Project Spark : First Impressions

Project Spark is an upcoming game/game creation environment/educational coding tool/interactive story creator/all/none of the above. Actually, I’m not quite sure what it is (nor exactly who it’s aimed at), but recently I’ve been doing a lot of computing with kids (both my own and others!) and, amongst the relative dirge of other latest-gen releases, it really stood out as something of interest to both me and them – it’s more pretty to look at than Scratch, say (which is excellent in many other respects), and it’s more educational and programming-like than other creative games like LittleBigPlanet or Minecraft.

It’s currently available only in private beta (due for release on Windows, XBox360, and XBoxOne sometime later this year I think), but I got offered a key so thought I’d take it up and give it a go.

You can play Project Spark games that others have created, but my interest was in creating my own project, so I started “Creative” mode. The tools to sculpt and paint your game world are pretty intuitive to use – my 6yr old had no difficulty dragging up mountains, creating rivers, grasslands, and placing trees – it’s essentially just a 3d painting program, but the results certainly do look pretty.

sculpt

However, what I was more interested in was the approach to creating game logic. The difficulty with any tool like this is getting the right balance of freedom –v- complexity. Oversimplify and, while you make the tool easy to use, it’s frustratingly limiting when trying to implement a feature not foreseen by the developers. Give the user more power and choice, however, and they become overwhelmed by complexity.

And that’s where Project Spark seems to be rather well-designed: there’s a gallery of game characters and other props that you can simply drag into your game world and, out-of-the-box, they pretty much behave as you’d expect in a game: “Hero” characters swing their sword with the X button on a gamepad, the camera can be moved with the mouse, doors can be opened by standing next to them and pressing space, goblins chase the hero, etc. etc. All without any additional effort.

But what’s smart is that all those behaviours only exist because that’s the default rules specified in those objects’ “brains”. Those brains can be edited: individual brain “tiles” can be swapped, rules added or deleted, or just completely rewritten from scratch. Here, for example is part of the brain that comes with the default player character:

brain

The code tiles are arranged to read pretty much like English: “When A pressed, do jump”, “When X pressed or left mouse button pressed, do attack”, “When an interactable object is detected in front, highlight it in yellow”. Changing or extending behaviour can be done by simply dragging alternative tiles into the brain.

Not only does that mean that it’s easy for novice programmers to create a brain that produces desired behaviour but, as a learning tool it also provides the reverse: having dropped a goblin (or, rather, a horde of them) into the game and witnessed their default behaviour, my son could go into their brains and see the set of rules that produced the behaviour in question. That, I think, is an incredibly powerful way to learn programming logic.

Technologically, and aesthetically, I’ve been very impressed, and if you get the chance to try Project Spark out for yourself, I’d highly recommend it. My only concern relates to its financing/distribution model:although this might be premature since the game hasn’t even been released yet, it appears that  the game itself will be free, and come with a base set of in-game objects from the gallery. Additional objects to make your games more varied and exciting can then be purchased through in-game microtransactions. Perhaps I’m just stuck in my ways, but I am not a fan of IAP, especially not in games that have such obvious appeal to kids as Project Spark does. I for one hope there will be an option just to pay £40 (heck, maybe £50) for the game up-front replete with a full complement of game objects and then let my children loose to create their own imagined game world, without fear of them being barraged by “Pay 1,000 credits to use this enchanted stick of awesome power?”-style messages…

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