Spore has been out for a bit more than a week now, and the reviews have been mixed. Some reviewers have nearly exhausted themselves patting Will Wright on the back for his latest (and perhaps most ambitious) undertaking, while others have criticized him for not taking his innovations further. After playing the game for a week and finding it both thoroughly enjoyable and ultimately disappointing, one question still lingers in my mind: Who is Spore‘s target audience?

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past two years, Spore‘s gameplay can be summarized thus: you start as an amoeba, swimming around a freeform, two-dimensional, arcade-style world, consuming meat, plants, or both, as you prefer. When you’ve consumed enough other bacteria (and thus gathered enough DNA), you can evolve legs and enter the creature phase, where you play an individual member of your species, and either befriend or destroy other species. This is where your creature’s physical form and abilities mainly take shape, and it plays rather like a simplified version of The Sims, with up to eight social interactions available, based on your creature’s physical attributes.

After creature phase comes tribal phase, in which your creature gains sentience and establishes a community. Again, you choose between forging alliances or burning and pillaging other villages, and for all practical purposes, this stage feels like a minimalistic real-time strategy game. The next phase, civilization, has a bit more sophistication and more of a resource-management component, but it is at its core an extension of the tribal phase. Except for terminology, there is little difference between converting the populace of a neighboring city to your religion, establishing overwhelming economic supremacy, or burning it to the ground, so it is at this point that the choices you made in the previous three stages begin to feel irrelevant. By the time you get to space, which is essentially a quest-based RPG with an enormous map, there is no intrinsic difference between a friendly creature and an aggressive one.

As a woman who never met a Maxis game I didn’t like (until SimCity Societies), it seemed as though I could almost have written my review before my review copy arrived. “A brilliant extension of the franchise,” I should have cooed. “Typically excellent graphics, clever animations, and that classic self-referential humor for which Maxis is so well-known” would have featured prominently in my concluding paragraph. And all these things are true. Yet something felt a bit…off. As I played, I felt like my fourth-grade teacher: I wanted to pat Spore on its sweet little head and say, “You’re so smart, but you don’t apply yourself.”

So I asked my mother to give it a try. Mom, like a lot of women over 35, is an enthusiastic but decidedly casual gamer. She enjoys puzzle and arcade-style games, and completed all 172 levels of Super Granny 2: Granny in Paradise. So I figured she was the perfect guinea pig for Spore, with its complex backbone and very accessible interface. I wanted to know if someone with interest in games but no experience with real-time strategy, resource-management, or role-playing games would be able to navigate effectively.

When Mom sat down to try Spore, she insisted that she only had half an hour to play. Two hours later, my dad was tugging at her elbow, and she was fully immersed in creature phase, murmuring, “Okay, we’ll go just as soon as I finish…” When we finally did pry her away from the keyboard, I asked her opinion. Was it hard to learn? Mom didn’t bring her reading glasses, so I summarized the already brief tutorials at the beginning of each level, but she had no trouble customizing her creatures or controlling their movement. Did she enjoy it? “It’s a lot of fun,” she said, “the creatures are very cute. I can see myself sitting down to play for fifteen minutes before bed…and then staying up all night instead.”

Jamie’s crocodile creatures in their natural habitat

And that’s really the thing about Spore. It’s really, really fun. It’s easy to get completely lost in the game. I’ve played all five stages, from amoeba to space, twice. I’ve played as an aggressive, warlike species and as a peaceful, spiritual one. I’ve spent hours in the creature creator, tweaking my bipedal crocodiles and flying giraffe-ostrich hybrids until they look just right. I’ve even taken a few spins around the vehicle and building tools, although I have to say that these feel sadly crippled in comparison with the creature creator. But even after spending so much time with the game and enjoying it thoroughly, something felt amiss and I couldn’t quite place it.

Finally, I gave my husband a turn. As I watched him play, I was frustrated by his lack of progress in the creature phase. He had built these cute little purple spiders with six legs and two arms, but the cost of all those legs and feet had left him without enough DNA to invest in upper-level social or combat skills. As a result, he struggled to impress and ally mid-level creatures, and was too weak to fend off the more aggressive species. Perhaps if he had specialized in one of the social stances he would have done better, but he was simply too ambitious from the start and attempted to take on more than his resources would allow. Only later did I realize how apt a metaphor this creature was for the game in which it was created.

Ideally, Spore is more like a bucket of crayons than a copy of Candy Land — it’s a tool for creating, not a game to be won, lost, or even completed. Which, of course, is the Wright way — Maxis practically invented the sandbox model with the original SimCity. But Spore also pushes the player towards a sense of completion in a way that The Sims never has. Instead of allowing the player to create the game as she goes, Spore has a prescribed method of play that is uncharacteristically linear and concrete. Certain outcomes — most obviously, the physical appearances of the creatures — will vary with the individual, but even many of the decisions made in the creature creator are the result of functional necessity, not aesthetics. In this sense, the urge to progress overtakes the desire to create, and both aspects suffer for it.

It’s the tension between sandbox and story that ultimately left me feeling a bit off-kilter. On the one hand, the logical progression from stage to stage and the sense of accomplishment that comes with completing a mission or earning a badge is rewarding — which is why traditional games have always made ample use of these elements. On the other hand, Spore shines as a creative tool. Why contaminate it with the baggage of a traditionally-structured, linear storyline?

The thing about Spore is that it’s essentially a mashup. It draws heavily from four distinct gaming genres — RPG, RTS, arcade, and social sim — and brings them together in an unexpected way. But each of the five levels is essentially a knockoff of another genre, and playing in civilization mode (without hotkeys and control groups!) only serves to remind experienced strategy gamers how painfully long we’ve been waiting for Starcraft II. Spore is still fun, it’s still innovative, and it’s still incredibly compelling, but it lacks the depth and complexity that longtime fans of the Maxis family have come to expect.

If Maxis intended Spore to satisfy hardcore gamers with its unique construction and challenging gameplay, then they have failed. But if they intended it to entice casual gamers (or non-gamers), to inspire a new wave of innovative, cross-genre games, or to create a showcase for user-created content, then their success will be measured by players, not critics. Just as certain films have become classics because of their powerful impact on the movie industry, the games industry has its own classics and innovators, many of which have come from Maxis itself. Whether Spore will be to games what The Godfather was to film remains to be seen. Regardless, it appears that it will succeed by at least one common industry standard: by selling lots and lots of copies, and making EA gobs and gobs of cold, hard cash.

RATING 8 / 10