Spore galaxy screen['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at Spore's character development innovations.]

An experience common to most video games is that of inhabiting a character. Since the days of Pac-Man, players have adopted the roles of people and creatures with distinct appearances and personalities. Today, few games are released where the player character is not given a specific identity. Sometimes, this identity is fixed; the Half-Life series stars MIT grad Gordon Freeman, and the Mario series features the world's most famous plumber. Other games, however, allow the development and customization of a character which is unique to each player.

Character creation can take many forms. In many cases, characters are created seperately from the game, usually in a "character editor" that pops up before the beginning of the game proper. The Fallout series, most MMO games, and many more allow this sort of customization, where forming the character is a very "meta" experience; it's done in a seperate mode, and any changes that are made after gameplay begins are separate and disconnected from the actual experience of the game proper.

Pre-game character creation has an essential downside, however. Because it is separate from the game, the player does not know when making her first character what the consequences of her choices will be. When playing the game, the player may discover that some statistics or abilities are less useful than they initially appeared, or decide that a differently built character would better suit the game.

Additionally, having character creation as a completely separate takes away some of the unity of feeling of the player's experience. Because of this, a few games integrate character creation into gameplay. Maxis's recent game Spore takes an unusually broad approach; the entire evolution of the player character's species is shaped over the course of gameplay.

Spore Moiner creatureNatural Selection

Spore takes place in five stages: Cell, Creature, Tribe, Civilization, and Space. However, the first four stages are quite simple, each taking under an hour for an experienced player. The Space stage is where the real meat of the game is; it has more story, more complexity, and more content than the other stages combined. Essentially, the first four stages serve as tutorial and character creator, introducing the concepts of evolution, customization, movement, and conflict.

One can imagine a version of Spore that consists of just the Space stage. Players would create their species, vehicles, and buildings in the editors, and pick an assortment of traits from a list. Indeed, once the Space stage is unlocked, players can do almost exactly that when they start a new game. However, this would not only lose much of the evolutionary feel of Spore, but would be rather overwhelming for a first-time player. A full set of creations for a species would require players to make a creature, an outfit, four buildings, four vehicles, and an anthem.

Instead, Spore's first four stages spread this creation process out, and encourage creativity and customization. Players return to the creature editor repeatedly during the Creature stage. This lets them add new abilities, but also allows them to refine their creature's appearance gradually, with inspiration and experience gleaned from the gameplay proper. Likewise, the player's actions during the first four stages shape the attitude of her species, from aggressive to peaceful, which provides her species with special traits and abilities.

This gradual character creation process is made possible by Spore's evolutionary theme and scale. It's hard to imagine playing a game like Morrowind for an hour with the player character half-built, but because Spore gradually introduces gameplay elements, players need only flesh out their characters when the gameplay requires it.

Spore civilized creatureIntelligent Design

Slow, integrated character development mitigates the problem of uninformed character creation that is seen in games with a separate character build system. During the Creature stage, the creature is completely editable at any time, allowing the player to change her mind or refine its abilities whenever she wants. Additionally, the player is able to experiment with different gameplay styles. If she finds that she dislikes combat, the player can reshape her character with a more peaceful approach.

The appearance of the player's character, likewise, is fully customizable throughout this stage. When the player first reaches the creature stage, her selection of possible parts is quite small, which helps to avoid overwhelming the player with too many choices. As the stage progresses, the player has the opportunity to collect more parts, which tend to be variants of the parts that the creature is already using. At any one time, the player is choosing between just a few alternatives, but the sum total of these simple choices is a complex creation.

This is handled less deftly in later stages. In the tribal stage, the number of options are very small and have little aesthetic effect due to the scale at which creatures are displayed. This means that the player has little encouragement to customize her creature's appearance, and the statistical bonuses of outfits are small enough that there's little real need to choose them carefully.

In the civilization stage, on the other hand, the player is immediately provided with a large array of largely interchangeable parts for her buildings and vehicles, and never gains new components. As a result, the player is likely to make a single set of creations at the beginning of the stage and never customize them further.

In addition to the low-level creation of creatures, outfits, buildings, and vehicles, there is the overarching alignment system, which establishes personalities and consequences based on how aggressive or cooperative the player behaves. Through the civilization stage, the player's alignment can be adjusted, but it becomes more difficult as the stages advance. This allows the player to change her mind about her approach if she decides she doesn't like it, but also encourages consistency in player actions.

Spore town hallGenetic Drift

As well as this works, there's an odd schizophrenia to Spore's opening acts that betrays the difficulties with this in-game approach to character creation. The early stages seem to be confused as to whether they should be an extended character creator or games in their own right.

They are simple by necessity, as the player has not yet developed her character enough to support more complex gameplay. This simplicity makes for an effective character development experience, but it also means that the gameplay lacks depth, and risks becoming boring or repetitive.

To avoid making gameplay suffer for the sake of more integrated character creation, it might be preferable to make a more organic game structure, where the stages of gameplay are less distinct. Spore has clear and sudden divisions between the phases, but a more continuous progression could help to alleviate the downsides of the pacing, and hide the artificiality of the goals that end each stage.

Integrating character creation and development with gameplay, as Spore does, helps to unify the player's experience and help her make informed decisions. It also allows the player to change her mind if she decides that she made the wrong choice at some point in character creation.

This approach to character creation is appropriate in any situation where the game's mechanics support a gradual increase in complexity, and where it makes sense for the player to be able to modify her character in response to gameplay experience.

[Gregory Weir is a writer, game developer, and software programmer. He maintains Ludus Novus, a podcast and accompanying blog dedicated to the art of interaction. He can be reached at Gregory.Weir@gmail.com.]