Since the advent of Spore and its integrated community and automated content sharing, there has been a great deal of excitement surrounding the idea of the “massively single-player game,” where indirect interaction with numerous other players enhances a game’s solo experience.
Although currently limited to propagation of superficial user-created content and hampered by the shallow and disjointed gameplay experience they are paired with, Spore’s connectivity features are clearly fraught with potential and will inspire many new applications for player-to-player connectivity beyond traditional online gaming.
Many of the ideas that follow build on Spore’s noteworthy accomplishments; others are inspired by its missed opportunities. Still others are related only tangentially to Spore, if at all, but they all fall within the bounds of innovative uses of connectivity in single-player games.
Why Spore Is Awesome
On a basic level, Spore’s content sharing isn’t new or unique. Many first-person shooters have game servers that automatically send players missing levels when necessary. High-profile games like LittleBigPlanet and lower-profile ones like 3D Ultra MiniGolf Adventures allow players to create and share levels.
And is downloading new levels, characters, and other modifications via an in-game browser really that conceptually different from downloading them from a website or, in more primitive times, a BBS?
What makes Spore special is the robustness and universality of its system. It has beefy features like Sporecasts (essentially, a subscription to a specific content stream) and tracking of other players’ gameplay interactions with your created creatures. And, more importantly, there is no barrier to entry; all you have to do to send and receive content is log on and play the game.
Creating content is nearly as easy; because creature editing is necessary for gameplay, the game turns each player into a content creator.
Content Creation Through Gameplay
Spore’s arrangement is not quite ideal, however, because gameplay and editing are two separate activities. In essence, the game forces players to create content with an editor in order to play the game; editing is not the game itself.
While the editor can be great fun in itself for many people, the ideal situation is for players to create content simply by taking normal gameplay actions and making normal gameplay decisions, not by using discrete creation tools.
For example, if Spore were a game about manipulating the environment to influence computer-simulated creature development indirectly, the player’s creatures and worlds would still become unique entities, shaped by a combination of algorithms, the player’s gameplay actions, and random factors.
The player would still be generating interesting content for the rest of the player base, but in this case it would involve no specialized content tools, only normal gameplay.
Of course, in some games, gameplay and editing are more closely intertwined than they are in Spore. For example, gameplay in SimCity consists primarily of using an editor-like interface to build a city. Other examples of such games include Dungeon Keeper (dungeon customization tools), Tecmo’s Deception (trap placement), and The Incredible Machine (placement of objects).
These types of games, and any games where players can shape a game world into something unique, are usually well-suited for an automated content-sharing system like Spore’s.
While created content in Spore has little value beyond visual variety, user creations that are made through gameplay, affect gameplay, and are noticeably distinct from one another can add significant value and increase a game’s life span.
For instance, if SimCity were designed such that interactions with neighboring cities were complex and varied with the nature of those cities, user-created cities could keep those interactions interesting and unpredictable across many games.
Each game could randomly select a handful of neighbors from among hundreds of thousands of user-created cities, each one hand-built by numerous gameplay decisions over many hours or days.
Designing Around Advanced Content Sharing
To take full advantage of this concept, games could be designed such that content created though gameplay in one aspect of the game could be shared and used by other players in another aspect of the game.
For example, shaping one game world at the macro level can create and customize other game worlds at the micro level. This concept can also be seen in games such as UFO: Enemy Unknown (aka XCom), where the bases you build in the game’s management mode can become unique battlegrounds in the tactical mode, and in Dwarf Fortress, where abandoned fortresses from the management mode become ghost towns ripe for exploration in the game’s adventure mode.
However, games that seek to employ this kind of content sharing need to be designed from the beginning to share content in a way that adds value and doesn’t interfere with existing gameplay and world design.
If we wanted to make an XCom-like game, for, example, we would need to allow more customization of bases to ensure that player-created bases are distinct from one another and therefore add value when shared. We would also have to alter the game design to incorporate those bases somehow, such as by automatically importing other players’ bases into the game world and making attack/capture/destruction of these bases a game objective.
And if we wanted to make a Dwarf Fortress-like game, we could allow characters in the adventure mode to travel to and explore other players’ game worlds, linking them through portals, stitching pieces of them onto the fringes of the player’s world, or constructing entirely new worlds out of diverse fragments. More on that later, when I get into some of the other connectivity ideas.