How Darkspore Will Evolve the Action RPG

Updated Tue, Apr 26, 2011 by Ethec

Darkspore Lead Designer Paul Sottosanti knows numbers. Turning down a Harvard acceptance to study Computer Science and Graphical Design at another Ivy League school, Carnegie Mellon, Paul did a stint on the Magic: The Gathering pro tour before going to work at Wizards of the Coast as one of the folks in charge of game balance for the immensely popular collectable card game.

Paul's love of complex gameplay systems evolved on the Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour (image courtesy

But when Maxis presented a chance to work on Darkspore, Paul couldn’t turn down a title that had more legs, pun intended, than its predecessor. “The Spore editor was so awesome – the best part of the project by far – that the idea of taking that and building an RPG around it sounded amazing to me… I couldn’t not join the team at that point.” Paul made his entrance as a systems designer and, with the help of a couple interns, designed and balanced every hero and enemy ability (as well as the reward systems and overall tuning during the three year lead-up to launch), working his way up to Lead Designer in the process. So he’s clearly the right guy to talk to regarding the nuts and bolts of the game.

Darkspore’s Influences

And the nuts and bolts of Darkspore incorporate lots of nuts and bolts from a number of other games, some of which will surprise you. And Paul isn’t shy about drawing out those relationships. “If we borrow a mechanic from a game, we’re always open about that. We’re not going to try and reinvent the wheel if there’s something that already works well. We’re also not going to copy games wholesale, but great games are built on the foundation of other games.”

Some of the blocks making up that foundation are bigger than others. “Even before I joined, the Maxis team had three pillars: Spore and the creature editor, Diablo and the core action RPG gameplay, and then Pokemon – not the kids elements, but the idea of collecting and building a squad and taking it into battle. My background came in useful there – knowing how to create those combinations between cards or, in this case, heroes.”

Those pillars have an entire superstructure of games and concepts before we rise to the lofty heights to which Maxis’s ambition has taken Darkspore. Just to name a few that came up in our conversation:

Inspiration Takeaway Twist
Diablo Core action RPG gameplay, left mouse button-driven interface, and difficulty structure. Co-op and PvP arena play. Collectable, switchable heroes. Pretty much everything else. Oh, and no Baal runs.
Pokemon Three grating little words: Collect 'em all! Heroes are worth collecting, though some are purpose built for PvE and PvP. Bonus: you won't need a reference chart to avoid getting beat by a second grader.
Braid Hot-swap to two other heroes to take advantage of their abilities or greater hitpoints and energy points. Healing and energy charge up all your heroes, not just the active one.
GearScore / PlayerScore Equipment determines your capabilities more than arbitrary XP and character level. Stat caps limit the amount of gear you can stick on individual heroes, but purchase stat cap increases to make early game heroes viable later in the game.
Borderlands Interesting, tactics- and combos-driven co-op play. Match types with an enemy and you'd do no damage. Instead of dealing no damage when you match types with an enemy, enemies do double damage to you. No such penalties in PvP.
Spore Equipping heroes via a stripped down creature editor allows a little customization. Appendages and spines remain uneditable. So long sporn.
Need for Speed / arcade racers Remember the nitrous system from the more arcadey racing games - it builds up as you progress and gives you a nice, if temporary, boost in speed. Instead of a boost in speed, Overdrive, with a touch of the spacebar, you take half the damage, enjoy increased attack speed and reduced cooldowns, and supercharged passives for at least 6 seconds.
Call of Duty Multiplayer A new gun nearly every level - a constant barrage of new gameplay options. New heroes and squad options are yours with every match until later in the game.
League of Legends Same-round persistence. Darkspore's Catalyst system allows players to loot artifacts, forming powerful stat buffs that persist as long as they play a level chain. The level chain is the twist here – it’s double or nothing for your rewards if you opt to go on to the next level with your current squad. You keep your catalysts but can make no other changes.
Plants vs. Zombies Match-up screen shows which zombies players will face before the action starts, so you're never facing a balloon zombie without a thorn or fan plant. Sadly, the item vendor has none of Crazy Dave's eccentricity.
Super Mario Bros. Major and minor levels, e.g. 1-2, 2-3, etc. with big boss fights between major levels. If you stretch it, Jinx could be a sort of liberated Princess Peach.
Warcraft III Strength-based, dex-based, and mind-based heroes - players always know which equipment is best for which hero. Stat caps allow players to experiment beyond the primary stat.
Dance Dance Revolution Difficulty of song is represented by shapes. Edward Tufty's "spark lines". The Maxis team carried this forward to teach players about characters using stat caps and stat bars of varying lengths. You don't have to get spasmodic to win a difficult round.
Left 4 Dead The Smoker can renders a player helpless until a friendly player releases him or her. Or, you know, they die. Instead of a long-tongued Infected mob, Darkspore operatives are effectively mini-bosses that perform the same function in co-op play only.
Paul's Childhood House rules from the CCGs of Paul's youth: the loser could change out their cards, but the winner had to use the same deck. Same goes for Darkspore PvP - lose a best-of-3 match, and you can switch to a second or third squad. The winner has to keep playing what they have.
World of Warcraft Arena The trick is to get your opponent to use their debuff-removing trinket or one-off abilities too early. Instead of trinkets, in PvP the idea is to get the other team stuck in their hero switching cooldown so you can finish off their low health heroes.

What Darkspore Does Differently – Depth of Gameplay

Despite those associations, Darkspore never dips into the derivative any more than a game like World of Warcraft. Both games knit together their own unique tapestry from the fabric of preceding games, but those fabrics always make sense to the whole of the game; none have the air of a marketing gimmick or a feature a dev shoehorned into the game out of blind attachment.


Darkspore hit the ground running when it launched last month and reviewers have liked what they've seen. Our own review rated the game an 84/100 and called it, "a beautiful presentation." Be sure to give our full review of the game a look and check out the video after the break to find out what everyone is saying about Darkspore.

Video, News
Thu, May 12, 2011

Darkspore is a sci-fi themed dungeon crawler at heart, with a fairly spectacular collection and itemization system, a novel backstory, and layers upon layers of tactical challenge.

Wed, Apr 27, 2011
Most of us remember the ridiculously overhyped thought experiment that was Spore from a few years back. Will Wright promised the universe, and yet, somehow, the universe from the amoeba up didn't add up to a compelling gameplay experience. Maxis drew from that title's name, one-of-a-kind character creator, and little else and created the singularly evolved action RPG Darkspore. Rather than doing something completely ridiculous with Spore's premise, Darkspore is a sci-fi themed dungeon crawler at heart, with a fairly spectacular collection and itemization system, a novel backstory, and layers upon layers of tactical challenge. But does it have the fun factor that it's Sporny forebearer so disappointingly lacked? And will Darkspore hold us over until Diablo 3 makes its dubious debut, or is it destined for the bargain bin?
Wed, Oct 26, 2011
How Darkspore will evolve the aRPG

Darkspore Lead Designer Paul Sottosanti knows numbers.

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Tue, Apr 26, 2011

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