Spark it up.
Recently, at an Xbox event hosted by Microsoft in the Xbox Loft One in San Francisco, CA, two very enthusiastic developers walked us through a lengthy demo of their upcoming development sandbox Project Spark. While the team has been working around the clock to bring the game online both for Windows and Xbox gamers, I’ve been relatively uninterested in the idea of a Microsoft-branded play-create-and-share sandbox.
Why? What’s wrong with Microsoft? Creative minds can certainly overtake the harsh realities of an all-shooter landscape on the big, black Xbox One, but that doesn’t keep Project Spark from sticking out like a sore thumb on the platform… in a good way! Obviously, anyone can hop on their computer and develop a game right now, but Project Spark aims to open up an entire flower bed of possibilities and, more importantly, easy sharing.
Between the Xbox One demo and the Windows 8.1 demo, the gigantic Windows touchscreen seemed to display Project Spark at a higher resolution. I don’t know if I could trade the controller input for a big touchscreen, but certainly gamers more accustomed to PC play with a mouse and keyboard will feel right at home with fine controls on Windows platforms. Regardless, the ease of sharing with other creators is Project Spark’s greatest asset, making swapping even individual components between players far more accessible than expected from a create-play-share game.
I’ve been playing games to learn something, but teaching others to teach themselves can be a far higher goal opening up doors not just between hearts and minds, but into entirely new levels of creativity. Developers from Team Dakota and Microsoft Studios flew back and forth between community-made levels in the beta program. On the Windows 8.1 touchscreen, it was easy to move between menu screens and select different levels but once a level was tapped, another menu expanded to allow the player to jump straight into playing, sharing, or editing.
Once in the editor, players could pick individual elements and move them around as they like, even taking creations from other players and quickly pasting them into a new or existing level. The developers said that this would still give the original creator credit, and that levels don't allow unlimited items, but there aren’t really limits set on bringing other level pieces into a new couch-created experience. It felt like a whirlwind of creative, sometimes short, sometimes obscenely inventive levels during our walkthrough, but one still sticks out in my mind.
Among recreations of Fable cutscenes or a village pinball table, Colour gave the best impression for hope in Project Spark. Described as “an experimental trip through highly stylized visuals [showing] the power of Project Spark to create dazzling art,” creator NieNieChu even impressed the toolset's creators with unique blends of colors and textures. The level itself didn’t do very much, featuring an open field with some progression from start to finish, but it was still interesting to see how wild things could get with totally open access to the toolset.
Project Spark developers have also featured community made levels like The Poem's Sprite (an "amazing representation of 'pixel art' shows that the possibilities are endless in Project Spark") and Zoo of New Creatures (featuring plenty of unique animals to borrow for another level). In the end, no matter the creation, there'll probably be something worthwhile both to play and to steal (while giving credit) for a brand new experience.
I don’t know if I’m a creator, but Project Spark’s community will certainly get me to dip my feet in the water, whether I make a funny alteration to someone’s needlessly violent simulation to turn crude violence (which Xbox already has enough of) into a high-score contest for hugging or to see what I can do in 30 minutes with the unique and deep creation tools. Beta or not, Project Spark will prove to be a unique and important development for Xbox One gamers whether they wanted it or not.