SFP: The Magical World of "Spore"

Sep 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson



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Spore videogame

Spore videogame

Years in the making, Spore is the latest and boldest videogame to come from the extremely fertile mind of Sims creator Will Wright and Maxis/Electronic Arts. In a gaming landscape increasingly dominated by testosterone-fueled console offerings (Xbox, PS3), games such as The Sims and Spore still cater mostly to the PC/Mac market and to players of all ages and both sexes. And who can argue with the success of the Sims franchise and its sales nudging toward 80 million copies worldwide?

With estimated development and production costs well north of $10 million, there is a lot riding on Spore, but it seems almost certain to become a runaway success: It has been hotly anticipated since it was announced at the 2005 Game Developers Conference, and in previews at the most recent E3 it caused quite a sensation, even earning a Best of Show pick from GameSpy .com. The game hits stores in the U.S. on September 7.

If you're familiar with The Sims, you know that much of the pleasure derived from the game comes from a combination of player-controlled design of the characters and settings, and then the freedom and open architecture of the actual gameplay. Rather than it being goal- or mission-oriented, it's more about character evolution and management, and how interactions with other characters affect different situations. The characters speak an odd tongue known as Simlish (which has always sounded vaguely like Dutch to me), yet the emotional content expressed in that language couldn't be more clear, and thus universal. Well, are you ready for Sporelish?

The Spore sound team, from left: Sasha Goldenson (audio QA), Cyril Saint-Giron (audio software engineer), Mike Cormier (senior sound designer), Peter Swearengen (audio producer), Chris Seifert (sound designer) and Kent Jolly (audio director)

The Spore sound team, from left: Sasha Goldenson (audio QA), Cyril Saint-Giron (audio software engineer), Mike Cormier (senior sound designer), Peter Swearengen (audio producer), Chris Seifert (sound designer) and Kent Jolly (audio director)

Originally, Wright was going to call his new creation Sims Everything because of the incredible scope of the game: Players start as single-celled organisms in the ocean of pre-history, then make their way through assorted evolutions to become land-based creatures (and never humanoid Sims), organize into tribes, build cities and conquer territories, and eventually leave the planet for strange worlds in deepest space. In other words, it's the entire history of the universe in one videogame! Still, it has that unmistakable sense of playfulness and whimsy that is at the heart of The Sims. At every step on the long road of evolution and increasing character sophistication, the player is faced with a multiplicity of choices — from the physical traits of the characters (two legs or four; long beak or sharp teeth, or both; etc.), to the types of buildings that will form cities, tribal philosophy (warlike, religious, economically savvy), to the sort of spacecrafts and planets that make up the outer reaches of the cosmos.

The player-controlled editors allow for hundreds of thousands of combinations, all of which will affect the gameplay in some way, and then there's also another component that expands Spore in other completely unpredictable directions: Though not technically an online multiplayer game, single players will be able to introduce cool content created by other players into their own games through a combination of a Spore network on YouTube, Maxis' own Spore site and “Sporecasts,” which will allow players to “subscribe” to other users' content through RSS Web feeds.

As you might expect, a game with so many different worlds, character types and situations posed a mighty challenge when it came to supplying sound effects and music for the varied realms. Spearheading that end of production was Kent Jolly, who works out of Maxis' headquarters in Emeryville, Calif. — next to Berkeley and coincidentally just down the street from Mix's main office. A native of Indiana, Jolly had originally planned to study photography at the Art Institute of Chicago out of high school, but got sidetracked taking audio classes there and became fascinated by modular synthesis. For grad school, he went to Mills College in Oakland, Calif., to study electronic music, and it was through a friend at Mills, Robbie Kauker — now audio director of The Sims franchise — that he first landed some contract sound design work with Maxis. Jolly eventually went to work for Maxis full time and worked on The Sims, Sim City 3000 and other games.

With Kauker fully occupied by the ongoing growth of The Sims, Jolly was tapped to head the Spore sound design team. “I got involved in this project four-and-a-half or five years ago,” Jolly says as he sits at his three-screen Pro Tools station in his equipment-cluttered office at Maxis. “The intent was to ship the game earlier than we did, but even with that it was still early to get involved in a game. Will had gotten the game to a point where there were nine or 10 people on the team, and he wanted to hear what the creatures might sound like and how it would sound going from the game into the editor — in just a general sense. I had put some sound to an early prototype where you can see a planet and zoom all around it, and that was a lot of fun. And we had some voice sessions early on with a guy named Roger Jackson and that did a lot toward getting ideas.” Jackson later supplied vocalizations (mostly pitched up) for the single-celled creatures in the first level of the game. Other vocal talent contributed Sporelish touches from the creature stage to aliens.

Because the creatures in the game seem more animal-like than humanoid, Jolly also employed hundreds of animal recordings — many original, others drawn from libraries, most of them spliced, diced, electronically altered and combined in interesting ways. “We went all over the place,” Jolly offers. “We went to L.A. to record trained animals [like the monkey from Pirates of the Caribbean]. We went to Arkansas, where there's an elephant refuge we'd heard about from one of the guys who'd worked on The Lord of the Rings.” Jolly's main partner on these outings was sound designer Mike Cormier — both carried Sound Devices 722 recorders, the former with a Schoeps M/S setup, the latter with a Sennheiser shotgun. “A sound designer named Andrew Lackey was also on the team for a while,” Jolly says. “He did sound for the second and third Matrix films and then came to EA. He was from Florida, so when he was home he went around and recorded some of the gator places for us. Beyond that, we also used some of Ann Kroeber's [animal recordings] and there are also library sounds. Andrew eventually moved on to other projects and sound designer Chris Seifert came in to take his place. Chris was instrumental in pulling all of these sounds together and making all the sounds fit to animation.

“Almost all the characters are a combination of different sounds, and, of course, they're customized according to their appearance,” Jolly continues. “Most of the sounds associated with the creatures are based on the type of mouth you put on there — you can make interesting sounds by combining different kinds of mouths. As you progress as a tribe, it maps to what that mouth would sound like [speaking] more tribal Sporelish — this set of mouths maps to an intelligent insect race and these ones are birds and the rest are mammalian. When you get to [the] civilization [stage], they all map to a more conventional Sporelish.

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