AUSTIN, Texas – It's the equivalent of a new Beatles album for computer gamers: a $20 million sequel to the world-beating "Sims" franchise that lets players control life, their Universe and everything.
After seven years of testing by a team of 72 designers, Will Wright, the visionary behind "The Sims," unveiled "Spore," the most anticipated computer game for years, to an audience of adoring fans.
"The Sims," which allowed players to manipulate the residents of a suburban household, became the biggest-selling game franchise, selling 70 million copies and generating $1.6 billion. "Spore" extends the principle from controlling a city to playing God with your own personal universe.
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Electronic Arts, the world's biggest game company, is gearing up to flood stores with the game when it is finally released in the autumn.
"'Spore' is about the entire history of life and where life goes in the future," Wright told delegates at the South by Southwest interactive festival in Austin, Texas, before making a spectacular demonstration.
The game begins with a drop of water emerging as a single-celled organism.
Players then develop their cells to create their own species, build civilizations, colonize their planets and ultimately send missions into outer space. It's a Darwinian battle for survival.
Wright, 47, admitted that it would take players "76 years without sleep" to explore all of "Spore"'s different planets.
The $20 million development costs have produced a world in which the species you create interact with planets and tribes developed by other players. Each organism initially grows by consuming other cells and then absorbing the traits of other, larger prey.
Gamers choose whether each species grows up to be a peace-loving herbivore or a claw-wielding carnivore.
As the game develops through stages, your species fashions tools, builds shelters and creates thriving cities.
The acquisition of advanced technology and architectural principles allows the creation of spacecraft. Missions to other planets can be launched either for warmongering or for more diplomatic purposes.
Wright has made a major breakthrough with the game's graphics, which incorporate the techniques used by the latest Hollywood animated films.
"You can create creature scenes in three minutes that it used to take a Pixar film artist three weeks to generate," he said.
Wright has no shortage of ambition for "Spore," which was inspired by the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) program.
"It is a philosophy tool to play with," he told his audience. "I want people to think about the infinite possibilities of life. Games can change the world a little for the better."
For example, a climate-change tool allows players to flood their "Spore" world with greenhouse gases, demonstrating the disastrous consequences that result.
If Wright's instincts are correct, millions of gamers will be umbilically connected to new worlds and civilizations created by people they have never met.
"There will be several millions of different worlds and species built by other players in parallel to yours," he said. "I want to see some interstellar wars."
Described as the "Bono of the games industry", Wright, from Athens, Ga., believes that games will prove to be a more durable form of entertainment than cinema.
"Film directors take you to an end point they dictate," he said. "Games ask, 'Can you extract an entire world from your own imagination?'"
"Web sites like YouTube show that people want to produce content they mould themselves," Wright added.
As players find themselves in charge of the Spore galaxies, he allowed himself a Star Wars comparison.
"I want you to be George Lucas rather than Luke Skywalker," he said.
Wright, who collects leftovers from the Soviet space program and designs robots in his spare time, is believed to be the world's wealthiest games designer after selling his Maxis company to Electronic Arts in 1995.
"Spore" will be released for PCs initially, but a handheld Nintendo DS version is also planned.