Hands on with Xbox One's game maker, Project Spark.
There’s a joy in creating. From the earliest age if you give a child an empty cardboard box it will become everything from a secret hideaway for a superhero to a racing car travelling at breakneck speed. As we grow older there’s Lego, a wonderful invention for which I will always want to hug every Dane I meet, and in more recent years the digital equivalent, Minecraft.
The older you get, however, the harder it is to harness that creativity. Unless you commit to learning an instrument or taking drawing classes there aren’t as many playgrounds left for us. Some look to games as an area where you can express yourself, but most of the time you’re playing with templates set by others. In Skyrim and GTA the worlds may appear to have boundless possibilities but when you crunch the numbers they are both finite and restrictive.
Imagine instead if you were the one creating the worlds, choosing the fate of the player and the rules by which they live. With Project Spark this is exactly the chance you are handed. Project Spark isn’t a game but a game maker, cracking open the alchemy of development and allowing you to stretch your imagination once more.
If the prospect of jumping straight into making the next Halo is more than a tiny bit intimidating then do not fear. No prior knowledge on making games is required and no grand design docs are expected up front. Instead, your adventure will begin by making an adventure.
The meaty but well-presented tutorial takes you through the key stages of setting up a very basic game. There’s the sculpting of the world, the creation of characters, and placing a goal for which to strive. Each are hidden within layers of a potentially overwhelming menu but at no stage does it rush any of its lessons, ensuring the basics are both absorbed and appreciated. Some may consider the pace somewhat slow but what is being taught is the very foundation for making the most of Project Spark and so is worth dwelling on.
And when it’s done you’ll have created a game. You’ll have raised mountains, cut rivers into the bedrock, and decorated the landscape with trees through which goblins will stalk your noble knight. Now, it’s not going to be staring down at you from the peak of Metacritic - you are but a generic hero racing a goblin to a flag, after all – but let’s not sneer at it as it’s a starting point. A starting point for introducing you to some very complex items through some very subtle methods.
Creating a character is no trickier than selecting cereal during an online shop with Tesco.Although the tutorial touches on complex sounding subjects such as AI and terraforming, it treats each with kid gloves so as not to scare anyone. Creating a character, for instance, is no trickier than selecting cereal during an online shop with Tesco. Choose your protagonist, preferably one with a big sword, and then from a sizeable list select a “brain” you want them to use. With no additional tweaking your hero is ready to quest as that brain will take your button mashing and translate it into broad sword strokes and mighty lunges. Alternatively, drop down a goblin and pick from the shelf the default baddie brain and as soon as your hero wanders close by the little green fella will rush after him trying to nut him.
The team behind Project Spark have realised that the key to getting anywhere with a game maker is to present users with as many default behaviours as possible. There are brains for cameras, brains for incidental wildlife, and even brains for coins so they may be collected and added to your stash. They have provided a tool kit that can get people moving quickly, where characters and brains can be thrown together in a matter of moments and the results tested in an equally short amount of time. Basic adventures are therefore relatively straightforward to piece together as you carve a landscape and set out to defend it.
Although the power to liberally distribute brains to a cast of characters is indeed impressive, where the true power lies is in the Kode. Each brain is formed of many lines, and potentially many pages, of abstract commands and words. Kode. Drop a new brain in and you can casually glance at the bewildering array of WHENs and DOs before exiting at haste, pretending you didn’t see a thing. But see you did and eventually you’ll have seen it enough that it no longer proves daunting. This cunning step of exposing the inner workings allows the curious to begin their adventures into Koding.
Kode is logic, and this is reinforced by the distillation of all commands down to a simple pair: WHEN a condition is true DO this. At its most basic this can be WHEN the A button is pressed DO attack, translating into the game world as your hero swinging his sword every time you press said button. The curious may tentatively change A to X and test the game with their heart in their mouth hoping they haven’t broken it. And when that succeeds maybe they’ll get a sound effect to play on another button press, or maybe on the same button press as the attack. How about a particle effect on the target when they get struck? And by that point they’ve got you.
Experimentation is how Project Spark opens up. The tutorial lays a good foundation and leaves enough doors ajar for those with enquiring minds. There are a bewildering array of possibilities with each DO statement capable of targeting any object in the game. Sound and animations are just the start as you can apply movement, damage, colour changes, and many other minor effects. From a basic start you should be able, with time and patience, to do far more than creating a goblin murder simulator.
What makes you realise that there’s more to Project Spark than a series of Fable clones are the impressive worlds that others share online. Some use the characters to recreate vast swathes of Final Fantasy VII’s cutscenes; others pay homage to classics such as Tetris; and another pushes boundaries by demonstrating how to animate otherwise inanimate objects, proudly displaying a horse he has cobbled together from, well, cobbles. The trailers for this game maker may have proudly shown off pinball and recreations of Limbo but it’s not until you see salt of the earth users like yourself pop up these sterling efforts that you begin to accept what is achievable.
Already seeing what people have crafted from a number of crates, trees, and villagers is impressive.To one extent all these sharable worlds are game in and of themselves, there for you to enjoy. But similarly they are for you to dissect and learn from. With the game still firmly in its beta phase and online documentation still in a relatively primitive state, they offer the next stage of your learning. Free to edit they contain all the logic blocks and entities the author originally used and they’re there for your perusal. From flying machines to complex state machines, there is bound to be someone who has tackled your problem first and are able to show you the ropes.
Bored with the medieval I looked to the future with my own take on my favourite NES game, Solar Jetman. I’ll forgive you for not recalling it but it features a small space craft scouring a planet’s surface for resources and treasure. Naturally I grabbed a squirrel, shoved a basic flying brain in it and then went to town. I iteratively ripped out its flying controls, replaced them with some physics that applied momentum in whichever direction the camera looked, and eventually I had my own hovering rodent. Throw down some cabbages that attached themselves whenever he flew near and I had my planet’s treasure.
None of it was revolutionary and all was built a fraction at a time upon experimentation and, most important to stress, failure. Some of the more involved commands can be a little obtuse as you wrestle with them but persistence saw me through. To see Solar Eggman (I replaced the squirrel with an egg as the tail kept getting in the way) slowly take shape was wonderfully fulfilling.
The one thing that undoubtedly held me back was discoverability. As you would expect from programming on a joypad, the interface is a little clunky. All the Kode blocks are syphoned into categories and displayed on a radial menu that goes many layers deep and until you flick through it’s quite hard to comprehend the sheer number of possibilities to hand or even to dig out the ones you’re after. Thankfully the menu filters itself intelligently to present only valid options but it can still be a pain continually returning to the same dark corner some three tiers down. Like anything, however, commonly used items will become part of your muscle memory, and as for more obscure ones let’s just say it’s handy to have a USB keyboard to hand.
For me what is exciting about Project Spark are the possibilities. Already seeing what people have crafted from a number of crates, trees, and villagers is impressive. From pinball tables that run through a forest village to a monochrome puzzler that could be a retail release on its own, they have pushed the boundaries. Heaven knows what will happen when other themed packs are released in the future.
But more than that this is an education in programming by stealth. Behind the Kode lies true coding concepts of variables, loops, containers, functions, and branching, and it lies there in a manner that breaks down potential preconceptions as to what programming actually is. This is a gateway and I wouldn’t be surprised if users who master Project Spark move from their Xbox to their PC, download Unity, and continue to create on a far broader scale.
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