Hardcore Sporn

In his first posting on newstatesman.com's CultureTech Iain Simons gets red in the face over some Ha

Los Angeles, 2005. Deep within the sweaty bowels of the Electronic Arts booth at the E3 videogame trade-show in Los Angeles, and I’m amongst the journalists ushered into a dark black box room to be shown preview of the new project by Will Wright.

For those unfamiliar with the name, Wright is the uber-nerd. The fully-formed, undiluted lord-emperor of geek. He’s the man who made socio-economic computer simulations into a mass market product and in doing so finally gave gaming’s defenders some solid evidence to lean on. I’m not playing darling, I’m restructuring taxation to stimulate industrial growth. A tall, bespectacled figure of nervously twitching brilliance, his intensity is legendary - the computer program made flesh.

Having made town planning a solid-gold franchise with SimCity, his company Maxis produced a range of Sim-(insert noun here) titles before finally attempting to simulate human beings in The Sims. As the world swooned to the charms of a turgid soap-opera played out within a virtual dolls-house, publisher Electronic Arts commissioned a merciless series of expansion packs and finally a true sequel. Several tens of millions of dollars later, Wright went quiet.

Now a fully fledged niche celebrity and in the unusual position of being able to make whatever he liked as his next project, he resolved to try something a little more ambitious. Maxis went to work on creating a game that would simulate evolution in its entirety, wholly untroubled by restraint. It was this, Sim-Everything, that Wright first demonstrated to the world in California that summer. By then thought it had been christened with the rather more evocative name, Spore.

Starting from a single-celled life-form splashing around in the primordial soup and moving through to inter-planetary travel and beyond, it was Powers of Ten for the Playstation generation. One of the key hooks is the ability for all players to design, develop and evolve creatures that are uniquely theirs. The game’s universe is thus populated and sustained by these user-generated offspring which play, learn, sing, fight and of course breed together - creating an ever deeper gene pool. It’s like Second Life but with babies, and probably crashes less. Spore was instantly the most anticipated project in years.

2006, Leipzig Games Convention. Wright is on stage giving the same demo seen the previous year, this time to the public too. Everyone is still amazed, although slightly more curious to know when it will be released and what the actual, y’know, game will be…

2007, London. Release dates are rumoured and denied - no-one knows much more about the game, but in a hotel suite in London Wright is demonstrating the creature creation tool - giving journalists a hands-on try at building a life-form. Seemingly effortlessly, I sculpt some bio-sludge into the body of my beast. Pulling an armature skeleton around to shape the body, I’m suddenly adding limbs, eyes and mouths in a manner that would make Harryhausen shudder. Once composed, the extraordinary procedural animation system takes over and calculates how your creature would move based on the anatomical design decisions you have just made. Within minutes my creature takes its first breath and waddles into life. It looks ridiculous and brilliant.

User Generated Content. The holy grail of web 2.0. But - as all web 2.0 projects know, it’s a huge risk to place the main content burdens of a project in the hands of an unknown audience. Spore has to be a major mass-market product to recoup its development costs, and the techniques of 3d modeling demand a spatial literacy not neccessarily present in the casual user.

Recreational CAD, anyone? The tool for empowering the non-skilled user to rapidly obtain pleasing design results would need to be exceptional - and, it is. The creator is beautifully accessible, distilling the most nuanced sculptural strokes into gentle moves of the mouse. To use it really is to get a sense of your own untapped creative potential within your grasp. The kind of creative design software that would previously cost hundreds, if not thousands of pounds, is now embedded within a videogame and currently available to download for free as a limited version.

Electronic Arts, the publisher, is celebrating the release of the creator software by inviting ‘75 of the most creative innovators from around the world’ to create a creature of their own. David Lynch, Brian Eno and of course MC Hammer are all sharing their Sporlebrities with the World. It’s a moment for critical acclaim, shareholder celebration and the real kick-off for the final launch campaign. Sadly for EA though, the internet, that great leveller of pomp, has seen to it that there’s really only one story about Spore this week.

The budding Creature designers have shown what’s truly on their minds, and it’s largely priapic. Youtube is awash with a sticky tide of ‘Sporn’ as users upload their animated organs and EA’s brave new World is going to have to think carefully about how to deal with the waddling members of its customers. A few user accounts have been closed down already, for breaching the terms of use - but making subjective judgements about complex sculptures when over 250,000 creatures are being created in a single day already is going to be a huge task.

It seems strangely apposite that this game about dna and evolution has inspired so many inventive and varied representations of procedurally animated sex. Despite being gifted with one of the most powerful and accessible modelling tools in the history of computing, many users will still opt to create a waddling penis. Spore truly is the stuff of life.

Download the Spore Creature Creator for Mac or Windows.

View the acceptable face of Spore creativity

Iain Simons writes, talks and tweets about videogames and technology. His new book, Play Britannia, is to be published in 2009. He is the director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University.
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.