The barrier for entry to create an indie video game has never been lower. Anyone with an internet connection can pick up a free development kit for Unity or Unreal Engine and hit the ground running. Although most of the major game creation programs offer fairly intuitive graphical interfaces at this point, users still need to have a solid understanding of coding and basic programming language to get things started. If you want to build a game, but don’t feel like signing up for a Comp Sci 101 class, then Microsoft’s Project Spark is the game for you.
Project Spark is a microtransaction-based Xbox One and PC game that offers two primary modes: play and create. It includes a third-person RPG adventure campaign as its primary content, but players are also free to browse hundreds of user-created games from just about every genre. Surfing through the top 30 curated games list, we found sports sims, tower defense games, racers, RPGs, and puzzle platformers.
The other side of Project Spark, which is really its selling point, is the creation studio. Users can follow along with a number of tutorials to learn the ropes of the game’s creation studio and end up with a complete level of a basic 3D adventure game. In less than an hour we were able to create a playable character, some goblins for her to fight, a flag to grab at the end of the stage, and a series of coins for the player to collect along the way. From within the creation studio, users are able to build games from scratch or remix (edit) the creations of other players.
The game’s play mode is a good place to get started in Project Spark, as the developer-built campaign introduces some basic ideas of programming along the way. The Champion’s Quest, as the main story is called, puts players in control a group of four adventurers on the hunt for a number of different objects. We took on the role of the female archer for the marathon of fetch quests and fought through hordes of goblins while learning the fundamentals of “When, Do” statements (i.e “When player presses A, Do a jump”). The game’s campaign feels a bit childish and is heavily narrated in a way that really slows things down. The short adventure game plays a bit like Diablo-for-kids, and starts to feel generic pretty quickly.
Luckily, the Play Mode of Project Spark also offers some amazing user creations. The community of creators seems to be thriving and new games are added to the selection on a daily basis. Some of the highlights include a Tetris clone, a number of tower defense games, some mini-MOBAs, a racing game where I played as a flying goblin, and a number of Angry Birds-inspired creations. It’s hard to judge the games as a whole, when each creation is made by a unique user, but we can safely say that there are plenty of high-quality mini-games being developed by the community. The top rated and top curated lists offer the best of the best and in the hours we spent exploring the community-created games, we only stumbled upon a few real duds.
Although the Play Mode is a great way to earn some in-game bucks (which we’ll return to later), the Create Mode is where we sunk most of our hours. As we predicted after our first eyes-on demo with Project Spark a few years ago at E3, the game really does offer the most powerful user-friendly game creation studio we’ve ever seen. Comparisons to LittleBigPlanet are unavoidable, but Project Spark offers a level of freedom that wasn’t as easily obtainable in the LittleBigPlanet level creator. The ability to start from scratch and tackle any genre sets Project Spark apart from similar titles in the amateur game creation realm.
The tutorial establishes the fundamentals of programming in a way that is simple enough for users of any experience level or age to dive into the fun. After just a few hours in the creation studio, I found myself stringing together some pretty complicated lines of code to enable fetch quests, interactions with inanimate objects, and in-game dialogue. If the higher level coding starts to feel a little too cumbersome, players also have the option to import pre-made commands into their characters’ brains. I used this shortcut while creating the majority of the enemies in my home-brewed sci-fi hack-and-slash game. I don’t have anything ready to add to the community area just yet, but hopefully after a few more marathon sessions I’ll have an adventure game ready for my friends to enjoy.
Project Spark’s smart terrain sculpting and painting features help make creating a crisp, clean level much faster than the professional level development kits. The landscape is smart and will adapt to its surroundings as you mold them. You can paint green grass around a river and flowers will automatically spring up to bring life to the world. Getting mountains and other unique shapes to look natural on the map is a little tougher, but we got the hang of it after a few practice sessions.
Another feature that makes level creation so accessible in Project Spark is the ability to edit (or Remix as the game likes to call it) other players’ creations. Most games in the community section will offer the option to play or remix when you select them. Lots of users have been creating awesome stock worlds, so that creators who don’t want to start from scratch can jump in and get creating. One of my favorites was an Arthurian-style castle setting that was full of beautiful locations and just waiting to be populated with NPCs and quests.
Like most free-to-play games, Project Spark has a catch. Some of the coolest props that you may want to add to your custom games will need to be purchased with an in-game currency. The marketplace money can be purchased by shelling over some real world cash or earned by spending more time in the game (either the create or play side). Money earned is slow but we jumped into the game with the $40 Starter Pack and only felt the need to spend currency on one or two irresistible items. If you don’t want to spend any real money on the game, you will need to work with just the basics for quite a few hours, but in the long run you’ll be able to pick up a few upgrades.
If the idea of Project Spark interests you, it’s absolutely worth checking out.
Project Spark is now available for Xbox One and PC. For this review, we played the Xbox One retail starter pack.
Follow Denny on Twitter @The_DFC.