The following is an account of the project’s history, in broad strokes, as best remembered by those members of the team who took the time to write those events here. Many of the events early in its evolution are uncertain as the users who witnessed them are no longer part of the team. For more detailed announcements of recent activity, see our devblog. For a list of our releases through time, check our page on github.
Some of the older sites linked have since descended into the seven levels of spam hell. We’ve provided the links for posterity, but recommend you only click them if your antivirus is up to scratch. Links marked with (*) are full of spam, others should be safe.
Zeroth Era: Spore's Backstory
Up to Feb 2009
Conceived as early as 1994, the original concept for Spore featured a procedurally generated universe with player-created organisms, machines and nations. At the time, Maxis was an independent game studio co-founded by designer Will Wright, the man responsible for the idea of Spore. In 1997 the studio was acquired by EA, and over the next few years improvements in home computing and video game technology meant Wright’s concept could actually be developed. By 2005 early previews of Spore appeared to live up to Wright’s hopes, and many fans of simulation and video games in general were hooked.
A schism emerged within the Spore development team. According to Wright, one group of developers wanted heavy realism while another wanted to emphasize cuteness and child-friendliness. There have since been accusations that the cute camp was backed by EA sales directors in the hope of appealing to children, hence selling more copies, but these claims have never been confirmed. Whatever the reasons, after missing its slated release date of 2007, Spore was released in 2008 to mixed reviews. Critics praised its effortless editing abilities but found gameplay shallow, with many of the features highlighted in the 2005 presentation missing. Fans loved the creativity aspects but some were angered at how EA/Maxis had shied away from realism and depth. In their view, it didn’t live up to its grandiose vision.
Almost immediately fans called for sequels or expansions to fix these issues, and while Maxis created several DLC packs, none addressed the core complaints: no realistic evolution, needlessly cute aesthetic and lack of gameplay depth. Concepts for improved versions abounded, but few had any rigor or attainable goals.
First Era: Evolutions!
Feb 2009 - Mar 2010
In early 2009, a Sporum user called Hirnsausen posted screenshots of a game called Evolutions!, claiming it was a scientifically-minded Spore-like game being developed by students at Berlin University. The announcement thread has since disappeared due to a forum glitch, but there is an archived version of the first few pages. Evolutions! promised realistic-looking organisms, evolution by natural selection in the surrounding environment and extremely detailed graphics. While some Sporum users were convinced, others questioned how such a complex piece of software could exist without any fanfare elsewhere. After posting several more “screenshots”, Hirnsausen admitted the entire thing had been a hoax. His stated intention was to convince EA/Maxis they had competition in the hopes they’d address Spore’s issues.
While EA never even noticed, several users decided it wouldn’t be a crazy idea to make the hoax a reality, developing their own spiritual Spore successor. Some notable members of this team were Hirnsausen, ParadoxJuice and ~sciocont. Hirnsausen took the lead of the Evolutions! development team and wrote a basic design overview, setting up a forum dedicated to the project (which has since gone offline save for occasional archive captures). The Evolutions! concept took the idea of Spore and ran with it to extreme levels, adding editors for everything from organs to events, all set within a realistic simulation of evolution by natural selection.
The Evolutions! project went about as well as anyone could expect of a disorganized team of dissatisfied Spore fans, many of whom were teenagers or younger. Some people did develop comprehensive gameplay mechanics (such as ~sciocont’s organism editor) but it was mostly talking about unfeasible mechanics with little to no proper work being done. Prototypes never progressed beyond the most basic (and even those were made in Scratch). Only outlines of gameplay systems could ever be created.
During this time many other notable figures from Thrive’s past appear, including US_of_Alaska, Tenebrarum, Commander Keen, Inca and The Uteen. They joined the Evolutions! Forums at some point that year.
In an unnerving mirror of Spore’s development, a rift appeared in the Evolutions! team. This time, however, the rift was between Hirnsausen and almost every other user. Spambots became frequent on the forums, but Hirnsausen was absent too often to deal with them and didn’t give administrative privileges to anyone else. Calls for changes went unanswered, and the label of development was misleading at best, so people got frustrated. Some users set up a backup forum (*) containing the most important concepts just in case the worst happened.
Feeling abandoned, some users broke off from Evolutions! in early to mid 2010, taking the most fleshed-out concepts via the backup forum and one other forum to a new development forum (*). A poll was conducted and Thrive was chosen as the new name. This forum was the centre of Thrive development for most of its history.
Hirnsausen, ParadoxJuice and others continued trying to get Evolutions! back on track, but it disintegrated when their forum went down permanently. Some users, including ParadoxJuice and Inca, eventually discovered Thrive. Others have never been heard from since.
Second Era: Non-Development Development
Mar 2010 - Mar 2013
By the time 2010 became 2011, Thrive was its own entity. The forum was bustling, now with ~sciocont in charge and plenty of moderators to deal with spambots. Members returned to locations such as the Sporum to promote the game and ask for developers, having shed the weight of Evolutions!.
Sometime at the beginning of this stage several programmers appeared (Bashinerox and roadkillguy being the most important to the narrative). Bashinerox was clearly more skilled than any of the previous programmers, and for once it seemed procedurally-generated organisms would see the light of day. Until, with no explanation, he disappeared.
Many had placed their faith in Bashinerox to do the proper development, which until then had been rare. Since most forum users were still ex-Spore fans hoping for something amazing to replace it, the forum was largely a hub of speculation and baseless ideas. There were exceptions of course, mostly from the senior members and moderators mentioned earlier, but most discussion could never really pass for development. As a result, Bashinerox and the other programmers felt they’d been unjustifiably tasked with creating impossible features, which is a fair judgement.
Even so, the team expanded their web presence from 2010 to 2013 in several ways. In the hope of creating a solid outreach system they created an IndieDB page featuring more professional news updates. A recurring Devblog also emerged on the forum, written by ~sciocont (and later NickTheNick). From the outside and even from a cursory glance of the forums the project looked like it had traction, but below the surface very little was happening. In three years some incredibly detailed concepts emerged, but there wasn’t a prototype to speak of. In late 2012 Seregon started work on the Thrive codebase on GitHub, which we still use today, but at the time it was experimental and only involved engine work.
In mid 2012 the frustration at the lack of progress resulted in roadkillguy, the last remaining programmer, announcing his resignation (*). He believed the team was in the wrong state to ever create anything tangible, having been founded by ideas people who had a distorted perspective of what was achievable, rather than programmers who knew how difficult it would be to implement ideas suggested by ‘everyone and their dog’. The project was effectively little more than a sponge for Spore 2 wishlists.
To add to this, the team’s roster of members was being renewed fairly regularly. Three or four stayed for this entire period, but elsewhere members left and joined left, right and centre. It’s at this time though that the first Thrive members still with us arrived (Oliveriver). Several members tried to attract programmers elsewhere on the internet, and there was a general refocus towards the Microbe Stage exclusively for the time being to keep targets achievable, but if the project was to survive something else needed to happen.
Third Era: Boom and Bust
Mar 2013 - Jul 2015
By early 2013 the project had recovered a little from the crisis of 2012. Beyond all belief, the first internal releases emerged, but these were no more than tech demos. The project still had little chance of success. In March, a few anonymous Reddit users changed everything.
Outside of the Evolutions! and Thrive bubble, opinions of Spore had hardened. Even the most devoted fans were abandoning it, and it was often used as a prime example of EA’s issues as a game studio. Like the original Sporumers, many were hungry to see Wright’s concept revived, to get the evolution game they’d dreamed about.
One day in March 2013, someone posted a screenshot of comments on the Spore 2005 demo angry at how it hadn’t lived up to anywhere near its potential. Someone posted a link to Thrive’s forums in the comments, and another user submitted the link as its own post. Thanks to the communal need for another Spore, it quickly reached the front page and the Thrive forums were overloaded with newcomers. This event is known as the Reddit Boom. It was a mess, but within the huge influx the project received something it desperately needed: programmers.
Nimbal was the most important of these new programmers. Together with ~sciocont, NickTheNick and others, he formulated the first version of the Game Design Document. For the first time, the project had achievable features laid out properly for a programmer to understand. A few others coded prototypes too, incorporating basic evolutionary changes, compound processing systems and an early draft for the microbe editor. In the few months following the Reddit Boom, the project saw its fastest period of development and engagement. Thanks to WJacobC the team set up social media outlets, and Oliveriver built an early version of the Thrive website to replace the IndieDB feed and forums as the center for Thrive outreach.
All these changes should be taken with a grain of salt. roadkillguy returned in the midst of activity and still derided the project’s direction. In retrospect we can say the project had started on the road towards success, but there was still a lot to do.
The superficiality of Thrive’s progress became clear the following year, when the initial burst of activity wore off. Programmers were still working in the intervening time, but updates were still relatively basic. Developer jjonj joined around this time, and from late 2013 to mid 2014 was the only programmer actively working on the engine.
In an effort to focus development further, the team introduced an application system to separate developer discussion from the fan discussion which had plagued the project’s history. The first version of this involved a separation of the forum into two sections, with members having to post an application thread to be accepted into the developer section. It was successful at reducing useless discussion in the places that mattered, but led to the side effect of the forum as a whole tipping far more towards the fan discussion the change had meant to eliminate.
Thanks to the new perspectives of extra members and renewed understanding of the project as a whole, this period saw the greatest shift in the underlying Thrive philosophy. It may have started out as a revitalization of Spore, but soon the motives changed to the general pursuit of a good simulation game. A lot of concepts in the old days were directly inspired by Spore, but by the end of this period Spore rarely even came up in development discussions about game mechanics. Now the team feels it's misleading to label the game simply as Spore 2 or a Spore successor, although we realize much of the project's popularity comes from that assumption. There are some undeniable concepts inspired by Spore, such as the overarching game structure and use of stages, but the direct mechanics have changed massively since their first inception, necessitating a move away from the mechanics of Spore.
Actual development in this period was slow but meaningful. Nimbal created the first version that looked vaguely like a game in October 2013, shortly before his departure, and jjonj picked up where he left off, adding elements such as GUI and an editor. In mid 2014 moopli rejoined (having joined in 2013 but leaving soon after) and sped up the release of 0.2.3. Its flagship features were new AI species, reproduction budgeting and save/load states. Unfortunately, it took until February of 2015 for the next release, 0.2.4, to be finished, typifying the slow but steady nature of the project at this time. Other events of note include the arrival of tjwhale and StealthStyleL, and the departure of ~sciocont, the team’s only remaining link to the past.
Fourth Era: Actual Cell-Shaped Cells
Jul 2015 - Aug 2016
By mid 2015 it was clear the forum structure wasn’t working. Add to that the fact the forum host had started adding spam links to posts and development seemed to be moving further inwards thanks to the core team’s reliance on the newly utilised Slack, and it was obvious something needed to change.
Over several months the team expanded the idea of separation for the good of development by setting up two forums: a new development forum and a community forum. Now fans were free to run wild with ideas as they pleased (and, as it turned out, a startlingly large number of forum roleplays) while proper development happened elsewhere. The application system was revamped to an email-based system run through the website, with the new development forum invitation-only. By June 2015 the entire system was in place and the old development forum, which for so long had served as the center for Thrive, was abandoned. It was a necessary change, as since then the old forum has become malware central.
In mid 2015, TheCreator joined as a programmer and started work on the procedural membrane needed for 0.3.0. This was the first time the game had actual cell-shaped cells. It arrived in late 2015, followed shortly by 0.3.1 in early 2016.
Since then, development has progressed at a leisurely pace, determined by members’ free time. The team has progressed beyond its roots to a more secure footing, with semi-regular releases and well-defined web presences (as well as a second edition of the Game Design Document).
From mid 2015 onwards, the team has published Devblogs as news installments on the website. Some of these have concerned releases, while others are either minor progress updates or announcements of other events. The most notable of the latter were a discussion of how to create evolution games with the developer of Species: ALRE (who first made contact some time in 2014) and a general Thrive survey. At the same time, outreach on Facebook and Twitter has stepped up, helping sustain the sense of progress needed to keep motivation high.
At this time 0.3.2 was released, featuring compound clouds. It’s incredible that the project has somehow sustained itself for so long despite all its trials and the impossibility of the whole venture. Although it's had a turbulent past, and actually looked like it was about to die off at times, Thrive's now stronger than it's ever been.
Nearing the end of this period the old programmers became inactive, and hhyyrylainen took over the vacant position of programming team lead.
Fifth Era: Engine changing
2017 - May 2020
With all of the old programmers gone who understood how the custom Thrive engine worked, the new programming team lead, hhyyrylainen, set out to change the Thrive engine. After one false start with UE4, and a lot of time, Thrive was moved over to the Leviathan engine (https://forum.revolutionarygamesstudio.com/t/switching-engines/340).
Eventually the change was completed and most of the old features were reimplemented, with also some new features, resulting in the release of Thrive 0.4.0, a year and a half after the last release.
The latest Thrive Community Forum was started during this time.
Sixth Era: Semi-professional Development
2020 - Early 2022
The idea of including money in Thrive's development was controversial for years, but during the long gap in releases during the engine change leadership began to question old opinions. Oliveriver would make a developer forum post discussing the idea as far back as 2017, and individual developers would experiment with Patreon starting in late 2018. By 2019 Hhyyrylainen began serious discussion on handling finances more formally, culminating with the creation of Revolutionary Games as an association registered in Finland: https://forum.revolutionarygamesstudio.com/t/revolutionary-games-studio-is-now-an-association/773
As of July 2021 Revolutionary Games was collecting approximately 600 USD a month on Patreon, with hhyyrylainen as a paid part-time developer. Thrive now maintains an active Github repository with regular pull requests. In 2021 Revolutionary Games would also draft a CLA agreement, granting the associating the rights needed for a Steam release. Most developers would sign, and Thrive released on Steam Early Access and Itch.io on November 26, 2021. Thrive would maintain a "Very Positive" overall reviews as of early 2022.
Seventh Era: The Youtube Boom
2022 - ???
Oliveriver first joined Thrive during the second era, primarily making music for the project, but drifted away over the years, being mostly inactive by 2021, instead building a successful Youtube channel featuring video essays about...things. The release of Thrive on Steam renewed Oliveriver's enthusiasm for Thrive, cumulating in a video telling Thrive's story.
This exposed Thrive to a larger audience, and soon there was a new wave of fans and volunteers. Some were short-lived, but many stuck around and began adding features that had been on the drawing board for years, such as the cillia organelle spearheaded by Roseae. Oliveriver personally re-joined the project as a programmer, developing the first new game settings. Shortly prior to the video's release, Hhyyrylainen was working on a prototype for the Multicellular stage, the first time a stage beyond Microbe was included in the main repository of Thrive. That prototype released in April. The combination of these two events was likely responsible for the increase in funding that followed, largely driven by Steam sales. With new resources and momentum, Hhyyrylainen committed to developing a prototype for every stage by the end of the summer.
Sadly the transition to 3D would prove trickier than expected, and by the end of summer only the early and late multicellular stage (increasingly called multicellular and "macroscopic" stages) had prototypes. Plenty of other features from other developers would complete, however, such as the procedural patchmap and reworked engulfment.
So what now? Sure, there's a game out today, but will we ever get the "real" Thrive?
An open-source project of this magnitude without funding has never been attempted before to our knowledge, but to come so far and not die is encouraging. Years since the last founder left, we continue to foster a community of science enthusiasts and game developers building from those first foundations. We still hope to achieve Will Wright’s vision of a procedurally generated universe, although this time we’re taking it one step at a time. With every feature added, we add just a little gameplay that has never existed before, and people will get to enjoy that gameplay whether or not Thrive ever reaches those original goals. And we might just learn some science along the way.
This project is already the sum of over a decade of work, even if a lot of it wasn’t really development. Both the veterans who have chosen to stick around and new members joining today are well aware of how long the rest of Thrive might take. In fact, the project's story might have become an asset; there are a lot of people who want to see Thrive succeed, simply because so many people have worked for so long. It could still die, or run into a development hurdle that this volunteer team isn't capable of overcoming, but it might not. Perhaps we will see a day where a young gamer, who wasn't even born when Spore was released, is building a stellar empire at the culmination of a long game of Thrive. Perhaps, to that player, the story of how confusing, random, and unlikely Thrive's development was will appropriately match the story of how life came to be in the real world. And as the player’s spaceships enter the Ascension Gate at the end of the game for the first time, we hope they’ll appreciate what it took to get there.