[Review] Project Spark

Posted by | October 20, 2014 | Reviews | 4 Comments

Project Spark isn’t a video game. It’s an environment and an elaborate toolset for making games (and other content, like movies).  Starter content, tutorials, and—yes—games are included as part of the basic package, which is free to download. All this makes Project Spark much more than a game. It’s also a kind of social network where you’re encouraged to “remix”—to take other people’s games and edit them to make them your own.

Microsoft’s Team Dakota has been working on Project Spark for several years now, and it’s had an extensive beta. It was officially released on Xbox One and PC (Windows 8) October 7th  with an E10+ rating for fantasy violence. It’s supposed to be available for Xbox 360 sometime in the future.

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The home screen for Project Spark gives you three main choices: play games created by Team Dakota and community members, create your own games & other stuff, or buy things like upgrades, skins, weapons, and additional characters.

Using Project Spark as a World Builder

When I was a kid, I played in a real sandbox. Yup, we made villages and kingdoms with real sand and water and garden tools or sticks and our hands. I loved it. Nowadays kids indulge those same creative impulses in games—games like Minecraft and LittleBigPlanet and now Project Spark. The sand is bits and bytes and the tools are chunks of code that kids combine and mold to build amazing creations. They build whole cities out of blocks in Minecraft and new game levels in LittleBigPlanet.

In Project Spark, the building capabilities of games like Minecraft and LittleBigPlanet are pumped up into something more powerful. Project Spark is somewhere in between a graphical computer language like Unreal Engine and the simpler level-creation systems in games like Minecraft and LittleBigPlanet.

In Project Spark, the most open world-building mode is called “Start From Scratch.” It lets you create worlds from a collection of items in a toolbox.

Various modes in Project Spark for learning and making things.

There are various modes in Project Spark for learning and making things.

You can “paint” vegetation, snow, and rivers, and you can sculpt mountains and lakes. Then you can add characters and objects like trees, animals, weapons, and treasure chests. The objects come with some basic functionality, which you can edit. This can get pretty complicated pretty fast. You can open the brain of any character and mess around in it. I’d like to say it isn’t brain surgery, but it kind of is, especially if you’re completely unfamiliar with coding.

That said, I had a few moments during world creation when I felt powerful and elated—like a terraforming goddess. Even though my creations don’t look so great. With a lot of practice, I’d probably do better. It’s like having a complex and powerful digital painting set.

Yeah, don’t hire me to create your world.

Yeah, don’t hire me to create your world.

Using Project Spark as a Game Creation Engine

There are SO many ways to make games in Project Spark! Which is both a very cool thing and a problem.

Using the “Learn To Create” Tutorial

“Community member” Mescad (who is really more like the King of Community Members and a One-Person Support Dervish), says, “If you are unfamiliar with programming or games in general, it is really important to go through the “Learn To Create” tutorial at least once.  The tutorial teaches the basics of how to find features and which buttons to press.  More importantly, though, it teaches you to develop games one step at a time and that it is really safe to try new ideas.  Going from Edit mode to Test mode is so fast that you can immediately see the results of your experiment.” I would agree with that. However, although “Learn to Create” is mostly very clear, I had problems getting through it on my computer’s touchscreen without getting stuck and having to start over from the beginning. I noticed it was generally difficult to figure out how to go back one step anywhere in Project Spark, and I got stuck a lot. It probably didn’t help that I was going back and forth between operating Project Spark on my computer’s touch controls and my Xbox One controller.

Editing Someone Else’s Game/Editing Crossroads

Once you do manage to navigate the “Learn To Create” tutorial, for more practice you might want to try taking someone else’s game and modifying it before you jump into making your own game. One fairly easy way to do this is in the Crossroads game that’s included in the basic download. The Crossroads game is a basic quest-based adventure that builds in a few options for the player—things like where to place the tower, what enemies you’ll be fighting, and which order you’ll do quests in. You can go in and edit the various elements of the game any time you want. For instance, you might edit the “brain” of a certain type of enemy to heal you instead of to attack you.  After you’ve edited, you can save your creation as a new game.

Your games are saved on the server and become visible to the rest of the community. Thousands of community-created games are there, in fact, and you can take anyone else’s game and “remix” it, making a new game out of it.

Playing Games Within Project Spark

There are tons of games within Project Spark. Tons. The simple Crossroads game (mentioned above) is included in the free download, and the Starter Pack includes an adventure game called Champions Quest: Void Storm and a bunch of bonus stuff, such as a playable character, a landscape, some other content, and a one-month membership in something called Spark Premium. This video explains about the Starter Pack:

Champions Quest: Void Storm

Void Storm is an adventure game about saving a village from some goblins. You have a group of champions (depending on what you buy, you’ll get two to four of these). You make your way to a village and punch a bunch of little green goblins, and the adventure starts. As you play the narrator (who sounds like he worked for Disney in the 1960s) gives you extensive commentary. If you die, you can choose another champion to continue. If you let all your champions die, you have to start over. The levels are pretty long, and there are few save points. (The video walkthrough guy on Youtube said something like, “Oh, you’re kidding me. You have to go back to the beginning? That sucks!” I expressed that sentiment many, many times, just not in those exact words.)

Platforming, other aspects of the gameplay, and the camera feel a little glitchy. Or a lot. Depending on your standards, I guess.

Like pretty much everything in Project Spark, Void Storm is very pretty on the Xbox One. The music is, uh… stirring, I guess, with lots of drums and discordant trills and horns playing the theme. Between that and the narrator—who talks A LOT—let’s just say I did much better with the TV muted. Especially after the tenth playthrough of the same content.

Aside from the glaring lack of savepoints, the gameplay is pretty standard stuff, with platforming, puzzle challenges, and too many battles with goblins of various types. What sets the game apart is the Kode puzzles, which give you practice using the Project Spark coding system to make things work in the game. For instance, you find Kode pieces to repair an elevator and put them in the correct order to make it go up so you can continue your quest. Overall, I had a certain amount of fun, but I wished fervently for more savepoints. By the time I stopped playing, I was very familiar with how to Kode but pretty tired of the story and gameplay.

Community Games

With so many uploads, how are you supposed to find the good games? A Team Dakota spokesman said there are “…over 75,000 levels and creations being uploaded to the game…We have a feed system which sorts levels into different game feeds. The one to watch is our ‘Featured’ feed, which is selected by our team.”

I’ve taken a look at the “Featured” feed, and there are some good games there, but of course there’s a big difference between what the community is able to create and what a AAA game studio makes—or even Team Dakota’s efforts (like Void Storm). Many games, even in the featured section, while they may be beautiful or interesting, are not particularly good games. That’s because designing games is hard, and it takes years of training and practice to be able to do it well. But there’s a lesson in that, too: if you want to be a game designer, you should plan to work incredibly hard. It’s certainly inspiring that so many people have made games or game-like creations in Project Spark, and the range of community creations is fun to explore.

Figuring Out What To Buy

The good news is that you don’t have to pay anything to get started with Project Spark. Mescad explains: “If you’re a parent wanting to make a simple game with your kid, I would say that the free download of Project Spark is a good place to start.  Project Spark has a lot of default settings that let new creators get started fast. You won’t have to worry about things like telling a door how to open, or telling a sword how it should fit into your hand, because Project Spark takes care of those details for you. Later when you find yourself wanting to expand your palette, the Starter Pack is a great first purchase.  It includes a good sample of the type of content available in Project Spark, and has more advanced creation tools.”

Unfortunately, even the purchasing system in this sprawling creation engine known as Project Spark can get really confusing. You’re given lots of opportunities for in-game purchases, and sometimes it’s impossible to tell what’s included in things you’ve already bought. Mescad made a chart to help people figure out what’s included in packs and bundles.

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Mescad’s Venn diagram of a few of the purchase options in Project Spark. A T is a token, the in-game currency, and 100 of them cost roughly $1.

This post has a great explanation of the complexity involved in Project Spark’s system of credits (earned by playing games) and tokens (purchased with real money).

Microsoft says: “Revenue was never a primary goal from Project Spark. Our core vision was to make sure that price would never be a barrier to express creativity.” Which is great, but there is a lot that you can buy in Project Spark.

Learning Coding & Design With Project Spark

I asked a Microsoft spokesperson whether there were plans to promote the educational potential of Project Spark: “We have started a few test programs and we are in the process of building curricula which can be used by teachers and students. This summer we partnered with Microsoft stores in 52 cities nationwide. We developed a two-day workshop in game design for 10- to 14-year-olds. The camp was a great success with over 30,000 kids attending the camps. We also partnered with AMD and conducted a similar camp with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. We are now preparing for a game design workshop at the Computer Science Education Week.”

Because so many parents and kids are interested in the possibility of careers in game design and programming, I wanted to know whether Microsoft is hoping Project Spark would help educate the next generation of programmers. The answer was yes: “We are not just hoping! Project Spark is a deliberate investment made by Microsoft to unleash the creativity of our audience. Our beta and the first week of launch are proof of our successProject Spark has been downloaded by over 1.5 million people in a very short time span.”

What to Watch Out For

The main thing to watch out for is that Project Spark offers so much functionality that it ends up being complicated and confusing at times. There’s lots of help out there in the form of forums (check out project-spark.org) and the aforementioned Mescad, who reportedly at this point even responds to calls for help on Twitter, and there’s a Team Dakota Twitch channel that has lots of demonstrations. About the Twitch channel, Microsoft says, “Our twitch streams are gaining in popularity with over 1.5 million views for our streams. We also encourage our community to stream on Twitch and some of our community streams are outpacing our own in popularity!” But whatever you do, don’t forget about Mescad, who has “…created over 150 tutorial videos on Youtube.”

The game is rated E10+, and what that means (in Champions Quest: Void Storm, anyway) is that you can shoot or hit goblins. They fall over and disappear, but there’s no blood or gore.  However, it’s good to remember that there is community interaction and a huge variety of community content, but you can apply parental controls.

The Takeaway

In the article “Creative Production,” digital learning experts Patricia Lange and Mizuko Ito say: “The growing availability of digital media-production tools, combined with sites where young people can host and discuss media works, has created a new media ecology that supports everyday media creation and sharing for kids engaged in creative production.” Remixing is a way to play and learn, and Project Spark is right in the middle of all that—the learning wave of the future.

If you are willing or able to take the time with Project Spark, you can have fun and learn about making games. But it’s not easy. Project Spark is amazing, pretty, full of functionality, and confusing. I’ve been playing with it for a while, and I feel like I haven’t even begun to tap its potential—but I’m not sure I’ll ever find the time it would take to do so. However, if you or your kid want to spend the hours it will take to figure it all out—if you’re burning to learn how to code and make games—Project Spark and its forums and tutorials might be exactly the place to start.

Linda Breneman

About Linda Breneman

Linda learned to play video games as a way to connect with her teenaged kids, and then she learned to love video games for their own sake. At Pixelkin she wrangles the business & management side of things, writes posts as often as she can, reaches out on the social media, and does the occasional panel or talk. She lives in Seattle, where she writes, studies, plays video games, spends time with her family, consumes vast quantities of science fiction, and looks after her small cockapoo. She loves to hear from people out there. You can read more about her at her website, Linda Breneman.com or her family foundation's website, ludusproject.org.