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Spore could spur growth for EA

The game publisher hopes to lift its image with the new release.

September 06, 2008|Alex Pham | Times Staff Writer

Spore lets people play god, tinker with a digital primordial soup and birth civilizations that conquer galaxies.

It also may produce a similar big bang for Electronic Arts Inc.

Spore -- one of the most-talked-about video games in years, from the man behind the blockbuster Sims franchise -- is set to launch Sunday. The computer game's sales will help determine whether the world's largest video game company will emerge from its restructuring efforts on solid footing. Once the undisputed giant of the industry, EA's dominance has slipped in recent years as its products became regarded as formulaic.

Spore is anything but. Unlike most games, it's not a sequel, a copycat of another popular title or based on a Hollywood movie. Spore represents a new era for EA, one that the Redwood City, Calif., company hopes will usher in a second golden age.

Wedbush Morgan Securities analyst Michael Pachter estimates that EA needs to sell at least 1.6 million copies of Spore to recoup the $50 million it cost to make it.

"It's probably our biggest and most important release this year," said Frank Gibeau, president of EA's Games Label.

Six years in the making, Spore sprang from the quirky mind of Will Wright, a game developer who created SimCity and the Sims. That franchise has developed a passionate following and sold more than 100 million copies since its launch in 2000. Both titles defined a genre, known as sandbox games, in which players can create their own cities, homes and families.

In the early years, the Sims' breakout success was not evident.

"A lot of people couldn't understand what it was about," said Jesse Divnich, an analyst with Electronic Entertainment Design and Research Inc. in San Diego. "There were no goals. There wasn't competition. People didn't know what to make of it. It wasn't until word-of-mouth got out that it took off."

EA hopes the same will be true of Spore. Like the Sims, the game defies conventional descriptions.

"That's its greatest challenge," said Geoff Keighley, editor of GameSlice, a industry news website. "You can't describe it in 15 words on a box to someone walking into Wal-Mart."

To introduce players to the concept, EA in June released its Spore Creature Creator, a software program that lets players design their own critters and upload them to the Web for others to see. The creatures can then be used to populate the actual game.

So far, players have uploaded more than 3.5 million creatures and objects, which Divnich said showed the game was generating buzz among the casual players needed to make Spore a hit.

Spore generated a surfeit of buzz when Wright pulled the wraps off the project in 2005. Then came the delays.

EA pushed back by three months the debut of Spore to March 2008, just before the company's fiscal year ended. As the new deadline approached, it became clear that the video game needed more work.

Instead of insisting that developers hit the target date, EA Chief Executive John Riccitiello bit the bullet and pushed the release date into the 2009 fiscal year. His decision was a departure from the past, as EA had always prided itself on doing whatever it took to hit its release dates.

Riccitiello, who took the helm in 2007, saw things differently: EA had lost its creative mojo. Core franchises such as Madden Football no longer wowed game reviewers. Instead, critics lavished attention on games made by Ubisoft, an up-and-coming French game company that publishes the Tom Clancy spy games.

Riccitiello felt it was his job to restore the company's reputation as the industry's pace-setter. He started with Spore.

"He didn't walk in and say, 'It must ship by this date,' " Gibeau said. "He walked in and said, 'When will this game be great?' We're launching a platform that we can build a long-term business on. It was critical that we get it right."

Pachter, the Wedbush Morgan Securities analyst, said the game fit into Riccitiello's three-part plan: improve quality to sell more games, create more original titles to boost profit margins and launch new franchises to bring in more stable revenue.

"If he succeeds on all front, then their earnings go up a lot," Pachter said.

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alex.pham@latimes.com

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On latimes.com

Videos

Watch videos of Spore creator Will Wright discussing how people are using the game. latimes.com/spore

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