Sunday, September 7, 2008

Spore... First impressions & PC gaming redux

Well, I'm reminded of what the "state of the art" is in terms of the PC install experience now that I've got Spore up and running on my machine.

There are downloads and installs (and uninstalls of previous downloads) and Readme.txt files and debug commands and...

You know what I'm talking about.

It's a tough call. Users want customization and community content. Console makers and publishers seem to need a much more closed ecosystem. So the pain gets pushed back on the user in terms of having to develop the technical expertise necessary to participate.

Interestingly, social computing applications have been trying to solve this by lowering the hurdles to participation. Utility must be instantly grokkable for an application to succeed, then there must be a sharing pipeline that fits within normal social computing scenarios. No fancy plugins should be required -- just an updated browser.

Given the new focus on browser stability and performance (Chrome, IE, and Firefox are all trying to address this with new releases) and the relatively frictionless barrier to entry for web based games, it's no surprise that more casual games (and casual game portals) are where we expect to see exponential growth in the next few years.

I wonder how growth on the EA Online, Steam, and offerings (digital distribution of PC content) will compare with browser based distribution systems that provide a console like user experience? 

I'm not saying there isn't going to be a market for AAA PC games... But how do you take 14 million active Steam users and make it 140 million users? 

Probably not by requiring Readme.txt files and console commands.

As far as Spore itself, I'm having a little fun with it. It seems kind of like a cross between Viva Pinata and FloW and some of the other Wrightian Sim games. The game has a very polished feel, but doesn't yet feel like it is going to have much depth in terms of creating intricate social and cultural puzzles for the player to solve in the ecosystems that are (I assume) evolving in response to the player's actions.

I think that the part I find least satisfying about the game so far is that I don't get a chance to really leave my mark on the world. I don't think I get to run into any of my genetic ancestors. I haven't yet started cross breeding with other tribes, but hopefully there will be some interesting emergent evolution where my allies mate with my tribe members and create their own mutations.

I'm also wondering whether there is a deeper social game -- or whether players can only show movies and pictures to their friends. Like Viva Pinata or Animal Crossing or even Mii Parades, I want to have creatures from other people's worlds making the leap into mine. Not in a sucky "all the 13 year old griefers dump their level 900 spider of chaos onto my little herbivores" way, but in a socially interesting way.

Most of all, I really want to be playing this game on my couch with a controller instead of a mouse and keyboard. Yes the interface is more elegant than Viva Pinata's, but I think that as a casual and accessible game there's no reason why options can't be pared down and presented in a console friendly way. I'm assuming that this is already in the works.

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