Team Toad Conquers the SPORE Galaxy

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Will Wright steals more of my life

Maybe it's revenge for Jacey's SnowFlake scoring a KO against his BattleBot Whirl-Wep Ell Brain (a Robot Action League bot driven by Mike Winter), but Will Wright must be getting me back for something.

As if the hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars I've spent on Sims and Sims 2 and the dozens of expansion packs (one set of disks for each of my three children) wasn't enough, now I went and bought a copy of Spore for myself and spent the last week evolving a single cell animal into a space-faring race of Shamans.


Summary: (four out of five stars)


Pros: Deep, fun, thoughtful, well play-tested, addictive

Cons: Evil Digital Rights Management, Buggy installation

Mixed: Customer support only took 4 days to resolve installation issue


Slow Start

I waited to buy the game because I knew I'd be spending a lot of time once I finally started playing it. Immediately upon starting, it asked if I wanted to uninstall an update. I agreed, and twenty minutes later it asked if I wanted to install an update. WIth no sign of progress, I uninstalled and reinstalled the game. I declined to update it, and still am playing with the 1.0 version of the software. FWiW I'm on an Intel Mac.

Next it asked me to register and enter my code, then it tried to login to the Spore server and "link" my game to my account. Then I got the dreaded Invalid Code code message.

I was able to play the game, but not use the online features, which to me are a significant part of the whole experience.

I submitted a customer service ticket through the web site, and two days later I got an email saying they apologized for the delay, and they would need more time to solve my problem. Two more days later I started an email exchange that resolved the problem on the fifth day.

Bottom Line

Two and a half million people bought the game and installed it without any problems. But there are dozens of reports on the interwebs of people having my problem with an invalid code.

For five days I thought I'd wasted my money. I understand that DRM (digital rights management) is a tough issue and I also found discussions between people trying to break the DRM so they could play for free. It's people like that who make life miserable for those of us who are honest and pay our fifty bucks up front.

In the end, EA customer support did solve my problem and get me online.

The failure to update may also explain the half dozen program crashes I've had in the last week. My habit is to save the game after every good results, anyway, so crashes are a minor issue for me. Others have reported the game being "unplayable" in the space stage because of program bugs. I found these crashes merely annoying.

If it weren't for the update issue and the invalid code issue, I'd have given this game a 5 out of 5 stars.


We're Evolving Now

I played the game off-line for four days while waiting for customer support. I started as a single-celled carnivore and played through the creature stage to the tribal stage. I tried to be a social creature, but then I discovered in the tribal stage the special difficulty of making friends with the other creatures when you have to eat some of them for food.

Evolution of the Fuzik

Before I was able to resolve this conundrum, customer support came through and I decided to un-install and reinstall everything before starting again.


Second Life

Going through the early stages a second time went much faster, as I understood the user interface already.

Evolution of the Fuzawk

This time I decided to be a herbivore: a Fuzawk. I tried to be an omnivore by putting two mouths on my original one-celled animal, but I wound up being a herbivore, anyway. So I lost the vestigial set of carnivorous jaws and chose a herbivorous beak.

In the creature stage I did my best to befriend everything around me, using my "pack" friends to defend myself against the carnivores. One thing I did right was to pick a good "mouth", so my litle creature sang very well (completely unlike my real singing ability).

The tribal phase was really easy for me, since my evolved Fuzawks sing and dance really well.

In the civilization phase I chose a religious weapon for my vehicles...a large victrola-like speaker horn.

Fuzawk Vehicles

Instead of bombing my neighbors into submission, I broadcast holograms of my religous symbol over each nearby city until they succumbed to the obvious superiority of my message.

At this point my creature's fundamental nature had been determined:


Shaman is one of ten "archetypes" or philosophies that each space faring race can have.


Lost in Space

For some, the space traveller phase of the game is the whole point, and everything else is just cute preamble. I do not happen to share that belief, but it is true that you spend a lot more time in the space phase than any other part of the game. Indeed, long before I reached the center of the galaxy I earned the "Spore Fan" badge for spending 50 hours on one galaxy. Below are some of the many badges I earned in my week of playing Spore:

42: Find the center of the galaxy Shaman Hero: Achieve Master Badge Level 10 as a Shaman Galactic God: Evolve from a cell to a space traveler in one continuous game Gunner: Destroy at least 500 other space vessels Palm Greaser: Pay 50 bribes in the Space stage Spore Fan: Spend 50 hours in your Spore galaxy Careless Parent: Lose 5 planets Shaman Passion: Play as a Shaman Deja Vu: Discover something you created in another game Ergonomically Terrific! Complete the Tribal stage in less than an hour Spice Hoarder: Control every resource node on the planet simultaneously

The key economic resource in the Spore universe is Spice, which comes in colors: red, yellow, blue, green, pink, purple and even the very rare white spice.

You build up the cities on your planets to produce spice, and you fly around the galaxy buying (low) and selling (high) to generate income. You need the money to buy factories, houses, entertainment buildings, spice storage, as well as weapons and defenses to protect your holdings from pirates and enemy empires.

If you start the game as a cell, your planet has a full compliment of plants and animal species that allow it to support up to 10 cities. Most planets start as rocks of ice or molten metal and have to be Terraformed.

Once you get the temperature and atmosphere right, you add in a mix of plants and animals (that you've scooped up from other planets) to establish a working ecology. Then you plant "city seeds" called Incredi-paks.

Finally you add buildings to equip your city: factories, entertainment centers and houses so your city can start mining spice. The better equipped your cities, the more spice your empire has to trade.

Each archetype gets a "super power", and the Shaman's superpower is return ticket. With this power, anytime you're down visiting a planet you can do the equivalent of Dorothy tapping her Ruby slippers together and instantly warp back to your home planet without using any energy.

This turns out to be really useful when you're zipping around the galaxy jumping through wormholes. No matter how far from home you get, you can go home instantly.


The Jarzo

One of the first races I encountered upon leaving my home planet of Fuzorb were the Jarzo. They weren't very friendly, and sent me on a mission to dig up some artififacts for them. I didn't bother.

Later they demanded a tribute of over three million "sporebucks", money that I didn't have at that time. First they grew to dislike me, then they hated me. Then they declared war on me and sent dozens of their warships to attack my cites and steal my spice

Since they were the nearest culture to mine, that meant that they were threatening my best planets and my best trade routes.

They made my life miserable.

When I'd finally pull myself away from the computer to sleep, I had nightmares where the Jarzo were hounding me.

As a peaceful race, I didn't have the military muscle to outfight the Jarzo, so I decided to run away. I left my home system and struck out towards the center of the galaxy, colonizing empty star systems as I went. During my retreat, I befriended half a dozen other races, establishing spice trading routes and alliances that helped me to defend my empire.

I'm pretty sure the Jarzo are specific to my game, so if you play, your nearest civilization will probably be named something else.


The Grox
From these races I learned that there was fearful presence in the galaxy: The Grox.

According to the Spore Wiki, Grox was originally groB, which is just BORG speclled backwards, a Star Trek reference. If you look at these photos of Grox, you'll see that they wear a lot of technology.

The Grox are common to all Spore games. They control thousands of stars near the center of the galaxy, and they are very warlike.


The Jarzo, Part Two

I finally decided that I missed not being able to use my return ticket. I wanted to be able to visit my home planet at will without having to fight a war every time. Since I couldn't beat the Jarzo with force, I decided to accede to their demands for a bribe. In deep space, far from the war-zone, I built a small circle of planets with high-value spice (blue, pink, green and purple), and flew repeatedly around the circuit buying and selling high-end spice.

Once I had 15,000,000 Sporebucks, I tapped my slippers together, teleported home, and then threaded my FuzSaucer between attacking Jarzo battlecruisers to the Jarzo homeworld, and paid a huge bribe to attain peace. That worked for a while, but soon they were back to picking fights with me. I needed to find a permanent solution.

Once I'd played enough, I unlocked a useful diplomatic tool, the "Embassy". By planting an embassy on the Jarzo home world, doing a mission for them, and trading with them extensively, I eventually coaxed the dreaded Jarzo into an alliance with me.

That's when I found one big advantage of befriending such a warlike race: they sold weapons for half-price. When equipping my ship for fighting the Grox, those cheap weapons came in handy.



Borrowing heavily from Arthur Clarke and David Brin, Spore includes a social tool called the Monolith. In an obvious ploy to avoid trademark issues, the Spore monolith has a big hole in it. Below you can see a couple of photos of the FuziSaucer placing a monolith on a planet with animal species.


If you take a long view of success, the monolith tool is a very efficient way to expand your empire. Instead of taking the time to colonize empty planets, terraform them to habitability and then managing the spice mines and colonists, you just drop off a relatively cheap monolith and wait for the planet's animal or sentient species to evolve themselves.

Once they reach space, they have a +50 relationship bonus with your empire, since you uplifted them. So you just come back and form alliances and trading arrangements with them later.



One of the most fun aspects of Spore is that it's a live embodiment of ideas from all over science fiction, including Star Trek, Hitchhiker's Guide, Aliens, Star Wars, Dune, 2001, David Brin and even Adam Smith and Machiavelli. Supposedly Will Wright read 100 books getting ideas for Spore, and hired 72 people who spent $30,000,000.

Like they say about James Cameron movies: all of those millions show on the screen.

I described the game as "well play-tested". I'm not talking about the few bugs and crashes.

I mean the rules about relationships, conflict, economics, physics, offense and defense worked very well. I played the game on easy mode, so I was able to build a rich enough empire and equip my ship well enough that I could race to the center of the galaxy and meet...someone special.

The scope of the game is mind-boggling: from single cells to entire galaxies.

The online play is a big part of the experience. You don't play against other people or with them. Instead, when you explore a new planet, the plants, animals, vehicles and buildings may include other players' creations.

If you play the game twice, you'll see things from the first game showing up in the second.

And if you go to your Spore page, you can see whether your creations are being used in other players' games.

As of today, there are 2,569,857 players who've automatically uploaded 76,223,528 creations to the Spore servers.


Who should buy this game?

If you're a science fiction fan, and you aren't drawn by first-person shooters, then this is a wonderful, open-ended way to explore space.

It's not a difficult puzzle game, so don't buy it if you'll be bothered by it being "easy".

It's got a very creative side to it. After all, you get a cool 3D editor that you use to make animated creatures and machines. You then get to watch these things move and interact.

Note that most of the creative stuff is really just "costuming". For example, in the creature stage you find parts that you can use in the next generation of your creature. If you put a better mouth on it, it may sing better and therefore make friends more easily. If you put a better weapon on it, it may fight better.

But it doesn't matter where on the body you put the mouth or the wings. This isn't a flight simulator level of simulation. Most of the creative work is just for show, and to increase the appeal of your work to other players.

They do get to vote on the most popular creations on the Spore web page.

Lastly, be aware that this is an addictive game; there's never a good place to stop and you'll always want to see what's just beyond scanner range. Make sure your personal time budget can handle a game that draws you in so completely.

My wife is sooo tired of hearing about how my relationship with the Jarzo is going. She keeps reminding me that we're supposed to have a relationship, too :-)

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