Spore and the rush to judgment
Podcast reboot

Beautiful simplicity

Sporelogo1 I attended a lecture several years ago by a gifted physicist who spoke about the world's most famous equation: E = mc2. He contended that Einstein's groundbreaking formula could be explained in a variety of ways, but for him the most apt description was to call it beautiful. To a physicist who understands the complexity and implications of the system captured by that simple elegant equation, there can be no more appropriate response, he said. Another scientist, world-renowned theoretical physicist Brian Greene, puts it this way:

E = mc2 is certainly an easy equation to write down...but you really have to keep your head on straight to recognize what the symbols mean in any given situation. It is not an equation that reveals all its subtlety in the few symbols that it takes to write down."[1]

I've been reflecting on this notion of beautiful simplicity a lot lately, provoked by a minor convergence of events: the lively response to my post about Spore; my own experience with the game as I continue to progress through it; and Leigh Alexander's most recent post which questions game reviewers' assumptions about complexity and depth. Here's a snippet from that essay:

I have noticed lately that the primary reason some major titles -- Spore, for example -- have suffered in reviews is because they lack complexity in certain areas of the design; "complexity" is often substituted for "depth."... I wonder, from what perspective are reviewers judging complexity, in the broader sense? Are we talking about controls, the sophistication of the game mechanics, the game's length, its plot, characters, what? ... It's got me wondering -- why has simplicity become a dirty word, and why does an absence of complexity seem to translate automatically, in reviews, to a lack of depth?

I remember with some fondness a time when many of the very best computer games could be described as exercises in unintuitive complexity. These games were often brutally difficult, not because the core gameplay was too hard, but because the interface or navigation tools or feedback system (or all of these) were baroque by today's standards. I have a big soft spot in my heart for Nethack, but I'm not pining for the days of its termcap interface and keyboard map.

One of the most difficult tasks for any designer or engineer is making a complex system (a car, a computer, a video game) simple to use and easy to understand. One of Einstein's greatest gifts was his ability to communicate ideas and concepts to a variety of audiences, many of whom weren't equipped to understand the hard science underpinning his ideas. It's possible to speak plainly about complicated things, but it usually requires a lot more work.

This, it seems to me, is precisely what Will Wright and his team at Maxis have accomplished with Spore, and I believe it's a notable achievement. In certain ways it's analogous to what Jonathan Ive did with the iPod: put an immaculately designed and easy to use system in the hands of people and let them have fun with it. If this was an easy task, the iPod would be just another MP3 player.

Simple, elegant, and easy to use are, in fact, very hard to do. The achievement of Spore is just this. Its extraordinary complexity has been made invisible, and its depth has been hidden inside a menagerie of colorful creatures.