Commentary

Brand Mutations

"Have you mated yet?"

"Several times, Dad, several times," my daughter says with exasperation. I can't quite tell if she is just being impatient with lame-o-Dad's attempts at double entendre or reminding me that she is not a child and knows how to get beyond the first level of "Spore," the new evolution sim we played all weekend.

Spore is Will "The Sims" Wright's long-awaited cross-platform game that lets you evolve creatures from the primordial ooze and into full-bore space-traveling civilizations. In the early stages my daughter and I played this weekend, you munch your way through the ooze until issuing a mating call breeds you into a new stage. Hence, the double entendres. Or at least what I hope was a double entendre. "Wait, we are talking about the game, right? I mean, I wasn't asking whether you..."

"DAD! STOP! You started this lame joke. Hush, I have to go MATE NOW!"

They evolve so fast.

But the game "Spore" is not as evolved as it aspires to be. Electronic Arts has bet big on this release as a cross-platform phenomenon, even if all the pieces don't quite fit together. Wright is everywhere, interviewed by mainstream media as the thinking, cultured person's game designer. The core PC-based title has mobile iterations on feature phones, the Nintendo DS, and the iPhone.

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After playing the DS and iPhone versions for a while, it seems to me that a rung in the evolutionary ladder is still missing -- truly seamless multi-screen personalization. The "Spore Origins" mobile title that just launched on iPhone yesterday and "Spore Creatures" for the DS recreate the early stages of the game, but in different styles and depth. They feel more as if they have been carved from the brand (or are lesser mutations) than actual extensions of the experience. They feel more like attempts to exploit a concept anywhere and everywhere I am, rather than an attempt to enhance the value of a brand as it moves across platforms.

This calls attention to the fact that there is a difference between extending a brand to mobile and evolving a brand relationship on mobile. I can't play with the same creatures I make in my "Spore" PC game on any of the handhelds. I can play with the "Spore" brand, but I can't play with and advance the identity that I created with the "Spore" brand on the PC to mobile.

This persistence of relationship and identity, not just persistence of branding, is becoming increasingly valuable to me (even determining the brand decisions I make) as mobile itself weaves its way into my everyday media life.

On the simplest level, my relationship with Borders is much tighter now that the email coupons I once printed out are available reliably in my SMS in-box. The email notification of that 25% coupon is now just an alert for me to look for the more practical coupon that will show up soon on my phone.

ITunes itself is one of the best examples of the power of persistent identity and relationships across devices. I have my library of podcasts on the PC and they are parsed across a video iPod I use on my exercise machine, a Nano for the car and gym, and the iPhone for everywhere else. If I keep the devices synched regularly, then I even pick up a podcast or an audio book on one device where I left off on another. That is a model where the brand essentially is handing me off across platforms. Why would I drop a Zune into this mix? Just for convenience's sake alone, Apple has me.

If "Spore" becomes the Sims-like mega-hit Electronic Arts intends, then my relationship with that experience will be fragmented. At least in its current iterations for mobile, "Spore" won't let me lift a creature from the ooze of my PC game playing, train or modify it on my phone and then plant it back in the larger "Spore" world. This kind of truly seamless mobile extension of an entertainment experience has been discussed by designers ad nauseum since I started covering mobile in the early 2000s. Years ago, when the developer UIEvolution sold out to RPG-maker Square-Enix, their executives assured me that such mobilized functionality would be available soon for the next Final Fantasy games. Apparently Square-Enix was uninterested.

Whatever I invest personally in the "Spore" game on the PC essentially is lost when I try to take it up on mobile, and that seems to me a lost opportunity. In a strange way, the cross-platform execution right now actually intrudes on any personal relationship I have with the media experience.

I also wonder what a larger range of brands can learn from that fragmentation. We parse films and music into mobile experiences by carving off pieces of that original involvement to let users "personalize" their phones. But the typical mobile wallpaper, ringtone and licensed game is not necessarily extending or creating a personal relationship between that property or brand and the user. It seems to me that our notion of "personalization" needs to evolve. Where and how, I don't know yet, but I know that in some mobilized brands like Facebook and Pandora I am beginning to glimpse it. More on that later.

For now, I am trying to get to the next Spore level as my fiancée bugs me to go for one of those relationship-building romantic walks.

"Please, honey. I am in the middle of spawning here."

"Could have fooled me. And I am a woman. I usually can tell when that sort of thing is going on."

"Hush. This is what I need to do to evolve."

"Too late. But I appreciate that you think you are trying."

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