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Creating Creatures

Spore’s Lucy Bradshaw talks about why the game’s developers embraced an old programming technique.
June 17, 2008

The Creature Creator, the first piece of Electronic Arts’ highly anticipated evolution game Spore, launched Tuesday. Created by Will Wright, who’s known for the video games SimCity and The Sims, Spore begins with a player controlling a single-celled organism and progresses through various evolutionary stages until the player controls an entire space-faring race. The Creature Creator part of the game consists of a modeling interface that lets players build their own organisms from a set of highly customizable and flexible parts.

Spore creation: Lucy Bradshaw, executive producer of the highly anticipated evolution game Spore, says that the game’s approach to programming affects game play and player control, making characters more customizable. Below is a screenshot showing examples of creatures that could be built using the game’s Creature Creator. The game’s algorithms generate behavior for the creatures based on the features of physical characteristics selected by players.

When Wright first began talking about Spore in 2005, he expressed a vision of extreme player control. Rather than having game designers build thousands of 3-D models of creatures in advance and program their behavior, he had the staff develop algorithms to animate the creatures that players built, using a technique called procedural generation. While using the Creature Creator, each choice that a player makes to design the look of her organism affects how it moves or interacts with others. The game is entirely populated with creatures created by players, but it’s not a multiplayer game. Secondary creatures are controlled by artificially intelligent software, not by other players.

The Creature Creator’s free trial edition is available today. A full version is available for $9.99 on the PC, with a Mac version to follow. The full version of Spore will launch in North America on September 7.

On the eve of the Creature Creator’s launch, Technology Review’s assistant editor, Erica Naone, talked with Spore’s executive producer, Lucy Bradshaw, about the effects of procedural generation on Spore’s game play.

Technology Review: Procedural generation was commonly used in games in the earlier days of computers, when they didn’t have the memory to store lots of details about creatures and terrain. Designers relied on processing power to build up game worlds from a small set of instructions when they had no other choice, but that technique fell out of favor when computers began to store large quantities of data easily. What made you take another look at procedural generation?

Lucy Bradshaw: Will [Wright] wanted to use procedural generation because he wanted to put as much creativity into the hands of the player as we possibly could. In most games, [developers] create a set of predetermined skeletons and predetermined textures. What we wanted was for players to be able to construct anything they could imagine. Doing the content procedurally allowed us to do that, and to create a game dynamic that gives meaning to each of the players’ creations by giving them game purpose.

TR: Can you offer an example of how procedural generation gives meaning to the design choices that a player makes when building a creature?

LB: The creatures’ abilities come from the parts that players choose to put on them. Socializing parts, for example, give you the ability to charm other creatures, to dance, to sing, or to pose. With the Creature Creator, you can put these things on. For instance, a charm part might be a little flower, or some sort of antenna might give you the charm ability. There’s AI in the game, and creatures will behave based on the parts that you’ve added to them. So, if I’m going to decide I want to socialize with a number of other species, I’m probably going to opt to put on more socializing parts and create my possibilities there. If I want to attack and win by brute force, then I’m probably going to invest more in the combat parts. There are also movement parts that give creatures the ability to sneak and jump and glide. All of these things together create the kind of strategies that you get to play out once you get the game.

Spore’s Creature Creator, a part of the Spore game that launches today as a stand-alone product, has an interface balanced to give players a great deal of latitude with relatively easy controls. Players select parts by dragging them onto a creature’s body. After attaching the parts wherever they choose, players can stretch, resize, and paint them. The game’s algorithms interpret the form that those parts take to create behaviors for the creature, and to determine how the creature moves, interacts with other creatures, or fights its enemies.

TR: Does how you build the creature affect anything in the game beyond how the creature behaves?

LB: One of our original visions … was to do procedural music, [which we achieved with help from electronic musician Brian Eno]. So, as you create your creature in the editor, if you’re putting on a more aggressive part, the music starts to turn a little more ominous. If you’re putting on a more socializing part, it turns a little more perky and happy. And that happens throughout the game, in fact.

TR: One goal of the Creature Creator was to make it relatively easy to use, while also giving people a lot of range in what they could create. How did you pull that off?

LB: The Creature Creator’s interface is probably the single item that we spent the most time on. To make it something that feels as simple as shaping clay, allowing players to easily add parts, stretch them, or rescale them, we taught the computer to respond to what the player was doing. If the creature is facing the player, it will manipulate the limbs differently than if the creature is to the side. We created methodology like symmetry, so that if you’re dragging on a leg and you put it to the side of the creature, it’s going to have two of them.

TR: Because so much of the behavior of these creatures is procedurally generated once the game is running, my understanding is that the files for the creatures themselves turn out to be much smaller than for a 3-D model, for example.

LB: What you’re doing with your Creature Creator is creating a recipe for a creature. Because the computer builds the creatures up procedurally, the file that stores [the creatures] gets reduced down to about 8 K. We’re talking about kilobytes, not megabytes or gigabytes [as you might expect for most 3-D models].

TR: Since the file sizes are so small, are you making mobile versions of Spore as well?

LB: We have a version of Spore called The Beginning that will be available on the mobile phone, but, in the full game, the underlying technology to do procedural animation and some of the AI that we’re doing definitively takes advantage of the PC platform’s computing capability. While procedural generation gives you a tremendous amount of creativity, and it gives you this ability to reduce files down to a very small size, the way that we’re putting procedural generation into action for the full game is using quite a bit of computing power.

TR: What kind of computing capability will a player need to be able to run Spore?

LB: We are actually running on a system spec for computers that shipped about three years ago, and we’ll also launch [the full version] simultaneously on the Mac and the PC.

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