Project Spark Preview: Sparking an Inferno of Fun

 

Help came by literally going into the AI “brains” of the goblins and editing their behavior to make them more powerful. More specifically, it meant designating some goblins as healers, who would protect the others when the going get tough. This required delving into the game’s simple, icon-based programming language, which is a joy to behold. I’m far from a programmer, but even I could follow along as I was being instructed: go into the goblin brain menu, add a line that says (here I’m paraphrasing) “when” “nearby goblin” “has low health” “cast” “healing spell” “on nearby goblin.” Each of these phrases was represented by a chunky, recognizable icon. Compared to lines and lines of code, it’s elegant, colorful, and easy to tell at a glance what everything refers to. So easy, in fact, that a child could use it. Again, more on this later.

Goblin healers, of course, need to look distinctive. Adding two huge femur bones in the form of a shaman headdress took about thirty seconds. Using the programming language to add a “whirling leaves” animation every time my character jumped was similarly simple. Soon I was watching the leaves swirl around my feet as the goblins won in a narrow victory, aided by their new healing spells.

There was one final feature, arguably the most exciting: motion capture. Using the XBOX One’s Kinect camera, I was able to record a custom animation to play as a kind of goblin battle cry. Seconds later, my motions were translated in-game, and the goblins were acting them out. Same goes for voice, which can be used to create dialog, unit barks, and sound effects. Fledgling designers could conceivably act out entire cutscenes, complete with blocking, for the Kinect camera, and translate them directly into the game with a minimum of fuss.

It is worth bearing in mind that what I’m describing above is the fraction of the Project Spark feature-set that can be conveyed to a reasonably informed person over the course of about 20 minutes. I am confident that this is only scratching the surface. Imagine the things that people will create after an hour, 10 hours, 100 hours. Moreover, what really excites me about the game is the way it will appeal to children. Minecraft is already becoming to its generation what Legos were to mine. Not only will Project Spark give free reign to the imagination of countless children and young adults, it will teach them programming as well, using an intuitive system that doesn’t rely on computer teachers or expensive textbooks. And to the extent that it does, the game is ready — Project Spark is based on Kodu, a Microsoft-sponsored educational project already in extensive use in Australia and New Zealand. This thing has the potential to train a whole new generation of game designers.

All it needs is a little push. The cartoonish graphics — which serve the dual purpose of reducing hardware load and appealing to a younger audience — might be initially off-putting. And there’s still the problem of describing what this game actually does. I hope that I did my part in that respect. I also hope that Team Dakota, the creators of the game, provide more examples of cool things people have created in the game. I heard rumors of a functioning piano. Below, find a screenshot that’s a dead ringer for Limbo. If you had Project Spark, what would you create?

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