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Anna Gonzales

5 Things This Biologist Likes About Spore

(Yes I got Spore. In my defense I got it for free with credit card reward points.)


This is a video game. It's not expected to be accurate, it's expected to be fun (and it is). Given that, these five things are pretty cool

1: Generational Upgrades
Darwinian Evolution

At both the cell and creature modes, when you're building up your creature for play, you go about gaining DNA points. That's a stretch but it's playable and vaguely logical. Then, in order to get new body parts and whathaveyou, you don't just slap extra arms and eyeballs onto your body because you earned them. Instead, you have to go find a mate, and mate! And have children, and then you're designing your children!

I also like the scaling of the cost of body parts which encourages you (if you have a particular goal) to work up towards it in a vaguely evolutionary fashion. You could, if you so chose, just wildly redo your creature every time, which is your prerogative, but I like the progression of evolution, almost worthy of one of those ape walking to neanderthal walking to human pictures (yes I know australopithecines were fully upright, I still like the progression in a metaphysical sense)

So yeah, mad kudos for that.


2: Terraforming
General Ecology

Frankly, terraforming is my favorite part of the game. I'm mostly still playing the Space level so I can keep terraforming.

A quick rundown of how it works: a planet can support up to three colonies, but if you put down a colony on a planet people cannot run around on, it remains sealed inside a purple bubble, and also useless except as a trading post.

For a colony to start collecting resources for you, the planet has to be livable. A planet that is T0 is a barren rock, but T1 planet can support one colony, a T2 can support two, and a T3 can support three. The way the planet's condition is represented is on a two-dimensional scale with temperature on the X and atmosphere on the Y. A T3 planet's dot is in the very middle circle, and concentric circles around it are for T2 and T1. The closer the planet is to the "sweet spot" of distance from its star, the broader the circles. T0 planets usually start in the bottom left corner of not enough atmosphere and very cold.

To alter the planet's atmosphere and temperature levels is easy and can be done with any of serveral tools available to the player. However, the planet will eventually return to where it was unless it is stabilized. How is it stabilized? By adding new plants to the ecosystem! To stabilize a new level of habitability, you have to add a previously not present set of small, medium, and large species of plants. Where do you get them? From other planets! You have to beam up plants from other planets and transport them to stabilize the climate.

It gets better, because in order to allow the colony to be functional you have to then bring in *two* new herbivore species and one carnivore species to keep them under control. Sadly any herbivores and any carnivores/omnivores will do, but it's still a good thought. Then if you want another T level you had to add three more plants, two more herbivores, and another carnivore. So a biosphere-complete system has three large, medium, and small plants, six herbivores and three carnivores/omnivores.

This has particular merit because the biosphere (i.e. plants) actually does exert a substantial amount of influence on the atmosphere, particularly in the carbon cycle, and just adding more plants won't do it so much as filling new niches.

Like I said, my favorite part.


3: Levels of Size in Cell Mode
Microbiology and Marine Ecology

You start the cell mode as something which has probably just started being multicellular (it's called "cell mode" but you have eyes and a rudimentary nervous system, which protists don't really have....) and you go about getting plant bits, other critters your size or smaller, or both.

As you get bigger and better you zoom out and those which were eating you are now food. Then you get even bigger and better, and those guys who started out huge are now tiny. And then you grow a few more times at about the same scale until there are huge shells around. Then you grow again and the shells turn out to be tiny!

It's not perfectly scientific but it is quite a bit like the levels of size involved in biology. Things that are barely visible to the naked eye are actually huge predators, which eat tiny things which are in turn feeding on single-celled things that survive solely by their sheer volume. Most small things have only a few limited defenses, and only larger things constitute enough of an energy investment per each to have repulsive defenses instead of speed and numbers.

The zooming out over and over just tickled me because it really is kinda like that, especially under different powers of the microscope.


4: Continuity of Character
Behavioral Biolgy

I haven't played through enough to tabulate how exactly your creature playstyles affects your abilities in tribe mode, and only a vague sense on how tribe play affects civ play, etc. However, I do like that it tracks them, in particular that carnivorous animals become more militant (imagine a tribe of intelligent wolves-- wolves are intelligent and playful with each other, but very capable of vicious intergroup conflict).

It doesn't track *too* well but recall that we have exactly one example of an intelligent tool-using social species that has moved out of the jungle (chimps are pretty close to human behavior anyways). I applaud them for trying instead of just guiding everyone along the human path.


5: Disease Management
Epidemiology

One of the major hazards of running a biome supporting a colony on a formerly inhospitable planet would indeed be an imported disease mutating and cutting a swath through the local herbivore or carnivore population (plant diseases are ignored, they may be easier to control or needlessly muck up the game). To prevent ecosystem collapse, you have to fly your ship around and use your laser to zap all the infected animals dead. Now, this wouldn't actually work if you zapped individuals, but if you nuked sub-populations it would work long enough for resistance to be built or engineered by the local biologists.

Saving your colonies from infections amounts to busywork in the game sense but if we had space colonies dependent on an imported biome, an animal disease could be wildly destructive. Just thinking of it is impressive.


Honorable mention: Semi-Accurate Scope of the Cosmos
Physics and Exobiology

Man I sure wish I could take a ride in one of those ships they use in Spore that clearly covers light-years in less than years. Well actually I'm not clear how well that's represented, it might actually show the game clock rolling years by every time you take a hop over to the next star system.... but I doubt it.

But FTL travel is expected and necessary for a game like this. What I as a scientist appreciate is that the galaxy is HUGE compared to you. Now granted, the Milky Way has like somewhere in the range of 300 BILLION stars, and the Spore galaxy has somewhere in the range of thousands as far as my eyeballs can tell.... but it's still much larger than you'll get with like, MOO3 ("over a hundred stars!" Wow, I can't wait! And they each have ONE planet!.......). I suppose if you imagined an extra million stars with no planets as filler for each star in a Spore galaxy, you'd get pretty close to what things might actually be like! Though they should have put more habitable planets in the more habitable star regions of the galaxy but hey, wouldn't be able to take the whole place over otherwise eh.

(Oh yeah, and "Drake was right!" got a laugh out of me.)

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