PREVIEW: Project Spark [Xbox One / X360 / PC]

The next generation is, of course, all about publishers showing what they can do with the new technology. Among other offerings, Microsoft is pushing Project Spark as an example of the capabilities of their entire hardware system, and of course the Xbox One. They have put together a team solely dedicated to this project, and a community has already formed to create and share the possibilities made available for players, who are not quite players but maybe users. Aficionados of user-generated content will find a lot to be excited about here.

Project Spark is less of a game and more of a platform for digital creativity and game design. Its avowed aim is to break down all barriers to creativity and personal expression by providing intuitive, simple mechanics for world building and gameplay design.

There are a couple of things that are instantly engaging: First, it’s free to play! the entire package will be fully available at launch, although we can expect some microtransactions for cosmetic updates. This F2P model has not been really pursued in the console space so it will be interesting to see how it works.

Also, it is usable across multiple platforms. Of course, as a launch title for the Xbox One, we can expect the new console to be a preferred platform with full functionality (especially through Kinect). However, it is also playable through Windows PC, Windows tablets, and Xbox 360, which significantly enhances its accessibility and almost makes it something of a mobile title. Part of the demo we saw was on a 60-inch touchscreen which was pretty engaging, and this suggests that it may be possible to use Project Spark through relatively inexpensive Smart Boards, which are often available in schools and universities.

[img_big]center,11404,2013-06-24/Project_Spark_Screen_Shot_16.png,Project Spark[/img_big]

The base world-building looks something like Populous in HD, although it is even simpler to build earth and take it away, and water automatically forms on low-lying land. A simple click or touch then adds context-dependent textures and biomes of different scales onto the environment. Finally, objects and NPCs can be added along with text-based speech, missions, and various mechanics for interactivity. It is these added behaviours that can be added that are so exciting, and actually have the potential to develop object-oriented programming skills in players.

Simple palette-like tools allow users to add “brains” to any object: There are a suite of brains pre-designed by the developers and community, but it is also possible for users to design their own and add them to the options available. For example, the “exploding bird” brain makes an object fly into the air and pop when the player approaches. Any object (rocks, houses) can be given this brain – not just birds – which allows for amazing creativity. A simple switch allows for the world to be instantly playable, encouraging rigorous playtesting.

If the “create from scratch” challenge is too much, a “crossroads” mode gives users a preset narrative and game palette to create and modify their own game. There is also a deep Creative Commons and crowd/open sourcing philosophy behind Project Spark: Every project is not only playable but modifiable with the entire program open for perusal and modding, and all authors are given credit for their iteration of play testing and development. This mirrors yet another aspect of game development in the real world.

[img_big]center,11404,2013-06-24/Project_Spark_Screen_Shot_20.png,Project Spark[/img_big]

So far, Project Spark may sound much like other examples: Little Big Planet comes to mind, and there are obvious similarities around the creation and sharing mechanics. However, there are also important differences. Project Spark provides a 3D environment rather than a 2D (or 2.5D) platformer, which aligns more with the expectations of players used to shooters, and gives another whole dimension (or a half) of creative possibility.

There is also more of an attempt to recreate, even within a rather cartoony aesthetic, lifelike environments (snow, desert, woods). As charming and fun as Little Big Planet’s craft aesthetic is, it is ultimately limiting for creative possibilities.

Finally, and most significantly, Project Spark is not a game with a level editor attached: The creation tool is the game. This may provide challenges for learning the various tools, but exemplar levels and community sharing will no doubt ease the learning curve.

The embryonic community has created some levels that show the possibilities of Project Spark, whether at the hands of a mastermind-like auteur or a team of developers through various iterations. One creator developed a simple blackjack game to which subsequent users added art assets, then a speed mechanic, and finally a “bad advice” version with an NPC who would try to mislead the player into making bad decisions and bets. Another user has singlehandedly created a full thirty-minute goblin kingdom game with sophisticated level and mission design, and yet another has created a full in-game episode of Miami Vice, replete with cheesy dialogue and car and boat chases. It looks like the rhetoric of making Project Spark a genuinely amazing platform for creativity might well match reality.

With all the endless hype of shooters, 60FPS visuals, and cinematic battle games, it is genuinely exciting to see an offering which promises something right out of left field. Project Spark seems to offer a wide multi platform and free-to-play game – er, thing – that is much less a simple game than a platform for digital creation. The possibilities for personal expression and, yes, even real learning, seem closer than ever with the new generation, and you can sign up for the beta now.

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