Project Spark is not a game. That’s the first thing you need to wrap your brain around.
Actually describing it is both simple and complex. It gives you all the tools you need to create your own games. But it does so in a way that’s vastly denser and more potentially rewarding than any consumer-centric software I’ve ever seen.
Coming out of a lengthy beta, the full version of Spark recently released on Xbox One and PC, and it’s currently available for free on those platforms. You can dive straight into a tutorial which gives you a rundown on how to create a third person action title and then you’ll find yourself in a menu crammed full of other creations.
The developers say that prior to launch over 1 million users created 70,00 levels using these tools and while those numbers are impressive the actual creations themselves are… decidedly mixed.
You see, while there’s a lot going on under the hood of Project Spark, it’s an (unsurprisingly) complicated process to create something unique. So given the tools at your disposal, the vast majority of games end up looking and playing like a low rent version of Fable, with the odd giant Squirrel thrown in for good measure.
But it’s still very early days and there are some real gems to be found from users who have managed to create puzzle titles and fluid first person shooters and created lateral solutions to problems that I couldn’t even begin to solve.
A new session in Project Sparks starts with a blank space and lets you go wild. You can add a texture to the ground and then sculpt every trough and furrow. It’s the most viscerally engaging part of the process – using your controller to claw the earth away or shape massive mountain ranges. Plop in some trees (or a hundred trees) and create a pathway and you have a world.
It’s after this point that things get really complicated – and you start to realise why so many of the user created levels are so generic. Each action has a when/do logic to it. So the tutorial starts by introducing you to your controls – when you hit A, your character jumps for example. Imagine mapping each of your controls in that way, navigating menus with the thumbsticks, and you’ll very quickly have an idea of what the game is expecting of you.
Every object in the world requires the same logical pathways – from an enemy brain to a door switch. And while there are templates available for almost everything once you start to layer on more complex interactions things can quickly become very confusing indeed.
In this way, gamers get to discover the level of complexity involved in bringing even the most basic video game to life and that educational role is very useful. But the dense nature of proceedings is also going to be truly divisive – some people will be on board and others will run for the hills.
And the developers realise that too. In making Project Spark entirely free to dive into you can get a complete idea of what to expect with no money down. Some might exit permanently while others will dip back in at a later time when the user created levels have a bit more polish.
And then here are the creators – the ones who start out with not only a vision but a concept of how to bring it to life from a barren piece of code to a level of hitherto unseen complexity. Whether it’s astounding visual design or an entirely new take on a familiar genre, these are the people who are going to really prove what Project Spark has to offer in the days and weeks and years to come.
Project Spark is in its infancy right now and the community is also a fledgling thing but there’s already real potential in the mix. The creator controls are both accessible and dense, and the ability to leap into another user’s code means that any gameplay session is also a learning experience. Some people will be entirely intimidated by its systems and put off by the rudimentary creations that are currently in the mix but others will be instantly enthralled. Give it a little time and get ready to see the next generation of game developers emerge from its creative chrysalis.
Please note: while the main game is free you can also buy a Starter Pack for €39.99 which gives you an episodic game (for a taste of what you can do with the software) as well as unlocking bonus objects and characters and abilities. You also get 1 months access to Project Spark premium which doubles the amount of XP and credits you earn which are used to unlock parts of the software.