Impression: Project Spark

Feb 3, 2014

project-spark-1One of the highlights of the Microsoft press conference at E3 last year for me was the Project Spark reveal. Even for a full time programmer like myself, creating a video game is a hugely ambitious goal and a dream I’ve had since I was a kid, drawing sprawling caverns filled with surprises and terrors across the back of my parents’ monthly desk pad calendar. My dreams never made it off the paper, but Project Spark promised to dumb the process down so even someone with a few hours a week could create a unique and engaging experience. After spending some time with the beta, I found that Project Spark mostly delivers on its promise. I wouldn’t call the process simple, but with some patience and a great idea you can create a unique and engaging experience that is all your own.

The simplest way to make a game in Project Spark is Crossroads. It is basically a choose-your-own-adventure style game creator that presents you with mostly multiple choice questions to create a fairly generic game. Terrain and few other details are highly customizable, but for the most part the experience is on-rails. I started with this mode to get a feel for the game but it grows very old very quickly. The games you will create look nice and serve as a good 15 minute demo of what Spark is capable of producing, but that’s where the fun ends. Crossroads gives your creative side very little room to express itself. You may want to start there but if you’re over the age of 10, I expect you’ll only visit once.

The real meat of the experience is in the full game editor, and it’s where Project Spark shines. You are basically given a blank canvas and the possibilities are endless. The first tutorial walks you through how to create and customize your hero, create a landscape around him, and add adversaries, but this is just the tip of the ice berg. When you dig deeper at the list of options you find that you’re given the freedom to think outside the box and create something unique. For instance, you have full control over the camera and the controls, so you can position the camera to face your hero and limit the player’s movement to backwards and forward, and you’ve started the next great sidescroller. Or throw the hero out completely and make a puzzle game!

All of this freedom comes with a cost, and the cost is a pretty steep learning curve. You can get familiar with the tutorial, which you may need to go through Project_Spark_UGC_Demo-copymore than once to remember where all the tools and options are. Once you’re comfortable with the basics, you can spend hours playing with the more advanced features and seeing what’s possible. Creating landscapes in 3D quickly becomes as easy as finger painting, and Project Spark does a great job of simplifying the game logic with a visual editor. The “Brain”, as it’s called, starts with a simple “If this, do that” interface, with options to modify for special cases. While the brain looks simple, it’s the dozens of menu items and thousands of outcomes that will keep your actual head spinning while you search the internet for someone who knows the right way to do what you want. But stick with it! What you have in mind is probably within Project Spark’s limits and the end result will be very satisfying.

Even for players without the patience to learn Project Spark’s interface, the game offers value. Even before the game’s official release there is a wealth of user generated content to explore. As the community grows, the value of Play mode will grow exponentially. Project Spark is about to put an unprecedented tool into the hands of thousands of creative minds and the result will be epic. I expect more than one game studio to start as a Project Spark project in the basement of a 14 year old.

Project Spark won’t make you a game developer. If you’ve never thought of what kind of game you could make if you had the time and know-how, you probably won’t get a lot out of it. It is a tool to bring out what is already in you. Sure, the visuals are limited to the models and textures available, but the game you create can still feel very unique. If you’ve got a great idea, and you’re willing to put in the time to learn the tools, go create something amazing.
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