Evolutionary Chain
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 10 (Oct. 2008)

Evolutionary Chain

For Chris Hecker, a technology fellow in Electronic Arts’ Maxis Studio (Emeryville, California), developing the game Spore was like being chosen to construct the Sistine Chapel alongside the industry’s best and brightest minds who constantly exposed him to bold new thinking.

This went on for nearly five years, which is an exceptionally long time considering that most game cycles run anywhere from 18 months to three years. What’s more, Hecker’s work was actually preceded by that of four or five colleagues who got the ball rolling in pre-production. Given the ambitious scope surrounding Spore’s groundbreaking approach to gaming, any less of a commitment that the creative team made might have been viewed as criminal. It’s not surprising then that the game’s US release early last month was highly anticipated by eager players, many of whom had heard about some of the work that had been put forth by Maxis throughout the lengthy development period.

“Trying to integrate the game’s user-created content into every part of the levels demanded a lot of technology, [a novel] user interface, and research and design,” says the 37-year-old Hecker, who relished an opportunity to be associated with something he believed to be much bigger than himself. Evolutionary, even.

But it wasn’t easy blazing a path to creativity, which was riddled with challenges. For starters, there was the task of animating content whose final form was not yet known—which was the most impressive among several technical feats—and designing a character’s textures to fit within this vision. Other issues involved creating the right level of detail for smooth viewing of the gaming landscape and whetting player appetites for user-created content with a free download that gave them a feel for using their imagination to create whimsical creatures.

Spore, which transcends traditional video game genres, has been described as everything from “a real-time strategy” to “a life-simulation contest” whose massive scope and open-ended gameplay have earned kudos from industry watchers. Players create microscopic organisms that evolve into intelligent beings capable of mastering their own planet and ascending into space, where they interact with alien species across the galaxy. They’re also able to use the game’s unique tool set to make vehicles, buildings, and spaceships.

Creatures are nurtured through five stages of evolution, which start in the primordial ooze, before working their way up the food chain, eventually heading for land, where they learn to avoid predators and adapt to their environment. Those stages include cell, creature, tribe, civilization, and space—a metamorphosis that Hecker hilariously compares to Mr. Potato Head.

The game involves several distinct phases, each with its own style of play, whose outcome affects each subsequent encounter—which becomes increasingly more complicated. The complete destruction of a player’s creations means the species reverts to the beginning of that particular level or the last viable point in their development. Spore runs on both PC and Mac formats, and there’s a Nintendo DS spin-off called Spore Creatures in which creature sharing is done over the Internet. However, it isn’t a multiplayer game in that players do not compete in the same shared space at the same time; rather, the fundamental art assets (characters, vehicles, buildings, and planets) are shared with other players.

Pushing Boundaries
Hecker presented a peer-reviewed paper at SIGGRAPH 2008 that densely described in highly technical and mathematical detail Spore’s animation system—one of the game’s featured innovations. He was one of six co-authors who cited 36 sources in explaining their novel approach to developing characters whose morphologies are unknown at the time the animation is created.

Spore’s authoring tool uses a robust inverse kinematics solver to capture various poses when animating characters whose highly varying skeleton morphologies may turn out to be substantially different than what was envisioned at the time the animations were authored. The method retains the animation’s structural relationships and stylistic details. Unlike traditional character animation that indexes selected objects, Spore uses explicitly specified semantic information to record movements and different character morphologies to generate individual retargeted motions at runtime.

Greg Turk of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s College of Computing, who served as the SIGGRAPH technical papers chairman, issued a statement noting how “the modeling and animation techniques used in Spore will inspire others to think more creatively about user-created content in computer games.”

Hecker says his number-one career objective is to make high-concept video games “the preeminent art form of the 21st century” by pushing boundaries from both a technical and design standpoint so that player interactions are heightened. Popular Web sites such as YouTube, Flickr, and Wikipedia now serve as an inspiration for game developers who work within the user-created content template.

To this end, Hecker says the biggest obstacle on Spore was making the software robust enough to give users carte blanche to create creatures of all possible combinations, sizes, and shapes; the software also had to support the complexity of a game that enables players to simultaneously be one another’s best friend and worst enemy.

One of Spore’s biggest attractions—the ability for players to create totally unique characters—was the biggest challenge.
Although a single-player game, Spore allows users to share creations between their respective galaxies, as well as explore and play within a nearly limitless number of worlds. Once a creature has been created, it can be taken online via a network connection or by trading alphanumeric codes manually. Each choice that is made reverberates across generations and decides the fate of a user’s civilization. Some folks will be content to build thriving civilizations, while others will want to climb aboard an intergalactic starship to rule other worlds.

The game’s designers tried hard to balance the appeal of playing an innocuous social game versus engaging in fierce combat. The interactivity of this game allows people to express themselves through the type of creatures they make and their style of play, Hecker notes.

Spore’s chief designer, industry guru Will Wright, considers his creation a massively single-player online game that allows friends and foes alike to trade art assets and creatures they can befriend or destroy. It’s an apt description of the game’s attempt to fold user-created content into each distinct single-player game.

One of the more challenging technical issues for the engine team was to establish an intricate enough level of detail that would allow players to continuously zoom out from, say, the nest of a small creature, to view the entire galaxy. That meant rendering nice sweeping views of water and rocks, or millions of other creatures and nests on nearby planets, until they eventually disappeared beyond the user’s line of vision. In short: promote smooth animation.

“You want to be spending all your time on stuff the user can actually see, whereas once you’re out in an orbit around the planet, you can’t see that nest anymore,” explains Hecker. “So it’s kind of complicated to set it all up to continuously zoom way out without jerking and having pops. We had to be aggressive about the level of detail and generate everything on the fly. You don’t want to run into the back side of a planet that can’t be seen.”

Texturing Challenges
Game artists created nearly 230 drag-and-drop, flexible body parts from which players can build their unusual characters. Players can choose from 20 to 80 bodies, meshes, and textures. First, they manipulate a clay-like torso when creating their characters, before choosing from a palette of limbs and anatomical parts, including mouths, eyes, graspers, feet, spikes, and armor. With the robust game editor, users then can alter the size, shape, and color of each creation in seemingly unlimited combinations. The editing feature also enables users to add tails, eyes, and mandibles with unique abilities designed to help overcome the challenges they’re expected to face during visits to far-flung places.

When bringing the game’s animated creatures to life, the developers paid close attention to how their skin and the polygons that form the skin on the torso, arms, and other body parts would be designed and stretched, while particle-painting techniques made the mesh skin look like it was professionally textured. Hecker collaborated on these processes with his EA colleague Henry Goffin, while the original prototypes were done with Ocean Quigley, the game’s art director, who suggested Spore as the game’s working title before the name finally stuck.

Whereas a game artist normally would create a character’s textures in Autodesk’s Maya and Adobe’s Photoshop, and lock down those design details before a game ships, the user-created content in Spore requires that those details be dynamically generated on a player’s machine after the fact. So rather than work on the textures directly, the game artists wrote scripts that walked paint brushes across the creatures. Hecker likens the approach to writing simplified programming language.

Once Hecker and Quigley got the particle-paint aspect working, they discovered that the particles couldn’t make proper determinations about the skeleton in terms of the torso’s location or other issues. Goffin enhanced the system so that the scripting language would enable the particles to access the creature’s morphology and know, for instance, what kind of parts are near one of the hand meshes so it can start flaring out at the end of a limb versus the middle of the torso. The animation system uses this creature morphology as well. 

Creatures are made to move in ways that express what Hecker calls “the verbs of the game”—from picking fruit and fighting, to running around and dancing. The tricky part is that these movements have to work on creatures that players create, which means the animators don’t get the benefit of having a fixed character in a game with James Bond, Lara Croft, or other known models.

Game players are content creators, evolving their model from an amoeba (above) to an advanced life form. Particle-paint scripts assess the creature’s morphology during modeling and animation.
“All the parts are marked up semantically,” Hecker explains, “which is a new thing in animation that gives us tremendous power because the computer can [make certain determinations] about the animation data and map it onto different creatures.” This process is also known as retargeting. Meanwhile, inverse kinematics technology enables the creature bodies to move like human skeletons.

Hecker says Spore Creature Creator, a stand-alone product released in June that focuses solely on the game’s creature-making capability, enables the public to see “a concrete example of the various decisions we made and how much control we give people over the paint system.” For example, users can paint their name on the creature they’ve created but cannot paint directly on the creature in 3D. While Pixologic’s ZBrush or Maya’s 3D paint program are far more flexible than Spore’s paint-editing feature, they require about six months of training. So the trick was making the in-game tool powerful while remaining accessible to those who lack the artistic expertise of an industry professional.

Barely a month after Creature Creator’s release, users had contributed 2.7 million creatures to the Spore database. To put this into perspective, the number of known species of plants, animals, and algae on the planet earth is approximately 1.58 million. “It took a lot longer than [a few months] to get that many on earth,” Hecker says with a chuckle. In a serious tone, he predicts that the figure could top three million by the product’s release date. That would far exceed the expectations of Wright, who when dreaming up the idea for Spore, decided to fuse his fascination with science and interest in architecture and design.

From a programming standpoint, the AI system that Spore used is a derivative of what Halo game developer Bungie Studios has published. And Hecker says he is grateful that game developers are so open to sharing information. The motivation involves a hunger to learn from mistakes and incorporate those lessons into product updates, as well as a relentless commitment to quality assurance that’s ingrained in the industry’s culture. Hecker expects even more information sharing to occur in the future thanks in part to the Internet, trade shows such as Game Developers Conference (GDC), and books about game programming.

“It doesn’t matter that they work for a totally different company,” Hecker explains, “because games are entertainment products, and we don’t necessarily compete unless you’re like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, going after the exact same audience at the exact same time. But most games aren’t like that. If Halo had better AI because of something Spore did, it doesn’t hurt Spore in any way, and then they can share with us next time at GDC or on Internet message boards.”

Creature Creator
Creature Creator—which, as the title suggests, allows people to create their own creature (free on the Spore.com Web site, though there’s also a $10 version with more parts)—has been enthusiastically embraced by both casual and hard-core players. “We made it accessible so that even if you are not a computer game person, it is just kind of magic to play with,” Hecker says. The magic moment usually takes hold once users watch their creation come alive from a tide-pool amoeba, which forms a torso that eventually sprouts an arm or leg, and eventually the creature speaks, dances, punches, and does other things to display a range of emotion.

“One thing I hadn’t thought about before I came here was this concept of using player creativity as a design tool in games,” Hecker says. For Spore, that means using an editor, influencing player choices about what to place into their own world or universe, and erecting walls around the outside of a level so that the character can’t jump out.

Given the unique nature of Spore, Hecker was anxious about whether adrenaline junkies who are accustomed to sweating it out on the Halo game series or Grand Theft Auto IV “would care about making their own little guy.” His fear was unfounded, and the response was phenomenal. Many users posted their creature creations in online forums, seeking feedback on designs they thought were poorly animated or too cool for the room as part of a massive public beta test of sorts. He couldn’t believe the community of creativity that had sprung forth from the Creature Creator.

“Some of them are cute, and some are mean,” Hecker reports. “It kind of drills home the idea that everybody has this creative aspect inside them, but it’s just kind of repressed. When you’re an adult, you’re not supposed to draw creatures because then you look like a child. But unleashing that spirit in a structured environment makes it safe for people to explore their creativity, which I think is beautiful.”

Hecker is sanguine about how Spore will be received based on how the public has reacted to Creature Creator, a marketing vehicle that helped prime the pump on all the creative possibilities of the creature database. Allowing the public a taste of Spore also enabled designers to fix a few configuration bugs in the animation system, sound card, and other areas of the game. Perhaps most important was that it won over skeptics who expressed during forum posts how they had absolutely no interest in playing Spore—that is, until fiddling around with Creature Creator.

“We discovered a whole bunch of cool things about what you can do with the creature editor that we weren’t telling anybody,” Hecker explains, “and it was like the Internet passed us by in two days in terms of coolness and craziness. It’s fun for players to discover this stuff for themselves. So, things that took us a long time to discover from when we started using the editors only took a couple days for players at large to figure out.”

For instance, a random tester noticed toward the end of last year that one creature could be mounted on top of another—a capability that took the design team two years to determine. But users were even more savvy: Creatures were seen riding on one another the very first day Creature Creator came out.

“They just completely blew us away, which is awesome,” says Hecker, noting how the magical part from both a motivation and development standpoint was that people not only had a good time, but also surprised Spore’s design team of seasoned professionals. “I can’t wait until the game ships because the building and vehicle editors are so different,” he adds. “They allow a different kind of creativity, and it will be interesting to see where people take that as well.”

Sturgeon’s Law
In the months preceding Spore’s release, Hecker was so impressed by the quality of creations showing up in the so-called Sporepedia that he thought they represented a splendid challenge to the so-called Sturgeon’s Law, named after science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, who argued that 90 percent of everything is rubbish.

Users choose from 230 flexible body parts to build their unique characters.
The Sporepedia tracks nearly every gameplay experience by graphically displaying a timeline showing how creatures, planets, vehicles, creature achievements, and other encountered content evolved (in keeping with the game’s creature-evolution theme). The knowledge base dedicated to Spore, known as SporeWiki, describes it as “essentially a heads-up display, cataloging all stars/solar systems, planets, and creatures (and, presumably, buildings, vehicles, and flora) that players have discovered. Players can bookmark or blacklist the competition “in order to prioritize or ban content from that particular creator,” according to the Web site.

“Look at that front page, and you’ll see that the creatures non-techies have created are awesome,” Hecker gushes. “They look like professional-quality models, and it is satisfying to see normal people who are capable of making this stuff and don’t end up being frustrated because it’s so hard. I know how to use Maya, but it’s still frustrating for me to get what I want out of it, whereas with the creature editor, I can make something that is pretty cool in five seconds.”

Bruce Shutan is a freelance writer based in the Los Angeles area. He can be reached at bshutan@sbcglobal.net .