Children use their imagination to build worlds all the time. Now with Microsoft’s help, they—and their parents—will have the tools to make them come alive on a screen and share them with family, friends, or anyone. Saxs Persson, the lead of the Microsoft team behind Project Spark, says, “Games are so prevalent in society–95% of kids over the age of 2 play games. It’s a common expression form with no way to express. So what can we do to break down the barriers?”
Project Spark was announced at Microsoft’s E3 press conference and as of today is available for beta registration. The game allows players to build worlds via Kinect voice commands and Microsoft SmartGlass. There are three options for creating games. Players can create a simple game through Story Starter mode by answering several questions: Hills, Rivers, or Mountain terrain? Forest, Arctic, or Desert climate? What time of day? A Windmill, Tavern, or Hut starting point? Is fetching items, defending town, or rebuilding the town your objective? Is the warrior, ranger, or goblin hero your protagonist?
As players are making these decisions, a game is proceduraly generated around them. Even the choices they decide on are randomly presented, providing thousands of permutations. But soon enough, players can be fighting goblins as a ranger or defending a windmill in a lush forest of quirky trees. Persson said, “Story Starters are focused on story archetypes, things like fairy tales; defend the village. You pick your archetypes and the game unfolds before you and in the end you have the framework for a game that you can make yours.”
Another tool provided is the ability to create and modify the Brains of creatures or even objects, controlling their behavior. There are set choices such as First Person Shooter or Third Person Adventurer you can use on the protagonist. These dictate game features, such as how the character moves, the UI showing their health, and the camera that follows them. Or using sets of If-Then statements, you can modify and create your own Brains. These can be assigned to more than the protagonist and adversaries, like the birds in the level, the rocks on the floor, etc. So you can have the birds fly away and explode when they see you or a rock jump after you like a pet. You can even tweak physical properties to make the rock bounce or float in the water. “It’s one thing to make something pretty, but it’s not truly special until you can make it do what you want. The doing part is where we spent a lot of energy,” said Persson.
And for those who want to be more hands on, they can use the Blank Slate mode to sculpt a world from nothingness, carefully crafting the hills and valleys with your fingers on the touch screen or by moving the icon with a controller. The game will create the appropriate lush graphics, such as grass and trees, but then you can adjust the size of trees or reshape a pond until you are happy. On the opposite end, a player can take a friend’s, or even a stranger’s, work and remix it. Persson said, “The first idea is usually not the best idea, and the second idea gets better, and the third idea gets even better. Every time you do a remix, you start harnessing more and more of the game’s power.”
And all of this creation isn’t happening in a vacuum. When a player creates or remixes an object, a brain, a level, a whole game, it is tied to them. And then that new thing, or remix of another, is shared across the world. Persson said, “The original plus the new one persists, and you still get credit as the original creator. You have all the incentive in the world. It’s the opposite of what you see on YouTube where there’s stealing. Everybody benefits if someone makes something that is more successful.”
Spark is flexible enough that you can forgo making a world or a quest and create unexpected things. One demo had a gigantic electric keyboard made from house pieces to play music on with the touch screen. The Brains and Properties system is flexible enough to create other types of games, such as a card table where you play Blackjack. Another designer later added a heckler who gives you bad advice and berates your choices as a card player.
In the demo shown at the Microsoft press conference, there was a “mech” robot made out of 500 objects. Persson said, “The first time my kids saw the demo, I thought they would want to play the battle. They actually stopped it, took the mech, and put it in their level, because that’s what they want to show off. They are convinced that what they make is better than anyone else’s.”
Microsoft seems to be working to make this a broad community. The game will be coming out for the new Xbox One, but also for Xbox 360, Windows 8, and Surface tablets. Content created on one platform will work with the others, creating a potential pool of millions of users making, remixing, and enjoying Spark creations. “We want people to do more than games. We want them to tell their stories, make something that is personal to them. Our motto internally is to inspire, not satisfy. We should set people off with ideas,” said Persson.
Project Spark will be released for Xbox 360 and Xbox One during the launch window, which is during the first few months of the new console’s release. But people can sign up for the Windows 8 beta at JoinProjectSpark.com.
[Images Courtesy of Microsoft]