National Geographic takes on Spore, documentary style

A guy I sometimes fall asleep with drunk in hotel rooms likes to say that no one will ever win a Pulitzer for writing about Princess Peach (although our own Chad Concelmo could probably produce enough passion to take a good shot at it), but that doesn’t mean that games can’t hobnob with the big league.

In this instance, it comes in the form of How to Build A Better Being, the companion documentary to Will Wright’s much anticipated creature feature, Spore. It premieres on Tuesday, Sept 9th at 10 pm ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel. You can also see the show by purchasing the Spore Galactic Edition, as it comes packed with it.

From the press release:

Join Wright and leading scientists in exploring the genetic information we share with all animals — even creatures we could never have envisioned.  From prehistoric fish with wrists to 8-ton elephants with trunks, get powerful new insight into the origin of species and how our prized parts came to be.  Then see how evolutionary creature-making is translated into a brave new world of gaming.

This is actually really cool. I’m a sucker for science and nature shows, so I imagine I’ll be hooked from the word go. Are you into this kind of action, or would you rather pass on the science and get straight to the humping?



From Hand to Fin to Wing, How to Build a Better Being Examines Unexpected Genetic Truths Behind Highly Anticipated Simulation Game from Will Wright


How to Build a Better Being premieres on NGC Tuesday, Sept. 9, at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT


(WASHINGTON, D.C. — AUGUST 21, 2008)  In the newest creation from Electronic Arts Inc. (EA) and video game pioneer and “The Sims” mastermind Will Wright, Spore™ enables players to design a virtual galaxy of new life, such as a one-eyed web-footed creature with a snout, and then control their species‘ evolution.  But how much real-world science is behind this groundbreaking new game?  And what genetic connections do people share with a universe of strange organisms?


On Tuesday, Sept. 9, at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT, National Geographic Channel (NGC) presents the premiere of How to Build a Better Being, the companion documentary to the highly anticipated new video game Spore, which will be released nationally on Sunday, Sept. 7.  The show, which is also included in the limited run of the collectable “Spore Galactic Edition,” joins Wright and leading scientists in exploring the genetic information we share with all animals — even creatures we could never have envisioned.  From prehistoric fish with wrists to 8-ton elephants with trunks, get powerful new insight into the origin of species and how our prized parts came to be.  Then see how evolutionary creature-making is translated into a brave new world of gaming.


“What are the things that evolution has at its disposal to define a creature, to mix and

match the parts, and eventually come up with a unique organism that’s going to live

its life and try to reproduce?”

 — Will Wright, gaming innovator, EA’s Maxis Studio


Spore allows players to design bizarre creatures that mate, compete against predators, obtain better body parts and, if they survive, ultimately become spacefaring voyagers.  Replicating creature-making within electronic gaming required Wright to develop an understanding of how evolution invents, recycles and repurposes parts.  In How to Build a Better Being, Wright consults with top scientists on the latest discoveries in DNA development and explores how creatures with antennas, wings and six legs share a common family tree with all of us.


At UC Berkeley’s Fly Lab, meet geneticist Michael Levine a key figure in a new science called “evo-devo” that studies embryonic development who offers Wright creative new insight into how genes build bodies and how the process can go terribly awry.  Levine demonstrates with a mutant fruit fly that has legs where its antennae should be.  We learn that eight master genes are so essential during development that any problems in these building blocks can transform a creature into a catastrophe.




These same genes don’t exist just in flies; they’re in animals and people, too.  “With over 100,000 genes, we think we have genes that a lowly fruit fly would know nothing about.  But this is not true,” explains Levine.  “All animals, including humans, have a very similar set of basic genes, and yet we’re so different.”  Therefore, the finished body part may vary, from fins to wings to fingers, but underneath the exterior the genetic chassis is the same.


Next, we look at one of our strangest and most remote ancestors on the evolutionary tree: a worm.  Paleontologist Neil Shubin explains how an ancient worm laid the foundation for our basic body plan.  Symmetrical, streamlined, bilateral and laid out head to tail, most animal life on the planet is built on this fundamental design.  For Spore, developers realized that making creatures bilateral, or identical on either side, needed to be hard-wired.


Then learn how something as versatile as a hand got its start in a 375-million-year-old fish with a neck and a wrist.  Using the Spore game’s unique visualization tools, Shubin gets a chance to bring the prehistoric fish to life.  Other scientists, such as marine biologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer Tierney Thys, strive to design the “ultimate animal” by using extensive knowledge of animal diversity — like sea stars that move on hundreds of tube legs and travel in any direction.


“It’s kind of a biologist’s dream to be able to design your own animal,” says Thys, “to pick and choose the traits of animal groups that you most enjoy … Oh my gosh, I love this.”


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Will Wright revolutionized the computer game industry with SimCity™ and The Sims, games that offer remarkable simulations of cities and the lives of their residents that parallel the real world.  Since its release in February 2000, The Sims has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide, making it the best-selling PC game in history.  Will is the chief designer at Maxis, an Electronic Arts studio.

Spore will be released on Sunday, Sept. 7, 2008, for the PC, Mac, Nintendo DS™ and mobile phones.  Spore gives players their own personal universe in a box.  Create and evolve life, establish tribes, build civilizations, sculpt entire worlds and explore a universe filled with creations made by other gamers.  Spore gives players a wealth of creative tools to customize nearly every aspect of their universe: creatures, vehicles, buildings and even spaceships.

How to Build a Better Being is produced for the National Geographic Channel by National Geographic Television (NGT).  For NGT, producer, director and writer is Ron Bowman and executive producer is John Mernit.  For NGC, executive producer is Howard Swartz, senior vice president of production and development is Juliet Blake and executive vice president of production is Steve Burns.

National Geographic Channel:  Based at the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C., the National Geographic Channel (NGC) is a joint venture between National Geographic Ventures (NGV) and Fox Cable Networks (FCN).  Since launching in January 2001, NGC initially earned some of the fastest distribution growth in the history of cable and more recently the fastest ratings growth in television.  The network celebrated its fifth anniversary January 2006 with the launch of NGC HD, which provides the spectacular imagery that National Geographic is known for in stunning high definition.  NGC has carriage with all of the nation’s major cable and satellite television providers, making it currently available to nearly 68 million homes.  For more information, please visit


Colette Bennett