I’ve wanted to make games for as long as I’ve been playing them. Being a kid, in a time before the term “gamer” was associated with video games, I was a computer enthusiast. Playing games on my ZX81 was just part of my hobby, the rest of the time I was programming.
In those early days of home computing it wasn’t unusual to dabble in a bit of BASIC programming and knock up little games. It was this pioneering spirit of bedroom coding that lead the Darling brothers to form Codemasters. For a brief time any kid could make games.
And then along came Nintendo, Sega and Sony. Kids that would have progressed from their Commadore 64’s to the Amiga and beyond, were instead enticed into the easy-to-use world of the games console.
Apart from the hardcore, a whole generation were denied the opportunity to easily create their own games.
That’s right folks, consoles killed creativity. And that was the way it would be until the internet exploded into everyday life and we all became connected, until we all started create our own Web 2.0 content, uploading pictures, videos and blogs.
Microsoft Studio’s Project Spark brings gaming full circle. Instead just mindlessly tapping on buttons, players are invited to create and share their own games.
Making games is a complex process, so thankfully Project Spark has a comprehensive tutorial system. Potential creators are also spared having to produce their own assets, instead picking themed objects from a vast library with a very distinct design style reminiscent of the Fable games.
Project Spark uses the freemium model, with the base game being provided for free with a number game objects and assets to get you started. The retail “Starter Pack” includes the free game plus a code for some extra themes, hero characters and a special game level called “Champions Quest”.
Additional asset packs can be purchased from the in-game marketplace using either credits earned in the game or tokens, which you can buy with real cash at about NZ$1.30 per 100 tokens. If you create enough of your own content you will apparently be able to obtain all the additional items without spending any real cash.
With content packs costing up to 40,000 credits or 1,000 tokens each, that’s a big investment either way. You can gain an extra boost by subscribing to Spark Premium, which’ll cost you between 300 tokens for 7 days to 10,000 tokens for a year.
Now I could rattle on about by distaste for this sort of micro-transaction funding method. I’ll just say that I detest playing a game and selecting something, only to be presented with a purchase transaction page. For me this is the only off-putting thing about the Project Spark experience, but it is a big one.
Starting with the hero, I chose a female character and, via a series nodes added movement and attack controls. The process, cutely called koding, is a visual way of creating Boolean expression. It’s pretty impressive and relatively easy to pick up. I then created an enemy goblin before switching to the world editor.
The entire world is editable. You can shape the terrain and paint the landscape, adjust the lighting and add ambient sounds and music.
For my world I made an island with a huge arched rock formation as a centrepiece. I could have made a canyon, a plateau or several islands. After painting the landscape I ended up with a lush island with a foreboding snow-capped rock in the middle. To finish it off I added some trees and carved out a couple of rivers.
It need a bit of detail which I added using props. I placed a nice stone bridge over one of the rivers and added a few houses to make a little village. I also added a few water emitters to create some picturesque waterfalls.
I thought one goblin wasn’t enough, so I added a few more, including one that I scaled up. Everything can be scaled in Project Spark. The world need more animals. I’d added some butterflies, but it needed something else. It need a giant fish swimming near my village, a huge snow fox atop my rock formation and a cheeky-looking giant bird sunning itself in a tree.
With the island nearly finished I added some ambient sounds of the forest around my village and gave the whole world some suitably adventurous background music. After a bit of testing I saved it and shared it on the Project Spark servers. You can find my Big Animal Island on the Project Spark site, here.
Whilst it did require some patience, the whole process was surprisingly easy. Even though I had nothing approaching what you would real game, what I had done worked and was quite easy to build. The process only really required a bit of time and patience.
As an adult with other responsibilities, I’ve not the time to invest in making my own game. Project Spark helps enormously in simplifying, as much as it can, the immense amount of time and effort developers put into creating commercial game, but it is still very time consuming.
Whilst time rich adults with a creative bent will get a lot from it, Project Spark is the application that you should be sitting your, otherwise vegetating, offspring in front of. A kid afforded the tools that this games provides, coupled with the ceiling-less imagination of a child, could be the start of something special.
I’m not going to say that anyone can create their own amazing game with Project Spark, because that would be incredibly disrespectful to the thousands of talented developers out there.
Hopefully what the game will do is ignite a spark (not just a clever name, see) among some young gamers to look a little further into the world of video game design and perhaps study to be our next John Carmack or David Braben.
Project Spark is available now to download for free on Xbox One and Windows 8 PCs.