Designer and programmer Soren Johnson came to work at Maxis on Spore in late 2007, after more than 5 years working as a designer on the Civilization series at Firaxis. Most notably, he programmed the AI for Civilization III and then stepped up to lead designer and AI creator on the acclaimed Civilization IV - so adding him was a significant coup for Will Wright's Emeryville-based team.
He brings to the now almost-finished Spore project, which will debut in full this September, an understanding of what gamers want and expect - both from the micro level of how the controls work, to the macro level of how AI should behave in a strategy game.
At a recent event related to the game, Gamasutra sat down to talk in-depth with Johnson, somewhat of a public face for the game in its late stages.
In this conversation, he discusses integrating his perspective into Spore's development, his thoughts on the current state of the strategy genre, and the design-driven, rather than audience-driven, impetus behind Spore's unique and ambitious development.
Brandon Sheffield: You come from a strategy background, and are bringing RTS-like gameplay to the game, though it's not all about being an RTS.
SJ: Well, I come from a classic hardcore strategy background, yeah. I think that experience has been good for the team, in the sense that I know what the conventions are for strategy games, but we're not trying to create a typical RTS inside Spore.
It's an RTS-lite game that has aspects of that genre, but we expect that it should be played by people who have never played an RTS before or don't even like RTSes. We have to hit a much larger audience than with Age of Empires III or StarCraft II or whatever.
Chris Remo: Is the team not heavily based around people with that kind of more hardcore gaming experience?
SJ: We've got plenty of gamers here, but as a practical matter, they haven't made really competitive games at Maxis, I would say. I think that really affects things. The AI in The Sims and SimCity is more like simulation AI. It's like, "Oh, cool. I did this, and this came out," as opposed to, "I made this move and then the AI came behind me, and got me here." So yeah, I think their background is a little different.
BS: Is that a reason why a hardcore-y fellow like you might be brought on? I was wondering if it would be difficult to come from a more hardcore mindset and then figure out what the game needs, to be casual.
SJ: Sure. I knew that coming in, but I put some assumptions behind us about what it would mean to make a game. Unlike a Civ game, I'm not looking for the AI to wipe you out or to win. In fact, there's a lot of things that the AI just doesn't do, that it could do.
For example, we have a super-weapon system, which is something that came along maybe six months ago, that gives you some high-level stuff like nukes and EMPs. You can heal your units or give them a building, or whatever, and there's all these high-level things you can do. And we just kind of decided flat-out that these shouldn't be available to the AI. These are just human-only weapons that make the game cooler and more interesting and add some variety, but we didn't want the player to be in a situation where, "Whoa, what happened? My city got nuked. I didn't even see that."
That's totally acceptable for your classic RTS audience, but making the game competitive was... for this audience, we're not interested in the AI wiping you out. There are difficulty levels, which I pushed for late in the project, because I know there will still be some gamers who want a challenge for this type of a game, so we do ramp up certain parts of the game and make the AI more aggressive and harder to make them happy, but [the AI] still has certain things unavailable to them.
CR: Obviously you're not looking to make something Civ-like, in terms of its hardcore nature. But I'm curious if you have certain sensibilities that you brought to the team, in terms of making something more explicitly goal-driven.
It looks like this is a game - and I've only seen demos of it - that definitely seems to progress through stages. You have to achieve something, then progress to the next level. It changes both the gameplay and the environment. That seems different to something like The Sims.
SJ: Sure, and this has been an interesting tension throughout the development. When I first came on board here, you basically had to beat each of the levels in succession to unlock the next one, which seemed like a reasonable design choice to me early on, but there were a lot of us, myself included, who were worried that for a lot of players, one of the levels was just not going to click for them, and they'll never retry and never see Space and never see Civ.
That's always a problem in games like adventure games or a story-based shooter, where they hit some point and there's half the game they'll never see. But if the half of the game that they never see is like a truly different game, that's not such a good thing.
So then we went to the other side of the spectrum where we said, "Okay, every level is going to be available from the beginning of the game, and there is no unlocking whatsoever." That was definitely an improvement, but it also led to other issues. People felt overwhelmed. They were like, "I don't feel like I'm being led down any path whatsoever. Does it matter if I start and sell and actually build my creature up, or if I just jump into space?" It kind of didn't. People want to feel like they're on this epic journey.
So then we went to the current system, where you have to play a certain amount of each level and you have to achieve a few basic things and it unlocks the next one. That's the way it currently works. But it kind of goes to that question of, "Are we trying to get people to achieve mastery on these specific games before we move forward?" I don't know. It's challenging.
Everyone seems to respond to the different levels differently. There's very few people who are like... everyone likes Creature the best, or everyone likes Civ the best or Space the best. Everyone just seems to have their own thing, so we have to figure out the balances for that.
CR: Are certain modes indefinite sandbox modes? Are there any modes you can just play forever?
SJ: Oh, sure. In Civ, if you eventually take over the world, you can keep playing forever, but there's not a lot to do. It's similar with Tribe. But having the difficulty levels has enabled us to do... we were in a really tough spot before we had that, because we were constantly bouncing back and forth between, "The game's really boring. Let's turn up the competition."
And some people were like, "I can't just do whatever I want to. My sandbox is gone." And we turned it back down again.
Pretty much the easy mode on all the levels is like that. It's like a sandbox mode. People who are going to be making videos and doing weird and wacky stuff, that's probably where they're going to be playing. The game mode is definitely not supposed to give you resistance to that. That's really the mode for people who are used to The Sims or SimCity or whatever.
BS: Does it very much rely on the player to figure out what difficulty level they're going to be in?
SJ: Yeah. It's a setting you get right at the very beginning.
BS: It seems like it's such a spectrum, because character creation is obviously super-casual, but RTS is super-hardcore. Even I don't touch it, because it's too much for me to think about. It's such a spectrum for a game that is more casual-targeted in general.
SJ: Yeah, doing an RTS is really tough inside of Spore, because I would say the RTS genre in general has a big problem, in that it's one of the most ghettoized. I'll dip into almost any genre nowadays except for maybe fighting games or whatever.
I'll play almost any different type of game, and I play strategy games, so I play RTSes. But I think there are a lot of players who will play almost any type of game except for RTSes, because people just have the sense of, "There's a thousand things to do. I'll never be able to get them all. I'll never be able to handle it all."
BS: Too many stats?
SJ: Yeah. The single-player campaigns have never been very compelling, mixed with the fact that if you're going to be playing multiplayer, you're just going to get wiped out. It's a very intimidating genre. It's been kind of freeing, to be honest, to make one that... one of the nice things about the Civ and Tribe game in Spore is that there's not a story and it's not multiplayer. So right off the bat, we don't have those issues to deal with.
But yeah, I think the strategy genre in general has to deal with this question of... a lot of people are just ignoring it, basically. Ironically, publishers are generally less willing to make turn-based games, but I think a lot of gamers are a lot more willing to play turn-based games. A lot of people play Advance Wars, but are not willing to touch an RTS.
BS: Are you targeting the housewife market that exists for The Sims? If so, do you have to teach them how to play this game and why even they should care about it?
SJ: That's a good question. In Spore, you'll probably get some official answers about who our demographic is. I think to some extent, the demographic is unknown. It's people who are interested in doing something weird, wacky, and fun with their computer, and I think it's going to appeal to a lot of people, but yeah, I think there's a good chunk of the audience that playing Civ on medium or hard is never going to be a part of their playing experience. It's just not what Spore is going to be about for them. And that's okay.
I mean, I think we had to accept going into Spore - and this is not true for something like Civ IV, where I felt that everything that was on the table was something I wanted the player to experience at some point. With Spore, we're definitely okay with some people who just don't want to play the other modes. They just want to make cool stuff, put them up on the web, play around with them, and ignore the game altogether.
And there's other people who will probably just want to spend all their time in Space, because Space is a really unique environment. Once you try Space you keep zooming out farther and farther and seeing how much stuff there is out there, there are very few games that are anything like that.
So yeah, I think that there are definitely parts of the game that are not going to be appropriate for certain parts of the audience. We're just trying to make sure that that doesn't prevent people from enjoying Spore.
BS: It seems tough that the difficulty is determined at the beginning, before they've actually figured out what level they are. In a way, a difficulty level seems almost like a barrier.
SJ: Sure. You mean, in that some people have never chosen difficulty before?
BS: The idea of choosing difficulty would be... take my mom, for example. If there are difficulty levels, she would be like, "I don't know. That's scary. Goodbye!"
SJ: Well, we default to easy. You're on a four or five-step path to start the game, and it's just one of the things you go through. But yeah, we don't want it to be a big deal. We'd really be happier with most people just playing the game on easy. If they want a challenge, there are these other difficulty levels that, "I guess I can adjust that if I want to." But you know, we're not trying to bang people over the head with it.
And the design in some sense is a little bit in flux, so I forget where it is right now, but it's certainly not like if you choose easy you're stuck with that for the rest of your experience. When you're in a level... each level, except for Space, you more or less can play... a specific game is an hour or two hours.
Even if you like Creature the best, you're not just going to play Creature for ten hours. If you play Creature for ten hours, you'll be playing five different things, and each time through, you can change the settings to be whatever you want them to be.
BS: I remember when I interviewed Bing Gordon, I was asking him how many copies of Spore would have to sell to recoup the cost. At first he said, "a lot," and then he said "in the millions". And so you're going to have to get a lot of those casual users. Are they definitely in mind? Who are you personally designing for, if you've thought about it?
SJ: Well, I'm personally designing for the gamers, but I'm not in charge of the project. I'm kind of there as an advocate for the gamers, but I'm not doing it dogmatically. I'm not saying, "It's got to be this way." I'm just reminding people, "Hey, here are a few things about group select that you might want to consider doing. Double-clicking on these items will select all units, or all of the same type on-screen," or whatever. I'm just reminding people these things that gamers may expect.
BS: Of traditional tropes and things like that.
SJ: Right. And trying to balance it for the gamer, including obvious things like difficulty level. But definitely the high-level decision-makers on the project are really casting a really wide net. I think they assembled a wide variety of people to try and hit on this. It's a big challenge. I definitely know what the break-even number is, but there are definitely long, long-term plans for Spore.
So I think that EA is giving this, not in terms initially of what this project is going to do, but as something that's going to become a long-term franchise for EA and be one of the big things that EA is known for. For the first product, I think it's important to just put our best foot forward. I don't think they're obsessed with the profit margins off the first one. We'd love to have a million people buy it, but we'll see.
CR: My guess is that Will Wright didn't necessarily have any particular audience in mind when he was first thinking about The Sims. My assumption would be that he wasn't saying, "We're going to get a lot of housewives."
This game does seem like a less concentrated thing, in that it doesn't have that really obvious human social connection that I think draws a lot of people to The Sims. One thing I do find really intriguing about it - and this is as a gamer, so I'm curious if you can speak to it at all - is that it seems almost like a survey course of PC genres I grew up on, like SimCity, Civ... like a bunch of games I remember playing in the late '80s and early '90s that defined what the PC could do, from a gaming perspective.
That, to me, I suspect will be really intriguing to a lot of gamers, not necessarily from a hardcore, "Let's play something really insane," but just from an appreciation standpoint. Did you have that in mind at all?
SJ: I think Will has said that. He said that the first level was Pac-Man, the second level was Diablo, the third level was Populous, the fourth level was Civilization...
CR: So that was a very conscious thing.
SJ: Yeah, I think there's a conscious choice. So yeah, I hope people can appreciate it like that. It's been interesting from an interface point of view, because you'll have these things where... you'll have your little creature, and in the creature level, it's essentially like World of Warcraft. You're driving around with the WASD keys. It's a third-person action game, or whatever. You're moving your creature around and you're doing stuff.
Then suddenly you jump to Tribe, and the player sees the same thing. They still see that creature, but you're no longer controlling it. It's no longer your avatar, right? You're playing what looks like the same game, but instead of having an avatar, you're now out like God. You'll see four of [those creatures].
For a lot of players, it's difficult for them to make that leap, like, "Okay, now I'm not that guy. I'm nobody. I'm just a thing that controls these multiple things." If you have knowledge of those games, it's not a problem. It's just built-in.
So I think for the gamer side of the audience, he made a smart choice in that sense, of, "Okay, we can have all these games in, but uses conventions from other games so that they're ready to go." But for the non-gamer audience, it's definitely a bit of a leap.
BS: What is being done to help them transition?
SJ: Well, we've become much more regimented and heavy-handed, even, at the beginning of each level. At the beginning of Tribe, we stop the game for a second and say, "Hey, remember that last level where you were controlling one guy? Now you're not controlling one guy! Now you're controlling a bunch of guys, and you're not tied in to any one creature."
It used to be much more open. You just started the level with the player doing whatever they wanted to. But now, when you have the tutorials on, it really emphasizes that things have changed and you're not playing the same type of game.
CR: This is a really esoteric question, but when you say that, it kind of reminds me of the early history of film narrative, where the directors had to be extremely specific about everything that was happening, to the point where they were explaining in words what was already going on on screen. As audiences got more acquainted with the language of film, directors take more risks and were more fluid.
I know Will Wright has grand thoughts about where gaming could go, but I'm wondering - do you think gaming could get to the point where you could release a game where you were fluidly switching between different types of gameplay and having enough faith in your audience to... even if they haven't necessarily played that one type of thing before, have enough of a sense of how they're interacting with the game that they could more easily transition?
SJ: I think that depends upon how tied the future of games are to genres, or as individual pieces? It certainly seems to be going in the direction of genres so far. If it continues like that, yeah, I expect that will be true.
There's a lot to be said for familiar genres, because you can definitely do interesting things within those boundaries and people are ready to go. You don't have to teach everything from scratch every time. You just have to be careful that... you know, strategy is in a bit of trouble now, because the genre's gotten very complicated.
BS: With the look and feel of it, Spore's got kind of a casual kind of visual style. It avoids the Uncanny Valley completely by being cute little guys. I feel like it's got the aesthetic for the casual gamer, and then the gameplay for the hardcore gamer, but I'm wondering if those two actually meet, like if the casual look turns off the hardcore gamer and the hardcore potential gameplay vice-versa.
SJ: It's possible. There's a lot of speculation that goes on within the Spore team about, "Is this a mismatch for this audience or that audience?" I think a lot of it goes back to Will not really thinking in terms of audience and just thinking in terms of, "This is a radical new idea." Ironically, as years have gone by, some other games seem to be incorporating similar ideas.
BS: He's been talking about it for a while, so...
SJ: It's been quite a long project, but I think it just started with, "Wow, this is a really powerful idea, letting people see what everyone else has done." I think to some extent, he's not very worried about that. I'm sure there are people who are worried about that, but...
CR: The industry as a whole is very driven by that. [laughter] That's what makes it so surprising.
SJ: You'll have to talk to someone else on the team that knows this a lot better than I, but I believe that originally, it was a lot more realistic-looking. It did not have that cartoony look.
I don't think they made that change to appeal to the casual crowd. I think they made it because it just looked kind of weird. You'd end up with a lot of really grotesque creatures, I think, whereas if you have more googly eyes and bumpy parts, people ended up making more appealing-looking creatures. I think that's more or less why the decision was made. It was just part of the creative process.
BS: What have been the challenges for you? You've touched on some of it, but just moving from a project that was so explicitly hardcore gamer-focused to something that is less about a focus on an audience and more about trying out new ideas. Or has it not been more challenging and more freeing?
SJ: It's definitely been more freeing. I think it would be harder to go in the other direction. Because I kind of went into it at the very beginning and said, "Okay, this is not about making the most balanced game in the world. This is not about giving people a challenge that's going to take them years to work through all the different levels." I decided right off the bat to not worry about that too much.
But there have been many times where I would put stuff in the game that I had to take out because it's made the game frustrating for people - things that I probably would not have taken out if we were aiming for a classic gamer audience.
There isn't a lot of space in the game for instruction. For a game like Civ, it's taken for granted that when you decide what to build in the city, you're going to have ten choices, and we're going to have fairly detailed pop-up help to help you understand that, and there will be a place to go to, to explain all the different concepts.
In Spore, there are three different building types, and there are three different vehicle types. There's not necessarily a lot of room for maneuverability there. So yeah, I think for the most part, I haven't worried about that too much.
CR: I was kind of curious about your thoughts generally on the strategy genre and how much of a future there is for it. Do you think it's running into a wall with what it's doing there? I was encouraged by the Civilization Revolution demo, which got a lot of positive comments from people on gaming forums who have never played that type of game before. They seemed to be fairly accepting.
SJ: Yeah, it's an important product, because Civ Revolution is a significant notch down in complexity compared to what Civ would normally have. This is a battle we were fighting with Civ III and Civ IV, where we knew that this was a sequel to the main franchise, and we've got to make it more complex. There's got to be new stuff in there, otherwise people would not be interested, but how do we do that without making the game too complex and unwieldy?
In Civ IV we had to solve that by taking a lot of stuff out, like corruption, pollution, city riots, and a whole bunch of the fiddly parts. But eventually, it's hard to know how much farther you should go down that road. So I think Sid really freed himself up a great deal by going to the console.
There are definitely going to be some people who are like, "This isn't for me." These are the people for who, when they play Civ IV, they're like, "Civ IV is okay, but I'm going to go to CivFanatics and find a mod that adds a hundred more techs and two hundred more units."
CR: And those people are going to keep doing that - for that matter, they're not expecting to get what they need out of Revolution.
SJ: Exactly. But if that was Civ V, it would be like Armageddon. It would be trouble. So I think that Civ Rev gave him a good chance to reboot parts of the franchise, which is great. I thought it was a great move for them. It's cool to see, because Civ Rev is like... Sid's doing the design, he's writing the game code, he's writing the AI code... I mean, you're playing Sid's game when you play Civ Rev.
In many ways, it's the first true sequel to Civilization, because various other designers have done the other iterations in the series. People will really find things in the game that hearken back to the first one, because in many ways, that's what he's building off of.
2K/Firaxis Games' Civilization Revolution
CR: I still, to date, mainly by virtue of how long the games have been out, have played the original Civ more than any of the other ones, because when I found it, I was like, "This is amazing." I played it for years, literally. Rev reminds me of it a lot.
The thing that I think is so interesting is that people who, as you say, play Civ IV but then say, "Well, if it's any less complex than this, it's worthless," I think that gamers often forget the thing that they originally were interested in. There's a reason the original Civilization was so successful. It wasn't because people thought, "Maybe fifteen years later, this will be eighty times more complex."
SJ: Oh yeah, it's a huge problem. I always call this the "flight simulator problem", because that whole genre is completely based off of that. I think what will hopefully save strategy games is the DS, downloadable games, and the web.
I think limitations, in many ways, are very good for design, and I think the best strategy games - or the ones that are going to be the most significant over the next four or five years - are going to come in those formats. I think your classic triple-A RTS game is going to become less and less meaningful to most gamers, and when we look back in fifteen or twenty years in the future, aren't going to be the games that helped move the strategy genre forward.
Civilization was originally an RTS game when Sid first designed it. He was inspired by SimCity, which is also sort of an RTS. He discovered something - which I don't know if everyone else has kept in mind - which is that on the scale of complexity, from not very complex to very complex, the more complex you are, the more you need to move towards turn-based.
RTS should be on the less-complex side. That's the problem right now. RTS games are going for the more complex side. When you have that real-time factor, there's only so much you can keep track of in your mind at one time. I'll have to try that game to see how that goes, but one that pops into my mind off the top of my head is... have you played Desktop Tower Defense?
BS: I haven't, but I've seen people play it. It seems awesome.
SJ: Yeah, you should give it a try. It's an RTS, it's fun, and it's great. It's exactly the kind of game that will bring people back to strategy games.
CR: I'm so glad you mentioned that. I was playing a demo of Rev yesterday, and it made me think a lot, because it's such a big reset of that series, to the point where it reminded me of the game I first played 17 years ago.
It made me think that as simple as it is, it's still fairly complex. I made it to the point where every single turn I'm still moving little workers around and assigning them to these tiles and thinking about things 20 turns in advance, and I'm wondering, "Why does it not feel overwhelming?" And then I realized, "Well, it's turn-based. I could go to the kitchen and get a drink in that time."
BS: And also you can stop.
CR: Exactly. You can just stop. That made me think about it further, in reference to StarCraft. I have a friend who's not a hardcore gamer, but he loves the idea of StarCraft. He loves the basic mechanics it has, and he enjoys playing it, but it's overwhelming to him, and it's frustrating, because I know what he means. It's such a great feel, but it just pounds you over the head, because if you can't keep up with it...
SJ: It's weird. I definitely have thoughts like, "Will RTS as it exists right now be here in 20 years?" The classic "Build a base, build some barracks, go attack the other guy..." Part of me wonders if this is just a temporary dead-end, because RTSes could be everything from Railroad Tycoon, SimCity, MULE, Populous... those are all RTSes.
But they're each in small bits of gameplay. It's not everything. It's not forcing you to manage a hundred guys at the same time and juggle all these balls. A lot of these games have gotten by recently based on the pure spectacle. It's always cool to have all these tanks and point them at the other guy and see all this stuff fly and blow up. It's still fun.
CR: Like Supreme Commander and even the Relic games. Opposite scale, but they all have the same kind of appeal.
SJ: Yeah. I really enjoyed playing Company of Heroes for those reasons. You put the guys in the buildings, you snipe someone from a long distance, and it's just fun to see that stuff happen.
THQ/Relic's Company of Heroes
CR: These days, everybody releases their own RTS screenshots zoomed in to the ground. You never play the game like that, but it says a lot about...
SJ: What people are looking for from it, yeah. I think there's a big tension there. It's going to be a hard thing to resolve.
BS: Or like Command & Conquer 3. When it came out, they were like, "You can control this many dudes now!" And I was like, "No! I won't!"
SJ: "I'll run farther away from you!"
BS: Yeah. But at the same time, you don't want to know how many tactics and turn-based RPGs I've played through to completion. I will play those until I'm dead. But an RTS is like, "Aaaah! It's all happening!"
SJ: It's really weird how the turn-based genre is this red-headed stepchild, because there are a lot of turn-based tactical games... most people would call them RPGs, and not classical strategy games. But to go to a publisher and say, "I want to make a good old-fashioned turn-based, grid-based strategy game," you're more or less dead in the water.
BS: Well, I don't think they even sell that well, because we were talking on the bus about Jeanne D'Arc, which is really, really good and it's got so many of the UI problems fixed. The main thing you're doing in a turn-based game is dealing with the UI and the numbers and choosing things from a list, and it's so smooth, but I don't think it sold very well.<