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Default Games Without Frontiers: 'Spore' Releases the Pixar in You

Six and a half minutes.
That's how long it took me to create my first kooky, adorable critter using the Creature Creator for Spore, Will Wright's new sim game due out this fall. I started off with a default "body" -- a sort of shapeless lump of virtual plasticine -- and used the mouse to pull and stretch it around a bit. Then I added a head, and spent a few seconds smooshing that back and forth, first trying out a long-nosed look, then crushing it down to a pig-like snout.
A pig! A freaky mutant pig! Hey, I liked that idea.
Within seconds, I'd added a couple of legs to the body, and figured out how to push them downward so they seemed suitably stumpy; then, a couple of hooves and Bambi-like eyes later, I was done. My little virtual pig stumbled around the screen, grunting and oinking while I admired my work.
And like I said, it took only six and a half minutes.
Think for a second about how remarkable this is. When it comes to art and design, I am your Average Joe. I have only rudimentary sketching and visualization skills, and precisely zero experience with CAD software that animators use to craft Pixar-like animals. Yet in less time than it takes to drink a cup of coffee, I had created a completely awesome-looking 3-D creature.
Spore's Creature Creator, in other words, is doing something quite interesting and unexpected: It's de-skilling 3-D design.
I say de-skilling in the positive sense. What I mean is that Spore is democratizing the art of 3-D design.
We probably shouldn't be surprised by this effect, because videogames have been de-skilling the world for decades now. Games propagate technology stealthily, quietly and gradually taking all sorts of skills that only pros used to possess and spreading them across the population.
Think about the whole concept of using your mouse to navigate files and icons on your computer. A mere few decades ago, this task -- using a physical interface to manipulate a virtual one -- was so opaque and weird that only computer-science pros could grasp it. Then videogames came along and, in barely a few years, trained an entire generation of kids worldwide in eye-hand-machine coordination. Steve Jobs' original Macintosh would have been DOA without videogames; they de-skilled the art of mouse manipulation.
There are dozens of other examples of this. Role-playing games have trained millions of gamers in highly complex resource and inventory control. Basically, they've made screwing around with databases fun. Or think about conducting a big raid in World of Warcraft, where you need to deploy virtual team-management skills and diplomacy worthy of the Cuban missile crisis. Previously, this was the concern of only very high-level employees at multinational corporations -- but now 13-year-old kids are doing it.
Wright is the undisputed reigning master of creating games that contain subterfuge training. Ever wonder how The Sims became the world's top-selling game of all time? It's not because people actually play it. Most longtime Sims fans quickly tire of creating families.
No, what hard-core fans love is The Sims' elegant "house-design" engine -- which they use to painstakingly craft sprawling, monster homes, customized to the level of individual tile patterns they hand-draw in cracked versions of Photoshop. The Sims isn't a game: It's the world's most popular architectural CAD package.
Now Spore is going to do the same thing to the world of 3-D characters and the sort of work regularly produced by Pixar.
In a sense, the word de-skill might be misleading, because in reality two forces are moving in opposite directions. Games increase the skill levels of gamers while, at the same time, showing software makers how to make tools easier to use. With their "play around and see what happens" interfaces, today's DIY creativity software titles -- from GarageBand and Photoshop to Final Cut Pro or even MySpace and Facebook -- are all children of videogame design. Their creators realized that making interfaces fun to use and playful will inspire more people to create things.
Now, let's be clear: I certainly don't believe that Creature Creator, a free trial edition of which will be available for download Tuesday, is going to make someone employable at a 3-D design house. De-skilling doesn't happen that abruptly.
But what Spore will do, very subtly and quietly, is to begin changing the way people interact with 3-D culture. 3-D art will suddenly seem less opaque and more understandable. The next time you go to an animated movie, you'll see the onscreen characters as a series of design decisions. You'll notice the exaggerated length of the legs, or perhaps the way the eyes are set -- because you'll have experience doing this yourself.
And pretty soon you'll find yourself thinking: "Yeah, I could do that."
- - -
Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a regular contributor to Wired and New York magazines. Look for more of Clive's observations on his blog, collision detection.


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