Brave New Universe: Simulating Evolution in a Computer Game

By Manfred Dworschak

Will Wright, the inventor of the bestselling computer games SimCity and The Sims, is working on a game unlike anything virtual-reality aficionados have seen before -- a simulation of nothing less than the history of life on earth, from the first single-cell organism to space travelers.

Life on earth will begin again later this year, at the dawn of time. Nothing will exist except an empty planet in an empty universe, facing a godlike player sitting at his PC. A tiny single-cell organism will appear, swimming along through the water, ravenous enemies in hot pursuit.

"Spore" creator Will Wright.
Max Dolberg

"Spore" creator Will Wright.

This is how "Spore" starts, an advanced simulation game that mixes computerized randomness with the laws of biology. A player can determine which life forms emerge from his single-cell organism. Then, step by step, he can straighten the spines of new generations, shape mouths and allow his creations to grow limbs and multiple heads.

The single cell -- if it survives -- will be the ancestor of virtual creatures never seen on earth. Three-humped camels with incisors the size of pickaxes might stroll across the screen; players who want to see crabs with the heads of sparrows and seven prongs protruding from whip-like tails can have it their way.

"Spore" will impose almost no limits on the creative drive. But evolution will have the last word, as only the best species will survive in the game's virtual ecosystem.

This curious game won't be on the market until the summer of 2007, but it's already attracted a great deal of attention. The industry hopes it will do no less than rescue it from its self-imposed afflictions.

Computer games have been getting increasingly monotonous as manufacturers keep an eye on their bottom lines. A game that satisfies today's demanding technical requirements costs around €20 million to develop, not including marketing expenses. It takes up to 150 programmers and designers to assemble the usual cast of lifelike fiends, high-speed race cars and devastating explosions.

The budgets are growing to blockbuster-film levels, but the risks are higher: If a movie does poorly at the box office, it can still make money on DVD and television. If a game fails, the whole investment is lost. This is why the industry prefers to stick to tried-and-true formulas. The ninth version of a successful football simulation or the hundredth gun-slinging spectacle.

Some die-hard fans will play whatever the industry spits out, but others prefer not to waste their time. They're the target audience for "Spore." The game will be easy enough to play in 15-minute increments but also virtually inexhaustible over the long term. Patient players can build a whole civilization with their cephalopods, giant bugs and high-speed chickens and prepare it to explore the universe.

"Spore" is the latest creation of developer Will Wright, a gaunt American with a predilection for oversized glasses and relics from the Soviet space program. (His house is full of control panels, seats and entry hatches from old Soyuz capsules.) He's revered as a higher being in the gaming world since the runaway success of "The Sims," a sort of virtual doll house where players guide the simulated lives of realistic characters. He's also known for developing "SimCity," a line of games popular in the '90s that let players develop imaginary cities.

Characters in "The Sims" quarrel over cleaning duties, invite virtual friends to dinner or -- thrill of thrills -- order furniture from virtual catalogues. When it first hit the market in 2000, no one expected gamers to get overly excited about a cute simulation of the life of a typical consumer. But the skeptics were wrong, and about 70 million copies of "The Sims" have been sold so far, making it the world's top-selling computer game.

Survival of the fittest -- against other players

Computer game giant Electronic Arts is hoping for a similar success with "Spore." The American company has given Wright free rein to spend the last five years working on his new game. But this time the risk could even be greater than with "The Sims." The outlandish evolution game -- Wright calls it "Sim everything" -- will try to simulate nothing less than all of creation. It's a lot to keep track of for an ordinary player. But Wright and his developers have tried to keep the controls as simple as possible. The game computes how the monstrous products of a player's imagination move about in nature, taking anatomy into account; sprinting speed, bite strength and endurance will also be computed automatically.

A central computer at Electronic Arts can collect the monstrous products of a players' imagination -- and send them to other players.

A central computer at Electronic Arts can collect the monstrous products of a players' imagination -- and send them to other players.

To add to the fun, creatures keep appearing that the player has never seen before -- underhanded egg thieves, nimble animals adept at fleeing predators and clever mammals that hunt in herds. These unexpected enemies come from other players' planets. The company's central computer collects them, unnoticed, via the Internet, to insert them into other ecosystems wherever they fit. This guarantees constant competition.

The strategy also saves the company money. The expensive elements of a conventional game are the scenery and the moveable figures. Special effects designers can spend their days working on nothing but realistic little clouds of dust and smoke. But "Spore" doesn't need this kind of staffing, because the player does most of the work. The company provides the empty planets and the construction tools, or editors. "The players create practically everything in 'Spore,'" says Wright.

When the day comes for the descendants of the original single-cell organism to start building cities, players find editors for all kinds of vehicles and structures. In the last phase of the game, the player's creations can start exploring space. What they find are countless planets designed by other players. Foreign life forms have built their cities there, and a player's characters can attack or peacefully do business with them.

The competition isn't in real time, though -- these civilizations will be imported via the Internet from other players' workshops. "Spore," in other words, won't be a single shared online world. "That tends to be intimidating for many people," says Wright. "Online games are full of powerful adversaries, and you'd essentially have to be online constantly to keep up."

The creator of a "Spore" planet maintains control over his private universe, and his only connection to the global community is Electronic Arts' central server, which constantly sends new challenges corresponding to his level of development. "Tens of thousands of widely divergent creations can accumulate on a single computer," says Wright. "No game company in the world could offer such a wealth of content."

A descendent of "demo" tech

This swapping of characters is managed by a time-honored computer art that may remind some readers of a hunger artist, the imaginary Franz Kafka figure who survived on as little food as possible.

In the late 1980s it was considered hip among young geeks to show off with homemade animations known as "demos." Demos were often sumptuous flights of fancy through mirror-image mazes filled with shimmering things. But the computers of the day had far too little memory for such magical visions -- a conventional animation consists of countless finished individual images that are stored in a computer, and the amount of memory on a personal computer in the '80s wasn't enough to store even a single image. The do-it-yourselfers found a different solution: They wrote programs that drew the images on the spot. All it took were a few ingenious formulas.

Demos became famous as the epitome of the efficient use of resources -- they were the hunger artists of computer programming, and Will Wright has borrowed heavily from their ideas. Every creature and every building in "Spore" is essentially a demo.

For example, when a player uses the editor to lengthen the legs of a three-headed sheep, the program simply inserts, in the background, new values into the formula that was used to create animals in the first place. The result is a viable creature that requires a surprisingly small amount of memory -- about the same as one- or two-page text file. "It's compressed to barely one-twenty-thousandth of the usual size," Wright estimates. This is the only way large numbers of animals, buildings and vehicles can be shifted back and forth among the players' computers.

Spore's most astonishing innovation isn't evident at first glance. Until now computer games have been as limited as a sandbox, constantly imposing boundaries to players attempting to explore them. But the use of generative rules in programming takes the illusion to a new level. Entire worlds evolve out of nothing the minute a player flies in with his spaceship. Coming closer, the player encounters plenty of life already existing in this particular corner of space. Using the accumulated creations of other players, Spore's central computer can quickly populate a few planets.

If the traveler decides not to land and continues on through space, the scene simply disappears. Meanwhile the computer nimbly builds the next scene ahead of the spaceship. The world, in "Spore," is no longer finite.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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