Project Spark Preview: Sparking an Inferno of Fun

 

When Microsoft showed off Project Spark at its big XBOX One reveal, the response was a collective “huh?” Project Spark is not a game that lends itself to a three-minute video at a showy press conference — indeed, it’s not even the kind of game that lends itself to a prose preview article.

In fact, it’s not even really a game, at least in the sense that I understand the word. It’s a tool for creating games, and if you happen to play the game you’re creating, or a game that someone else has created using it, so much the better. It’s a level editor on a massive scale, a creative suite, an engine for harnessing the imagination. The only thing that vaguely comes close is Minecraft’s Creative Mode, and with the right person at the helm, Project Spark offers glimpses of a world far beyond Notch’s creation.

Rather than try to describe the game in full, I will stick to my personal experience of it: a hands-on demo at the XBOX One Press Preview in San Francisco. Walking into a large room filled with expensive electronics, I saw Project Spark along one side. Even after a few minutes peering over someone’s shoulder, I was lost, so I asked a representative for a guided tour.

The people behind Project Spark will tell you that it’s easy to learn, that the “game” walks you through it. This is not strictly true. But with a competent assistant, the basic elements become clear, and from behind them, a vast realm of possibility appears. You start by generating a random world. This involves picking a tile-set — Forest, Arctic, or Desert — and manipulating a number of other sliders. Creators set the height of the peaks, the angle of the slopes, the breadth of the rivers — every conceivable detail of this brand-new, 3D world. Some of these features will be familiar to fans of strategy and sim games. After a few minutes spent moving sliders back and forth, I decided I was satisfied, and the XBOX One busied itself generating my world — reticulating splines, as gamers of a certain age will remember, but with a slightly different purpose.

 

My guide then had me try my hand at simply terraforming the world I had created. Using the controller, I leveled mountains, filled valleys, created fields of strange-looking, column-like outcroppings. The engine responded seamlessly and intuitively, coating horizontal surfaces with vegetation and blending new terrain features seamlessly into old ones. Mistakes could be undone — in part or in whole — with the squeeze of a button. As I scrolled past various options, I saw the dizzying array of different cursors, textures, and materials that can be used to transform the world — speaking to Polygon’s Tracey Lien, designer Claude Jerome explained how you can plant a single flower or a field of flowers, simply by changing the size of your paintbrush. What’s more, Project Spark supports three different kinds of input — controller, touch, and Kinect — and you can seamlessly switch between them as the task at hand requires.

Eventually, it was time to pick a spot, and drop in an avatar. I picked an outdoorsy female with a bow — more or less at random, and despite the many other options available. I was assured that it would be easy to create my own avatar if I didn’t like any of the options; this would be a recurring theme throughout my Project Spark experience: the game has an insane number of pre-generated things to pick from, but it’s designed for the express purpose of letting you create your things from scratch if you’d like. More on this later.

With a character in place, I had to make a decision. What kind of game would my game be? I opted for a third-person brawler, which meant I was soon leaping around the world and throwing simple punches. Next step was to spawn in some goblin enemies — another guided scroll through a dizzying array of menus and pre-generated options. I set the game world to “live” and waded in, eventually bopping them bloodlessly to death. A quick button press returned the world to its original state.

This is where things got really interesting. I was instructed to spawn in some fellow humans, mortal enemies of the goblins. I did so, and then watched from a nearby crag as the two forces did battle. The humans won handily. Time to give the goblins some help.

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