Preview: Project Spark (Xbox One)
Posted by Ken Barnes
At Microsoft’s E3 presser, Project Spark looked like it had a bit of potential about it. Everybody seemed to write it off almost instantly, branding it as a straight rip-off of the content creation sections of Sony’s LittleBigPlanet. The developers stood on stage, moulding landscapes and dropping in trolls, enemies, and flaming catapults, whooping and hollering as they did so. It all felt very staged, somewhat uncomfortable and – if we’re entirely honest – like something of a lie. It was as if we were watching one of those trailers where you know that the two minutes that you’ve been shown contain the very best parts of the film.
The lead presenter that day was Dave McCarthy, who took us through the latest build of Project Spark at a Microsoft press event in London. Genuinely knowledgable and affable, much more relaxed than he was on that E3 stage, and clearly excited to be showing the title off in this fashion, Dave talked us through some of the finer points of the game. As he did so, we quickly realised that the E3 show was indeed, no lie.
At this point, we’re going to stop referring to it as a game, as Project Spark is clearly much more than that. This is a tool that allows you to create content. The demonstration we were given showed content that had been created during the Windows-based alpha release. We saw a turn-based RPG that didn't look a million miles away from a high-definition Final Fantasy VII, short animations, homages to the likes of Fruit Ninja and Geometry Wars complete with similar gameplay, and even a fully functional piano keyboard/mixing desk. When we asked if the product shipped with piano keys as usable items, we were told that it didn’t, but that the creator of this particular piece of content had found some fence posts in the toolset, peeled away parts until they looked like piano keys, and painted them black and white. That gives you some idea as to the level of power that Project Spark gives the creator.
But that isn’t to say that the product is necessarily only for those who want to manipulate every single piece of the action. Preset templates and settings will be available to speed things up, and if you want to see how somebody has created something that’s available in the community-created content areas, you can download it and break it down into its component parts, checking out the way that they've programmed the characters, for example. You can even make modifications and reupload it. This brings in a nice feature where the content’s credits are added to, rather than replaced, so the original creator always gets credit, no matter how many changes have been made by others. A take on the excellent Limbo was shown off, but rather than leaving it as a silhouetted side-scroller, a couple of button presses saw us viewing it in bright sunshine, and from a first-person perspective. The fact that this took barely any time to do, and that there was no loading delay to be found whatsoever, was astounding.
Characters and objects can be given “brains.” That is to say that they can be programmed to act in certain ways when certain things happen. An angry troll will attack a character if approached. A happy troll will just smile. A troll that’s programmed to be happy and then angry, will smile and then punch you in the face. Commands can be chained together of course, meaning that there are potentially trillions of possibilities for combinations of actions and reactions. Also of note is that the maximum creation area for a world is some 5km squared. Can’t get your game to fit into that much space? Fine. Create a portal, and you can create entryways to a second map, and a third, and a fourth. When you upload the content, all of the worlds will be bundled together in the same download.
But by far the greatest thing that we saw, was the ability to use Kinect as a motion capture device. Dave decided to apply his movement to be that of an on-screen troll (they seem to love trolls – we've no idea why.) A couple of button presses accessed the troll’s motion capture menu, and Dave proceeded to jump up and down on the spot, waving his arms and making a growling noise. Back in the game world, when the character approached the troll, it jumped up and down, waving its arms and growling in Dave’s voice. The potential for this is absolutely limitless. Cutscenes can be made for your games too, using your motion captured data if you wish. We enquired as to how long a cutscene could be, and were told that in the alpha, someone had made an entire 30-minute episode of dubious 80’s cop show Miami Vice, complete with motion capture and audio.
What this means is that Project Spark won’t just be used for games. We’ll see plenty of animations and shows rear their heads once the product is available. A relatively fully-featured motion capture studio on your games console? Most animators would kill for such a thing. If you don’t fancy using the Xbox One controller you can also use SmartGlass, or use the title’s app for your Windows PC to create your content, then upload it to the community for them to enjoy. There may even be the opportunity to charge for your content and reap the benefits. That’s not something that the team have planned for yet, but they mentioned that it’s something that could be supported down the line, if the demand was there.
And parents needn’t worry either, as there is a COPPA-compliant community area that is entirely moderated, meaning that every piece of community-created content will be vetted before being added, so that adult content won’t be beaming its way into Little Jimmy’s brain. Also, we’re told that a reporting system will be in place in all areas, with every report being looked into by one of the team. Depending on how big the title gets that may not be workable in the long run, but the good intention is certainly there.
From what we were shown – which was all real-time and not just a staged highlight reel – Project Spark looks like it has the potential to knock the detractors squarely off their feet. Or smile at them. Or do a dance, smile at them, punch them in the face, and bellow “You were wroooong!” at them.
And did we mention that it’s going to be free? Count us in.
Project Spark will be released in January for Xbox One, and will be free to download and use. A closed beta of the Windows PC app will kick off in October. All content used in the demonstration (and there was tons of it) will be included in the launch download, we were told. Additional content packs for use in the content creator will be available as DLC for a fee, although prices have not been determined as yet.