Hints About 'Spore,' Pro-PS3 Arguments At DICE Video Game Conference

Makers of hyped 'Sims'-like game, Sony head give revealing speeches at annual event.

HENDERSON, Nevada — The Design, Innovate, Create and Entertain (DICE) video game conference held annually at the Green Valley Ranch Resort just outside Las Vegas is a forum for brainstorming. It's a place for gaming-industry haves rather than have-nots, where a room full of unsupervised gaming consoles can include a loose Wii remote that no one will swipe.

Thursday marked the first full session of speeches delivered by gaming executives and designers to a crowd of a few hundred peers. Among the day's highlights were a call to arms for the gaming community, an unchoreographed defense of the PlayStation 3 and the most detailed presentation of the most hyped computer game in years — a hint of how the ballyhooed "Spore" will really play.

The day began with a scolding. Outgoing Entertainment Software Association (ESA) president Douglas Lowenstein steamed his frustrations with the industry he has defended from protests and politicians over the last 12 years. "If you want to be controversial that's good, but don't duck and cover when the sh-- hits the fan," he said in a barely veiled shot at Rockstar Games. For years, Lowenstein has been a regular on TV-news shows and in the halls of government defending "Grand Theft Auto," while the creators of that series kept quiet. Lowenstein also challenged the room of game developers and executives to give more money to groups like the ESA to defend games — even just $500 or $1,000.

"That's how the game is played," he said. "If you want to be taken seriously as an industry then you need to start asking yourself what are you willing to do to stand up and fight." He called on game reporters to exhibit more maturity, and said a sharpening of game reviews — an elevation of game criticism — was key to the medium's future. "The games-industry press ... has the ability to push this industry to greater heights and creative success. And it doesn't." Lowenstein is leaving the gaming industry for a job in the financial sector. He's left the gaming community with its marching orders.

Another morning session featured Sony's head of worldwide game studios, Phil Harrison, seated onstage for a public interview with Newsweek's N'Gai Croal. Harrison fielded a series of hard questions while dropping a few hints about PlayStation's future. The teases included a demonstration of "SingStar" for PS3, a next-generation version of Sony's karaoke-game series coming this spring. Like earlier "SingStar" versions, players will be able to sing to the actual tracks of popular songs and videos. The PS3 version will allow gamers to download those songs and videos from the online PlayStation store. Harrison revealed a MySpace-style "My SingStar" feature that will permit players to record a video camera feed of their own karaoke performances and upload it to the PlayStation online network for other users to rate.

Harrison was the only top executive from any of the big three gaming-console manufacturers to take the stage at DICE. The top people behind Xbox and Wii kept their affairs to the show's back rooms. Given that PS3 is the console weathering the most criticism, Harrison's effort seemed all the more risky. Only Harrison had to publicly listen to an interviewer rattle off a blistering condemnation of his company's console from "Half-Life" developer Gabe Newell, who Croal quoted as saying to the magazine Game Informer, "Even at this late date they should just cancel it and do a 'do over.' "

The audience chuckled. Harrison shifted in his seat, praised Newell and pressed his defense. "By what measure is the launch of PlayStation 3 unsuccessful?" he responded. "We had people lined up in stores in three continents to buy PlayStation 3. We sold everything we shipped into the marketplace. We continue to supply the marketplace with product on a weekly basis. ... We have supplied more products into Japan, Asia and the U.S. than [we did at launch] with original PlayStation or PlayStation 2." Harrison said the boat carrying PS3s for the console's March launch in Europe was already at sea. And he wrapped the interview with a promise that "a product and a service" released later this year will encourage and enable user-developed content for the PS3. He apologized for being coy, if not for being defensive. Eyes on Sony should shift next to Harrison's major presentation at the outset of the Game Developers Conference in early March for the next set of revelations.

The best-attended afternoon session was designer Will Wright's latest presentation of his Sim-everything game "Spore." Wright's game may be one of the most hyped of all time, already landing features in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker and across the gaming press — even though it's at least a half-year from release, if not more (see "GameFile: 'Spore,' 'Lost' The Video Game, 'New Super Mario Brothers' & More").

Wright used the session to introduce four members of his design team and explain that they have reached the pruning stages of the game's development. "We have a million ideas we would love to get into the game but we can fit 10 percent," he said. Art director Ocean Quigley zipped through slides of user-generated alien races in "Spore," while designer Jenna Chalmers explained ideas for the game's outer space mode, which now appears to be the game's primary stage of play. "Spore" famously mixes genres, letting players control a single-cell organism in a "Pac-Man"-type of game, then a land creature in a "Diablo" style, then a tribe and a city in stages modeled from games such as "Populous," "SimCity" and "Civilization." Those levels would be prologue to the intergalactic stage of the game, a sandbox mode, which judging by the detail and emphasis placed on it during Wright's DICE presentation, is the stage richest with gameplay.

Cautioning that all the ideas she related may not be in the final game, Chalmers nevertheless detailed several flowcharts worth of interstellar play, in which a gamer's flying saucer could fly to hundreds of thousands of the game's procedurally generated worlds, making peace or war, engaging in diplomacy or encouraging religious conversion with alien species. She flashed slides suggesting flying saucer "boss battles" and reams of oddball missions, like a challenge to unleash a T. rex on an unsuspecting race or to build a land bridge between two of a planet's warring factions otherwise separated by water. Most revealing was that Chalmers intends for "Spore" to be able to generate missions on the fly for gamers, based on whatever worlds randomly begin to generate in a player's version of the "Spore" universe.

As always, not all the influential talk was coming from the DICE stage. Some was in the back halls. "You've got a lot of the decision-makers right here," said game designer Julian Eggebrecht, whose Factor 5 studio is polishing its dragon-fighting game "Lair" for a spring release on PS3. "You've got the people who sign the checks." He said the hot trends under discussion included the success of massively multiplayer games and the resurgence of small, so-called casual games. "Casual and how to get to casual for big studios like us is a very important topic. Of course, everybody is sharing war stories: 'How was your jump to the next generation?' A mixture of terror and amazement for everybody. So you hear stories about that. 'We went up to 120 people on one project. Wasn't that terrible?' 'Yes, we did the same.' It's very interesting to hear these war stories to get some validation that you didn't do everything wrong."

Eggebrecht expects a smoother future. He's another optimist in a conference full of people confident that the best of gaming is yet to come.