Blog Post

… but will Spore sell?

The latest New Yorker has a nice long profile of game designer Will Wright and his upcoming game, Spore; coupled with last month’s Wright/Spore profile from New York Times Magazine, it’s the strongest possible cultural affirmation of Wright as one of the world’s top artists in any medium. (Something gamers have known for decades, though it’s taken awhile for the rest of the world to catch up.)

These profiles are also part of a gathering storm of interest over Spore, Wright’s truly groundbreaking “god game” in which your goal as player is to shepherd your custom-designed creatures up the evolutionary ladder, from protozoa all the way to space-colonizing civilization.

Set for a mid-2007 release, it will almost certainly be a masterpiece, and expand the potential of computer games beyond measure. That plus Wright’s track record with the The Sims and Sim City games is why Spore publisher Electronic Arts has invested so much money and promotional effort on this one title. It’s also because, as The New Yorker notes, the company’s stock has declined by 30% since April, and has seen a 20% drop in overall sales from last year. In plain terms, as the article puts it, EA is “counting on Spore to help shore up its bottom line”.

That’s the strange thing, and I hate to be the first one to ask, but here goes: why is Electronic Arts risking so much on a game with so little chance of selling well?

Of course Spore will be a bestseller, easily moving hundreds of thousands of copies on the strength of Will Wright’s name alone. But EA seems to be hoping it’ll spawn a blockbuster franchise that’ll become a key revenue source for the company, the same way Wright’s Sims games and expansion packs have earned them $129 million in revenue. And it’s just implausible anything like that’s going to happen.

The Sims became a phenomenon because its dollhouse-style gameplay was immediately accessible to people outside the gamer dude demographic; it was popular especially with women and girls, and older “casual gamers” who rarely play in-depth simulation games. Spore, by contrast, involves bizarre, blobby creatures running around on alien landscapes, often killing and eating each other. (Check this video of Robin Williams riffing off it during the last E3.) And instead of being set in a suburb, or even an identifiable location, like Wrights’ SimCity, it’ll take place in prehistoric miasmas and far-off galaxies, in a gameplay arc inspired, Wright says, on Charles and Ray Eames’ famous but esoteric (1977) movie “Powers of 10”.

Revolutionary game design, sure, but sound like something you can see your kid sister or the casual gamer in the accounting department playing?

The New Yorker’s John Seabrook more or less puts this question to Electronic Arts’ chief executive Larry Probst by asking, “[H]ow do you convince a casual gamer, who is just looking for distraction, to play a game that is about evolution, city building, conquest, and interstellar travel? Probst’s answer, “You tell people it’s a Will Wright game,” does not inspire much confidence. Almost by definition, a casual gamer hasn’t heard of Will Wright, except perhaps in relation to The Sims, which Spore is decidedly nothing like. Just as worrying is the game’s lack of any true multiplayer component; instead, players will upload copies of their creatures to a central database, where they can be downloaded and enjoyed by other players. A wonderful idea to foster hardcore modder-type fandom– but again, it’s hard to see a demographically broader community of players emerging from that. (A smart move would be to re-position the game for the educational/family market, and hope it becomes a kind of Bionicles Online for boys.)

The Sims sold 3.2 million copies in the US, and about as much worldwide, but if I were to guess, Spore will ultimately sell far below those numbers– somewhere between Black and White, Peter Molyneux’s similarly-ambitious (and quirky) god game (530,000 units sold in America) and Wright’s Sim City 3000 Unlimited (1.1 million copies sold). Let’s say 750,000 units. Which would make it a giant bestseller, to be sure, but certainly not the savior of the company’s market valuation that Probst imagines it to be. Whether those numbers would financially justify the game’s 7 year production cycle or the tens of millions spent during that time, or the millions spent by EA to promote it, is hard to say, as well.

This is one prediction in particular that I hope I’m utterly wrong about. I’d love to see Spore become the first game that’s a crossover cultural phenomenon, played by everyone from kids to college professors, and Electronic Arts get rewarded for gambling its fate on one of pop culture’s few undisputed artists. But right now, at least, I’d have to say the chances of the game dominating are about as likely as a Spore creature with no teeth and stubby legs making it to the stars.

All game revenue and sales figures from Next Generation’s indispensable guide to The Top 100 PC Games.

25 Responses to “… but will Spore sell?”

  1. I think you are wrong. They could have many expansions. ANd this game is seeming to be well known by everyone that is a gamer and alot of people who are not. THe reason people love the sims is becouse it puts you in power, which spore will do. Many people are very excited about this game. And the way they are marketing this is great. They had robin williams talk about it, which was a smart move. And putting it under a
    educational/family market would make this game less wanted. Really, who wants to play an educational game. That’s like calling sims a rts, it’s not gonna work. Even little kids are very excitedabout this game.

  2. Peter D.

    I think that this game is groundbreaking.
    It’s all I’ve been thinking about for the past few days since I’ve found out about it, and I’ve just been imagining what i’ll do and what kinds of creatures I’d like to make.

    It just sounds and looks so….FUN

  3. You think just kids are looking forward to this game???

    Got news for ya…

    I’m a 52 year old – and even I am anxious to buy this game!

    I don’t care for the Sims stuff – but this doesn’t look to be “the sims”

    I enjoy WOW (when I get a chance to play it) and this just might supersede some WOW time!

    I’m a little leary about it not being an online game – but just gotta wait and see how that works

    Okay – so lets light this candle!!!

  4. SMallfry

    THIS IS GOING TO BE THE BEST GAME EVERRRRRRRRRRR. I don’t care if you can play it online! It’s still gonna rock. Its going to sell. Don’t worry EA.

  5. Micha3l M

    Just so wagner james Au knows:
    Spore will asynchronously download and upload, automatically(not can but will),your enviroment created by other players
    and everything else about this game makes it IMHO “potentially” the greatest game ever…. Even though I’ve never played it once and I hated sims. ;) We’ll see

  6. spore will sell no doubt about it. the game has no limits and who wouldn’t want to have a game where they could just do what ever they want to other creatures and planets.

    i only look at games that will last a while and have alot of things to do it and with this game there is no end to it.

    that is why i’m getting this game when it comes out, i am even upgrading my pc for a game for a first and that shows how much i want this game to already be out.

    if the people swarmed to buy the sims when it first came out why wouldn’t they go after this game with the same creator? common sense says the people will. “if you build it they will come” a classic quote that fits this, for pc it is a new revloution to a view in games comepared to all the counter parts i think this is a game that is worth it just to have a new angle in the gaming world

  7. Chhayawolf

    Mr. James Auwowo or whatever yer name is, yer article is completely bogus. This game WILL sell to both hardcore and casual gamers ESPECIALLY KIDS will play this game! Trust me, all of my friends and relatives along with their kids want Spore including me, and yet i would barely have time to play it between work and college. Kids will go nuts wanting to create crazy creatures especially the boys along with the artistic female or two(me). There has only been one game in history like this one that was for the super nintendo console. Can’t remember the title but it was the concept of killing and eating other creatures for enough points to evolve through the levels and ultimately become human. Ever since that game i’ve wished for another game like that, lo and behold “Spore”.
    Will it sell??? Pffft It will blow your socks off.

  8. “It may actually get some free press if certain fundamentalist Christian groups opposed to the theory of evolution get wind of this…”

    Nice … I really hope this doesn’t get dragged into that debate. : / Little chance of it not happening, though. I’ve already seen some skirmishes on the fan forums :C.

  9. alcarcalimo

    I have to emphatically disagree with your assessment of Spore’s financial prospects. I have always been a fan of Will Wright and always buy his games. But that isn’t the point. When I first learned of this game, I let all of my friends in on it, and showed them demo videos and everything. These friends of my do not play video games, but they all wanted to buy and play this game, specifically because they loved being able to design creatures. We all have ideas in our heads about imaginary creatures and things like that since we were kids, and this game let’s us explore our creativity. Also, the game has serious word of mouth potential. Once a few people start playing it, especially casual gamers, they’re gonna let the word out, and the game will sell more. We’re not gonna know what happens until it is released, but I am predicting bigger sales than the Sims. Want to place bets?

  10. I’m not a big gamer at all — I almost exclusively play the Madden NFL series for PS2, and not that often — but after first hearing about this game I’m already eagerly anticipating its release. I’d never heard of Will Wright before this and I’ve never played any of The Sims games, but the concept behind Spore is fascinating to me!

    Spore has the potential to be not only entertaining but also educational as it pertains to the evolution of life and the development of culture/civilizations. It may actually get some free press if certain fundamentalist Christian groups opposed to the theory of evolution get wind of this…

  11. Do 5 million hardcore male gamers play World of Warcraft? Unlikely. WoW is proof that good game design will overcome barriers and lure users from way outside the demographic. Spore will offer more than the button-kill-level treadmill of today’s MMOs.

    Who thought the Sims would take off? Who wants to send an artificial person off to work, to manage their life? Sounds like nonsense – I wouldn’t have bet on it. Back we go to good design.

    Spore doesn’t need to dominate to save EA’s fortunes. This market is huge – you have to consider platform gamers here – and begging for innovation. Even if they get 1 million users playing on a regular basis the subscription monies will be enormous.

    Stop talking about sales. They don’t matter anymore. What matters is creating a ‘sticky’ game that keeps churn to a minimum.

  12. “[…]I’d have to say the chances of the game dominating are about as likely as a Spore creature with no teeth and stubby legs making it to the stars.”

    You had to say that, didn’t you? You know the first thing someone is going to do is get that exact creature to the stars, right? Heh.

  13. EA is correct in anticipating fantastic revenues from Spore, even if they only start by selling the 750k copies you anticipate to the hard and medium-core gamers. Why? Because they’ve added something new to the mix. Spore players will be able to order plastic models of their creatures from EA and they’ll have to pay for the privilege. Once office workers and kids start showing off their customized Spore “action figures”, the entire thing goes viral and everyone else will want to do the same.

    You can see some pics and learn a bit more here:

  14. for many children, the prospect of developing characters that are analogous to those within their real world is alluring (a la sims) and a huge draw in terms of intuitively understanding actions, developments and incentives…the god games that have done well with kids, beyond sims, include others that touch this same concept of real things (rollercoaster tycoon, zoo tycoon et al)…not sure if spore will appeal or simply become yet another complex game on part with age of empires and all of the great but niche offerings out there…sounds great, but so does the nintendo wii – but are you gonna run out and buy one just because it has a cool controller? sorry, that last bit makes no sense…