‘Project Spark’ lets you build your video game as you go

Would you rather battle trolls in a moonlit desert or dance with them in a sun-drenched forest?
Project Spark lets users tap their inner game designer and create their own worlds and stories.

It all started with a question: “What if people could do whatever they wanted in a video game?”

Henry Sterchi is standing in front of a large Perceptive Pixel touchscreen, introducing the game his team has worked on for the past two years. On the screen a character stands alone in an empty world, a tiny blip surrounded by a sea of blank pixels.

Sterchi then starts to swipe his fingers across the screen. Mountains, rivers, and forests spring into existence. He paints a field of flowers and bores a tunnel through the earth for kicks.

In less than 10 minutes he’s created an impressively detailed world. He then picks up an Xbox controller, plops his character (informally known as “The Creator”) down into the world and starts exploring.

This is “Project Spark,” a digital canvas that lets users create, play and share their own worlds, games and stories. Players use a powerful set of tools to create and customize worlds for Windows 8 devices, Xbox One and Xbox 360 using touch, mouse and keyboard, or an Xbox controller. What they can create is bound only by imagination, said Sterchi, creative director on “Project Spark.”

At GamesCom 2013 on Tuesday, the “Project Spark” team announced that soon everyone will get a chance to be a creator. The team also announced the official beta launch dates for “Project Spark” – invitations will begin rolling out to registered beta participants starting at the end of October 2013 for Windows 8 devices and January 2014 for Xbox One creators. Players can register for the beta at www.joinprojectspark.com.

“I used to work at Nintendo, which always said ‘We create games for everyone,’” Sterchi said. “With ‘Project Spark,’ we’ve truly done that.”

If I only had a brain…

As Sterchi demonstrates, painting and sculpting tools in “Project Spark” are incredibly fast and fluid. They’re also smart. When he uses a “biome brush” to add vegetation, the program can tell the difference between the top, bottom and side of the terrain. Flowers and grass appear on top of a stretch of earth, hanging vines underneath, with rocks on the vertical faces.

After creating the shape and texture of the land, players can add a wide range of props from towers to tombstones to trolls. Every character and object in “Project Spark” has a “brain” – customizable logic that determines how it will behave. That behavior can be tweaked with just a few clicks. Players can bring a rock to life and have it follow their character around, for example. It’s also easy to change enemies into friends. (Trolls and goblins can be lovers as well as fighters, apparently.)

The brains are based on Kodu, a visual programming language created by Microsoft Research. Kodu was designed specifically for creating games and aimed at young students. (It’s used in many classrooms and has been downloaded nearly 1 million times, Sterchi said.) Its icon-based interface is deceptively simple, masking a complex and powerful programming tool.

Players can use that language to create an infinite array of games and experiences. Create an homage to popular black-and-white platformer game “Limbo;” a turn-based RPG; a first-person shooter. An early tester on the team created a fully functional synthesizer. (The keys were made up of trees, the speakers out of coins.)

“The community is creating stuff we never would have dreamed of,” Sterchi said.

A community of creators

If a blank canvas is too intimidating, the Crossroads mode might be easier. It’s akin to a “choose your own adventure” entry into game design. Players answer a series of prompts—Where does your adventure begin? What time of day is it?—and quickly jump into a game.

Another way to dip your toes into the developing waters is by “remixing” someone else’s creation and sharing the result. Every game that’s shared features a lineage showing the original creator and everyone who has edited it.

The team has always focused on nurturing a passionate group of creators, said Mike Lescault, community manager for “Project Spark.” One inspiration was The Postal Service, an indie rock super group that made albums from afar. “That’s the kind of mentality we want to foster within our community: this really rich, cooperative ‘we’re better together’ experience.”

Players can share what they create on just about any screen in their lives, he added. You can build a world on your Windows 8 PC, hit save, then play on your Surface Pro as you ride to work. Or you can build a game right in the living room with a SmartGlass-enabled device and immediately share with friends and family on your Xbox.

That speaks to Microsoft’s shift to a devices and services company, Lescault said. “This is where entertainment is going, and this is where Microsoft has an advantage over everyone else. We can be in the living room, on tablets, on mobile, everywhere.”

Sterchi and Lescault said they’re excited to see what users will create with Project Spark this fall. Sterchi recalls that his early experiences programming in BASIC revolved around gaming. “The first thing I did when I got a trivia game working was to run and show everyone. Pride in sharing is a huge part of ‘Project Spark,’” he said. “And the only reason I learned how to program BASIC was because I thought it was a game. That’s really what we’re doing: blurring the line between learning, playing and gaming.”

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Jake Siegel
Microsoft News Center Staff