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EA's 'Spore' a week from being finished

The long-awaited game from legendary designer Will Wright's Maxis studio is only about a week from being sent to manufacturing. And it looks very slick.

'Spore' developers were surprised by a user's creation of this skeleton because they didn't think this kind of figure was possible using the creature creator they had made. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

After more than three years of anticipation, Spore is almost finished.

Electronic Arts' evolution game, from legendary designer Will Wright's Maxis studio, is about a week from going "gold," I was told Tuesday by Thomas Vu, a producer on the game who gave me a demo Tuesday morning. Going gold, of course, means the game is about to be sent to manufacturing. EA has said that Spore will launch September 7.

As you probably know, Spore is designed to task players with evolving through a series of stages, from the initial cell stage, to creature creation, to a tribal stage, then onto civilization, and then out into space.

Over the last few years, I've had a number of opportunities to see the game in its various stages of development, and let me tell you: It's looking good. What was a fairly rudimentary system back in 2005 when I first saw it at E3 in Los Angeles is now a polished, slick game that looks just about ready for prime time. Its interfaces all seem to work, there were no obvious bugs and it just seemed like a game that is doing what it's supposed to.

"Thank goodness," is what EA must be thinking. Spore has been the industry's most-anticipated title for at least a couple of years. When I first wrote about it, during E3 in 2005, in one of the very first extensive interviews with Wright about the game, I penned these words: "Next year, Electronic Arts will release Wright's next attempted masterpiece, Spore."

Clearly, Maxis didn't release the game in 2006, nor did it come out in 2007, when it was also planned for launch. There have been all kinds of reasons for the delays, but whatever happened in the past, the game is definitely looking good and I think I would be willing to put some money on EA making its September 7 deadline.

That means, of course, that finally, the world will get its hands on Spore, and we'll finally find out if the game is going to live up to the galactic expectations that have been put on it. And while I've not played nearly enough of it to say whether those expectations will be met, I think there's a pretty good chance.

Many thousands of people have already gotten to play with the Spore creature creator, since EA released it for free back in June. That was a brilliant move because, already, users have made more than 2 million creatures using the system, all of which will be incorporated into the game when it goes live in September.

And that means, of course, that the game will be far richer upon launch than it would have been if the only content available on day one had been created by the developers at Maxis. As we've seen over the last few years, with the emergence of virtual worlds and YouTube and other treasure troves of user-generated content, users can create many orders of magnitude more material than any team of paid developers.

"The content people are making has astounded us," said Vu. "They've challenged us in a way we hadn't conceived...We'll spend two hours on a piece of content we'll ship with the game, and we'll see players spend 20 hours on a piece of content."

One of the things that most surprised the Spore team, as Wright explained during Electronic Arts' press conference at E3 earlier this month, was that some users have even managed to do things that they didn't think was possible.

The best example of this, Wright said at E3, and Vu showed me up close Tuesday, was the creation of a skeleton creature.

They made "creatures we didn't even know could be made," Vu said, speaking of the skeleton. "The player removed the mesh from the creature, which is astounding."

He said that the team at Maxis had also "shied away" from offering creature creation parts that were too animal-like or human-like.

Yet, Vu showed me, players have found a way to make animals, and people as well.

Maxis also didn't think players could make human-like creatures using its creature creator, but users surprised the 'Spore' development team by doing just that. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

"You'll see something like Hobbes (from the cartoon Calvin and Hobbes)," Vu said, "and we'll be, like, 'Wow, how did they make it?'"

Other examples of things users have done that were unexpected, Vu explained, include making a creature mounted on another creature.

"We didn't even think of that," Vu said. "It looks like he's riding a horse. The creature has a mouth, and the person riding him has eyes, and the animation held up, and that was completely amazing."

During my preview Tuesday morning, I got a chance to play, very briefly, with Spore's space stage. Vu led me through the selection of a spaceship--that was built using the spacecraft editor that will ship with the game--and a brief journey around a single planet, and then into deep space.

An achievement badge earned while playing the 'Spore' space stage. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

Spore features hundreds of thousands of planets, Vu told me, certainly more content than most people will ever be able to experience, especially when you figure that once the game is launched, there will be endless amounts of new content being added by players.

In fact, at a press briefing in February, Wright said that the development team had hidden easter eggs in the deep reaches of space that they think could take users more than a year to discover.

As my demo time drew rapidly to a close, I realized that I still hadn't had much of a chance to see how the game actually plays. Over the last few years, I've seen the creature creator demonstrated multiple times, and I've also gotten to see and play with the cell stage more than once. But I still have yet to see the kind of extended game play that either will or won't draw in masses of players and keep them glued to their computers.

It's certainly not that I doubt that the game will succeed at that; rather, it's just that I still haven't seen it, and I'm looking very much forward to doing so. Many people have speculated that Spore will have trouble offering compelling gameplay to the numbers of people who got hooked on The Sims, and who knows? That's not really the point, however. The question is whether it will be compelling to mainstream players and science buffs alike. And I wouldn't bet against Wright and Maxis.

I'm told that in a couple of weeks, I should be getting a build of the game that I will be able to play myself in my own time and at my own leisure. And I have to say, after more than three years, it's really hard to explain just how much I'm looking forward to that. Suffice it to say, I may not be getting much else done that week.