spore 2Rumors persist that Electronic Arts plans to buy social gaming startup PlayFish to break into the fast-growing market of Facebook games.

In the meantime, EA continues to expand into social games on its own. Today, it launched Spore Islands, a spin-off from the create-a-creature Spore game in launched on the PC last year. It will be interesting to see if the game can get traction. Spore hasn’t set the world on fire as originally expected in the last year, though it has sold in the millions and EA is investing heavily in Spore sequels.

But the Facebook audience — as many as 300 million users — hasn’t fallen in love with brands. The top games are titles such as FarmVille, Cafe World, Restaurant Society, and Pet Society. Those games are from social game startups such as Zynga and Playfish. The games spread from friend to friend in a viral way, so advertising and brands don’t seem to matter so much — at least so far — on Facebook. The audiences, meanwhile, are huge, with more than 100 million active users among the top 10 games alone.

spore 1Spore Islands, from EA’s Maxis studio, sets up a “survival of the fittest” competition among players. Gamers can invite friends to join an island, create creatures, and set them loose in a kind of natural selection process in a two-dimensional landscape.

Caryl Shaw, senior producer of Spore Islands, said the choices of a player’s friends will directly affect the game experience that someone has. The game will remain active whether the player is logged in or not. The goal is to get your species to dominate life on as many islands as possible.

There’s a micro-transaction business model as well. Throughout the game, players can earn and purchase DNA points that they can use to modify their creature’s stats or customize their creature’s appearance with fun accessories such as hats, animations, holiday-themed items, and more. Progress is tracked on both global and friends-only leaderboards which show who is racing to the top of the food chain.

It sounds like an interesting game, but it will be a test as to whether EA can break into the market without the same kind of cross-promotion network that Zynga has as a result of having FarmVille with 62 million monthly active users. By the way, EA and Playfish both decline comment on the acquisition rumors.