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Impressions: Project Spark beta

Project Spark header

Creation tools that double as games seem to be gaining in popularity, and it’s easy to see why. Many of them allow our creativity to run wild, and give us gamers a chance to feel like developers. Microsoft is throwing their hat into the ring with this creation from Team Dakota, but will it allow you to truly project sparks of imagination? Read on to find out.

First announced at Microsoft’s E3 2013 presentation, Project Spark is regarded as one of the big guns in Microsoft’s corner. The first thing you notice about Project Spark is also its biggest downside: you need Windows 8 to play it on PC. Clearly this is to build the game on architecture common to Xbox One and PCs, but Windows 8 hasn’t been too widely adopted. Not that it’s a bad OS [It’s a pretty bad OS. – Ed.], just that it takes more time to learn and be fluent in than Windows 7 [It’s also a pretty bad OS – Ed.]. Naturally this won’t apply if you play the game on 360 or Xbox One [But Windows 8 will nevertheless continue to exist all around you, which makes the world an infinitely more terrifying place. – Ed.] once Microsoft’s current-gen console launches locally in September, but I can see the majority of gamers choosing the PC version.

Project Spark Windows 8

The heart of Spark is the creation mode. Enthusiastically (yet sparsely) shown off at E3, creation mode is where you can let your imagination run wild and build stuff. But the best way I can describe it is like this: imagine you have a canvas and hundreds of colours, but only one big paintbrush. Creation in Spark is done with broad strokes and it’s clear this game lets you craft worlds, not finely detailed levels. As such you might find the creation tools too limited when it comes to making small adjustments or details.

Some of your creation tools include being able to raise or erode the landscape, flatten and level out surfaces, paint, and a very cool tool called “cubify” applies a boxy surface to everything. Another limitation is that the worlds feel small. There’s a cap to how much landscaping you can do, so you’ll have to make a choice of size over detail. Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be any way of linking one game to another. So at the moment one level is all you get to craft a game in.

Project Spark Base world

That said, creation mode gives even the least tech-savvy gamers (like me) the ability to create their own games. The tutorial is a must play, but at this point in the beta is too limited and doesn’t teach you more advanced designs or how to code complex behaviours. Hopefully this will change in the future, because while a dedicated and collaborative fanbase is acceptable for an indie game (think Minecraft and its user-created guides), it isn’t acceptable for a big first-party title.

Coming to grips with creation mode means learning how to program the brains of your props. In Spark speak, props mean any object not part of the environment, like buildings, items, NPCs or the player. Programming starts off easily, but can hurt your brain if you don’t know how to program (like me). Based on Kodu Game Lab, programming is as straightforward as entering variables in two tables: “when” and “do”. So for example: “When: space pressed, Do: jump”. It’s covered in the tutorial and simple actions like movement, camera control, ranged and melee attacks and dodging are all easy to program. It’s even possible to change some variables, so if you want your character to quad-jump 100 metres, or dodge-roll in the blink of an eye, you can.

Project Spark Brain

Like I said before, the tutorial doesn’t go too deeply into explaining the coding to you. If you want to manage an inventory, play music, trigger cutscenes or write dialogue for NPCs, then you’re all out of luck. The community might have an answer or a tutorial, but that just links to my previous complaint (the one about Minecraft). A little programming know-how will serve you well in this game, and my younger brother (currently studying Scratch) would understand this better.

Another issue with creation mode is the paywall. See, Spark has been confirmed as free-to-play, so you can download it and create games to your heart’s content. But if you want snow, deserts, castles, zombies and more than the dozen bundled character models, you’re going to need to shell out. Content is sold in packs, ranging from things like the “Castle Pack” or the “Arctic Pack” or the recent “Zombie Pack”, and theoretically you could get all of them for free. As you play you’re rewarded with points for doing… things. There isn’t a list of what “things” you need to do, you just get a pop-up whenever you’ve done the “things”. These range from understandable (“You’ve played other worlds a lot!”) to vague (“You’ve used the plateau tool a lot!”).

Project Spark Marketplace

It costs 10,000 points to buy the cheapest pack, and after many hours of dedicated play I’d barely scraped together 2,000. In short, if you want more toys, you will need to pay up. Maybe microtransactions are something we should just get used to, but it might rankle players to know that all the tools they need to recreate Winterfell or The Wall are within sight, but locked away. In its defence, all of the programming is available for free and there is a lot you can do with the tools you’re given.

This locked-out content affects the “play” side of things as well. Each day you’re gifted with Spark Points, and these deplete by the minute when you play a level with content you don’t own. So if you haven’t bought the zombie pack, you’re on a timer if you want to play anything with zombies. The user-created levels are really a mixed bag as well, and it’s clear that some people are just as clueless as I am with programming as there are many empty worlds to prove this. However, there are constantly new games being made in Spark that show off exactly how powerful this game is as a creation tool. There are platformers, action-adventures, the obligatory Tetris and Pac-Man knock-offs, as well as a highly promising Star Fox tribute.

Project Spark Star Fox

Editing these games is easy as well. So if you think the Star Fox game is improved with a few floating rings to fly through, you’re welcome to add them and save the level separately. Editing also allows you to check the coding of the level, which is a good way of learning how to code it for yourself. The most interesting game I played was Anti Smasher,  a puzzle game made entirely with the free content. The object was to make two squares connect, but the black square does the opposite action of the white square. This leads to puzzling shenanigans accompanied by excellent music.

Anti Smasher

User-created levels show off a few interesting design elements. Spark seems most comfortable letting players create 3D action-adventures games. However, being unable to finely design the level makes everything a bit messy, and the relatively small size of the world prohibits what you can do. The games above, especially Anti Smasher, show off what you can do with a little creativity and the right tools.

I built fences. And a big wall

I built fences. And a big wall.

Will Project Spark be the next big thing? It’s difficult to tell at this stage. The tutorials don’t explain enough, the content for sale is constantly in your face and the worlds are just a little too small to be full games. But it’s easy to pick up and learn, the graphics are vibrant and cartoony, and if you look hard enough you’ll find some incredibly creative games in here.

Project Spark is expected to launch later this year on PC, Xbox 360 and Xbox One. The game is going to be free to play and has some great potential, so trying it out for yourself is highly recommended.

  • PSyCHoHaMSTeRza

    When I got my beta key it was unavailable for download in SA. I had to change my PC’s regional settings to US in order to download it. Don’t know if that changed in the meanwhile though.

    • BinaryMind

      With Titanfall and Xbone release date added to the list, it seems Microsoft really hates or doesn’t have time for SA

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