Project Spark: Playing Games to Make Games

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When Microsoft debuted its next generation Xbox One console at E3 last month, the software line-up consisted of a new racing game (Forza 5), a new shooting game (Titanfall) and a new swords-and-sandals action game full of blood and quick time events (Ryse). The new generation already feels a lot like all the old ones. Tucked between these now-rote press conference items, Microsoft also introduced us to the game that aims to create the next generation of game developers: Project Spark.

“We’re all tired of games where you’re smashing yet another crate and shooting yet another guy,” says Kim McAuliffe, a game designer at Microsoft Studios, while explaining the inspiration behind Spark. “A lot of our team has kids, and they wanted to work on something they could share with their kids, and really we just wanted to empower the imagination—anything you imagine, you can probably do.”

The ‘games-that-make-games’ genre is a rare species and often poorly executed. A recent KickStarter project, Code Hero, reached for the heavens and subsequently fell into development hell after promising to change the gaming world forever. It is understandably a complicated endeavor to design powerful tools that are simple enough for the average player to use. In fact, of all past attempts, it is only Microsoft’s biggest competitor Sony that has seen widespread success, courtesy of their LittleBigPlanet series, a similar venture that debuted on the PlayStation 3 in 2008. With such a strong franchise already established, McAuliffe and the team hope Spark will stand out through both depth and user-friendliness.

Spark isn’t Microsoft’s first foray into the world of player-created gaming. Kodu Game Lab, the ancestor to McAuliffe’s new project, was released to little fanfare in 2009 through the Xbox LIVE Marketplace. “Kodu has been a huge influence on Project Spark,” McAuliffe reveals. “Our brains and visual programming language are based on the foundation created by Kodu. Project Spark has definitely expanded the functionality, but the basic ‘When: Do:’ structure of the language is the same. So experimenting with Kodu Game Lab will definitely give aspiring Project Spark creators a head start on learning.”

Don’t expect a Kodu redo, though. “Project Spark goes further than anything that has come before,” McAuliffe says. “Our goal is that customization will rarely be limited. We want to give the player as much freedom to make their imaginings real as we can. But we will also allow users to flag content as offensive, and it will be moderated. Project Spark appeals to a wide audience, from adult gamers to teens to kids. So yes, there are ways we will be making sure parents can trust that the content is safe for their kids. We plan to let users be as creative as they want while making sure parents can trust the content their kids are playing.”

After that pitch McAuliffe asks if she can show me how to make a world. I am ready to learn.

Using the Xbox One controller, and starting with nothing more than a blank space, McAuliffe draws out a path, raising areas of the ground into hills, and carving a tunnel through one of them. Before the end of our brief twenty-minute conversation, she has created a verdant forest world populated with goblins, pet rocks and a singular hero or heroine.

Learning to play a game that makes games sounds awfully complicated, but McAuliffe assures me that there is no prior experience required. “We want everybody. We want people with zero experience to pick this up and start creating. Early user testing has been important to us from the beginning. We’ve had it in the hands of players of various ages and they’ve made some amazing stuff, helping us to improve the experience even more.” She proceeds to demonstrate how simple the system can be, and places a group of goblins into the world. Our world has life now.

Spark’s heart is located in its brains, a concept that McAuliffe quickly guides me through. “Everything you place in Spark has a default behavior,” she explains. “You can open them up and look at their brains to see why they do what they do. We can change all of that.” These ‘brains’ are where players will first encounter game programming in Project Spark’s world. Taking the baton from Microsoft’s Kodu Game Lab system, objects come with a pre-defined and yet wholly customizable set of rules to govern their actions. The system works using verbs and objects. Programming is achieved through the construction of what amount to rudimentary sentences, such as “see – object – move – towards”. It is a simple enough exercise, and yet one with startling depth.

McAuliffe introduces a flock of birds that run away as the player approaches them. Then she adds a rock. Rocks are dull. As she points out, “the rock has no brain. Yet.”

Using one line of code, McAuliffe turns it into a ‘pet rock’. How do you make a rock follow by your side? With four words: “See – player – move – towards”.

This is classic example of an ‘if X then Y’ statement—a foundation of programming—that shows how simple Project Spark can be. Again, depth is there for those who crave it. With a few button presses, McAuliffe changes the rock’s properties to make it roll around, and further adjusts the range within which it will detect the player. For those intimidated by such a scope of possibilities, a set of presets for any in-game object can be applied from the “Brain Gallery”, a term that brings to mind the famous heads in jars from Futurama.

Not everything goes so smoothly, though. While adding a hyperactive squirrel to follow our hero around and defend him from enemies, we encounter a problem: Our squirrel is strangely combat-shy, and will not engage. Hitches like this occur frequently with early presentation demos, but the customization options of Project Spark give this moment a unique angle. Under the spotlight, McAuliffe pauses to open up the squirrel’s brain for a closer look. I am privileged to witness the live debugging of squirrel code.

The method is procedural: First, we adjust the boundary of how far our squirrel accomplice can see, before making him slightly larger and removing his jumping mechanism to better encourage enemy contact. Watching this process is kind of fascinating, and I can’t help but find myself thinking about how well it introduces players to the analytical problem-solving that is a core skill of design. At the mention of this, McAuliffe beams. “Everyone on the project is excited about different aspects of it, but this is the part that I’m most excited about—getting young people into making games.”

We finish with the first thing a new player sees: Crossroads.

“[Crossroads] is a series of narrative choices where you play the game while you’re making the game,” McAuliffe explains. “At the end of each chapter, you have something that you can share with the community. It guides you through a variety of different templates, so if you decide to make an adventure game, or a tower defense game, you can do that.”

This ‘campaign’ mode is fundamentally a tutorial for the various tools in the game. Through step-by-step play, it gently ushers newcomers into the heady realm of game design. By offering questions such as “Which side quest will your character encounter?” alongside a selection of answers such as Fortune Teller, or Resource Collecting, design concepts are pulled out of the abstract, and presented to players in a meaningful way. As ever, with each of these choices come the now-expected optional levels of granularity. When asked to choose a main character, a range of options appear. It’s another area that McAuliffe pushed to offer meaningful choice. “I continually make us ask the question, ‘What if the player is female?’, and am always pushing to make sure we’re planning fun and interesting female characters in addition to the guys. At this stage, you can choose between Heroes, and the Fighter is female. It was important to me that we represented that.”

That sense of inclusivity is central to Spark’s appeal and to McAuliffe’s mission. She aims for Spark to become a driving force behind guiding more women into game development. “All developers started out as players. Make girls and women feel expected as players and they’ll naturally grow up to be part of the industry. Project Spark is something I wish had been around when I first wanted to make games. I’m continually pressing to make sure Spark is as focused on female players and creators as on male ones. I want to make sure every girl who wants to make a game has the elements and characters available to do what she wants. I want every interested girl who picks up the game to have lots of options that appeal to her, lots of female characters to use in her world.”

Project Spark has the potential to be many different things to many different people. Those who gravitate towards art will relish the world building and character customization options, while those who love story can while away the hours endlessly tweaking how characters interact with one another. Most interestingly, it could potentially stand as a fascinating first step on what can otherwise be an intimidating career path.