I recently played Spore for the first time thanks to the recent Steam sale. After reaching the space stage I concluded that Spore is an amazing editor tied to simple mini games which is a shame. After ending my recent save I started thinking about Minecraft and how both game strive to deliver open ended game play in much the same way. Yet Minecraft succeeded and the more I think about it, the greater understanding I have about its success.
At this point I think everyone knows what Minecraft and Spore are so I won't be giving a synopsis of them. Both games revolve around player interaction to expand the game play. In Spore you are given a blank slate to design creatures, buildings and more. The majority of parts have a secondary function of giving benefits to your creation, such as increase health or speed.
In Minecraft you are given Carte Blanche over the world. If you want to spend your time digging out an underground strong hold then go ahead. Or build a tower to the clouds and then build a mansion and so on. Like Spore you are limited by resources in terms of your impact on the world and as you play you'll be able to build new things.
However both games use that as a branching point. In Spore you are locked into stages of development with your creature and once you reach the next stage the previous stage is closed off. In Minecraft currently there is no objective, just do what you want within the confines of the game space. Yet with that said I would purpose that there is a sense of development in Minecraft like Spore, it's just that we're not told about it.
Playing Minecraft the player will go through different stages of development in my opinion. There was a Penny-Arcade strip from a few months back that was a perfect example of this . Starting out you will scramble trying to find suitable locations for materials or defense with the sun as the timer towards danger. If you survive you'll start to dig in at your location, setting up a base camp and deciding where to go from there. At some point you will developed your tools or base camp to the point that you are secured in your surroundings and can start experimenting with the world.
Now this is where the discussion gets interesting. While both games follow a path towards complete control over the game it's the philosophy and systems that separate the success of Minecraft from the failure of Spore in my opinion. In Spore each stage is self contained in the game play and usage. Once you complete the cell stage you will not come back there with that creature.
However in Minecraft it is possible to move through the various development stages at will and return to them based on your mood. Let's say the continent you are on has been completed mined out, just make a boat or swim to somewhere else and see what you find. Tired of your castle? Go to the ocean and create an undersea base. In Minecraft you are never locked into anything compared to Spore.
In Spore the game defines a goal of reaching the space stage with everything else building up to that stage. What hurt Spore was that the various stages before that were very simple and it felt like work reaching the final stage; also while you have a great deal of customization with your creature, very little of that will affect the game-play.
With Minecraft there is no goal set by the game only by the player. If you dream of building the Hollywood sign out of glass then there is your objective. If half way through you decide to change it into the statue of Liberty then that's fine. Because there are no goals it leaves the game-play up to the player's interpretation.
In this manner Minecraft has accomplished what Spore didn’t; deliver an open ended game in which the player's decisions shape the experience. On one hand I can't help but feel jealous of Notch (the creator) for coming up with Minecraft, yet I also have to give him a round of applause. With Minecraft he has created one of the best open ended games and a true sandbox experience. With the game finally hitting beta it really is the sky’s the limit for Minecraft for what it can become, both from the designer's standpoint and the players.