetary surface," "gravitational attraction between particles in a cloud" and more.

Asked how his team decided what prototypes to build, Shankel said the answer was quite direct.

'ParticleMan,' another 'Spore' prototype, 'simulates gravitational attraction between particles in a cloud. This system was used to study such gravitational dynamics as orbits, nebula formation, star formation and particle streams from sources like pulsars and black holes.' Electronic Arts/Maxis

"In the first phase, which I think of as the research phase, our criterion was simple," he said. "Build what Will (Wright) wants."

Of course, he added, sometimes Wright didn't know exactly what he wanted and the work then tended to follow the logical conclusions of discussions.

"What I tried to do was just listen to the things that he thought were interesting," Shankel said, "think about how to synthesize two or three of his biggest ideas and present them back to him. This was the era that gave us (the prototypes) 'ParticleMan,' 'GasLight,' 'WaterBoy' and 'BIOME.' In each of these cases, we were modeling a specific dynamic that Will was interested in exploring, such as gravitational systems, star formation, wave propagation and galaxy formation."

Then they'd move onto the second phase.

There, he explained, the team directed the prototypes more towards elements of game play that would hopefully make it into Spore.

"In this phase, we had more people on the team, and we had a definite goal of creating a game design complete enough to enter production."

The higher the degree of uncertainty in a game design element, the more need for prototyping, Shankel said.

"Most prototypes were developed by one or two programmers (in) a few weeks to a few months," he explained. But "GonzagoGL," the last of the Spore game play prototypes, which confronts the player with predators, prey, vegetation and shelter, required as many as five full-time programmers and nine months of development time.

"'GonzagoGL' was a bridge application," Shankel said, "between the prototyping stage and full Spore development. In these prototypes, we began to see the elements of the final Spore design first start to coalesce."

While a good deal of actual science, like exploration of the dynamics of cosmic and biological systems, went into the prototypes, Shankel said that focusing on core game play was more important."

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"We don't subject ourselves to anything like the rigor or real scientific research," he said. "Scientists are interested in what's real, not what's fun. But at Maxis, we think science can be a lot of fun...What we're really interested in showing is how dynamic, how alive, many of these systems are. We look at those amazing pictures from the Hubble (telescope)...and we want to show not just how those cosmic structures look in snapshots, but how they evolve and change over time. The galaxy isn't like an oil painting, it's more like a weather system. The galaxy is alive."

Indeed, the "BIOME" prototype is based on research into the evolution of the spiral arms of galaxies, where Shankel said there are many competing theories on how they form.

While it might seem that the prototypes would eventually make their way directly into Spore, Shankel said that's not the case.

"Prototypes are intended to be throw-away code," he said, "and we intentionally avoid developing them in our production framework. We need the freedom in prototype code to put in ugly hacks or to tear things apart and reconnect them in ways you wouldn't do in a production codebase."

Still, "GonzagoGL" actually did make it into the full game, and Shankel said that's the prototype he's most proud of.

"Here, we felt that we'd seen so much good clarity come out of previous, smaller prototypes," he said. "It was a real validation of the process and it was confirmed when our game play development teams were able to hit the ground running when we entered full production."

For Shankel, the time spent on Spore represents nearly 20 percent of his life, and as a result, he is hopeful that in the prototypes, Spore fans will get some insight into how the game was made.

But another gratifying element of leading the prototyping project has been working with Maxis development interns.

"Prototyping is an ideal project for interns because there's so much individual contribution, the time windows are short and it's easy to avoid getting bogged down in the bug-fixing cycle," he said. "I (also) regularly speak to college students who want to know how they can fill out their portfolios and, after seeing how our interns responded to this part of the project, I always advise them to develop prototypes of their ideas."

And perhaps more important, he said, he sees prototyping as crucial to the evolution of the video game industry itself.

"We've had a renaissance in production over the last decade and I'm anticipating a renaissance in design to follow," Shankel said. "Just as advancements in hardware-accelerated graphics and 3D engine design have elevated our technical quality, so too will advancements in prototyping and other areas of creative collaboration elevate our design quality."